Rapid urbanization in many of the cities in which we work has traditionally required quick responses to infrastructural gaps in order to accommodate population and economic growth. The old model of constructing purpose-built infrastructure on cities that’s not civic or accessible will only become more glaring in its lack of response to the needs of urban populations—and especially as a consequence of the global Covid-19 Pandemic. Hybridizing infrastructure with social functions offers a holistic approach to sustainable cities that not only accounts for economic and ecological needs but cultural and social ones too.
BIG was founded in 2005, our early built works consisting mainly of affordable housing projects in Denmark designed around giving communities new green, social spaces. As the studio has expanded into a team that includes landscape architects and urban designers, we have continued this approach to nature and public space in the design of projects at a much larger scale, such as the BIG U, a 10-mile resilient masterplan that protects Lower Manhattan from sea level rise and extreme climate events with public programming.
Our work in Asia has a similar lineage. The first tower we worked on in Shenzhen for an energy company has passive, sustainable approaches that have a few years later informed the design of the 175-hectare future city we designed for Toyota at the foot of Mt. Fuji. Similarly, a tower in Singapore imagined as a tropical rainforest within a skyscraper planted the seeds of a 4,500-acre vision off Penang Island that not only preserves but enhances the biodiversity of the region.
We have observed a two-fold issue related to population and density in Asia split between newer cities, like Shenzhen, and those that have been established for longer periods, like Tokyo. The modern incarnation of Shenzhen as the megalopolis we know today had its start as a humble fishing village. The city was declared a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in 1980 and grew over the course of four decades from a population of about 60,000 to 12 million in 2020, and is now a global technology center rivaling Silicon Valley. The city has established robust infrastructure for economic growth, but its social and cultural infrastructure is in need of catching up – propelling the government to enact a New Era of Culture, and a string of design competitions for landmark, cultural projects that our Copenhagen and New York studios have been participating in.
On the other hand, there are cities like Tokyo and Hong Kong, which have been around for a long time, are incredibly dense, expensive to live in, and the limits of how much personal living space can shrink for their majority populations has long ago been reached. Looking ahead, there’s a clear need for a creative use of density and infrastructure, including in some of these cities that have very low or even negative population growth, and where old infrastructure has become redundant and available for repurposing.
In both cases there is an agenda, between these two conditions, that is related to balancing economic, ecological and social sustainability of cities. Architecture plays one role through the adaptive re-use of the infrastructure of the past and the proactive planning of the infrastructure of tomorrow, ensuring that it becomes a productive part of the social, cultural and economic life of our cities.
For the Shenzhen Energy Headquarters, it was important to let sustainable principles drive the design while creating a social landmark along one of the main axes of the city. In Shenzhen, following its inception as a Special Economic Zone in the 80s, urban planning primarily focused on the role of foreign direct investments and high tech industry as the city moved away from primary industries. This shifted in the early 2000’s to sustainable urban planning, and since, Shenzhen has been recognized as a leader in climate action, is the city with the cleanest air in China, and named an International Low Carbon City by C40.
The site for the two towers in the business center of Shenzhen is surrounded by large towers with dark, glazed curtain wall facades, which in subtropical climatic conditions normally results in high energy consumption for air conditioning and poor views through coated windows. To break away from the traditional glass curtain wall, we folded the façade in an origami like structure, with closed and open faces. The closed faces are comprised of highly-insulated façade panels oriented towards the primary southerly sun angles blocking direct sunlight and reducing overall reducing solar gain and glare. Even when the sun comes directly from the east or west, solar rays are reflected off of the glass due to the flat angles of the windows. Instead of relying solely on the technology of the façade, we utilize the tectonics of the architecture itself as the functional response to the climate, becoming the impetus for the formal response to the conditions of site and program—what we’ve called engineering without engines.
One of our goals is to bring nature into the unexpected by creating hybrids of landscape and architecture. In Singapore, CapitaSpring, a 280-meter tower currently under construction in the Central Business District will offer access to generous greenery and outdoor spaces at the scale of a skyscraper.. A classic modernist pinstripe facade runs from top to bottom of the building, unifying the tower and the podium in one gesture, and is pulled apart expressing the green, social spaces inside. Singapore is well known for its progressive and pro-active attitude towards the integration of sky terraces and greenery into buildings. In commercial office buildings these sky terraces are at times manifested as large void spaces that provide architectural definition to the buildings but lack utilization. We have been fortunate there to work with a client, Capitaland, who was vested from the beginning in ensuring the space be actively programmed and utilized throughout the course of a day by users from the offices and serviced apartments that will inhabit the tower, as well as the general public—it will be a true celebration of tropical nature in the heart of the city.
The geometry of the social spaces in the interior of the building is created by seven programmed platforms located at different heights, connected by stairs and ramps forming a continuous path with viewpoints across platforms. Voids in the platform create atrium spaces between 10 – 34 meters in height, while semicircular cutouts toward the exterior of the space increase daylight and allow for tall plantings close to the façade. Biophilia is known to have positive effects on well-being and productivity, and a critical part of BIG’s office projects globally. The ongoing global COVID pandemic has given the integration of biophilia increased relevance and importance as something that provides not only psychological but physiological safety as well.
