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Interview by Peter Salhani. Above: Richard Hassell, image courtesy WOHA.
Richard Hassell, director of Singapore-based practice, WOHA – pioneer of sustainable, tall buildings – talks about liveability, high-rise in the tropics and a new book that explores both.
What do you think is the most significant evolution of the skyscraper?
The 20th century skyscraper is a technological typology, celebrating man’s triumph over gravity and climate. It is a hard, exclusive object, borne out of the harsh weather of New York and Chicago and later of the harshness of the deserts of the Middle East. Early rationalism devolved to playful formal innovation, but the sealed, internal, shiny object has remained. Like all machines, this conception of the skyscraper depends on high energy in order to function.
The 21st century skyscraper will be mainly built in the exploding populations of the tropical and subtropical belt in Asia, Africa and Central America. In the tropics, skyscrapers can be permeable and generous in amenities and outdoor spaces. They can even exceed their site area in green spaces by replicating multiple ground levels and using roof spaces, which can also host myriad activities that are currently thought of as occurring on, or near, the ground.
They can be low-energy, or energy-positive, and create matrices of high-quality environments that are open to nature,
light and air.
What are some of the obstacles to our embrace of high-rise living and density?
Most people’s fears around high-density living are about the pressure on existing amenity. And the feelings of anxiety about the loss of control if something went wrong. Traditional high-rises, with those mysterious basement rooms and roof spaces, induce that kind of anxiety I think. They make us feel the system is too complex and unknowable, too reliant on external people. But it needn’t be like that. Yes, there’s the physicality of a vertical stack, but you can plan in extra lines of ventilation and other amenities from the ground up, with staged intervals at different levels. It’s a matter of changing the development objectives to something more human. About giving more amenity and taking a low-tech approach to some of the key areas. What’s interesting to me is how much Australians enjoy visiting Asian cities for the buzzing street life. It’s actually where many Australians have those exciting moments of urban intensity. High-density (not just high-rise) has been a part of Asian cultures for a long time.
How do you define amenity and how has that changed?
In some ways our human condition remains pretty constant – we value gardens and parks, community and social gathering spaces as part of our human nature. That’s on the demand side. On the supply side, developers are interested in creating financial products, so the things they value are different to what communities might value. To bring some balance, we developed some measures or indexes that align with community values, which we use in discussion with governments, clients and developers, to focus the conversation. There’s the Greenspace Index (how much community garden and playing space is allocated), the Civic Generosity Index (how much visual and solar access is given back to the spaces around a building) and the Ecosystem Index. With so much strain on land to be productive outside the city, urban ecosystems are something we should be thinking more about to help alleviate that pressure. In Singapore recently, seahorses have returned to the canals and central reservoir, and people are really excited about it. So, along with planting and greening our city streets, we should also be supporting water life in the city. It’s about generosity to nature, which might seem a privileged ideal to some, but it’s of immense value to many.
In urban growth and density, what lessons can Australia learn from Asian cities?
Increasing density only works if you provide transport and infrastructure, requiring a long-term holistic vision well into the future. Australia’s challenge is the government election cycle and the short- term vision that it breeds, because big change can take 10 or 15 years. I think the lesson from Singapore is their whole of government approach. The public housing here is not low-cost housing, as such, it’s a social, political, financial system that has transformed the country. It’s high-quality, affordable housing available to anybody to buy and it’s seen as one of the central duties of the government. It’s integrated with transport infrastructure, masterplanned and brought online together. Done properly, dense developments and transport feed off each other to make each viable and vital. The key is linking major transport nodes to the most densely developed sites and precincts.
What’s the focus of the upcoming book Garden City, Mega City?
It’s about what we think is important for megacities in the tropical region – the humid, high-amenity, high-density environment. We’ve explored that kind of future thinking in some theoretical projects, discussing how urban planning needs to evolve to achieve high-performance, liveable density. For instance, physically networked high-rises that reduce reliance on the ground level need multiple street levels and multiple ground levels – and they need transport at high levels – to truly establish vertical villages. Urban planning needs to account for those transport intersections both within and between individual buildings, to connect and future-proof them. We’re also preparing an exhibition about this for New York some time this year.
What is the most important thing that will shape the future of the high-rise?
The technology, specialist construction and efficient servicing of high-rise is well established. The future of high-rise will be shaped by citizens demanding more and not excusing them from the civic requirements of civility, sociability, sustainability and resilience on technological and elitist excuses. The age of private shiny urban jewellery is diminishing; the age of humane, engaging and accessible high-rise environments is beginning.