"The Urban Purgatory of Hypertecture" | Richard Ingersoll
As the planet approaches the stupefying trajectory of total urbanization— from less than 10% urbanized in 1900 to 50% in 2005 to a projected 70% during the next 30 years--ironically, the idea of the city has been experiencing a noticeable decline. Megacities have popped up overnight, such as Lagos (population 16 million) and Chongqing (population 30 million), but they appear to have little need for the ancient Western model of the polis, served by its rich supply of public spaces for civic participation. In general, such rapid urbanizations, with large quantities of informal development, can never match the technical efficiencies of the industrial metropolis of Haussmann, which excelled in planning networks of infrastructures for sanitation and transportation. Yet while a megacity like Chongqing appears to lack any substantial system of human-scaled public spaces, its prime economic function in the planned economy of the People’s Republic of China has precipitated the creation in 2005 of one of the most diffused rapid transit systems in the world, with a record daily ridership of 3.3 million. China’s mixed economy has also attracted to Chongqing one of the largest real estate adventures of recent date, the soon-to-be-completed Raffles City complex, eight 60 to 80-storey skyscrapers providing close a million square meters set on a 9-hactare plinth at the confluence of the Yangtze and Jialing rivers. Controlled by CapitalLand, an American company and designed by Moshe Safdie as a cousin of his Marina Sands project in Singapore (Three towers capped by horizontal bar carrying a 200-meter swimming pool), the complex boasts the unique formal innovation of a “horizontal skyscraper” crowning the summits of four of the towers. Reminiscent of a colossal pailou gate, Raffles City embodies a typical process in contemporary city building that I call hypertecture. Rather than structuring a fabric of human-scaled buildings connected by public spaces, politicians, developers, and their architects opt for single, over-scaled buildings, disconnected from the city in their own campus, propped up as huge promotional gadgets of momentary iconic value.
Raffles City Chongqing, Moshe Safdie
The overall objective of creating a good city, which today can only mean the sustainable city, has been frequently subverted in recent years by both public and private stakeholders, who prefer to encourage solitary, enormous structures as symbolic surrogates for the city. Hypertecture, because of its inflated scale, cost, and formal impact, is analogous to hyperbole in language, and any other phenomenon with the prefix hyper to indicate exaggeration. Preposterously scaled works like Burj Khalifa in Dubai or the Shard in London do more to unbalance the fabric of urban life than they do to enhance it, leading to what Stephen Graham dubs “vertical sprawl.” 1 That 28% of the 840 meters of the former tower remains unleaseable due to small footplates, or that the latter tower, until recently the tallest in Europe, offers apartments for sale beginning at £30 million, which not surprisingly have remained empty since its debut in 2012, should perhaps provoke one to both laugh and cry at once. Such monuments to vanity represent the world’s collective psychosis of waste. Russia’s flame-shaped Gazprom Tower, known formally as the Lakhta Center, set on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, fits perfectly the wasteful attributes of hypertecture, cutting a rather sinister figure as the “new” tallest structure in Europe, presenting a grand spectacle to be seen from a distance, yielding a purgatory of urbanity. Some of the greatest design talents on earth have become mercenaries to create these primarily symbolic enclaves, which although intended topromote the power of a place, actually discourage the sort of equity that fosters a place’s sense ofidentity. The most celebrated high style buildings of the early 21st century, such as CCTVheadquarters in Beijing or the recently unveiled Qatar National Museum in Doha, resembleimmense pieces of furniture, props installed on an empty stage, operating more as a deterrent topublic interaction than as a great renewal of urban life. Even in democratic settings, such as thethree towers at Milan’s City Life project or the BBVA headquarters in Madrid, the powers that behave been allowed to put all their effort into establishing promotional icons while removing theurban dweller’s contact with the fabric of the city.
