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From Pop-Up Cities to Man-Made Island Domes: Exploring the Limits, if Any, of Humankind's Capacity to Build

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Welcome to Thinking Big, wherein journalist Bridget Moriarity (whose work has been published in Travel + Leisure, Art + Auction, and Time Out New York, among others) joins Curbed to explore large-scale trends and topics within the design and architecture community. Have a pressing issue worth discussing? Drop a note to the tipline.

Given the recent onslaught of architectural craziness—everything from a pop-up city in Kenya to an undersea hotel in Fiji to general extremeness of size and shape—it seems only appropriate to toss into the ring the following question: What, if any, are man's limits when it comes to building these days?

"The building is this kind of microcosm of the city"

"Is there any limit to man's ability to ask a gigantic question?" joked James von Klemperer of Kohn Pederson Fox Associates (KPF) in reply. But KPF is not exactly intimidated by a challenging proposition. After all, they're hard at work on a 123-story, 1,800-foot-tall tower in Seoul, Korea—a vertical city of sorts—and two planned communities: one that is already one-third realized on the west coast of Incheon, Korea, and another in Changsha, Hunan, China that's dubbed Meixi Lake (below). With the namesake lake and a major network of roads in place, the architects predict their second city will be up and running in 15 years.
Von Klemperer observes that building very tall structures comes with responsibility. It's not just about lining the pockets of the developer but about enlivening places where transit converges and/or cities culminate. And there are lessons to be learned from the type of buildings being raised in the Far East: "The idea of one building type and use being plugged into another, piled on top of a third, interrupted by a fourth, and thinking that people might enjoy spending their day in a place, where the building is this kind of microcosm of the city opens up many avenues for interesting design," says von Klemperer. Intensely mixed-use building types are becoming more and more popular in U.S. cities., and the result is that people can do any number of things without reaching for their car or even hopping on mass transit.

Such sustainability is mirrored in KPF's city planning efforts. Von Klemperer talks about the environmental efficiencies that can take place when a brand-new intelligently designed water system, electric grid, and public transit network are concurrently planned. "There are huge economic challenges to having a city grow all at once, but the engineering design advantages are also huge," he says.

"Does it make sense to build it bigger?"

Sustainability emerged as a major theme among these interviews. The concept appears to reign in architects, keeping them down-to-earth, so to speak. For example, Curbed asked the architect of the mile-high Kingdom Tower in Saudi Arabia, Adrian Smith of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, why not build a bigger city than the one he has in the works outside of Chengdu, China, which is meant for a population of 100,000 to 150,000 people (below)? His answer: "Does it make sense to build it bigger? Probably not, in terms of the concept of a live/work and pedestrian-friendly environment." In his current scheme, you don't need a car to get to work, because you're less than a half-mile from the center of the city at any given point. Plus, this Great City, as it's called, is already ambitious enough—it will have its own mayor, school system, jail, you name it. Echoing KPF, Smith adds that his vision will be an eco city. "You design all the systems from scratch for energy, water, waste, food, the whole works. It's more efficient than designing one building at a time," he says.

What about the limits to building high? Smith notes that the higher the building, the wider it has to be, and therefore the more (expensive) space you're putting on the market at any given time, which is a risky calculation for a developer. In addition to the height-to-width ratio, more elevators are required to transport people, which at some point becomes inefficient. He thinks we'll start to see more mega-structures: two or three buildings that share an integrated network of elevators.

As for Smith's thoughts about the 2,749-foot-tall Sky City Tower (above), which the developers, Broad Sustainable Building, boast will be constructed in a mere 90 days: "Impossible, that's not going to happen." Let's take his word on that.

Practicality versus things that "make you smile"

Meanwhile, rising starchitect Bjarke Ingels, the 37-year-old Dane who runs his own firm, BIG, is based in New York City now to oversee the construction of his much-buzzed-about pyramid-shaped building on 57th Street and the West Side Highway in Manhattan (below). He does not like to think in terms of oppositions—that function might negate ambition or that sustainability might be seen as a sacrifice or downgrade. When talking about the sustainable features of his 57th Street undertaking, one can't help but notice how quietly ecological they are—they are not splashy like the design of his buildings (think Miami's Marina Lofts with its elegantly ruptured façade). For instance, the building next door to the West 57th Street project is also owned by Ingels' client, Durst Fetner Residential. This proximity means the two buildings can share an existing cogeneration plant, which produces electricity and heating. Sharing resources is a much smarter move than, say, wallpapering the new space with photovoltaic, which might make for a more eye-catching press release but in the end will have less of an impact.

