By Renard Teipelke
Take a look at the above picture. What do you see? A high-rise building, residential or mix-used. Is it an architectural icon? Well, it probably passes as “ugly” or at least “generic” in most readers’ view. There have been many years when I have been asking myself: Which reasonable and educated architect with a feeling and/or understanding for the aesthetic could possibly come up with such a ‘design’? While I already knew that in most cases the cause for such ugliness lied in the investors’ superficial logic of big profits at low costs, it took me a couple of years to accept one key fundamental aspect: High-rise buildings like the one above are the global norm in most big cities.
One does not even need to take a very close look at these metropolises to figure out that the ugly high-rise is the stereotypical equivalent to the standard five-story residential building in e.g. French or Swedish cities. Now this article is not about praising traditional small-scale European cities over conurbations with millions of inhabitants in Brazil, Egypt, or China. One can find different ‘styles’ of architectural ugliness in French or Swedish cities as well. Also, I am far away from the thought that high-rise buildings could possibly be replaced by six-story buildings in light of tremendous population growth under conditions of already extreme densities.
So let us come back to the superficial logic of big profits at low costs investors of such high-rise buildings must have when contracting their architects to come up with something that can hardly be considered as having much ‘character’. This logic of investors is right and wrong at the same time.
On the one hand, the regulatory framework often encourages the selling-out of single units to private owners already during the construction phase. Many countries, as e.g. the Philippines, cherish their citizens’ homeownership. Subsidies and loan incentives aim at enabling the middle and upper classes to fulfill their dream of their own property, which – in ‘the big city’ – tends to be an apartment unit. While this idea might be laudable on paper, the existing financial incentives trigger an investment-oriented purchasing behavior, in which the acquisition of a single unit is understood – and its selection criteria are based upon – not-so-long-term investment considerations. The unit is bought as a security and/or future investment piece. As a result, the developers are right in building up quickly a generic/ugly high-rise building, as their potential buyers are not interested in any premium cost on top of the unit price. They just want to buy their apartment to benefit from the likely value increase over the coming years due to the property’s location and the overall country’s economic development. From a business point of view, one cannot blame them – their investment will pay off in many places (Ho Chi Minh City, Cairo, Dar-Es-Salaam, Panama City, Metro Manila, etc.).
On the other hand, the developers are wrong in their logic. Some of them have already understood that and start building high-rises, which are green, resource-efficient, climate-/disaster-resilient, custom-designed, or luxury, etc. Above the middle class, there is such an abundance of money which ‘needs’ to be invested that developers can – with a little bit more investment upfront – tap into this upper class market for premium sells. Furthermore, the logic of big profits at low costs is wrong, because the current standard of high-rise buildings tends to be so low that maintenance costs can become a heavy burden to the property management, for which often the developer (or overall land/project owner) and the unit owners have to jointly pay. Due to a lack of existing building standards or their actual enforcement, metropolises from Indonesia to Turkey are disfigured with high-rise buildings that are falling apart. Loose floor tiles, skyrocketing electricity costs, facilities out-of-order, water leakages, humidity sucking its ways through walls, permeable windows, numerous damages following seasonal heavy weather events like typhoons or natural disasters like earthquakes.
These deficiencies heavily impact on residents’ everyday life adding further burden and diminishing the housing experience. Connected to that is the loss in value over the medium or long term. In an even broader sense, city managers are giving away their power to influence the urban fabric in its appearance and with regard to its standards and safety. By doing so, they are neglecting the possibility and need of making life in their city livable. I do not want to imagine how these cash-strapped communities are going to deal with this aesthetically and/or physically contaminated inheritance in a couple of decades or even just a few years. If we remind ourselves of the massive demolition campaigns (with their tremendous financial and social costs) of cheaply built social housing projects in the United States, Germany, or the former Eastern Bloc states, we might have an idea what is still to come.
Nevertheless, the challenge remains to build more high-rise buildings in exploding metropolises. It is the government and/or the potential buyers who need to put pressure on developers to meet national or international standards for building safety, efficiency, and sustainability. On the aesthetic end, I just hope for some realization on the developers’ side that the use of even minimal design elements (ever heard of color?) would give their high-rise buildings at least a sense of character, positive recognition, and architectural value.