When thinking of high density, one of the most important issues is how we perceive it and how it affects us, the users of high density environments. The built environment affects directly personal relationships and neighborhood relations, while spatial configuration is an important factor in determining satisfaction of residents. Also, the experience of living in high density environments is much more complex than living in lower density environments. Thus, I believe that understanding the relationship between people and the built environment and the way in which high density affects human behavior and social relations is particularly important for designing and constructing new high-density residential environments.

Due to the urban way of life in which large populations of people live in artificially constructed areas, much of their behavior is thought to be influenced and guided by the architectural character of spaces and the qualities of the physical environment. The built physical environment manifests a direct influence on our behavior, on the social systems that govern our social group interactions and on our individual experience and behavior. People are in a permanent contact and exchange with their environment, and as Andrew Baum and Stuart Valins (1977) note in their book Architecture and Social Behavior, ”our behavior can be conceptualized as a dynamic sequence of adjustments and readjustments to our physical and social environment” (p. 1) [1]. The way in which the architectural configuration affects the behavior can be expressed as a function of ongoing or potential social dynamics and psychological orientations.

In the human interaction with the built environment and its influence on us, its effects are mediated by a number of variables with a high degree of complexity, which are involved within the framework in which the exchange between the individual and its environment takes place. In this framework, the effects of certain spatial configurations are manifested through complex interactions with other physical, social or psychological dynamics. Thereby, the effects of architecture are truly universal, overcoming aesthetic and symbolic properties, but they represent only a part of the overall effect that the environment has on us. Architecture influences our experience and behavior in the context of both general and specific variables. Thus inappropriate distance to certain objects, physical or social conditions of the built environment, spatial or functional distances between social groups can influence individuals, social behavior and the development of the group. Prior studies have shown that the variables of a configuration do influence the psychological and sociological processes, suggesting that some specific properties of the built environment affect social contact and its regulation, playing a key role in defining living conditions [1].

The implications of the high density environments on human behavior

The scientific concern for the effects of crowding on people started to take shape with the beginnings of industrialization and becoming organized in the 1920s, coinciding with the moment in which for the first time urban population exceeded the rural population in American cities. The studies on its negative effects of urban life and implicitly of agglomeration on human behavior increased after the Second World War, when American and European cities recorded an unprecedented real estate boom. The first sociological studies on the influence of density are based on the premise that urban life is a continuous source of aggressive behavior, frustration and conflict that generates as a final result a number of evils and social dysfunctions.

Density and social pathologies

One of the first studies on the effects of crowding is Calhoun’s laboratory study, conducted on a population of rats. In laboratory conditions, populations of rats were subjected to spatial constraints and limitations, while being provided with enough water and food supplies. While the only limited resource was space, the rat population instead of growing exponentially because of food suffered a dramatic decrease, exhibiting violent and aggressive behavior, high infant mortality, a decreased quality of nests and even a lack of nest building exhibited by mothers, cannibalism, deviant sexual behavior, followed by asexual behavior and total withdrawal from the community’s social life.

The grouping of those manifestations was defined by Calhoun as a “behavioral sink”, and the conclusions of the study and the term that describes them became very influential after they were published, migrating from the academic area into urban culture. A behavioral sink is described as being “the outcome of any behavioral process that collects animals together in unusually great numbers. The unhealthy connotations of the term are not accidental: a behavioral sink does act to aggravate all forms of pathology that can be found within a group” (p. 144) [2]. Still, explaining a pathology relying exclusively on the conditions of high density has a limitation that was proven by further studies, and the extension of the study’s findings on the human urban population has been proven inconsistent. In fact, Calhoun’s study rather refers to different degrees of social interaction than simple physical conditions of density, demonstrating the alteration of normal social behaviors of animal populations through the stress caused by crowding conditions induces by a high density environment.

