Back in 2004, I had the opportunity to attend the EcoCity Builders conference at the Masonic Hall in San Francisco, and spoke with the founder, Richard Register, about my designs for co-housing and urban architecture. Since the 60’s, Richard has focused on re-modeling structures within existing cities, to allow for natural environments, rooftop gardens and plazas. I emphasized our need to build entirely new structures, due to the constricting effects of pre-existing infrastructure. He didn’t like it.
My argument was simple, and I have seen multiple designs since which follow this trajectory: urban spaces must become hyper-dense, with a minimum of space devoted to transit arteries, and a maximization of mixed-use and re-configurable spaces. When services and utilities are hyper-dense, the population spends less time in transit between each goal, and as a result, accomplishes more goals in a day. That is key to urban productivity.
The absence of hyper-density in our cities is a primary constraint on increases in productivity and wage growth. Not only do our cities waste billions of work-hours each year with traffic during the commute; the search for parking, traffic between urban destinations, the cost of parking, the expense of vehicles — these are, in sum, greater than our expenditures on research and development!
With the oncoming wave of automated vehicles, there is renewed global interest in eliminating traffic and parking-induced lag. Yet, only Singapore (so far!) is considering building new urban settings where the roads are submerged as one-lane tunnels without drivers. This sounds suspiciously like a city without roads, and a massive subway system, instead. That was part of my pitch to Richard, and China will be able to do it.
Any city which eliminates roads and bans personal vehicles, in favor of a ‘leaf-vein’ system of subways, can pack goals much closer together. This doesn’t just mean that your favorite deli is half as far away; it means that there are fewer delicatessens, that each see higher rates of customers, and they can provide higher quality products.
Restaurants and shops need to be re-configured, as well: no indoor seating, and no shoppers wandering the aisles. Instead, a restaurant’s ordering and pick-up counter are front-facing, and the footprint of the establishment is only the kitchen. Restaurant-goers will instead sit along the steps and ridges of large, curled step-mounds in a central plaza. Shops’ check-out counters are front-facing, with a densely packed backroom, where your order is retrieved by the clerk. Gaudy floor plans of banks and boutiques may appeal to the Western elite, as a ‘Versailles of commerce’, but they are counter-productive to a city that hopes to compete for another generation.
“But, if shops and restaurants have no indoors for customers, what do you do when it rains?”
Cities have been praised as organically growing entities, continuously changing, with new buildings and spaces added along the margins, and interiors re-vamped by new construction. Old buildings are replaced with higher-density structures as the city grows.
Unfortunately, that is not how a real organism grows. I do not need to get permits, and aggressively buy-out property from my internal organs, to replace them with high-rise organs. My blood does not sign a new lease or pay a percentage to an agent when it moves from one part of my body to the next. The model of ‘creative destruction’ does not work within a real organism. I am created with an ontogeny in mind, and I do not grow because of addendum from competing interests.
So, a city must be seen as a planned and complete entity. Future cities must be designed with a whole, singular plan, and must be constructed as a whole, singular building. That building is only the scaffold for the changing businesses within it, providing multi-level walkways which are entirely protected from the elements, as a pseudo-interior. These cities will rely upon their periphery to provide the open spaces we enjoy. If a city is hyper-dense, with a ‘leaf-vein’ subway connecting its entirety, then the trip to a periphery park takes less time and fewer resources, while providing a higher-quality environment. And, you would not build suburban housing on top of those periphery zones. The city has a planned scale.
The Scaffold Model:
In our blindness, we have given the task of weather-proofing interiors to each building. A planned and singular city-structure unites each shop’s and home’s demand for weather-proofing with a single, massive scaffold and ‘tent’. Within that ‘big tent’, each scaffold region is only a skeleton of support, and interior walls and structures are fitted to it without permanence.
Some steps have been taken toward this model of ‘scaffold+re-configurable interior’. These at-will architectures have been showcased in Europe, and are used in China. The re-design of Google’s campus is a posh imagining of the ‘big tent’ model, but fails to integrate the various utilities and services needed for a city. (Richard Register didn’t like such a vast re-construction at all; it is antithetical to his idea of transforming existing spaces.)
Our existing spaces will need to be abandoned, or re-purposed, because each apartment suffers from leaks, mold inside of walls that cannot be replaced easily, interior beams that cannot be re-fitted to accommodate different floor plans, and pipes and wires which are hard to access, all of variable and unknown quality and lay-out. A single, super-scaffold ‘big-tent’ eliminates these hassles for each interior structure. And, without the constraint that each building stave-off weather, those interior structures can be built faster, with lighter, cheaper, and greener materials. The entire city is a bargain to construct and maintain, when it has a built-in umbrella.
The structure of the personal home must be abandoned, for the hyper-dense city. In this kind of city, each family’s ‘apartment’ consists of the personal spaces: bedroom, bathroom, living room. A central kitchen, work spaces, playroom, and lounge are shared by a few families together. Within the massive scaffold, these apartment spaces can be re-configured, allowing a tower’s floor plan to grow and shrink each division according to the number of occupants. And, balconies and mezzanines with some depth (not a narrow ‘smoker’s balcony’!) provide vistas (where great distances can be seen over a wide angle of view) and height (where the ceiling is not always within reach).
The city itself, being a singular construction, is also the single owner/operator of interior towers. Utilities are laid out and maintained with a unified plan, and can be accessed through the re-configurable walls. Apartment and shop owners lease or buy directly from the city itself; no private developers vie for renters while keeping their building’s follies hidden. When a family buys an ‘apartment’, they are buying a share of the city, and have rights to their purchased space, wherever it may be. If their needs grow, they can buy more shares of the space, to expand their existing apartment (if space on their floor allows it), or they can move to a new floor or building that accommodates them. No apartments are ‘bought and sold’ just to handle a move.
Countries that have the central will and financing to build these kinds of cities will have a distinct economic advantage. China, with its habit of building entire cities from scratch, will be the one to watch. Europe, already laden with historicity, will find it difficult to adapt. Here in the US, we have plenty of space to build new cities this way, but our fixation on the supposed virtue of real-estate tycoons may be an Achilles heel to our productivity and progress.
Our new cities will be built as whole entities: hyper-dense, car-less, surrounded by parks and gardens, with re-configurable interiors, a vast tent-scaffolding exterior, and direct purchase of square-meter shares which can be transferred between locations. No pot holes. No traffic. No slums or suburban sprawl. Shops and restaurants with pick-up counters facing topographic plazas. Everything within reach, along frequent all-night subway lines. You may need to visit Singapore to see it.