Ingels is currently developing the biggest and tallest building in Copenhagen: a power plant sited in the heart of the city. Atop the structure he plans to plop a man-made ski slope, which will rival Sweden's attractions several hours away. "When it was announced that we had won the project," Ingels recalls, "normally you get the sort of NIMBYism—people complaining about having a power plant built near their house—but we were actually receiving emails from people asking when it was going to be completed because they want to go skiing." BIG is working with the Berlin-based art studio realities:united to feature an art project element to the work as well: a special chimney will release a ring of smoke for every 200 kilos of carbon dioxide produced by the plant. (Just count five rings to know that a ton of CO2 has been released) Ingels hopes that such awareness might impact consumption powers. The plant is expected to open in 2016 and the ground-breaking is set for March 4th of this year.

While Ingels includes many a flourish to "make you smile," he is quick to say that his firm never does anything just for fun. But what about those architects who think off-the-grid every now and then—literally, in the case of Labscape's NYC Eco Tower Museum—even if the projects are several years ahead of their time? "New York City is not ready yet to have this kind of building. It's still very, very classical," says Labscape's Robert Ivanov. As Curbed NY reported, the exotic-looking structure, which would cost roughly $50M to build, "uses photovoltaic cells, wind and water turbines, and other green elements to be entirely self-sufficient." Ivanov says: "If you want to do this kind of a building, you will have to go all the way to Saudi Arabia or China or pretty much the emerging countries."

"I believe there is no limitation to man's imagination"

Another dreamy vision is HavvAda, by designer Dror Benshetrit—perhaps better known for his line of Target furniture, accordion-like suitcases, and sexy furniture. Benshetrit was asked by a developer to come up with a plan for the dirt that a canal between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara would produce. (The canal is slated for completion around 2023.) Benshetrit unveiled sketches for a man-made island community (below) featuring six hills of residences and communal areas surrounding a valley of parks and recreational spaces. HavvAda aims to make a practical contribution to an ever-urbanizing world: "In our urban environment as we know it today, skyscrapers are viewed as the ultimate solution for growing populations?my most ambitious intention with HavvAda is to create horizontal towers that stack in parabolic forms, and together with others support both nature and the microclimate." And what about the original question—does man face any limits when it comes to building? Benshetrit responds forcefully: "I believe there is no limitation to man's imagination, and that an individual will can create what 99 percent of the population would consider crazy, unachievable, and unrealistic."

This unfettered view is shared by Architizer co-founder, Marc Kushner, whose firm, HWKN (Hollwich Kushner), was chosen by the Museum of Modern Art and MoMA PS1 for last year's Young Architects Program. "There's very little limit on materiality, the issue comes in on the constraints of budget and code and what the client wants," he elaborates. Kushner points to the goings-on in architecture school as a sign of what's possible. "They're operating in a vacuum, so they're free to propose buildings that are tethered to a geostatic satellite in space—basically the new Tower of Babel that has this space elevator inside it." This last project was an actual proposal of one of his students (Kushner also teaches at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation), and he notes that the reason NASA and Toll Brothers aren't thinking this way is cost.

Cost was a constraint when Kushner was building the spiky, bright blue WENDY structure for PS1. "The client in that case was us, because we got a check from MoMA and we had to pay to get it built," says Kushner, who adds that they went with the cheapest system possible—scaffolding—and "had a blast" with it.

For HWKN's BOOM LIFE project in Palm Springs, Calif., (below) the firm curated six other architecture teams and worked with a developer to create a community that responds to the needs of the elderly and people in the LGBT community. "In Japan, they have one or two stairs separating public spaces to keep the citizens active and thinking and aware of their surroundings, whereas in America we always put ramps into our aging facilities. We learned all of this stuff and wanted to apply it somewhere." BOOM will get built, although right now its still in the development phase.

And sometimes when it comes to building, real-world constraints aren't the enemy: "Looking at a blank canvas is a daunting creative task," says Kushner. "Once you start to articulate those pressure points and you start to draw a map of what's feasible that becomes a catalyst for the creative process."

· All Thinking Big posts [Curbed National]