Residential Towers -Getting the Backyard in the City

Hello again readers,

One of the biggest design challenges in the future is making cities hospitable and livable for all. The cleanliness of cities was a big concern at the turn of the twentieth century and people like Daniel Burnham (a late 19th century architect and developer extraordinaire) was key to achieving the goal of clean urban environments. Burnham transformed the city of Chicago as part of his City Beautiful campaign. City Beautiful redeveloped Chicago’s waterfront district for the Eastern Colombian Exposition, a world’s fair hosted by the city of Chicago. The fair featured the latest and greatest inventions and art from the Americas. Burham fashioned the new Chicago in the likeness of the great buildings of Europe and Greece while creating parks and cleaning up the streets. While Burnham toiled remaking Chicago for the exposition, the wealthy and newly middle class were fleeing the city for the suburbs, the rural outskirts that offered cleaner living without the wait time that comes with big urban redevelopment schemes.

For the last century the suburban home on a 1/4 acre or more was considered the ideal living arrangement. Suburbs gave people symbolic independence and freedom from the city, they were in control of their own property and in their mind could support themselves living off the land (though few chose to do this). Many feel today that the further you are from your neighbor, the richer you are or the better you are; that land has become a proxy for social and economic autonomy. The ultimate retirement status symbol is owning a vineyard or the gentleman’s estate replete with house, outbuildings and expensive yard toys (tractors/back hows). This desire for the symbols of economic independence have come with social costs; people today have far fewer ties to their neighbors and the community at large. People’s reliance on the automobile has also created generations of people who are lazy and overweight due to lack of exercise and local mobility.

While quaint and bucolic, the suburbs have proven to be grossly inefficient means of development. Suburbs depend on cheap energy to fuel trips to the store (as everything is a car trip’s distance from your house). Heating large single family homes is also very expensive. Rising fuel prices and the fact that most jobs and people’s social networks reside in urban locations (city’s are the new social networks according to Jeffery West.)
To find work one has to move to the city. High fuel prices, lower wages, and fewer job opportunities all push people to the city while slowly killing the suburb. Land is scarce in cities, so people are forced to live close to each other in high density development projects. The apartment complex or tower was the building typology that met these needs.

The typical apartment tower
Nearly every apartment building no matter what the price point share a common set of rules for their layout. All apartment buildings tend to have a fancy or large lobby area on the ground floor with a set of elevator banks at its center. You take the lift to your floor, then walk down a central hallway (which I refer to as the hallway of hell) until you reach your door to enter your apartment.
Below is a typical example designed by Robert Stern for the Battery Park neighborhood in New York City.

Floor plan of Tribeca Park by Robert Stearn taken from Robert A.M Stern Buildings  & Towns
Floor plan of Tribeca Park by Robert Stearn taken from Robert A.M Stern Buildings & Towns

The exterior of the building is also shown.
Photo of Tribeca Park project
Photo of Tribeca Park project

While functional, this setup is depressing and thoroughly unsatisfying. Having home be like a visit to a Motel 6 is soul-crushing in my mind. With the nostalgia of the suburbs in mind and the need to do better for the city dwellers of the present and future, I set about re-imagining the apartment complex for the city. My solution and process are in the next post. Stay tuned.

Part 2 Getting the Backyard in the City

One thought on “Residential Towers -Getting the Backyard in the City”

  1. Hello there! I could have sworn I’ve been to this blog before but after browsing through some of the post I realized it’s new to me. Nonetheless, I’m definitely glad I found it and I’ll be bookmarking and checking back frequently!

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