Future Adaptive Architectures of High Density

The growth of population is currently one of the general global issues, its severity being increased in relation to resource depletion. From the perspective of the continuous growth of population, generating built environments capable of housing the entire population and adapted properly to the context is a major challenge of contemporary architecture. Proper relationship to a dynamic context in which the social, political, environmental and economic components are constantly changing is even a greater challenge.

However, density as unique criterion for generating built environment and urban quality has limitations. General attitudes towards high density architectures so far are dual. The positive arguments take into account the rational use of urban land resources, in relation to maintaining a compact urban and infrastructure development, with minimal impact upon the surrounding rural and natural areas, with efficient use of urban transportation systems and fuel resources. Also, areas including major population become themselves sources of variation and intensity, providing a very rich exchange of ideas, as Patrick Schumacher1 notices. On the other hand, negative implications arise in relation to the same urban components, identified by the congestion of urban landscapes, reduction of urban green areas and the occurrence of heat islands, deterioration of urban networks and traffic infrastructure by overloading, and not least an increase of psychological stress for the inhabitants.

Architecture is cyclically rewriting its formal and morphological language, generally as a counteraction to previous negative experiences in relation to context changes. In the past 30 years, constructions of large scale developments were accompanied by homogenization of the built product, resulting in maximizing the economic value of the project at the expense of social value2. Today, we are witnessing a new transition in the writing style of architecture, where the expansion of the built environment based solely on making a profit and speculative investments becomes abandoned by the manifestation of the recent economic crisis. Urban societies undergo a subtle transition in parallel, due to jobs migration from the perspective of the same crises and recent changes in family structure. The mononuclear monogamous family as it existed in the last century is no longer exclusively the norm. In relation to this background, new rules are needed for composing the built environment.

Architectural experience so far has shown that large-scale urban projects are generally incapable of long-term adaptation, generating urban and social conflicts and eventually being blamed in the end by being left empty. A design that vertically multiplies the same plan scheme or over determines constructions while looking for the perfect match of form and function is no longer viable in light of current changes. The main theme of contemporary design is relating to a constantly changing context. The process of urban development itself is a complex process constantly evolving, and the nature of contemporary urban life is very different from that of the traditional town, being more complex, heterogeneous, interrelated and dynamic3. For the contemporary city, consisting of a dense and varied overlapping of layers, information, populations, activities and relationships, a complex design strategy is required, able to incorporate all these components.

50 years ago Jane Jacobs, in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities4, identified a series of principles that support a dense and vital city. The same principles remain valid until now, namely supporting the density of the built environment through diversity, of constructions as well as of activities, through multiple functions, small building components forming larger units, a mix of buildings of different conditions and a high concentration of population, all for the purpose of supporting diverse actions and interactions. Density of the built environment itself cannot generate quality and direct benefits by exclusively applying principles of quantity, for density must be related to other factors such as building shape, mixed use or organisation of activities, in order to generate environments of rich activities. The principle of sustainability is also important in relation to the qualitative aspect of future developments. Architectures must relate in a sensitive manner to the existing urban character, to incorporate local influences while promoting diversity and being adapted to climatic, cultural and social local character.

The key to sustainable future high density architectures lies in generating built environments capable of adapting to changes. These models will be flexible, renewable, adaptable and capable of transformation and self-redefinition in relation to context changes. The adaptability of the built environment in a future scenario can result either from the compositional pattern of designing the whole, either through over-engineering and bio-mechanization of building materials and technologies. I am interested in the first approach, that of context adaptation through the composition of the whole made out of small-scale units, various and vaguely defined, basically a large-scale object constructed ​​of many small sub-units. The granulation of the whole is what generates spatial quality as well as quality of use, enabling the adaptation to context. A possible future scenario includes large-scale spatial organizations made up of multiple parts that can interact in complex ways and generate simultaneous responses to the challenges of context. Their adaptation can be achieved either by changing the inhabitants and the use, either by physical regeneration done by removing or grafting new subunits according to needs.