Considering the translation of these approaches to a larger scale is emblematic in our first project in China, the 3,000 square meter Danish Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo in 2010, which was a synthesis of urban design and building. The pavilion was designed to give the visitor an experience of Copenhagen, from the city bike to the harbor bath, nature playground and an ecological picnic. Surrounding the harbor bath at its center, an archetypal Danish bicycle path wraps around itself to become a continuous loop of circulation inside and out, above and below the pavilion, so that the infrastructure of the city transforms into a social and educational experience.
Ten years later, and we’ve just finished the masterplan design for Toyota Woven City, an urban incubator dedicated to advancing all aspects of mobility. We’ve designed a flexible network of three street types: a primary street for faster autonomous vehicles with logistical traffic underneath, a recreational promenade for micro-mobility such as scooters and bicycles, and a linear park dedicated to pedestrians. We aimed to create harmony between the built environment and nature, allocating equal space to gathering spaces and landscape, mobility and buildings, and resulting in a more balanced and sustainable model. Working towards a more carbon neutral society, the city will utilize solar energy, geothermal energy, and hydrogen fuel cell technology.
Toyota Woven City is conceived as a living laboratory for future technologies to be tested, gathering a wide range of companies and academic institutions to invest, research, develop and test future technologies and smart city concepts. Included in that environment is testing new facades and building approaches. Japanese architecture has long been admired for its high level of craft, precision, and simplicity. The buildings will carry on the tradition of the Japanese timber construction and wooden joinery, incorporating the carbon-sequestering material and photovoltaic panels into a mix of housing, retail, and office buildings. Rather than manual labor, we’ve considered how robotic technology and machine learning can supply and assemble the buildings, making the woven city a testing ground for the future of construction.
Just as the future of mobility drove the urban design for Toyota Woven City, ecology became the starting point for the design of the Penang South Islands, where we considered how development could improve habitat over existing conditions. 4,500 acres of three manmade islands will set a global example for sustainable urbanism by protecting, preserving, and growing Penang’s biodiversity while working toward a carbon-neutral city. The coastlines of the islands include beaches for people, protected habitats for animals, and are all designed to be resilient and protect the islands from storm events. Every piece of infrastructure has a recreational use, while parks are performative landscapes by cooling the city and managing stormwater. Buildings are designed with local natural materials such as bamboo, which can be grown on the neighborhoods themselves, and Malaysian timber, along with green concrete and recycled materials.
Modular prefabricated systems in BiodiverCity and other sites around the world allow us to create sustainable, architectural prototypes that are custom-tailored while also deployable at large numbers across cities. These systems will have even greater degrees of customization with advanced robotic technology or on-site 3D printing. Not only is the approach cost-effective, but it also allows architects to respond to population increase and housing needs more quickly than ever before. BIG has recently begun working with and supporting ICON, the 3D-printing robotics start-up whose mission is to deliver dignified, resilient homes using advanced construction technologies. With ICON, we can play a role in materially, technologically, and environmentally revolutionizing the construction industry with computer-aided design and building information management.
As urban populations continue to increase, the need for infrastructure to support those populations will push developments to the water. Just as the design of office towers in Shenzhen and Singapore have informed our approach to urban master plans, these models will also transfer to self-sustaining floating cities. In our studios we’re using the innovations in 3D printing, the flexibility of prefabrication, and the climate conscious materials learned in the visions of Toyota Woven City and BiodiverCity to develop deployable platforms on water that are designed to grow and adapt organically over time. Cities that will not only offer a living solution to vulnerable populations in tropical and subtropical regions affected by climate change, but also a healthier and more sustainable framework for urban life.
Modern methods of design and rapid prototyping technologies are facilitating faster turnarounds, so that even as the scale of our projects has increased dramatically in the life of BIG, we also have better abilities to test and design infrastructure from the beginning to not only be functional and economically feasible but to accommodate ecological and social needs as well. These new methods of design allow us to address and provide solutions to purpose-built architecture of the past and to imagine and give form to a future that is sustainable at all scales.
This article was originally published in IGS Magazines Autumn 2020 Issue: Read the full Magazine here for more thought-leadership from those spearheading the industry
Author: Brian Yang, Partner at Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG)
Brian Yang joined BIG in 2007 and has worked closely with Bjarke Ingels and the partners across a wide range of projects and programs such as: an energy efficient skyscraper completed in 2017 in Shenzhen; the 8 House—a new typology of residential building completed in 2010 in Copenhagen; and the concept design for the Kistefos Art Museum in Norway that bridges across a river, completed in 2019.
He has been the Project Leader on a number of competition-winning proposals, including the Amager Resource Center Waste-to-Energy plant in Copenhagen that doubles as a ski slope, and the LEGO House experience and play center in Denmark. Among recent ongoing projects, he has been the partner-in-charge for CapitaSpring, a 280M tall mixed-use tower in the heart of Singapore that broke ground in 2018.