The Sky is the Limit

The Sky is the Limit

Our Question Time, October edition contributors:

Michel da Costa Gon?alves, Co-Founder of DROO

Michel is an architect, author and educator; co-founder of DROO. Educated in France and in UK at the AA where subsequently taught for several years, Michel explores contemporary shared spaces, including several Living Arts projects, synthesising dense and layered urban and cultural conditions into unique design solutions that are in constant dialogue with the city.

Leni Popovici Associate, Business and Creative Development at Ben Adams Architects

Leni has an exceptional talent for imagining new buildings from the very start of the design process, often in world cities with unique context. She has broad experience from designing a 400,000 sqm neighbourhood in central Bucharest, through mixed-use and walkable homesteads in Los Angeles, to a new concept in boutique malls in New Cairo and a number of high density residential led projects in London.

Lukasz Platkowski, Principal at Gensler


Each year our cities grow taller, higher and faster than before. Yet, this desire to build big, to build a new icon to add to the city scape conflicts with the necessity to build responsibly, sustainably and with as little impact to our fragile environment. Rather than building a high rise from scratch, should we be rebuilding or redesigning our existing structures.

Perhaps we have reached our limit? From a practical view, Daniel Safarik of CTBUH commented to the Guardian: “today’s structural engineering can facilitate a 2,000m building, though it would be enormously expensive to construct, but even if we have buildings that are unfathomably tall by today’s standards, the key will be breaking them down into scales that allow humans to relate to each other.

Without a doubt these gargantuan structures are iconic pieces of architecture, everyone could recognises the Shard, the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State or the Burj Khalifa. But is it still relevant to build a multi-purpose skyscraper for the sake of an expensive city view, more office and residential space, or is it simply an endeavour for an architect to make their mark on a city.

Michel da Costa Gon?alves, DROO

Amusingly from London, Singapore or Melbourne, promotional images share striking similitudes; the upper most part of a forthcoming building tower emerging from a sea of blue clouds oblivious to any ground, context or in fact humans. Technically challenging, architecturally humbling, extreme height, (or more exactly relative height) carries specific values in our 21st Century city with many collateral consequences.

Devonshire Road Tower, Singapore designed by Michel Da Costa Goncalves of DROO and Nathalie Rozencwajg under their previous practice RARE

These promotional images tell a story of elitist self-inflicted isolation, a story of detachment from the normative ground. There, the city is absent and gravity erased as one lives godlike in the sky. Sometimes other tall buildings share the frame in this divine air space, and as such displaying the obvious; progress equates to upward growth, simply because we can. Height henceforth is not solely technical or architectural but highly symbolic. For more than a century, this vertical competition has given us incredible cities, as the iconoclastic structures of our technological might, a constant reminder of our capacity to find novel techniques to defeat gravity and stretch higher. However, as our contemporary culture is seeing a distinct shift towards an architectural permaculture which is representative of the type of ecological design and whole systems thinking that ensures responsible resource use for future generations, the display of height for height isn’t carrying the same value it might have a decade ago. If we consider urban forms as time-based social constructs embedding traces of the past and potential futures at the same time, then the ambition of height alone invites its own obsolescence when replaced by the next taller tower.

As such, our relationship to the sky is the limit, is of an enthusiastic scepticism. In a time compressing age, we still see architecture as a long-term experience at the service of our old analogue self and future generations. Density, and verticality in the city, should be promoted as a sustainable urban direction. Rather than height for itself, our projects suggest diverting symbolic value, using the same commercial forces pushing upwards into making novel enduring typologies and places.

In our Devonshire Road Tower project in Singapore, we suggest alternatives to the rigid rules of penthouses, diverting the vertical value by using an inverted typological form of the tower as way to create a more equalized distribution of value, by creating larger suspended villas with tiered terrace gardens on the mid levels. By designing value into the lower middle, we aim at detaching the utmost premium from highest levels, and make it an agent for innovation. The crux of this project lies not in its absolute height but in the unique design of the expansive ?middle. Whilst our contemporary iterations on the urban landscape between towers, and the ground plane are becoming more porous and innovative, stretched in between the streetscape and the demonstrative summits, lies the zone of true innovation; the undefined ?middle??. Socially, but equally architecturally, there is little to be said today about the growing space between the ground and the skies. Unquestioned, the penthouses of today will be the middle tier landscape of tomorrow. The tower should be envisaged within a larger temporality and much more up close than it is far, far away.

Leni?Popovici, Ben Adams Architects

Human beings are insatiable creatures. Our instinct to build, explore, go to war and make love over hundreds of thousands of years has propelled us into an age of gluttonous use of the earth’s resources, of capitalism and of untrammelled consumerism. We want, demand and aspire to use more of our environment than ever before.

The physical manifestation of our admirable ambitions as a species is expressed most clearly through today’s incredible skyscrapers. When they are done well they are more than just a feat of engineering, they become iconic sculptural objects that attract a sense of fascination and a somatic demonstration of economic power. The environmental cost of writing ourselves into history has risen, on par with our capacity to innovate and build to unparalleled heights.

Overwhelmingly, modern skyscrapers are practical, vertically extruded boxes, battling for our attention through varied sculptural gyrations, offset stacking, twisting spines, varying widths… What begins as an exercise in sculptural design, succumbs to an intrinsic human desire to?make our mark by pushing technology and engineering to its limits. We put cities on the map and propel the economy forward, at the cost of the increasing stratification of socioeconomic classes. Perhaps this is how it’s always been.

