Humanising the High-rise

27 March 2017

As published in 'Connected Cities'

Vertical development is a necessity in Asia’s high-density cities, but sterile office towers are giving way to projects that blend uses – and with their surroundings – to create vibrant urban environments where residents can work, rest and play

With space at a premium in modern cities, developers must not only embrace the opportunities of upward development but think laterally about their verticality.

Today’s high-rise schemes are often far more than single-use residential or office towers; in fact, every new high-rise cluster can be thought of as a microcosm of the city itself.

Simon Bee, managing director of global design at architect Benoy, says: “Historically, our thinking is rooted in towers being connected to the ground - a two dimensional concept of connectivity.

“In the future, vertical schemes will be considered far more as a three dimensional opportunity, a network of cleverly integrated 3D, mixed-use planning, linked at multiple levels above ground and interspersed with beautiful public realm.

“In certain high-density cities, we are running out of ground space. The streets are so busy and the pavements so packed that we automatically think about elevating public spaces and connecting buildings above the ground.”

The concept of humanising taller development has been taxing the minds of architects for decades. Early ‘streets in the sky’ ideas in post-war Europe ultimately failed as they were conceived too hurriedly -  there was little consideration of social issues, or a balanced mix of uses and  good landscaping was absent.

Time has come for “Streets in the sky”

“In many cases those early pioneering schemes had little sense of real liveability,” says Bee. “Things are different now. With a more sophisticated approach to 3D, mixed-use urban planning, combined with giant strides in landscape and vertical transportation technologies, ‘streets in the sky’ is an idea whose time may finally have come.”

London’s Barbican complex is one development that foreshadowed today’s thinking and is a much sought-after location. Connected by a ‘highwalk’ system into other parts of the city, and with beautiful, well-maintained landscape and an arts-driven mix of supporting facilities on site, it is an exemplar of post war planning.

Bee says: ‘Barbican bucks the trend of its time in a sense, because it is a unique urban neighbourhood with residents’ needs met in a well-cared for environment that is stitched into the wider fabric of London.”

Half a century on, the need for greater urban density continues to drive vertical living, supported by an ever more complex blend of uses, and, importantly, efficient public transport connections.

Perfecting the integration of high-rise elements, and generating a successful public-private split between how the uses will function in reality, is not a simple task. The secret is to imagine the right form of public space as a setting for a particular element of the scheme, and ensure that supporting facilities are relevant and sustainable. 

“Every good neighbourhood needs some landscaped open space with local facilities - its ‘town square’ in fact. What we are suggesting is that it just might be up on level 25,” says Bee.

The Qian Tan Office Park project under construction in Shanghai is designed around a reciprocal circulation system between two office towers, joined by bridge and connected at their lobbies with a diverse network of ground-level cafes, shops and galleries.

Creating a thriving community

“It essentially creates a thriving community and a strong connection between the streetscape and the towers,” says Qin Pang, director and head of Benoy’s Shanghai studio.

In London, the Shard, Europe’s tallest tower, has won plaudits from the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat as an example of a vertical scheme which allows public access to its upper reaches. It is just one part of a much wider regeneration project around London Bridge Station, but a key catalyst.

While the public must pay to access the top-floor viewing platform, there are public areas on the development’s food and beverage floors that can be freely accessed without the need to buy anything. Thus the food and beverage floors are the Shard’s ‘street in the sky’ and its views over London are sensational.

In Tokyo and Hong Kong, entire buildings form streets in the sky. Hong Kong has recently taken inspiration from Tokyo’s Ginza-style high-rise developments, which feature retail and restaurants throughout, not just at ground level.

“Smart asset management can create a hub by grouping together similar retailers which attract similar customers,” according to Kathy Lee, director of research at Savills Hong Kong.

“For example, a building with a gym and spa facilities would be wise to offer healthy eating outlets to serve a stylish, fitness-conscious clientele.” 

In such buildings, customers move up and down as they would along a normal city street.

H Queens, a new art-themed Hong Kong development by Henderson Land, has a novel approach to the vertical street. The development is tailored towards art galleries and a large glass lift allows visitors to view all the galleries as they travel towards their desired floor.

The way vertical developments link with the surrounding city calls for broader integration. Often they are positioned at a significant spot in a city, such as a transport interchange, to enhance circulation, aiding navigation by acting as markers.

