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CTBUH: 'Sustainable vertical urbanism' achievable

CTBUH: 'Sustainable vertical urbanism' achievable

An excerpt from the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat's coverage of its annual International Conference, held Sept. 16-19 in Shanghai.


by Daniel Safarik, CTBUH editor

FUTURE CITIES: The overall theme of the conference, “Towards Sustainable Vertical Urbanism,” was driven home with particular emphasis during the opening plenary session. The possibility of a future of tall buildings that support urban life, rather than stand apart from it as interchangeable icons, seemed especially clear by the session’s close.

                                                               CTBUH Executive Director Antony Wood

                                                               CTBUH Executive Director Antony Wood

Three different perspectives were on offer – that of an architect working on projects in Southeast Asia that take full advantage of its salubrious climate, an architect-by- training-turned-developer; who offered a rich vision of a mega-development that fully integrates with historic urban fabric; and an architect/academic/non-profit director, who charged up the audience with a set of utopian principles. Mun Sum Wong, principal of Singapore-based WOHA, demonstrated his firm’s efforts to upend assumptions about the social sustainability of high-rises. One of the main reasons so many of WOHA’s projects emphasize horizontal spaces at height is because it changes the psychology of building occupants.

“The idea is to inject more urban life into the high-rise city,” Wong said. “We introduce horizontal movement in the high-rise building because it changes the dynamic. When you talk to the people next to you in an ordinary high-rise, it is considered rude. But in the street, you talk to people, build relationships and bonds.” 

Through projects such as the greenery-shrouded, horizontally connected vertical residences Skyville @ Dawson and Newton Suites, Singapore, and The Met, Bangkok, Wong demonstrated how both nature and urban vitality could be blended together in vertical communities that foster interaction, but also a sense of peace and remove from the busy streets. 

Wong also showed institutional projects such as The School of the Arts, Singapore,  BRAC University, Dhaka, Bangladesh, and the stunning Parkroyal on Pickering Hotel in Singapore, all of which favor lush greenery, large gathering spaces and breeze-channeling forms instead of air-conditioning and dark corridors characteristic of less-inspired buildings.

In many cases, WOHA was able to convince clients to alter their assumptions about standard designs, using “landscaping as an architectural material” as a major selling point and often as not, adding more greenery to the building sites than was previously existent.The theme of additive and integrative urban interventions continued with Yang Wu, CEO of the Bund Finance Center, currently under construction on the north bank of the Huangpu River in Shanghai.

Wu, an architect by training turned developer, diagnosed some of the issues that have characterized China’s hypertrophic construction frenzy. 

“In China, there is still a lack of thinking about architecture culture,” Wu said. “We have seen a lot of stereotypes of tall buildings. Architecture should be more converged with the culture.” 

Although the Bund Finance Center is a typically large-scale mixed-use development, Wu demonstrated how, through the presence of a theater and an art gallery in the program, the stepping back of scale from the Bund, and the integration of public rights-of-way would knit the requirements of global capital with the objective of maintaining the cultural vitality of the city’s historic waterfront.

“You seldom find art galleries in high-rise buildings,” Wu commented. “Developers think they will not make any money out of it. But we think we have a social responsibility.

Wu said he had the highest respect for his design team, led by Norman Foster, who pushed back on some of Wu’s concepts, resulting in a better outcome. He advocated that urban context be considered as the “heart and soul” of the city, not “a collection of landmarks.”

His parting words for future architects of Asian megaprojects: “When I open my eyes in the morning and I am in Shenzhen, I still think I am in Shanghai because they look the same,” he said. “[China is] duplicating buildings and the mistakes of the West. There is focus on building bizarre and tall buildings, but ignorance of the connotations – resulting in cold buildings for cold cities. As a developer, I call on architects: you need to have your own independent ideas that bring vitality."


The final presentation of the plenary served up 10 independent ideas, piping-hot. In a particularly energetic talk, CTBUH Executive Director Antony Wood “put on his architect’s hat” to discuss the “Design Principles for a New High-Rise Vernacular” he has developed over years as an instructor at the University of Nottingham and the Illinois Institute of Technology.

“Cities are becoming terribly homogenized,” Wood said, echoing Wu’s sentiments. “Architecture is the worst culprit, and tall buildings are the worst culprit within that. We need to find an indigenous response to skyscrapers all around the world.”

The 10 principles argued that tall buildings should:

  • Relate to the physical characteristics of place
  • Relate to the environmental characteristics of place
  • Relate to the cultural characteristics of place
  • Vary with height – in form, texture, scale and program
  • Maximize layers of usage on all systems and materials
  • Provide significant communal, open, recreational space
  • Introduce façade opacity and variation in skins and envelopes
  • Embrace organic vegetation as an essential part of the material palette, 
  • Introduce physical, circulatory and programmatic connections, such as skybridges
  • Bring all aspects of the city up into the sky
                                Frankfurt's Commerzbank

                                Frankfurt's Commerzbank

Wood illustrated these principles by way of numerous examples from around the world. Providing his assessment of the Petronas Towers of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and their cultural reference, he said, “This is a two-dimensional plan form extrapolated upwards, based on Islamic motifs, and became indelibly associated with Malaysia. But if it were built in Shanghai the same thing would have happened. It could have gone further.”

Even though it is an office tower and nearly 20 years old, Wood argued that Commerzbank of Frankfurt, Germany, is still largely unsurpassed in terms of setting a standard for developing ecologically sensitive vertical communities. 

“Every single level of that building has at least a visual, if not a direct physical connection with a significant sky garden,” Wood said. “Occupants have access to natural light, natural ventilation and physical communal space. Now, that is a model for a residential tower. What is disappointing about residential towers, is they don't put in the space - preferably green space - for community to develop.”

To conclude, Wood called for tall buildings to reduce their homogenizing effects and sharpen their integrative capabilities. Key to this will not only be more enlightened design, but better engagement with urban planners and other decision-makers not directly involved in the projects’ financial outcomes, he said.

Through this engagement, Wood illustrated a future in which the city’s horizontal infrastructure would be incorporated vertically into and between buildings. He called for the establishment of a new social, economic and political framework between city government and private sector to deliver this connected, 3-D vision of “sustainable vertical urbanism.”

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