Monolithic spatial growth / fine-grained spatial growth

Img 1 – Monolithic spatial growth / fine-grained spatial growth

From a functional perspective, projects being build, managed and adapted incrementally can accommodate a wide range of functions and users. In relation to function, it is important to avoid both formal and functional over-determination in the design process, the primary objective being that of generating various support spaces with vague definition that can accommodate manifestations and activities as varied as possible. Those spaces are capable of physical and moral sustainability in the long term, compared to rigidly modeled spaces correlated with a unique function, whose chance of survival is small if the function vanishes. The solution is to produce spatial ambiguous models, whose ambiguities can support functional changes or ongoing uses and may lead to changes in the urban tissue in relation to changes in context. Viability of an architectural model is ultimately verified by its user’s satisfaction and the built environment must be able to negotiate almost in real-time with the needs of each actor involved in urban life.

Decomposition of a solid into micro-units / model of adaptive growth consisting of micro-units

Img 2 – Decomposition of a solid into micro-units / model of adaptive growth consisting of micro-units

Adaptable spatial growths, fine-grained and composed of agglutinated micro-units already exist as architectures of the limit, of vernacular architecture, in slums and in the areas illegally occupied by the poor communities. Spontaneous architecture is an incremental process, and its developments are able to constantly adjust to the situation of the physical and social immediate context, being more adaptable to changes and thus more resistant. To imprint these qualities to a large scale high density architecture can generate an architecture that’s sustainable and responsive towards its context, and the product acquires regenerative qualities. There are a series of contemporary projects of exploratory type in this regard, much of them being generated by architectural competitions. Projects using principles of spontaneous growth have emerged in studies, exploratory researches or competition projects, suggesting possible models of adaptive architectures. One such project is Scrap Skyscraper belonging to the group Projeto Colectivo, which uses a fix vertical circulation core and a solid base for generating a housing complex with augmentative growth, consisting of residential units that add up over time, with an additional exoskeleton-like supporting structure that enhances and extends in relation to the growth of the built body. The master thesis project Favela Cloud developed by Johan Kure, Kemo Usto and Thiru Manickam proposes a fluid incremental growth model composed of micro-units with different functions consisting of a mix of housing and cultural functions, related to knowledge and learning processes. The composition of units is the result of a computational process that follows the growth principles of the favelas and the generation of a compact “cloud” hovering above ground, placed on stilts.  Similar principles have begun to migrate towards constructed projects such as 56 Leonard Street by Herzog & de Meuron, a residential skyscraper  in New York, which proposes a series of 145 residential units with unique character, although diversity here appears to be more a commercial asset.

An important challenge in generating adaptable architectures is related to the design process, which involves the integration of diversity as a constructive force, as opposed to the multiplicative process so far. Either it is sought to design a generic framework that functions as skeleton, onto which basic modules are inserted, while other modules will appear or disappear over time, driven by the change context, either a finite object resulted by running all possible future scenarios. The process of growth and adaptation in the first case is not necessarily programmed by design, the original framework acting as a directing skeleton onto which growth can occur spontaneously.

One of the main challenges of the future is adaptation – to the decrease of resources, to the sociopolitical and economical context, to climate changes. Architecture will have to find its own way to adapt.

  1. Patrick Schumacher, My kind of town, http://www.architecturetoday.co.uk/?p=22997, accesed in 10.09.2012
  2. Nic Clear, A Near Future, in: Castle, H., Clear, N. (eds.), “The Near Futures”, Architectural Design Vol. 79, No. 5, September/October, Wiley, London, 2009, p. 6-11
  3. Chye Kiang Heng, Lai Choo Malone-Lee, Density and Urban Sustainability: An Exploration of Critical Issues, in: Designing High-Density Cities for Social and Environmental Sustainability, Edward Ng (ed.), Earthscan, London, 2010, p. 41-52
  4. Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Random House Inc, New York, 1961
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