Over the past fifty years, one global demographic trend has remained remarkably steady: increased urbanization. At the turn of the 20th century, only 15% of the planet’s people lived in cities. Today, that share is around 55%. And by 2050, we’ll see the total urban population rise to 68%, with much of the growth taking place in Asia and Africa.
While one might imagine that this kind of large-scale coming together might promote increased harmony, it’s entirely possible that we see the opposite. As we continue to leave traditional towns and villages behind, we’ve also lost many of their shared spaces and their sense of collective social cohesion. And while our buildings are often “mixed-use;’ the delineation between private and public space continues to be made more and more explicit.
Increasingly, planners and designers are acknowledging that high-density living doesn’t always guarantee meaningful interaction. Perhaps the clearest illustration of this contradiction is the modern high-rise, where residents live in a kind of private, vertical alienation. In these sky-high environments, we live on top of each other but hardly ever interact, save for polite nods in the elevator.
However, a number of recent projects are challenging our assumptions about how residents interact with tall buildings. The skyscraper, long-held as a symbol of status and architectural might, is being broken up in new ways. Architects thinking beyond the lobby to create numerous common areas, green spaces, and community amenities to create towering villages. By breaking up the vertical “grid” of tall buildings, designers are able to create spaces that are more community-minded and egalitarian.
In Southeast Asia, urban planners have adopted the idea of the traditional “kampong;’ or compound, for a hyper-modern (and landscarce) world. Instead of exclusive roof decks and penthouses, the buildings offer rooftop community gardens, shops, and elderly housing. The result is an inter-generational community housed in a single complex.
One particularly enthusiastic proponent of the vertical village is German architect and urbanist Ole Scheeren, whose successes in Asia may help translate the concept for North American audiences. Scheeren’s 1,040-unit Interlace complex in Singapore was named Building of the Year at the 2015 World Architecture Festival and has garnered international attention.
Composed of 31 separate six-story structures, the Interlace rises to 24 stories at its highest point. While it has been compared to a mass of Jenga blocks, the placement of its structures is more method than madness, incorporating studies of the area’s sun, wind, and climate to aid with energy efficiency. Wind corridors and pools of water work together to create cooling breezes, and the Interlace’s courtyards are intentionally shaded from the sun.
While obviously massive, the complex feels permeable and inviting rather than daunting. Living spaces coexist with terraces that house swimming pools, tennis courts, roof gardens, and verdant courtyards. Taken together, the complex feels more like a sprawling resort than it does an apartment complex, with its emphasis on purpose-built shared spaces.
Soon, Scheeren’s work will cross the Pacific and aspire even higher in Vancouver, British Columbia. Plans for Barclay Village reveal a pair of towers made up of stacked and jutting glass volumes, occasionally broken up by lush green terraces. Again, Scheeren’s goal is to break up the homogenous height with an innovative variation. Here, residential layouts will include multi-floor units, creating house-like environments within the towers.
As urbanization shows no signs of slowing, it only makes sense to continue to scrutinize our own expectations of what building upward offers. Rather than simply stacking residences and offices on top of each other.
Originally Published in: