Dienstag, 30. Dezember 2008

dense city?

My good friend at autopoesis drew my attention to this fascinating vision of an ultra dense Tokyo. Megacities are gradually moving from being the architectural fancy of modernist utopias towards being real contenders for urban solutions. This is mainly down to innovative developments in structural and material performance, which position the concept above and beyond the traditional skyscraper.

One of the most interesting designs comes from the imaginative office of JDS. Much like the vision for Tokyo, this vision for China's flagship SEZ of Shenzhen relies on structural ingenuity to create a diverse vertical environment. I was lucky enough to hear a lecture by Andrew Griffin in the summer. Griffin managed to bring the ideas behind the Logistic City to life, and turned my opinion of the concept from genuine scepticism to genuine excitement.

Here-in lies the concern. Density has been the buzz word in architectural circles at least since I was caught up in them. It is worryingly easy to convince a fellow architect of the merits of a scheme with nice graphics promising density and diversity. Projects which do not aim to achieve new levels of density are accused of being wasteful and conservative. This is understandable. As the global urban population speeds towards 4 billion, it is vital to contain our sprawling cities, both to maintain our planet's ecosystems and allow for efficient economies. But sustainable density is notoriously hard to achieve, and it sometimes seems the architectural profession gets too caught up in its efforts to do so.

The UN's chief urban strategist, Lars Reutersward gave an interview to a gallery I visited in Stockholm recently. In it he is asked how to deal with the city of Stockholm as it gradually develops into a global capital:
(...) instead of building these ordinary, boring five or six story houses, we should build them ten times as tall! That's how you create an urban landscape. The vertical city. It's extremely popular. [people who say tall buildings are hard to sell] are wrong. Who said 15 years ago we needed text messaging on mobile phones?

Academically, intellectually, I believe him. But is this really true? Is the vertical city popular? If it isn't, will it work? Stockholm is beautiful, and loved, and a major tourist destination, precisely because it retains its old town charm. The skyline of some of its horizons hasn't changed in a century. How will the demands of architects, the vision of the future, integrate with the opinions of the average citizen, the prophecy of the present.

A recent article in the Guardian explores some of the mistakes made during the new town boom of the 1960s, primarily out of a fear that it will happen again, "creating more soulless settlements of high-density, low-quality homes where people simply won't want to live"
. Le Corbusier's visionary drawings of a new society translated into Stalin's misguided vision of a new society. Is the same fate awaiting JDS's beautiful renderings and models?

We can plan and build for density. It's the diversity that continues to be out of our hands.

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