How To Spend It

Architecture

Soaring ambition

Sophisticated vertical communities, housed in statement super-structures, are a pioneering, eco-conscious response to today’s dense urban sprawl. Dominic Bradbury reports.

April 11 2012
Dominic Bradbury

While the skylines of some of the world’s most progressive cities continue to shift and grow, a new generation of skyscrapers is springing up – and the best of this new breed is very different in character from the old. These are distinctive statement towers created by world-class, pioneering architects and designers, replete with innovative ideas and fresh thinking. More than this, they are defined by a radical approach to luxury living, borrowing many of the sophisticated amenities and services of the best hotels.

One of the most influential of the fresh generation of towers is William Beaver House (apartments from $835,000 to $3.5m), a 47-storey residential building in Lower Manhattan’s financial district, which has exteriors and interiors designed by architects Tsao & McKown for hotelier and property developer André Balazs. Fourteen years ago, this team set a new benchmark in hotel design with the Mercer in New York’s Soho; now they have reinvented the skyscraper. The newly completed tower offers its residents a long list of amenities, including a cinema, an enclosed 60m swimming pool and “lakeside lounge”, a gym and yoga studio, a basketball court, thermal baths and a shared entertaining space on the top floor.

William Beaver House is Balazs’s third apartment project and his first residential skyscraper. “For us, the very essence of the living proposition was a lifestyle inherent in hotel-like amenities, and a hotel-like culture – imbuing the place with a sense of personality and a point of view,” he says. “And some people do prefer to live up high, out of the streets. The psychological impact of living up high is very different from living down low.”

Architect Zack McKown claims that the creation of William Beaver House involved inventing a whole new kind of building. There is a level of design excellence throughout both the residences and the generous communal areas that sets it apart from traditional apartment buildings. “We focused on maximising spatial qualities, views and utility within the apartments,” says McKown, “and at the same time focused on providing uncommon but very functional amenities. We wanted to supply desirable luxuries, the most special of which is the shared penthouse room and terrace. Manhattan has such great scope for spectacular living or dining rooms and terraces overlooking the city, yet very few apartments have this. But in this building, every one does.”

Along with these communal luxuries, which create a social atmosphere in the building, almost like an exclusive club, there’s also a high level of concierge service that gives another dimension to the experience of apartment living. “Having domestic help has always been attractive, but the cost of maintaining employees has increased and few people have the wherewithal – not just financially but from a management point of view – to manage a sophisticated household staff,” says Balazs. “So there is a group of progressive, well-travelled people who appreciate the kind of well-trained, attentive staff and services a good hotel can deliver and they also appreciate that in a domestic living situation.”

Yoo, the design and property group run by John Hitchcox and Philippe Starck, has also been embracing ideas about communal luxuries and concierge service from the hotel industry with a series of towers it is creating around the world, including new projects in Mumbai and Panama City. The 50-storey Icon Brickell building in Miami (apartments from $250,000 to $1.8m) – developed by the Related Group, with architecture by Arquitectonica and interiors from Yoo, by Starck – includes a pool complex, spa, fitness centre and clubhouse, as well as a concierge service shared with guests of the Viceroy Icon Brickell hotel, which forms part of the same three-tower complex.

“People love the height, the view and the amenities that these buildings offer,” says Hitchcox, Yoo’s chairman. “There has been a huge rise in the number of towers that we are involved in, and as towns get more crowded, more people will consider living higher up. High-rises have had a real renaissance in recent years and I definitely anticipate more to come.”

A number of new-generation towers offer a combination of five-star hotel and luxury residences within the same statement building. The One57 skyscraper in New York, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning French architect Christian de Portzamparc, will be more than 305m tall when completed in 2013 – the tallest residential tower in the city. With 95 apartments (from $6.375m), featuring interiors by New York-based designer Thomas Juul-Hansen, the tower also includes a Park Hyatt hotel, swimming pool, library, arts and crafts studio, pet-wash room and more. The distinctive tiered façade features “ribbons” of curved glass that give the building a fluid, dynamic quality.