Crowding and behavior, a necessary distinction. The theory of density-intensity

The psychologist Jonathan Freedman (1975) conducted a lab research on people based on the performing of different tasks under different density and crowding conditions. He demonstrates that it is not density that determines the degenerative behavior of populations, but crowding. Crowding does support excessive social interaction and a lack of control over unwanted social contacts.

Freedman defines the framework for the study of high density consequences, noting the important distinction between crowding in physical terms, as defined by lack of space and the perceived crowding, defined as the “sensation of being crowded”, a distinct feeling from that of having very little space. The study of human behavior is related to the physical state of high density and not to the sensation, and the main issue in determining the effect of density is the control of other social factors (social variables) with which high density is generally associated, such as poverty, level of education, ethnicity. He elaborates the theory of density-intensity which supports the idea that crowding increases the importance of other people to the situation, as “[…] crowding by itself has neither good effects nor bad effects on people but rather serves to intensify the individual’s typical reactions to the situation” (p. 89-90) [3]. Crowding intensifies the importance of other people involved in the situation, the individual’s reaction towards the other participants as well as towards the situation itself. His findings support the fact that density doesn’t generally have negative effects on humans, but it intensifies the typical reactions towards other people involved in the crowding situation. Density itself is not unpleasant, but its perception depends on the situation, by the fact that the situation might be pleasant or unpleasant for the person experiencing it [3].

Architecture and behavior

One of the first sociological studies that relate the behavioral manifestations to the configuration of the built environment is that of Andrew Baum and Stuart Valins (1977) that compare the attitudes and behaviors of two similar groups of students that live in two different types of dormitories, with different planimetric layouts. The major difference between the dormitory layouts is a functional one, regarding the way in which the living units are grouped in relation to the common areas, while the amount of space provided per person is comparable. One of the dormitories has a corridor-design layout, in which the bedrooms are organized along one single hallway. The students who live in this configuration are exposed to a high level of interactions with a very large number of people. The other type of dormitory has a suite-design layout, with four or six person suits arranged along one central hallway. This configuration does sustain privacy and the possibility of filtering the unwanted interactions with other residents. The corridor-design dormitories, due to the spatial configuration of the layout, do not allow their residents to control the interactions with large numbers of students, also intensifying the consequences of interactions that can be perceived as stressful. The suite-design dormitories on the other hand offer their residents enough protection against unwanted social contacts, as well as control over desired contacts. The results of the study showed that students that lived in the corridor-design dormitories, being exposed to large groups and intense and uncontrollable social interactions have developed a greater sensitivity to group size and a lower tolerance towards crowding. Their way of adapting to the frequent and unregulated social interactions is generally withdrawal and avoidance of social interaction.

baum valins

The conclusions show that the perception of crowding is a function of the frequency of interaction and unwanted and uncontrolled social contact, and it becomes negative in relation to both friends and strangers, at the moment in which the frequency of social contacts reaches a point where regulating interactions becomes difficult or even impossible. The negative feeling generated by crowding in relation to the architectural layout is translated by the two scientists as “a syndrome of stress related to the breakdown of social regulation” (p. 102), associated with loss of control and unsatisfying and unwanted interactions. Its most obvious manifestations are stress and avoidance behavior. However, the consequences of stress caused by crowding do not have long-term effects and its manifestations disappeared shortly after students have moved to other dormitory types available in the campus [1].

Social implications of high-density housing

Robert Edward Mitchell (1971) has studied the effects of high-density housing and housing units on the emotional health and family role relations in a very specific environment, that of Hong Kong. The habitation situations of Hong Kong provided many types of relationships between residents, housing units being shared by either members of the same family or by members of distinct families or households. Mitchell elaborates a set of considerations relevant for the influence of residential density on residents, establishing primarily that physical characteristics of density within the dwellings do not influence the level of emotional stress perceived by residents. The decisive influence on perceived stress is held by the social characteristics of the residential environment, especially the social composition of the dwelling unit, through the structure of social life and social control of the neighborhood. Thus, individuals do not respond directly to housing, since the effect of the architectural features of housing exerts an indirect influence. Instead, housing affects the patterns of social relations, and the individuals react to those social patterns that are influenced and determined by the architectural configuration.

