The modern skyscraper is being designed with an ever-increasing range of features – from shops and offices to gyms and cinemas – that could discourage users from engaging with the city around them. Should we be concerned?
In 1924 the German architect and city planner, Ludwig Hilberseimer, presented the idea of a “high-rise city” made up of a series of large blocks (100m deep, 600m wide) which would each contain flats, offices and restaurants. He claimed this arrangement would solve the problem of congestion, as people would live and work in the same building, commuting by lift.
Renzo Piano, the architect of London’s Shard, described his creation in similar terms, calling it a “vertical city” because of its mixture of uses. The 308m Shard includes shops, offices, flats, a hotel and restaurants – although given its capacity of 12,000, it is probably more accurate to label it a “vertical village”.
In the course of making a documentary about the seismic changes occurring to London’s skyline, I’ve talked to sharply dressed architects, the manager of the Shangri-La hotel in the Shard, even a futurologist, about this idea. Are “vertical villages” becoming reality, or is this just a science-fiction romance, as one of my interviewees suggested?
Most of the proposed 200-plus skyscrapers due to be built in London will not be as diversely occupied as the Shard. But these new residential buildings still have mixed-use qualities: the development in Canary Wharf’s Westferry Circus, set to become the UK’s second tallest building, has been dubbed a “town in a tower” as it will include a gym, library, cinema and even designated play areas for children. The Canaletto Tower in the City Road Basin promises a similar range of facilities, including a club and spa, for its occupants. These are far from isolated examples. The desire for each high-rise to stand out as iconic means many of the skyscrapers coming to London will have a mixture of uses.
“The trend for mixed-use skyscrapers threatens to create cities that are fragmented.”
Unlike these proposed residential buildings where facilities will be shared, the Shard’s components are separated off from each other. Each part has its own elevator system, meaning you can’t, for example, go from the offices at the bottom to the flats at the top without exiting the building and then going back in. These internal divisions mean the Shard is essentially the sum of several different medium-sized buildings stuck together. If it can be classified as a city, its transport system may be compared with the most frustrating routes on the underground, where you have to go miles out of the way before arriving at your destination.
Yet the building still, theoretically, caters for all of your needs. By lift one can access the 34th floor lobby of the Shangri-La Hotel in just 28 seconds. Up here, you could spend an afternoon watching trains go slowly in and out of the station below like model toys, or float in the hotel’s infinity pool, which appears to cascade sublimely into the Thames beneath it. In this sedating environment, you would be forgiven for thinking life has been put on pause. Detachment from normal London life is complete.
In fact, the Shard is now a hive of different activities. Almost 8,000 people work in it, there are six restaurants and bars within the building, and retail outlets will soon be opening up at ground level.
Situated on the south side of London Bridge, the Shard is surrounded by crowded Borough High Street on one side and up-and-coming Bermondsey on the other. Yet, with so many of its own features, the building doesn’t blend into these surroundings, functioning in relative isolation.
No more than 20m from one of the entrances, one down from Starbucks, is the spacious Spiazzo Cafe but the manager, Brandao Suarez, says that “not many people working in the Shard actually come in here”. He thinks they mostly use the restaurants in the building as they are “even more convenient” than his place. Walk a couple of minutes in the opposite direction, past looming Guy’s Hospital, and one of the first shops you get to is Cafe Link, run by Lisa Aberkane. “No one really comes down this road from the Shard,” she says, “unless they are lost!”
An interesting feature of the building, which helps to explain why it is so disconnected from its surroundings, is that the Shard effectively has its own train station, London Bridge, lying directly beneath it. Coming out of the train or the underground you barely get outside before reaching the Shard and go past nothing in the way of shops, streets or businesses. One commuter, Phil Starr, likened the journey between his home in Crystal Palace and the office to a “private route.” Another, Anna Jreisat, who has only been working in the Shard for a month said she “feels like a bit of a hamster” unless she goes and buys a coffee after getting off the tube. One wonders about the psychology of existing in this kind of skyscraper: given time, will its users start to think of the Shard as if it were a borough of the city rather than just a very tall building?
“Vertical villages” are a new phenomenon for the most part; there are only a few buildings in the world on the same scale as the Shard which include offices, flats and other features. While most, such as the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, are recent constructions, the John Hancock Center in Chicago was completed back in 1968 – a year after the death of Ludwig Hilberseimer, who had become professor of city and regional planning at Chicago’s Institute of Technology.
These new buildings are clearly capable of operating as island communities, under their own internal logic. While the largest mixed-uses are currently on the same scale as villages or small boroughs, a new generation of super-tall skyscrapers is coming up around the world, many of which will have a variety of functions. Most prominent among them is the needle-pointed Kingdom Tower in Saudi Arabia, which is designed to be over three times taller than the Shard and hold in excess of 35,000 people. Along with other planned gravity-defying structures, it could pave the way for skyscrapers that are yet more autonomous and city-like.
In some ways this design sounds appealing, appearing to offer a sense of community to the users of a building. Yet the trend for mixed-use skyscrapers threatens to create cities that are fragmented. By insulating people inside them from their neighbours on the ground, they may produce communities that are inward-looking as well as exclusive.
This feature is written by Fred Wagner and adopted from The Guardian.