“It is important to create something unique,” says de Portzamparc. “I wanted to design a building that went through a metamorphosis from dawn to dusk, manipulating sunlight as it strikes the building at certain angles. The use of glass was logical, as the client [Extell] is selling the views, and the design details – such as the use of dark and light glass to create stripes – not only draw attention to the verticality of the building but also create a harmony between height and elegance. At the same time, here in Manhattan, there is currently an emphasis on using every possible inch of space to its full potential.”

Similarly, the MahaNakhon tower in Bangkok fuses a 150-room Edition hotel with 194 new residences (from £550,000 to £4m), serviced by Ritz-Carlton, and around 10,000sq m of retail space, all sitting in a 314m-tall, 77-storey structure designed by architect Ole Scheeren, created with the OMA practice just before Scheeren left to open his own office.

“As cities continue to grow, particularly in Asia, the skyscraper becomes an inevitability,” says Scheeren. “The scale of buildings such as MahaNakhon is large enough to support an array of functions and offers greater convenience for its inhabitants. I was interested in creating a public place for Bangkok, somewhere people could go and spend time – a place that would offer a social realm. It’s an explicit attempt to design a skyscraper that offers spaces of activity and blends indoor and outdoor living. The building soaks up the energy of the city and projects it back out.”

Residents of the tower, which is scheduled to be completed in 2015, can expect a six-lane pool, fitness centre, media lounge and concierge service. The interiors of the apartments are by London-based designer David Collins, who has created highly bespoke, escapist spaces that fuse Thai inspirations and an international outlook. Collins has designed an extraordinary range of furniture specifically for MahaNakhon, with a rich range of textured finishes such as shagreen, satin, silk and leather.

“MahaNakhon will certainly be a landmark,” says Collins. “I felt it was important that the design should be quite subtle, echoing some of the sense of peace and tranquillity that draws many people to Thailand. The colours you find here, and the silks, are such an inspiration for me, and this is shown in some of the interiors. We have placed a lot of emphasis on the bathrooms, which are quite spectacular and reflect Thailand’s association with feeling good and relaxation.”

These mixed-use towers fit with an idea that architects such as Renzo Piano and Ben van Berkel have described as the “vertical city”, where a whole range of activities can happen in the same building. It’s a format that has become increasingly familiar in Asia and the Middle East but is still unusual in the west, where buildings tend to have a single use, such as an office block. Piano has spent almost 12 years working on The Shard in London, which will be the tallest building in Europe – at 310m high – when completed in 2013.

This 72-storey spire of glass mixes offices on the lower levels, a Shangri-La hotel on the mid-levels and viewing galleries on the upper levels; it will also have 10 high-specification residences over 13 floors, from level 53 to 65 (prices to be confirmed). Some will be duplexes, some will spread over a single floor, but all will have 360-degree panoramic views and will be serviced by the hotel. Residents will be able to access hotel services, including the pool and spa.

For Piano, these vertical communities are essential for increasing development in dense city centres without spreading further out into the green belt and swallowing more land. As energy-efficient buildings that sit alongside major public transport intersections, they are super-structures that can be used by many different kinds of people without draining too much in the way of resources, space or energy.

“There is a nostalgic, almost romantic idea that it is more ecological to make a small building,” says Piano. “Forget it – that is the worst way to consume land. This is the reason that cities spread and grow. It is more socially correct to intensify the city and free up space on the ground. The Shard saves a lot of energy and this idea of making a tall building that can intensify city life without adding traffic is why we only have 48 parking spaces for a population of 7,500 to 10,000 people using The Shard.

“It is a vertical town and a place of exchange,” adds Piano. “The idea was to create a tall building with a hotel, office and 10 apartments, with people working there, living there and enjoying life. At mid-rise, we have restaurants and places to meet; then there’s the 72nd-floor observatory, and that – believe me – is going to be spectacular.”

Architect Paul Katz, managing principal of Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates (KPF), talks with similar passion about the ways in which towers can enhance city centres with new and sustainable landmarks. With each tower that KPF designs, Katz recognises an obligation to create a building that adds a new icon to the skyline, but one that is as socially and ecologically friendly as possible.