The main effects due to housing with high density conditions identified by Mitchell are: clear awareness of lack of space in the housing unit, the influence of social structure on the internal relations of the housing unit, respectively the differences perceived in the situation of cohabitation of family members or people without family relationships, the latter condition leading to a state of increased stress. Stress amplifies in the case where avoiding unwanted contacts isn’t possible, mostly due to the home’s location in the higher levels of the building, where withdrawal to neutral spaces or public spaces is not possible. Other effects are parents having a decreased control of children through the fact that children are given a greater freedom in spending time outside the housing unit, and finally discouragement of social practices of friendship between neighbors and friends, since the usual entertaining practices aren’t carried out due to lack of space. Also, the study showed that individuals can bear high levels of density in the housing unit, provided only that members of a single family reside it [4].

The relation between apartments and the perception of the surroundings

A recent study from the area of environmental psychology is that of Annie Moch, Florence Bordas and Daniele Hermand (1996) that studies density subjectively perceived by the residents of collective housing estates from dense areas of Paris, respectively the 13th arrondissement. The researchers note that the need for privacy in the home is a basic need in relation to housing, with decisive influences on social life, while the lack of satisfying this need can have extremely negative influence on social life. Also, the feeling of congestion can be attributed to a number of different reasons, such as physical, social or individual factors.

Human perception of density in relation to the apartments is influenced by a number of variables, such as residential satisfaction, but also factors that are linked with the presence of other persons within the collective housing, such as interpersonal relations and the possibility to have control over social interactions. The residential satisfaction of the internal density of one’s apartment influences the perception of density of the surrounding neighborhood outside the apartment. The more residents perceive their own apartment as being cramped, respectively the available amount of space as insufficient, the more this subjective perception will extend outside, upon the whole neighborhood that will be perceived as overcrowded. Also, the perception of density depends on the social relations, because as crowding is stronger perceived, satisfaction towards social interactions with the neighbors is decreasing.

Density seems to be generally perceived by residents through the filter of other factors that people normally associate with the presence of others, such as high levels of noise, cleanliness, odors or unwanted interactions with others. Generally, the well-being of people is inversely proportional to the feeling of crowding, meaning that as density increases so does the feeling of annoyance towards the surrounding environment [5].

Social and psychological implications of high density city space

Bryan Lawson (2009) discusses the influences that the spatial arrangement of the public space and the elements from the immediate vicinity of housing have on the quality of life, calculated by the satisfaction measurement of the need for privacy, and on relationships within territory. He studies different situations of the public space, in relation with the generic perceptions that these generate.

Privacy and loneliness are considered to be subjective indicators of social interaction in public space, which do not have universal values since their perception depends on cultural variations, some cultures being more gregarious than others. Privacy refers to an individual’s ability to control the amount and type of contact he has with others and Lawson suggests that satisfying the need for privacy by design should be achieved by offering spatial boundaries that users can operate in order to organize hierarchically their social contacts, both inside and outside the home. On the other hand, Lawson comments on the general belief that high density entails an increased feeling of loneliness and a lowered sense of belonging to the neighborhood in terms of spatial design. He considers high density as having an altering effect on social trust that occurs when the public domain is not designed with consideration for hierarchy and local conditions.

On the perception of public space, an important role is played by the notions of private, public and semi-public space. Those notions are linked with the concept of territoriality, an attribute that refers to the social structure. The attachment towards certain territories, the clear awareness of borders and the tendency to defend them are manifestations of territoriality, and the modern city is a source of degradation of this feeling. The factors that are negatively influencing territoriality are: ambiguity of spatial design, uncertain borders and areas that are hard to defend. In relation to the environment, territoriality is identified with three needs: the need for stimulation, identity and security. The spatial configuration elements that can be traced by design in order to support the well-being of inhabitants are identified as: defining privacy by spatial borders that allow control over social contacts by the inhabitants of an apartment; offering relations for the apartment with public space that should contain also green areas with natural character, both visual and of access; maintaining areas with natural qualities in relation to urban spaces in areas of the city with high density, green qualitative and well maintained urban areas being considered to be the most important factor in determining the perceived quality of life in big cities; accessibility and quality of public transport; an increased level of security and a low level of anti-social behavior; noise control.

