Currently, 55% of the world’s population live in cities. Over the past two centuries, rapid and unprecedented urbanization has already led to profound consequences for global sustainability. As a result, most industries – including the architecture and construction sectors – have taken great steps to lessen their impact on the environment. But will these efforts be enough to counteract the continued rapid growth of our cities?
Increasing numbers of people continue to move to cities in search of work, better housing and improved quality of life, a trend that shows no signs of abating for many years to come. In fact, quite the contrary: In 2050 two thirds of the world’s population will live in urban areas. This means that an additional 2.5 billion people will be living in cities. This growth creates an enormous challenge for our cities environmentally, socially and economically. In order to prepare for this widespread future densification, cities will need to accept expansion in one form or another. They will have to provide adequate means to serve the needs of their growing urban populations, particularly with regard to transportation, energy systems and housing, as well as for employment and services such as education and healthcare. For all of these services digital technology and the connectivity of our global cities become key factors in paving the way forward and creating strategies that correspond with the cities’ physical densification.
Logically speaking, there are three possible options to cater for future densification: build downwards, build outwards, or build upwards. The first option may have its quirky appeal, but aside from questions concerning potential negative effects on human health, this option only provides a growth model for a limited number of urban functions. Developing the fringes of the city, or creating satellite housing developments is a tried and tested method. This option however can face staunch Greenbelt policies, or lead to long commuter journeys and a sense of segregation for those who are not in a position to be able to afford to live within the city limits. Vertical expansion is therefore still the preferred option for many of today’s cities and metropoles.
That said, urban planners and developers have also learnt from mistakes of the past and are rejecting urban zoning concepts- which separate programmes such as working, living, retail and leisure – in favour of centrally located, large scale, holistic,mixed-use developments that offer 24-hour programmes. In these developments working, living and leisure activities are catered for within walking distance of each other and the use of (valuable) urban land is maximized. As a result, we are now building cities within cities and creating neighbourhoods in the sky.
Cities within Cities – the design challenge
At UNStudio we have designed a number of such developments and are only too aware of the many and complex challenges involved. Immediate considerations include the integration with existing nearby infrastructure and public transport nodes; an appropriate conceptual and formal response to the cultural context of the host city; the seamless integration of public programmes at street level and (at times) up into the buildings; the organisation of complex flows and separate access to the different programmes within the towers and, of course, a considered solution to the overall massing of the development, eventual phasing opportunities and adaptability for future use. In addition to these design-related challenges, architects also have to work in line with economic considerations, planning and policy regulations and, last but not least, the overall design must express the unique identity of the host city; something that links to our urban experience, emphasises the uniqueness of a place, and becomes part of the city’s identity.
The role of the architect is however not merely to problem solve, it is to add value – not least with a view to designing for the future. As such, each of the separate programme typologies in a mixed-use development requires in-depth knowledge of all related tendencies, trends and projections, while the design must principally be user-centric, providing quality of space and flexibility for future change and the integration of new technologies. Whether the programme be one catering to the hospitality industries, to future living, working, retail, culture or entertainment, the architect has to design spaces of experience pertinent to each one; welcoming spaces that people will want to return to again and again. In short, they need to design efficient models that are in line with the client’s plans, alongside performative, relevant architecture that attracts.
This begs the question, how do we understand the ‘attraction’ of architecture today? And what role do aesthetics still play in the post-crisis, post-iconic buildings which compose the cities we design for the future?
Today we are designing highly performative, sustainable, human-centric, technology-driven, safer and healthier buildings. Although image-making is no longer the priority it may once have been, powerful images can still be generated as a result of these values. It is not the case that architecture is becoming purely utilitarian, but instead that more distinguished and intelligent – perhaps even at times ungraspable – images are being generated. We have referred to this in the past as the ‘after image’: a visual effect, similar to seeing an intriguing movie or painting, that will encourage people to come back to a building, to discover more within the multiple layers of the design.
However, with the large-scale mixed-use typology that is typically located in central areas of the city, more evident aesthetic considerations in fact still play a very important role, due to their density and sheer physical impact. Aesthetics are, after all, inherent to the profession of architecture and we cannot forget the visual impact that such developments have, both at street level and on the skyline. Architects have to consider how the individual towers in such a development are configured both spatially and visually in order to work together to present a family of forms, both from a distance and from nearby; how they appear within and affect the skyline when seen from all angles, and how their materialisation, detailing and massing respond to the existing built fabric of the city. Such decisions are not driven by a demand for ‘instagrammable’ buildings, they are moreover the result of the crossing points between function, form and context.
