The Biggest Challenge Facing the Century of the City

Whether we've embarked on a new era of global urbanization is indisputable. The ability of architects to design attractive and humane high-rise towers to house the urban masses, however, is open to discussion, writes Sarah Williams Goldhagen.

The resounding failure of mid-century experiments by Western architects to humanely house fast-growing urban populations in buildings based on the tower-in-the-park concept demonstrated that architects were unable to successfully apply the high-rise residential building type to anyone but the super-rich, argues Goldhagen. Now, as the world embarks on a century that will be defined by the hyper-dense metropolis, she wonders if architects are up to the task of providing humane hyper-dense homes.

"The Century of the Metropolis will be the object of attention for journalists, scholars, videographers, and more for many generations, but policymakers, publics, and architects, dealers in and of the concrete, cannot wait for that. They need to figure out, now, how to make the most habitable and humane hyper-dense cities they can. And of the many challenges such an endeavor poses, no single building type presents more of a conundrum than the high-rise residential tower. As millions of urban dwellers around the globe hunt for better homes, contemporary architects are returning to a question nearly as old as the modern tall building itself: can a high-rise, high-density residential tower ever become more than an oversized packing crate for people?"

Goldhagen explores the challenges confronting architects in "designing functional, handsome, and humane high-rise residential buildings" including the need to design for multiple scales, to fight against standardization, to provide significant public spaces, and to establish a connection to the natural world, and turns to Asia for promising examples of firms who are meeting these challenges.

"Among the most impressive are firms such as WOHA (based in Singapore), Mass Studies (based in Seoul), Amateur Architecture Studio (based in Hangzhou, whose principal, Wang Shu, won this year's Pritzker Prize), and the New York City-based Steven Holl. These and a number of other firms are together making a convincing case that high-rise living need not necessitate the kinds of compromises that most people regard as inevitable. Like Gehry's, Gang's, and Nouvel's high-rise residential towers, these firms' projects cut smart silhouettes on their urban skylines, but they do much more: they weave large numbers of unusually designed and comfortable homes into vertical communities. Together these buildings and their architects belie the common belief that high-rise towers must be ugly necessities rather than desirable contributions to life in the contemporary metropolis."

Full Story: Sarah Williams Goldhagen on Architecture: Living High



The Highrises Are Interesting But ...

These designs for highrises do have interesting features, but Goldhagen concentrates only on architecture and seems to ignore urbanism.

She mentions in passing that these projects create good public places, but look at the Vertical Courtyard Apartments at and you can see that there is no attempt to create interesting urbanism at the ground level. There is no attempt to create streets and squares that people would enjoy using as public spaces; there is just landscaping at the ground level. Of course, this is exactly the same defect as the tower-in-a-park housing projects of the 1960s. Here, it looks like the two-story apartments would be very comfortable places to live, but the neighborhood would not be an interesting place to walk around.

The Vertical Courtyard Apartments are the best of the lot. Steven Holl's Linked Hybrid project at seems to do its best to deaden the ground level - filling the public spaces with water, with only narrow corridors for people to walk through and no where to linger or sit. The skybridges also deaden the streets. Maybe the indoor public spaces that he mentions are better, but we all know that an indoor shopping center is not a substitute for an outdoor public space. And the architecture of the individual buildings is obviously as boring as you can get.

I have to agree with Goldhagen's initial point that the cities in Asia, Africa, and Latin America that already have 18 million or more people with growing populations do need highrises to accommodate that population, so designing more livable highrise neighborhoods is an important task for this century. But I think that the United States, Europe, and other nations that are not so overpopulated should try to achieve the better quality of life that you get with traditional mid-rise urbanism.

The biggest, newest, flashiest buildings do succeed in attracting attention to themselves, but they are not the best places to live.

Charles Siegel

Prepare for the AICP* Exam

Join the thousands of students who have utilized the Planetizen AICP* Exam Preparation Class to prepare for the American Planning Association's AICP* exam.
Starting at $245

Essential Readings in Urban Planning

Planning on taking the AICP* Exam? Register for Planetizen's AICP * Exam Preparation Course to save $25.

Wear your city with style!

100% silk scarves feature detailed city maps. Choose from five cities with red or blue trim.
Book cover of Insider's Guide to Careers in Urban Planning

So you want to be a planner...

Check out our behind the scenes look at 25 careers in the Urban Planning field
Starting at $14.95