Through his study, Lawson proves that many of the problems generally attributed to high density are not in fact linked to numerical coefficients of distribution, but are more related to spatial geometry, although high density determines an increase of the negative perceptions of the environment. Thus, for a well balanced urban space in relation to the needs of its inhabitants, spatial configuration and the contents of that space are important, and problems of spatial perception could be avoided by an attentive design [6].


It is generally true that as population density increases, the greater the potential of emergence of conflicts and unpleasant situations. These negative manifestations of density are due to the increase of social contacts, and therefore of unwanted contacts, doubled by lack of control [1, 6]. They are not the result of physical density of people or spatial elements.

The determining factor influencing the perception of density by people who live in high-density environments is not density itself, as it’s tempting to easily deduct, but the combination of social and physical characteristics of space, decisive being the interaction between individual and the environment as a whole. Also, perceived density is influenced by a number of variables that are either individual cognitive attributes of the individual, or attributes of the environment in which he finds himself, so they may be physical, social, psychological and cultural [1, 6].

The built environment, both in terms of public space as well as building, if configured in a correct way can improve the perception of density, while if configured incorrectly may lead to a negative perception of density.  A correctly built environment can, by means of its own configuration help to improve the perception of density and can alleviate negative feelings perceived by its residents generated by high density. Central to the relationship between architectural configuration, people’s experience and their behavior is the way in which built environment meets the needs and social expectations of its inhabitants.


[1]  Baum A, Valins S. Architecture and Social Behavior: Psychological studies of social density. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 1977.

[2]  Calhoun JB. Population Density and Social Pathology. Scientific American, Vol. 206 (3), pp. 139–148, 1962.

[3]  Freedman JL. Crowding and Behavior. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman and Company, 1975.

[4]  Mitchell RE. Some Social Implications of High Density Housing. American Sociological Review, Vol. 36, pp. 18-29, 1971.

[5]  Moch A, Bordas F, Hermand D. Perceived density: how apartment dwellers view their surroundings. Cybergeo: European Journal of Geography, 1996. URL:; accessed in 05.03.2012.

[6]  Lawson B. The Social and Psychological Issues of High Density. In: Ng E, editor. Designing High-Density Cities for Social and Environmental Sustainability. London: Earthscan; pp. 285-292, 2010.

Excerpt from the paper:

Contemporary High-Density Housing. Social and Architectural Implications

written and presented at the QUESTIONS workshop held in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, 14-16 july 2013; in process of printing at Acta Technica Napocensis: Civil Engineering & Architecture


In relation to dense residential environments, I am also interested in the study of collective housing typologies.

Collective or mass housing is defined primarily by quantity and it acquires its spatial quality through grouping. This type of dwelling houses large numbers of people with varying degrees of housing quality. Within it the housing units are closely grouped, according to rules of horizontal or vertical assemblage, generating spaces with public, semi-public or private character in which certain social practices of housing unfold. Collective housing draws its name origin from the way in which the building is accessed, namely by a common path serving all the units [1].
In an attempted typological classification of contemporary collective housing models of high-density, I turned towards a non-exhaustive generic formal classification, based on the studies of Mozas J and Per AF from the “Density Series” books [2]. Each of the typologies uses as starting point the individual housing unit, the apartment, which is consequently multiplied in an identical or variable pattern of configuration. The typological categories vary according to composition principles based on the housing unit, on size and by the way in which the building relates to the urban tissue.


