Improvisational Architectures: The High-Rise Scenario

Cities are growing, and they are growing upwards. This is far from just being a contemporary phenomenon of course – for more than a century, high-rises have been an integral part of urban settlements worldwide. This growing of cities encompasses a complex web of processes – advancements in transport links, urbanisation, and migration to mention a few. This growth of cities, however, is all too often linked with governmental failure to adequately support all facets of the urban population. Informal settlements are then born – people carving out spaces for themselves to live amidst a lack of state support.

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These informal settlements often harbour similar characteristics; they are usually located in the urban peripheries of cities and have a densely packed yet low-rise typology, as in the Khayelitsha township in Western Cape or Tondo in the Philippine capital of Manila. An obligatory feature of these settlements is improvisational architecture – corrugated iron sheets, for example, fashioned together to create roofs, or salvaged wooden boards functioning as a layer of security for a dwelling. When these examples of architectural inventiveness are applied in a high-rise setting, though, it makes for a fascinating study of how high-rise structures - so often associated with luxury and an aspirational way of life – can also harbour extraordinary spatial improvisations.

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Khayelitsha Township. Image © Olga Ernst under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

There is arguably no high-rise settlement more iconic than that of Kowloon Walled City north of Hong Kong Island. Although demolished in 1994, its legacy of makeshift craftmanship endures today. The land the city sat on was an area of historical dispute. When China lost the second Opium War in 1860, it was forced to relinquish all of Hong Kong to the British – but it refused to hand over the portion of land that was Kowloon Walled City. This territorial uncertainty set the scene for its future, as people constructed buildings on an ad-hoc basis. The 1950s and 60s construction boom cemented the emblematic image of the city. Brick and concrete apartments were interspersed with wooden structures, going up to six and seven stories.

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Aerial view of Kowloon Walled City. Image © Ian Lambot

This was a settlement built on continuous adaptation, improvisation, and cooperation. Free from constraints such as property limits and indeed, building regulations, buildings were simply stacked on top of each other, without formal architectural or engineering participation. Narrow stairways linked buildings and structures stood without proper piling or foundations. Adequate maintenance was practically an impossibility, as buildings ignored conventional electrical and mechanical standards.

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South Side of Kowloon Walled City - 1975. Image © Ian Lambot

Despite all this, there were remarkable examples of true high-rise originality. Some apartment blocks had improvised annexes of iron and brick fastened to their roofs, flush against each other. The roofscape, in turn, became an area of extraordinary diversity. Areas for exercise and playgrounds made the rooftops an important part of Kowloon’s public realm, punctuated with the less attractive function of waste disposal. Although constrained alleyways made for a dark spatial experience – the Walled City is as improvisational as improvisational structures can get, a continuously evolving mega-structure extremely responsive to the changing needs of its residents. 

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Kowloon Walled City, Hong Kong. Image © Roger Price under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

While the buildings of the Walled City were overwhelmingly improvised, the Torre de David building in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas was a more formal endeavour. It was designed by a prominent architect – Enrique Gómez, but the building was left half-finished after the death of its developer in 1993. The 2000s and the 2010s saw an extreme housing shortage in Caracas, and citizens decided to occupy buildings surrounding the Torre de David complex, the population of the tower peaking at 5,000 residents. But high-rise, relatively ‘informal’ settlements have the added challenge of adequate safety provisions.

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Torre de David - Exterior. Image © Saúl Briceño
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Torre de David. Image © Iwan Baan

Improvising interventions to reduce accidents means difficult decisions over what to prioritise between comfort and safety. Some families elected to wall off their terrace with cinder blocks, blocking out the sun to create a safer balcony space. Some residents however elected to simply take the risk, leaving their balcony areas exposed to allow more light in and the breeze coming in from the mountain that surrounds the city.

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Torre de David - Balconies. Image © Iwan Baan

This improvisation of an office tower also meant that circulation areas were disproportionate for residential use, and dwellings, as a result, were far from suitable living situations, some of them for instance without windows to protect from natural elements or without sanitary services. The tower today remains incomplete, its residents having been relocated by the government in June 2015.

The Walled City and Torre de David are high-rise structures that are a result of informal settlement that leads to architectural improvisation. However, even high-rises associated with rigorous institutions such as universities can have similar creative extemporisation. The eight-storey Mary Stuart Hall in Makerere University in Kampala is representative of this. This Brutalist women’s hall, completed in 1972, has suffered from years of mismanagement and funding cuts.

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View onto the courtyard from Mary Stuart Hall. Image © Timothy Latim

With this, students have been forced to improvise. Overcrowding in the university has meant that the communal spaces of Mary Stuart Hall have evolved into educational spaces. The former dining hall, for instance, is currently used for lectures. With this reduction in their social spaces – students have made spatial changes. Dorms with shared balconies that originally housed two or three students now are occupied by five or six, and in turn, these balconies become the only outlet for social activities, also having a view to Lumumba Hall – the men’s residence. 

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Entrance Hall - Mary Stuart Hall. Image © Timothy Latim

 When looking at the improvisational architectures of these high-rise structures, one tends to romanticise these examples of human ingenuity. While these improvisations are impressive at an individual scale, they are all forced improvisations as a result of governmental and organisational failure. The high-rise is a typology far too often limited to only the well-to-do, and what the residents of the Walled City, Torre de David, and Mary Stuart Hall show us is even amidst a lack of support in spatial design, these high-rise residents had to make do. 

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Cite: Matthew Maganga. "Improvisational Architectures: The High-Rise Scenario " 24 Jan 2022. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

Kowloon Walled City, Hong Kong. Image Courtesy of 'City of Darkness Revisited’


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