Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat

T13 - Alternative Design Thinking

Hani Rashid, Principal and Founder, Asymptote
Ken Shuttleworth
,  Principal, Make
Jeanne Gang
, Principal and Founder, Studio Gang
Simon Allford
& Paul Monaghan, Partners, AHMM

Perhaps the best non-plenary session of the congress overall, certainly judging from delegate feedback, was the Day 3 session on ‘Alternative Design Approaches’ for tall buildings. We had convened the Principals of four high-profile practices who are doing innovative tall building work on both sides of the Atlantic to give their thoughts, and an overview of their work…

Hani Rashid, Asymptote, on developing
a greater understanding and integration of the ways architecture is conceived, iterated, fabricated and implemented. 

Ken Shuttleworth, Make,  discusses the
design of high-rise building façades
and how an increased level of opacity
can make buildings more energy

Jeanne Gang, Studio Gang, pointing out strategies to break away from
purely image-driven high-rise design

Simon Allford & Paul Monaghan, AHMM, redefine the parameters of pragmatics and aesthetics in the
design of tall buildings.


Hani Rashid of Asymptote opened the session, portraying some amazing non-orthogonal high rise forms from his studio in places as geographically diverse as Busan, South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Penang, Malaysia. Suggesting that these kind of articulated, morphing towers would just not have been possible a decade or two previously, Hani indicated that the advances in computer software systems and fabrication techniques through parametric modeling and BIM was revolutionizing the possibilities of the construction world.

The projects profiled by Ken Shuttleworth of Make Architects in the UK were no less inspiring. Formerly a Director with Norman Foster & Partners and instrumental in the design of seminal tall buildings such as the Commerzbank and the Swiss Re Tower, Ken gave us a personal insight on his ‘Road to Damascus’ moment where he realized that it is no longer appropriate to be building all-glass towers, with their low thermal insulation and high solar heat gain properties, especially in hot, desert environments. The title of Ken’s presentation: “Form and Skin: Antidotes to transparency” clearly illustrated the agenda behind much of his work, with the introduction of more façade opacity lending some exciting possibilities for future tall building expression.

Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang also presented a case for moving away from rectilinear and orthogonal form but, primarily through her Aqua Chicago Tower, demonstrated how this doesn’t necessarily need to be achieved by twisting and contorting form. Whereas the template for the Aqua Tower is the standard rectilinear floorplate, it is the differential curving cantilevers of the exposed floors edges at the building periphery that give this building a remarkable amorphous feel, billowing out in response to a cue from the city or the building program internally.

Simon Allford and Paul Monaghan of Allford Hall Monaghan Morris in the UK showed how several mid / high-rise schemes they have designed in provincial UK cities such as Liverpool and Leeds are changing current thinking – and acceptance – of taller buildings in traditional non-tall cities. Primarily through their Unity project in Liverpool, Simon and Paul suggested that the future expression of tall buildings is not necessarily about morphing form or non-rectilinear floor plates at all, but rather about articulation of the façade and a bold use of both materials and color.

Questions + Answers: Alternative Design Thinking

Spiracle Tower, Leeds, Ken Shuttleworth,  Make
  Strata Tower, Abu Dhabi, Hani Rashid, Asymptote
  Aqua Tower, Chicago, Jeanne Gang, Studio Gang
  Unity Tower, Liverpool, Paul Monaghan & Simon Allford, AHMM

Q: I’ve heard it argued that glass will not die because people inhabit tall buildings for the views and when you start putting in solid panels, you reduce the views considerably.

Ken Shuttleworth: I think we should put glass where it makes sense. I think it’s crazy having completely massive south facing glazed walls, especially in climates where it’s too hot. In some of Allford Hall Monaghan Morris’ buildings we’ve seen, you’ve still got fantastic views but actually half the building is solid. I think that’s the right way to go. I am not going to say there will be no glass but I think it’s about using glass in a much more sensible and environmentally-conscious way than we have to date. The Gherkin is glass all the way around; the south side has the same glazing as the north side, which doesn’t really make any sense. Buildings should be much more asymmetrical, related to the way the sun and environment works around them.

Q from Peter Rees: One thing that’s been worrying me from what all the speakers have said, you’ve all clearly indicated a move away from icon-ism towards what is rapidly looking like sustainable-ism. You are desperately trying to find an aesthetic. And you seem to be doing it through things like this parametric software, to ‘give’ you a design. Isn’t it time we found a new sustainable aesthetic in the way Palladio did?

Paul Monaghan: I think there is definitely a fashion in architecture at the moment, and perhaps not just in London I’m sure, where you feed lots of information into the computer, and without an artist touching it at all, you get a building at the other end. But I think in a way, one is sort of naturally editing some of the other moves that are related to old fashioned things like proportion, materials and detail. I think all those are there, but I also think designers are struggling to know what to do with the tools we have at the moment, and you are quite right to say there is a dilemma going on. But, I think it’s a very adventurous period. The fact that people don’t quite know the answers, the fact that some great architects like Norman Foster are struggling slightly to know what to do, makes it very exciting.

Ken Shuttleworth: I think you are absolutely right Peter. We are searching. We are not that desperate yet, but we are searching, for a new aesthetic. We haven’t got the answer yet and we probably never will, as we will always be evolving. We’ll come up with a new Palladio at some point, and then people will start copying it until it goes wrong. That’s what really happened in a way with Mies’s work, we have all being copying the essence of Mies’s work for god knows how many years, But when we’ve got to the end of an era, we’ll look back on it and think “what the hell were we doing? Why were we putting all these glass walls due south”. And then, with no oil left, we can’t inhabit these buildings.
Jeanne Gang: I wanted to add to that too. Right now you see architects grafting for all kinds of different forms, because there are no rules saying we are unable to do this. Green architecture needs to be mandated and then you are going to start to see many different ways to achieve great buildings. There definitely needs to be government-mandated goals. That’s why you are seeing a lot of different form manipulation right now. Because the most important thing is to sell the ‘image’ of the building, to get it built.

Q: I wanted to ask the UK architects in particular: given the UK government’s real focus at present on affordable social housing, are tall buildings compatible with affordable social housing?

Simon Allford: I think there’s a real strange idea about affordable social housing vs. private housing: that they’re different. The only thing we know about social housing is that it normally results in better space standards and worse kitchens! I think it’s the whole concept of housing we need to think about. The tall building: can it be made to work for families or is it a place for single people or couples waiting to get their suburban house? From our experience the crucial thing is to generate small clustered communities just by simple moves like arrival points on the floor or to give people private external amenities. You’ve also got to think about where you place people in the building, not so much whether they’re social or private. Large family units might be best at the bottom of the tower, so that they can use the amenities around them, whilst single person, or one or two-bed units might be better further up the tower. The irony of the problem, if one’s brutally honest, is that the developer wants to turn this upside down and put the bigger units at the top and call them penthouses. So one is always dealing with a dilemma here. Yes you can live in tall buildings but you should not divide between the concept of affordable and private.