Starting from the singular and abstract typological unit represented by the individual house, the first category is driven by multiplying, joining or overlapping multiple units. The configurations generated by those operations are either classical attached or row houses, either contemporary types of folded row or stacked houses.
The individual unit is usually related to the terrain, benefiting of a court or a terrace and of direct individual or paired access from the ground level. This category makes the transition from individual housing to collective housing of a higher degree of density.



The second typology represents a quantitative increase in size, in number of individual units and scale compared to the “house” typology. The block height is moderate, usually ranging between 3 and 5 levels; this height is traditionally justified by the number of levels convenient for walking. Its relative low configuration, its flexible footprint on the ground and its scale allow the object to enroll organically within the context.
The block can be freestanding on the plot, it can have free sides or it can continue an existing building by cleaving onto a party wall.


City Blocks

The city block  is an urban building flanked on all sides by streets in relation to the urban fabric. Its scale is directly related to the scale of the city. The city block generally involves a large spatial diversity and a relatively high privacy degree. It can have the same height as the block typology or higher, depending on the context. Buildings ranging between 4 to 7 levels are ideal in terms of energy footprint, which is lower than that of taller buildings.


High-Rise Buildings

The high-rise type, also known as tower block, is represented by tall buildings with multiple levels. There is no universal definition for the number of levels that determines a building to gain this status; this height is variable according to different geographic areas.
This typology is justified by economic considerations, not only in relation to construction costs, but also in relation to urban infrastructure and land resources. Their impact on the neighboring urban tissue is high and the main disadvantages are excessive shading and energy consumption.
The stacked units block is the most interesting type from my point of view, being able to generate spatial quality and diversity. It derives from additive processes of small scale units or overlapped uneven floors.


Mixed Solutions

The mixed solution typology involves combinations of the above, justified by context and project brief. There are no precise formal categories for this typology.


[1]   Zahariade AM. Arhitectură Locuire Oraș, ALO 2009-10. Second year’s course, second semester. Department of Hystory & Theory of Architecture, Faculty of Architecture, UAUIM, Bucharest.

[2]   Mozas J, Per AF. Density: New Collective Housing. A+t ediciones, Vitoria-Gasteiz; pp. 14-17, 2004.

Population density is a phenomenon related to the way in which the population is distributed on the land surface. The population is unevenly distributed across the land, reaching high concentrations in large urban areas while large areas of land remain uninhabited, because people naturally tend to concentrate in areas with desirable conditions, like those of urban areas. The differences in population distribution are high both across countries and between regions of the same country [1], and thus the concept of density of the built environment has relative connotations when trying to compare indices of different areas.

Starting from this fact, it becomes clear that the exact definition of the term high-density architecture can be difficult. The term “density” is itself a complex concept, involving some diversity in terms, and defining it is important before beginning a discussion on density in relation to architecture.

The Definition of Density

High density refers either to physical density, namely the density of a large number of people or the built density related to the land surface, either to subjectively perceived density in relation to the environment and to other participants into a certain space. Physical density is a numeric measure of the concentration of individuals or of physical structures in a certain geographic unit, being a spatial objective indicator, quantitative and neutral. In practice, it only makes sense when linked with a specific reference scale. On the other hand, perceived density represents the individual perception of an estimated number of people present in a given area, of the vacant space and its organization. The character of space itself is important for the perception of density, but the interaction between individuals and environment as a whole is more important. Also the individual cognitive attributes and socio-cultural norms are factors that contribute to this interaction. Perceived density doesn’t only refer to the relative relations between individual and space, but also to the relations between individuals located in the same space.

The definition of density in relation to built environment can have different meanings or different quantification according to the method of analysis and spatial indices taken into account. There is no universal standard formula, only some of the formulas are being used more as opposed to others. Usually, in architecture and town planning, two categories of measurement are used for physical density: population density (Fig. 1) and building density (Fig. 2). Population density is defined as the number of individuals or households per given area, and the building density is defined as the ratio of building structures related to plot surface. All those measures are used in urban planning policies.

population density
Figure 1. Population density

built density
Figure 2. Building density

Building density has a complex relation to urban morphology, playing an important role in determining the urban form. Different combinations between the plot ratio and site coverage will manifest into a variety of different built forms, and urban development of the same density can take very different urban forms [2].

