Buildings around the world are getting taller. Since the year 2000, global skyscraper construction has increased by 402%. Cities like Dubai are home to nearly 1000 high-rise buildings, and New York’s vibrant luxury real estate market has shown no signs of slowing down, with more high-rise additions slated to be added to its already towering skyline. There’s good in this – high-rises create much-needed space in already dense cities and can reduce urban sprawl in city centres, allowing for better preservation of natural areas.
Most high-rises today house a mix of uses, often combining housing, offices, and retail into one structure. However, many high-rises end up neglecting their ground-level contribution to the street, becoming imposing monoliths that foster isolation instead of community. As cities like Portland and Paris seek to become more walkable, it’s worth zooming in and zooming out. Zooming in to examine the architectural elements that make a building more friendly to the pedestrian and zooming out to see how those architectural elements can have a symbiotic relationship with the urban realm.
Most visible of these ground-level interventions are arguably arcades and colonnades. Found in countless cities across the world, they are a design element that functions both as shelter, and as a useful transitory space between the exterior and interior of a building. There are grand examples of arcades and colonnades, such as the Piazza San Marco in Venice, but smaller-scale covered walkways have a similarly transformative effect at ground level. In the souqs of Tunis, covered walkways allow traders to showcase their wares in an accessible way to the casual visitor.
Another architectural element that similarly denotes a relationship to the street level is a simple one – glass frontage. The areas of Farringdon and Clerkenwell in London house numerous design companies – each of them using wide windows to showcase the designs on offer. This is where a ‘zooming out’ is necessary, as a mixed-use building simply having transparent glass frontage at ground level on its own is not enough. The presence of a comfortable enough sidewalk is what would make pedestrians want to congregate on the street edge comfortably.
With these two architectural elements – only a subset of the many more that make a mixed-use building more approachable at ground level, the simple reality is that these types of buildings, however well-designed, are part of urban life. The Jane Jacobs viewpoint that it is the dynamic process of urban transformation that gives rise to complementary land uses is a pertinent one. The adaptation of a mixed-use building to its immediate surroundings is what constitutes part of a successful, diverse neighbourhood.
Jan Gehl’s definition of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ edges is one to remember as attempts are made at designs more suited to the human scale. ‘Hard’ edges are categorised as blank walls which do little to stimulate the interest of the walker. ‘Soft’ edges, on the other hand, are façades that have a lot of things happening – be it varying doors, temporary interventions like a fruit seller putting their products on the street, or niches that invite people to rest or have conversations with each other.
Conversations on the successful deployment of the mixed-use typology at ground level have frequently focused on medieval European cities. The limiting factor of this conversation is that historic neighbourhoods in many European cities have had the opportunity to continuously evolve according to the needs of their residents for hundreds of years. Relatively newer structures, such as the Brutalist National Theatre in London by Denys Lasdun, also offers lessons on appropriate engaging at ground level. Although not containing housing, it still combines a variety of functions, and recent works by Haworth Tompkins have aided the building in becoming a structure that stimulates the foot traffic in London’s South Bank area.
The Mixed-Use typology is a hard one to get right – but the simple fact is that it needs to be part of a conducive and coherent urban ecosystem.