“Tall buildings can play a very important role as city landmarks, aiding navigation and creating a distinctive street profile when clustered together,” notes Bee.

The relationship between tower cluster and wider city is interdependent. “Varying the density around significant city nodes adds to the personality of the place,” he adds.

Creating ‘humanised’ spaces

A cocktail of supporting city functions is critical, to the extent that a developer will introduce what it considers to be the appropriate mix of civic or retail uses at street level. The end goal is to create a sustainable place where people want to live, work and relax, and ‘humanised’ spaces play an integral role in that. 

“As our cities get taller and denser, how we humanise these vertical structures and inject great spaces around the right mix, not only on the ground but also at higher levels, becomes ever more important,” Bee insists. “It’s all about providing all the things people need to live a better life, rather than being isolated in a single-use building.”

Green, open spaces have the ability to soften the harshest environments and are proven to enhance wellbeing. Modern landscape design know-how means that in many cities, elevated public parks and sky gardens are already a reality.

“Singapore sets a great example with planning rules in place to encourage integrated green space,” says Bee. “With tree-lined promenades and jogging paths already bridging some developments, the concept of landscaped sky neighbourhoods that connect building with building represents the next stage of vertical evolution.”

For example, the Pinnacle@Duxton, developed by Singapore’s Housing Development board, comprises seven residential towers linked by linear gardens with jogging trails at floors 26 and 50.  

The development’s design allowed HDB, Singapore’s public housing body, to accommodate a gross plot ratio of 9.2, triple the usual public housing density, as well as creating new and unique spaces in the sky for public enjoyment and greater community cohesion.

The design brief for the development called for landscaping strategies that seamlessly extended the adjacent Duxton Plain Park horizontally and vertically into the development by incorporating rooftop and high-level sky gardens.

It was the first development by HDB to reach 50 storeys and won an Urban Land Institute Award for Excellence in 2011. A unit sold there last year set a record price for resale of a public housing unit, an indication that HDB’s attempts to create a vertical development have succeeded.

Developers have a clear vision of what to strive for in creating vertical schemes, as well as the tools needed to create them. The subtle challenge remains bringing high-rise buildings to life, accepting the notion of a rich mix of uses combined with public spaces and landscape, to connect and humanise these clusters.

Bee says: “Punctuating high-rise, mixed-use developments with usable open space and landscape is an obvious solution.”

Taking the energy of Singapore to sky-high levels

As buildings become taller and denser around the world to cope with the demands of urbanisation, finding new ways to humanise the vertical built environment continues to inspire the best architects.

However, with different countries come different planning rules, each producing very different results.

Singapore’s enlightened planning codes have generated highly imaginative and individualistic, high-rise structures; allowing it to truly become Asia’s garden city - and not just at ground level.

This year, Benoy’s second Annual Peter McCaffery Fellowship challenged its global team of designers to produce a design for Hong Kong’s Kowloon Bay CBD applying   Singaporean sensibilities.

The new high-rise building, designed for a site owned by Swire Properties, could reach a maximum of 175m above street frontage, pushing up the density and encouraging integrated, high-level, civic spaces and an imaginative mix of uses around a core workplace element.

Simon Bee, Benoy’s managing director of global design, says: “The work of our entrants not only explores a modern day interpretation of the Garden City movement in action, but also encourages discussion of a very important topic, the planning principles that shape our cities.”

The rules promote two important ideas: landscape replacement, which helps reintroduce landscaped areas back into the development; and a gross floor area exemption for green, civic spaces, which encourages greenery to go vertical - any outdoor, landscaped area, be it a roof garden, mid-level sky terrace or planter boxes, can be added without deducting these spaces from the building’s gross floor area.

Bee says: “Hong Kong, for example, has the potential to become Asia’s ‘Garden City on the Sea’ and with an evolution of the planning agenda, we would have the opportunity to exploit the combination of place, mix, buildings and landscape at every level of the city infrastructure, as Singapore is already pioneering.”

Image 1: Qian Tan Office Park, Shanghai, China
Image 2: Design for the Peter McCaffery Fellowship by Benoy's Jess Wllkinson and Clarissa Wenborn


Next Article >