The differences between the surface distribution of population density and that of building density are visible when comparing data of almost every urban tissue. The following example illustrates the difference between the two densities in the case of Timișoara, by graphically expressing the data for the year 2011.

Z:1_PROIECTE63_pug4_work1_urbanism1_ETAPA ANALIZA2_PRED

Figure 3. The difference between the distribution of densities of people and buildings in Timișoara.

Source: illustration from the board Development Analysis I 13_Densities, General Urban Plan (PUG) of Timișoara, drawn by Vitamin Architects based on data provided by the City Hall of Timișoara and used with the consent of Vitamin Architects [3].

In reality, especially when the geographic reference unit is one at large scale, the distribution pattern of people or buildings can vary significantly. To solve the spatial variation of density, different measures have been introduced, such as density gradient or density profile. The density gradient is a composite measure of density and is defined as the rate in which density decreases in relation to the distance towards a reference location, usually calculated according to concentric circles (Fig. 4). By comparing the patterns of density over a period of time, the process of spatial evolution of the city can be depicted, showing either decentralization with a drop of population density in the center and increased density towards the outskirts, either centralization with a growth in population density in both center and outskirts, and the expansion of the borders (Fig. 5) [2].

gradient densitate ENG

Figure 4. Population density gradient for an abstract case.
Figure 5. Density gradients over time: (a) progressive decentralization; (b) centralization.
Source: Illustrations adapted and redrawn after Vicky Cheng (2009, p. 8).

From the perspective of rapid urbanization, the relationship between urban density and built form has always been an important focus of research, determining massive mathematical and geometrical investigation upon the spatial benefits of buildings with multiple levels. The presented definitions and measurements of density are the most relevant ones in relation with the subject of density from an architectural point of view, but they are not the only ones.


[1]   Freedman, JL. Crowding and Behavior. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman and Company, 1975.

[2]   Cheng V. Understanding Density and High Density. In: Ng, Edward (Ed.). Designing High-Density Cities For Social & Environmental Sustainability. London: Routledge; pp. 3-17, 2009.

[3]   Public document downloaded from the City Hall of Timisoara web-site:

I started this blog quite abruptly, and missed out on a proper introduction, but not unintentionally. I  focused more on the concept of density and its meaning, and I’m still pondering things. So, this would be a kind of delayed introduction…

what about density 2

The continuous growth of population in relation to a constant earth surface and to the limited or hardly renewable resources is one of the global concerns. The year 2006 represented a key moment in the evolution of the phenomenon, because from this point on the inhabitants of the cities exceeded half of the world’s global population. It is estimated that in the near future the population, and particularly urban population, will continue to grow, at such a rate that two out of three people born in the following thirty years will live in cities [1]. The population growth requires a physical and spatial support and directly attracts the demand for housing. In this context high-density architectural forms and dense urban environments represent the most viable models for the future in general and for housing in particular.

The implications of high-density architectural models in the current moment overpass the realm of the architectural object and acquire social, ecological and urban meanings. The connotations of contemporary density and the relations they have with the city are important for understanding the way in which high-density architectural forms return to the international culture after a period in which they have been perceived and discussed as a negative phenomenon [2].

The forms of dense architecture have dual connotations, both positive and negative, and the balance between the two is a fine one, based in part on scientific evidence and partly on subjective perceptions. On the one hand, design that uses principles of high-density is more compact and manages to conserve important land resources, reduces required distances for transportation and therefore the energy use, and represents a more economically efficient model. There is also the assumption that areas containing high numbers of people are themselves sources of variation, of intensity and diversity, and that densely populated areas provide a communication experience with multiple possibilities and therefore a very rich exchange of ideas [3]. On the other hand there are potential negative implications directly linked to increased noise or lack of intimacy, or more subtle implications, supported by a number of sociological and behavioral studies that identify crowding as a source of stress and as a factor that can cause behavioral changes in people, in conjunction with the architectural environment [4]. Recent researches in neuroscience come to support sociological speculations about the implications of crowding on stress, recently discovering that people born in large cities and involved in a larger social network have an increased amygdala compared to other people (amygdala being a region of the brain associated with memory and emotional intelligence) [5].

