Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Creating a different spatial order?

There is some experimentation with establishing new kinds of 3D connectivity in high rise cities.  But rather less than one would expect, and much of it is surprisingly tentative.

Stephen Holl seems to have cornered the market with a couple of examples in China. His Linked Hybrid apartment complex in Beijing achieves an effective transformation of resident circulation with minimal architectural gymnastics, and the Horizontal Skyscraper in Shenzhen cheekily lays claim to a typology so named by John Andrews over forty years ago. The Petronas Towers iconically interconnect in the air, and Rem Koolhaas gets disproportionate mileage out of the inane experience of riding the lifts up one side and down the other of the CCTV Building in Beijing (as thousands of Chinese tourists seem to be doing).

But in reality, the more subtle and radical transformations of private and pseudo-public space are occurring  in less of the magazine induced limelight.  Arguably, they began with John Portman's atria, transforming decades later into the first tentative commercial 'campus' interiors, where what vertical connections were allowed to be non-fire rated opened up the working environment of banks and insurance companies.  Hot young execs hot-desk and conference over coffees, going back some years before the creatives at Google and other IT giants claimed they had done it first.  It's kind of making interiors more like the pavements of a small city.

The best examples of these nascent vertical villages are not necessarily where you expect them in the international architectural hot spots.  They appeared in far flung places like Sydney, with an early modernist slab reworked into the MLC Campus by BVN Architects, who repeated the success of the transformed working environment as new build in Melbourne's Docklands, for the National Bank of Australia. This kind of laying claim to 'firsts' is of course fraught with the danger that one isn't aware of other examples.  But that just makes my point about the less obtrusive, but possibly more profound transformations.

And thus again to Sydney, Australia, where a 'big shot' of international architecture finally got a gig.  Richard Rogers is attributed the design of an about to open new building at Chiffley Square, right next to Fosters' Deutsche Bank Place.

The differences between the two projects highlight the phenomenon I am trying to pinpoint.  Fosters' building is a reductive, diagramatic reworking of the efficient tower, with clear floor plate and side vertical core.  The bottom is a public foyer with minor retail, almost exclusively selling coffee.  It connects a couple of streets, but feels squeezed vertically by the floors above.  It feels grey and oppressive.  The upper floors offer some visual connections across voids, but that is just routine architectural trickery.  Rogers, in collaboration with a much smaller Sydney practice Lippmann Partnership, has organised their building so it gives back a lofty six storey void to the square adjacent, then repeats the open space twice more up the building.  But, and here is the rub, those spaces divide the 34 storey block into seven 'vertical villages', providing connectivity and vertical integration between the floors.

Ivan Harbour of Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners says the design, “whilst internationally significant, is very specific to the climate and culture of Sydney”. 

I am looking forward to checking it out. It appeals to me that if there is substance to those claims, it is made to happen within a polite Cartesian frame, with a few red and blue accented bracing elements making up a relaxed exoskeleton - all in the best traditions of late modernist orthogonal discipline.

We don't need big gestures.  We need many small careful accommodations between a dense urban future, and the best of a history of tight, walkable cities with intimate, granular public realms - where not so much 'the building is a microcosm of the city', as the streets and squares are the living room of the city.

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