The Shard, London, RPBW, 2012
Gazprom Lakhta Center, Tony Kettel RMJM, 2019
If these same players would take seriously the IPCC pronouncement released by the United Nations last fall that the planet has only 12 years left to lower emissions before the effects of Global Warming become irreversible, then a completely different approach to urban development would be in order. Cities comprise roughly 40-50% of the problem, and the culture of cities will determine the difference in the race to battle CO2 and methane gases. Geoffrey West in his treatise Scale argues that the exponential growth of cities, which leads to collectivization of services, inherently improves sustainability, but he also reasons that this 15% advantage will never compensate for thecumulative effect of urbanization2. While theories of sustainable urbanism abound, the necessarychange of mentality on a global scale will not occur until enough good examples can demonstratetheir environmental and economic benefits. Human beings, especially in the world of development,tend to be aggressive conformists. Thus, if their scenarios of hypertecture must continue, onestrategy might be to infiltrate the program of such symbolic structures and turn them into producersof clean energy. While many of the high-rise builders, in particular Norman Foster, claim that theirworks, such as the Gherkin (30 St. Mary Axe, London, 2003), are carbon neutral, it stands to betested whether the admirable self-sustaining benefits during a building’s life will ever be able toamortize the energy spent on construction and upkeep. This goes for almost all the buildings thathave gained a good LEED rating but have not undergone any post-occupancy evaluation. A newproject in Copenhagen, however, the Amager Bakke “waste-to-energy” incinerator, promises toexploit its hypertectural demeanor for a greater carbon neutral goal. As the tallest structure in thecity, clad in stunning aluminum-planter bands, it has quickly become an emblematic touristattraction while producing energy and co-generating heat for the local district. Not only do itsdesigners (BIG and SLA landscape) claim to have eliminated the odors usually associated with suchdevices, but the internal catalytic mechanisms have reduced dangerous emissions to less than 1%.Bjarke Ingels’ ingenious strategy, has been to combine what is usually conceived of as a negativefunction, with the positive function of sports, providing a ski slope on the steep incline of the 400-meter-long roof, and a sheer wall for mountain climbing on the sides. The surreal notion of skiingon a garbage site in such a flat region was anticipated as a somewhat capricious projection byMVDVR in their proleptic manifesto Datatown (1999), which predicted landfills of alpinedimensions that would attract snow for skiers. An analogous project was realized at Forum 2004 inBarcelona, when the city’s new water treatment plant was crowned by the world’s largestphotovoltaic panel and covered with a platform intended for sporting and cultural events. Theslightly putrid odor of the site, however, has perhaps kept it from becoming the case that caused therest of the world to take notice. But Amager Bakke promises to generate a new paradigm and isalready being used as an example by political leaders right and left.
Amager Bakke, waste-t-energy, Copenhagen, BIG and SLA, 2018
One should not be surprised to find manifestations of hypertecture in New York City, whicharguably is its historic point of origin. While successive periods of laissez-faire policies haveallowed waves of high rise construction, never have the towers been set on such small footprints astoday, and never have they served such a greedy purpose as housing for millionaires. The tallestnew tower, 432 Park Avenue (Rafael Viñoly, 2014), second tallest in town, rises straight up 426meters as an extruded box providing a single, luxury apartment on each floor with literally milliondollarviews to Central Park. And while there are several other new luxury apartment towers thatattest to the overwhelming gentrification of Manhattan, the most unsettling act of urbanization hasoccurred with the Hudson Yards project, a grand plinth that extends 11 hectares over the rail linesconnected to Penn Station. Advertised as the biggest redevelopment in the USA since RockefellerCenter, it has no other grounds for comparison except in scale. The architectural outcome,coordinated in a masterplan by Kohn Pederson Fox, randomly distributes an awkward collection ofmisshaped glazed towers by reputable architectural offices that seem like rejects from a Chinesemegacity, perhaps Chongqing. Each tower, including the two tilted towers by KPF, has been sitedto stand on its own as an icon of real estate prowess. Upon completion the 16 towers, will surroundan interior park, set aside from Manhattan’s vital street grid, dominated by a gigantic four-storeysculpture by Thomas Heatherwick that resembles an iron girdle laced with a multiplicity of interconnecting stairs that lead to no destination. That the developers have received generous taxbreaks in exchange for providing 10% affordable housing (mostly built off-site), seems the leastthey can do, in what otherwise functions expressly for the benefit of economic elites, a clientele thatincludes leading media corporations and hedge fund operators.