what about density 1

I will try to focus my future study on dense architectural forms in relation to housing, because housing is one of the most inciting themes of architecture, by its universal character and its relation to one of the most basic human needs, that of dwelling. Additionally, the forms of housing are the result of multiple overlapping contexts, namely political, social, cultural, geographical and beyond. High-density collective housing is being reconsidered as a viable design solution in the current context, but although life planning, social rituals and economic conditions are constantly changing the architectural support remains yet stable. Currently, collective housing is an architecture program in which innovation is not actually perceived, compared to the museum program for example, and the principles of spatial and planimetric configuration remain the traditional ones. The rooms and the functional relations between them remain those intended for a traditional family in relation to a society in which the classical family tends to disappear, being replaced by other dynamic social structures defined by complex relationships [6]. The justification of that is partly linked to the commercial interests of the construction industry seeking maximal results with minimal risks and investment, and partly to the conservative mentality of the population in relation to housing.

Taking into consideration the implications of the recent economic crisis, most of the major current crisis are based on real estate crisis. A large number of families have recently lost their homes which they bought by credits that they couldn’t really afford, aiming for an ideal home and ignoring their real possibilities of purchase. The number of those that can afford an individual home on a plot with a garden is continually decreasing, and the environmental implications of individual houses are negative, respectively a high consumption of energy for transportation, an increase in the number of private cars and pollution generated by burning fossil fuels. However, this dream seems to have been the only available alternative until now for a family in relation to the available housing typologies [7].

It is obvious that traditional design methods are no longer viable under current conditions, and finding new ways to design high-density built environments is a necessity. These new concepts should achieve a balance between the dream of a rural house and the reality and necessity of living in dense urban areas, combined with the real economic possibilities.

what about density 3


[1]   By the Editors. Street-Savvy: Meeting the biggest challenges starts with the city. Scientific American, Volume 305; pp. 38-41, 2011.

[2]   Clemente MC. High-Density Collective Housing and Urban Space. In: Segatini MA. Contemporary Housing. Milano, Skira editore, pp. 17-23, 2008.

[3]   Schumacher P. My kind of town, Accessed in 21.05.2012.

[4]   Baum A, Vallins S. Architecture and Social Behavior: Psychological studies of social density. New York: John Wiley & Sons Inc, 1978.

[5]   Katsnelson A. The Stress of Crowds. Scientifica American, Volume 305; pp. 38-41, 2011.

[6]   Schittich C. The Challenge of High-Density Housing. In: Schittich, Christian (Ed). High-Density Housing: Concepts Planning Construction, In Detail. Műnchen, Birkhäuser Architecture, pp. 8-11, 2000.

[7]   Maak N. Japanische Architektur als Vorbild Der Fluch des Eigenheims. Frankfurter Allgemeine, Feuilleton, 04.01.2012.

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,, 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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The continuous growth of the human population is stressing out profoundly the global resources, out of which one is physical space. It is expected that in the near future the population and especially the number of people living in the cities will continue to rise. The population growth must be provided with physical and spatial support in the form of dense urban environments and architecture with similar qualities. Under those conditions, high density architectural forms represent the most viable models for the future in general and for living environments in particular.

The architectural object is a spatial system that offers support for a complex network of social relations that facilitate mutual proximity. Understanding the models of high density architecture can offer a key to successful and healthy architectural design. The main concern should focus on identifying best models for future living environments, and how they can offer a correct support for residents in relation to the crowding degree.

I would first focus on studying social implications of high density environments, followed by a definition of the concept of density in relation to the build environment, and further on an overview of the relations between highly populated environments and the forms of dense architecture, following especially positive models of design.