Three examples from our own work that perhaps illustrate how such concerns can result in very different proposals are the Raffles City project in Hangzhou China, FOUR Frankfurt and Southbank by Beulah in Melbourne. In each of these projects, alongside material and organisational-related choices, carefully considered massing decisions were of paramount importance in terms of how the developments would, not only provide the best possible conditions to each of the different programmes within the project with respect to daylight and views, but how their massing, in the same terms, would affect the immediate surroundings, the skyline and the city as a whole.
In addition to such massing considerations, a tailored response to the cultural context of each unique city is a very powerful determining factor in each of the final designs. Mixed-use projects also need to form an integrated part of their host cities, necessarily forming as they do, the antithesis to a closed-off, ‘gated-community’ model. The vertical city within a city has to be designed to become an integral part of the whole; it has to give something back to its host city by way of a public – and oftentimes cultural – programme that can be enjoyed and experienced by all.
A bigger, bolder, smarter future
In the not too distant future, new digital technologies will be fully integrated into the built environment. These technologies will soon become so ubiquitous, we will hardly notice their presence – much as has occurred with electricity and telecommunications in the past. Before long, we will also be able to develop localised solutions to such things as energy production and storage, perhaps with the use of microgrids. However, for now, sensor technologies mean that we already have the capacity to monitor the use and performance of our buildings and cities. This is of particular interest for the further development of complex large-scale mixed-use developments.
Currently, we are able to monitor, maintain and improve the performance of buildings and their components by feeding data into a cumulative cloud to create a feedback loop between building and planet. But with AI and machine learning potentials, we will soon be unveiling correlations of data allowing for better understanding of cause and effect.
This, in turn, will mean that we can design new collaborative development models between designers, developers, residents and systems, where shared outcomes can be shaped to improve the operation and performance of complex building types that have to cater to mixed programmes, and a range of very different users.
In order to overcome the constraints of the exponential growth of urban systems, we have to adopt advanced technologies for water management, energy consumption, transport and communication networks with their social circuits. Each large-scale mixed-use project forms a significant puzzle piece in the bigger picture and as such needs to provide bold solutions for these concerns. These developments also need to be intelligent (or ‘smart’) in how they communicate within and beyond their boundaries. As designers we cannot rely on big data that is seen as a mere commodity in today’s world, we instead need to deploy our focused analysis to enable new solutions for the future. In order to achieve this, we recently set-up the Arch Tech company UNSense. The work carried out at UNSense enables us to continuously learn from cities, their buildings and their respective end users. This feedback-loop in design is essential. We observe daily how the digital revolution is having a significant impact on our lives, what we do and what we wish for. And ultimately it is these factors that influence the spaces we use.
The fact that we can now monitor the daily use and performance of our cities and buildings will enable us to better understand and measure the impact that our design decisions have on people’s lives and will greatly improve our ability to create highly tailored design solutions for challenging and complex developments.
After all, these large-scale mixed-use projects form parts of the bigger picture. Designing these projects is akin to designing a city within a city; a vertical urban plan that almost always leaves its trace on the skyline of a city; certainly visually impactful, but essentially of purpose to its people.
This article first appeared in IGS Magazine’s Winter 2018 Issue – Read the full Magazine here for more thought-leadership from those spearheading the industry
Ben van Berkel studied architecture at the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam and at the Architectural Association in London, receiving the AA Diploma with Honours in 1987. In 1988 he founded the Van Berkel & Bos Architectuurbureau with the Caroline Bos, extending their theoretical and writing projects to the practice of architecture. In 1998 Ben van Berkel co-founded UNStudio (United Net). He has lectured and taught at many architectural schools around the world. Currently he holds the Kenzo Tange Visiting Professor’s Chair at Harvard University Graduate School of Design. In 2018 he founded UNSense, an Arch Tech company based in Amsterdam that designs and integrates human-centric tech solutions for the built environment.
Astrid Piber is a Partner at UNStudio and as such is responsible for design, quality and knowledge management. As the architect in charge of several large-scale design projects at various geographic locations, she has been working closely with Ben van Berkel for almost two decades. Since joining UNStudio in 1998, she has worked on numerous projects from the initial urban study and competition phases through to realization. Currently, Astrid is in charge of a series of projects in Europe, Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea. Recently completed high-rise projects include the new Hanwha HQ in Seoul, V-on-Shenton and the Scotts Tower in Singapore and Raffles City in Hangzhou, China.