Hudson Yards, master plan KPF, 2018
The sole saving grace at Hudson Yards remains an arts center, known as the Shed, which is the onlypublicly funded project. The designers, Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, who along with James Cornerwere the producers of the universally loved Highline, had been promoting such a project as aterminus to the Highline, long before Hudson Yards had a masterplan. The Shed has four doubleheight levels and protrudes parasitically as an outcropping of an 88-storey apartment towerdesigned by the same office. A mysterious cushiony cover encloses its roof, which reveals itself as aretractable canopy that can extend on wheels in front of the building, doubling its footprint. Itsponderous steel diagrid, sheathed with a quilted EFTE fabric, shelters an indeterminate space thatcan be transformed through robotics, lowering mechanical walls, sliding shading devices, shiftingmobile sound equipment, and folding ceiling panels, activated in order to achieve optimalperformance conditions. The Shed, which appears as a legacy from the plug-in fictions ofArchigram, promises to mutate upon command and offer the one truly urban experience in anotherwise remote environment.
Hudson Yards, The Shed, Diiler/Scofidio+Renfro, 2019, and 15 Hudson Yards Tower
The hypertecture of emerging cities like Dubai, has triggered a feedback loop in the older cities,such as London. Should one be surprised that Qatar owns the Shard, as well as many of the newglossy towers built in Milan? An absurd race to produce architectural potlatch has begun to blastthrough some of the best cities of Europe, where colossal iconic structures have been set onelevated plinths, tethered to interminable shopping centers, are changing urban geographies. Paris,which held out against high-rise construction in the center city for nearly five decades after theappearance of Tour Montparnasse, has finally yielded to permit a series of new towers. The mostcontroversial, and superbly iconic, will be the Tour Triangle by Herzog & de Meuron, a glazedpyramid that, if it ever is allowed by public process, will rise 40 stories on a site belonging to theParc des Expositions, overlooking the Périphérique ring road. Planned in 2012, the construction hasnot yet begun due to many civic efforts to block it. The public process, despite government decrees,is still capable of delaying the effects of hypertecture.
The other noteworthy tower in Paris, which had an easier time in the approval process due to itsnecessary public function, is Renzo Piano’s 40-storey Tribunal de Paris, set on the old railyards ofClichy-Batignolles. The new palace of justice also overlooks the Périférique but rises morediscreetly as a series of progressively smaller 10-storey glazed boxes, decorated with photovoltaic shutters and green roofs.
Tribunal de Paris, RPBW, 2018
The symbolic message here reads not as an icon of the power of real estatebut rather of the state, guaranteeing justice as a transparent process. The Tribunal tower creates amonumental backdrop to the new ecoquartier of Clichy-Batignolles, one of several exemplaryefforts sponsored by the French government to lead developers towards sustainable standards.While comparable in scale to Hudson Yards, instead of creating a luxury campus in the air withseparate entries for the subsidized sector, Clichy-Batignolles is firmly rooted on the ground andconnected to the streets. Over 50% of its area is devoted to “social” functions, including elderlyhousing and low-income apartments, that gather around a large public park, designed in part as awetland by Grether, Osty, OGI, and comparable in scale to the nearby Parc Monceau. Thebuildings, by such esteemed designers as Jean-Paul Viguier, Baumslauger/Eberle, and AiresMatteus, were governed by a process in which the planning agency retained the guidance overarchitectural decisions. Hence the buildings maintain their unique styles but do not compete witheach other, nor do they seek iconic status. Rather they work in cooperation with a sustainableagenda to lower Green House Gases through photovoltaics and geothermal energy, green roofs, correct orientation, rainwater harvesting, and pneumatic garbage collectors. Clichy-Batignollesshould serve as a lesson in development for those who prefer hypertecture. The complicated publicprocess was well worth the effort, yielding a lively urban setting of mixed uses and mixed incomes,promoting a city of biographical diversity, analogous to biodiversity in nature. That one may nevernotice the project except in its proximity to the Tribunal reinforces its virtue in connecting back tothe real city and sharing its enduring urban values.
Ecoquartier de Clichy-Batignolles, Paris
1 Stephen Graham, Vertical. The city from satellites to bunkers, London: Verso, 2016.
2 Geofrey West, Scale. The universal laws of growth, innovation, sustainability, and the pace of life in organism, cities, economies, and companies, London: Pengin Press, 2017.
© Richard Ingersoll