Luxury towers are iconic designs driven by an ambition to distinguish themselves, and often restrict their clientele to the wealthiest one per cent. By contrast, the social housing towers typical in the UK from the 1960s and 70s were born of a modernist desire for efficiency in land use, where built density is key and variation plays little role.

Skyscrapers embody a fundamental conflict in society: at one end of the scale they represent luxury and financial bravado at the cost of social segregation, and at the other end they are repetitive, cheaply built and badly looked after.

The problem for architects is that designing with gusto, exploring alternative materials and pursuing sustainable engineering elongates programmes and vaporises clients money, giving rise to potentially successful buildings that alienate anyone but the top earners. It’s expensive to innovate and it is sustainability that tends to suffer, whether it’s environmental, economic or qualitative. Bad design driven by economies of scale can be cheaper, but the overall price we pay gives rise to depressing landscapes of locally dense, suffocating and lacklustre urban cityscapes.

We are lucky to be live an age when we can hold our cities to a very high standard, and have the ability to interrogate the impact we have on our environment intelligently. It’s all about balance.

Avoid relentless vertical cities that remove the sky and dull the mind, saving money at the cost of quality of life. Accept that environmental responsibility currently comes at a price and invest in it anyway for the long term payback. Invest in innovation, push engineering to the limits, rethink the status quo and push your imagination.

Is the age of the skyscraper over? It absolutely shouldn’t be.

Lukasz Platkowski, Principal at Gensler

New York, along with Chicago, gave birth to the shimmering glass-and-steel skyscraper building typology of the 20th century. In the 21st century, we’ve seen flourishing mega cities in Asia and the Middle East, erecting towers that are evermore slick and reaching dizzying heights.

It’s not a secret that there’s been something of a skyscraper ?race in recent years, as cities around the globe vie for our attention with increasingly daring high-rises. China alone built more skyscrapers in 2018 than anywhere else in the world with a total of 88 buildings reaching 200 meters according to CNN.

But this approach of the sky’s the limit presents its own set of challenges.

For most skyscrapers, the challenges begin with lifts. These need to work around both height and speed problems to transport people quickly and safely to the upper floors and when you’re building a skyscraper the height of the Jeddah Tower, this is no mean feat.

Structurally speaking, designing and building a skyscraper 2,000 meters tall would be achievable; but the cost, the RoI, and the array of lifts needed to bring people up would be considered unrealistic by any commercial developer.

When building tall, we also have to think about the impact that thousands of new tenants would have on our existing infrastructure, which is already at capacity in cities like London. These mega-structures would have to become isolated and autonomous organisms, communities within a city, which is essentially in opposition to any city growth plan.

But even as clients and developers continue to build skyscrapers, the goal of building taller ones has changed. Designing the skyscraper of the future isn’t so much about scraping the sky but using that space to create something that is more tenant focussedthan ever before.

Indeed, for the first time in history, there are more people living in cities than ever before. By 2050, this number is predicted to reach 70 percent of the world population. High-rises can certainly play a big role in addressing this challenge.

The era of the high-rise is far from over. That being said, we do need to rethink the traditional model of building skyscrapers. Cities will always need more space, which they’ll find by building upward, but they most crucially need to meet the needs of people living in a changing world.

People are increasingly looking for authenticity, flexibility, connectivity as well as sustainability in their home environments. And I believe we should take inspiration from the solutions we use on our residential buildings and adapt them when creating the high-rises we design for office space.

The way office buildings can merge with the street to create personalised experiences and a sense of community, for visitors and workers alike, is key to the success of any developments. Occupants are realising that both comfort and convenience of lifestyle amenities are critical to staff retention.

The lobby of 555 Collins, an office development under construction in Melbourne that Gensler has designed, seamlessly blends with other functions of the street landscape. The first three levels of this commercial office building will provide functions that extend its life beyond the usual working hours, and thus cater for the changing needs of users, visitors and the wider neighbourhood.

Indeed, the proposed design includes an activated ground plane with connections between Collins Street, King Street and Flinders Lane, a premium retail hub with food and beverage outlets, co-working spaces, outdoor terraces, and a landmark health and wellbeing offering. Furthermore, the building will be one of the city’s most sustainable office buildings, targeting 6 Star Green Star, 5 Star NABERS Energy and Platinum WELL certification.

In the past, we mostly built single-use buildings in both the residential and the commercial sector. But with the shift in tenant requirements, this is now changing in favour of buildings with a carefully curated mix of uses, where spaces in-between allow occupants to use them in many ways from speaking events to cocktail parties.

A good example of such a development is One Fairchild in London, where a series of boxes stacked on top of the other has enabled the creation of a connected, vertical high street. The size of each box has been carefully designed to respond to specific tenant needs, offering a mix of uses from a food hall on the lower floors and office space with co-working zones in the middle to hotel rooms on the upper floors, and finally a bar and a restaurant at the top.

The materials used on the facade and the mix of uses reflect the local vibrant culture of Shoreditch, thus creating a distinct tenant experience while respecting the surroundings. Skyscrapers have to be more than just tall buildings; they have to adapt to their surroundings.

To cope with dynamic city growth, cities will have to grow not only in footprint, but also in height, growing taller whilst respecting people’s needs, history and culture. The era of the non-contextual high-rise is over. But the era of smart and functional high-rises is just beginning.

Jade Tilley
Jade Tilley

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