“The design process of these buildings is extremely challenging and complex,” says Katz. “They are hugely complicated feats of engineering and construction and there are substantial social consequences resulting from the design, one of which is to improve many people’s lives. But also these buildings must work within the context and culture of the city that they are built in.”

KPF designed the recently completed International Commerce Centre in Hong Kong, a vast 118-storey, 488m-high building that soars over the city, forming a gleaming, tapered focal point, with a Ritz-Carlton hotel and offices. The residences (prices to be confirmed) are housed in two adjacent towers, The Cullinan North and South, which are part of the same Union Square development. Among other KPF projects is the 123-storey Lotte World Tower in Seoul, South Korea, measuring a super-tall 555m, which will offer retail spaces, offices, a hotel, luxury live-work apartments (prices to be confirmed), or “office-tels”, and an observation deck with communal facilities; when it is finished in 2014, it will be one of the tallest buildings in Asia.

“Mixed-use towers are a completely new and exhilarating way of living,” says Katz. “And there are powerful social trends and aspirations for a return to living in the centre of cities. Reflecting this change in lifestyle, these towers are bringing many key functions into close proximity. The most valuable commodity today is time, so there is a luxurious aspect to developments that integrate many different uses.”

A pleasingly eco-friendly aspect of the new towers is an emphasis on integrated gardens, balconies, terraces and outdoor spaces. UNStudio’s design for The Scotts Tower in Singapore (apartments from £960,000) includes two dramatic sky gardens among the many amenities that will serve this 31-storey building when completed in 2016. And all of the apartments also have private balconies.

“The outdoor spaces were very important,” says Ben van Berkel, co-founder and principal architect of UNStudio. “For The Scotts, I argued that the balconies would be an extension of the interiors. In Asia especially, people are proud to live in a tower and they are seen as villages, with shared facilities; but you also see similar styles and strategies repeated. So there is a need to address these buildings in a different way, to create a place you enjoy being in and where you can make use of the surrounding landscape.”

Most new-generation towers devote the structural concrete cores running through the heart of the building to all the vital services and escape routes. This frees up the exterior shell for experimentation, not just visually, but for elements such as balconies and bay windows.

Back in Manhattan, Herzog & de Meuron – the Swiss architects of Tate Modern and the Olympic “Bird’s Nest” Stadium in Beijing – have designed 56 Leonard in Tribeca (apartments from around $3m to over $33m), whose 60-storey, 253m structure will be completed in 2015. A series of dramatic balconies will be created within an irregular stack of floor plates, resembling a collection of differently sized books piled on top of one another. There will be a vast Anish Kapoor sculpture at street level, plus an infinity-edge lap pool, screening room and other luxury conveniences.

Skyscrapers such as these are also cropping up in some unexpected places. For the past 30 years, Monaco has resisted high-rises, but now the principality has eased its rules as the pressure on limited land grows.

The 173m, 49-storey Tour Odéon – designed by Alexandre Giraldi – will be the tallest tower in Monaco and is already a landmark, even before it’s finished. It will open in 2014, with interiors and a welcoming list of communal luxuries by interior designer Alberto Pinto (apartments from €5.5m).

“The mentality has changed completely in Monaco,” says Giraldi. “Perhaps this is partly because of examples of tall towers in other parts of the world, and now – with certain restrictions – this kind of tower can be built. The ambition was to give Monaco a new architectural icon; embracing this type of construction is a very positive sign.”

The latest skyscrapers are not only design statements, radiating a new spirit of creativity, but they have also borrowed an enticing definition of luxury living from the hotel world. “Hotels are the first place that you see trends in domestic lifestyle,” says Balazs. “They were the first places to have air-conditioning, indoor plumbing, and almost all the bathroom features that you see everywhere today were first found in hotels. Hotels are always at the forefront, and it’s no different with what we are now seeing in terms of amenities for this kind of residential development.”

See also

Urban, High rise