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High rises meet high design: new apartment architecture showcasing creativity and community

A new book highlights design that goes beyond the soulless tower block

CityLife Development by Zaha Hadid Architects
 The residential part of the vast CityLife development in Milan, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, is a complex of seven upscale apartment blocks on the former site of the Fiera Milano. Outer façades are clad in white-enameled panels, with sculptural balconies that provide a strong sense of place.
Iwan Baan and Michele Nastasi

It seems fairly uncontroversial to say that everybody deserves a good living environment. But ask Michael Webb, author of Building Community: New Apartment Architecture, about the state of high-rise design in today’s cities, and he’ll tell you it’s not obvious that designers, and especially developers, have that idea in mind.

“The market has taken over, and developers simply want to make a quick profit,” he told Curbed. “They’re investing and looking for a return. Local housing authorities and non-profits used to encourage architects to do very adventurous things. But these types of projects, the idealism you saw in post-war housing, has almost gone away. Government involvement in housing is treated like this alien thing, and in many high-priced cities, you could build a chicken coop, and somebody would pay for it.”

Webb’s book highlights examples of apartment design that look beyond the standard, boxy tower design to provide a more thoughtful, social, and ultimately humane place to live. While the work of big-name architects such as Zaha Hadid and David Adjaye is profiled among dozens of different examples, many of the projects were designed with low-income tenants in mind, suggesting that high prices and creative architecture aren’t inexorably linked. The tenants of smart apartment design—well-proportioned space, a connection with the outdoors, and good sound insulation—don’t require a revolution to achieve, says Webb. And with urban populations expected to grow exponentially in the near future, great, affordable apartment architecture may be more important now than ever.

“Good architecture creates a community, adds value, and creates a better business proposition,” he says. “It’s just common sense.”

Here are a selection of some Webb’s favorite projects featured in the book.

25 Verde: Corten Forest in Turin, Italy<br>

25 Verde: Corten Forest in Turin, Italy
Beppe Giardino, courtesy Luciano Pia

25 Verde (Turin, Italy: Luciano Pia)

Webb loved this apartment design, which dressed up a former industrial site with a facade of Cortan steel interlaced with trees, to create a “countryside in the city.” This was far from any popular neighborhood in Turin he says, but the connection to the outdoors, and well as next-door neighbors, fostered by the development gave residents a reason to hang around on weekends and tend to their balcony gardens.

City Hyde Park in Chicago, Illinois
City Hyde Park in Chicago, Illinois
Steve Hall/Hedrick Blessing, courtesy Studio Gang

City Hyde Park (Chicago, Illinois: Studio Gang)

Situated on the site of a former strip mall and surface parking lot, this Chicago apartment development forced hometown architect Jeanne Gang to value engineer after the project was put on hold due to the recession. Gang managed to cut costs without sacrificing creativity with the use of what her studio dubbed “wallums,” a combination of wall and structural column that created more unit space without losing what Webb called the building’s “structural elegance.” Cantilevered balconies and wide bays help usher in sunlight, push residents to socialize, and showcase views of the city’s famous skyline, all while protecting residents from the elements.

The Interlace in Singapore
The Interlace in Singapore
Iwan Baan

The Interlace (Singapore: OMA/Ole Scheeren)

When approached to design a 1,000-unit development in Singapore, architect Ole Scheeren could have laid down a grid of homogenous high-rises and called it a day. But by simply stacking units—“like a child making a cat’s cradle,” according to Webb—he not only created a unique design, but formulated an apartment development perfect for a humid climate. Additional shading helps block some of the city’s tropical sun, and the clever use of space allows for additional public amenities on site, a luxury in such a dense metropolis.

Broadway Housing in Santa Monica
Broadway Housing in Santa Monica
Iwan Baan

Broadway Housing (Santa Monica, California: Kevin Daly Architects)

Created for the Community Corporation of Santa Monica (CCSM) as low-income community housing, this modest, yet generous design provides both privacy and public space, features that should never be considered luxuries. Architect Kevin Daly utilized a pinwheel layout and wood battens to give each unit separation, while adding a landscaped courtyard and communal walkways that offer gathering spaces to enjoy the Southern California climate. “It provides a wonderful sense of community,” says Webb, “and is really attractive to people with much, much more money to spend.”

The Commons in Melbourne, Australia
The Commons in Melbourne, Australia
Australian Institute of Architecture

The Commons (Melbourne, Australia: Breathe Architecture)

A stylish reboot for an industrial warehouse adjacent to a rail line, this creative housing project gave residents an affordable, and aesthetically striking, place to live. Panels of opaque fiberglass and a low-maintenance Australian timber, ironbark, form a zig-zagging, angular facade, all while creating a thermal chimney that moderates heat and train noise. Balconies shaded by wisteria, as well as a communal rooftop garden, help connect residents to the outdoors.

Star Apartments in Los Angeles, California
Star Apartments in Los Angeles, California
Michael Maltzan Architecture

Star Apartments (Los Angeles, California: Michael Maltzan Architecture)

An experiment in prefabrication, this series of single apartments, built for the city’s Skid Row Housing Trust, exemplified how bureaucratic challenges and tight budgets can spur great work. Once Maltzan and his team came up with the prefab solution, which allowed for more quick modular building, as well as easy attachment to ground-floor retail on tricky sites, they still needed to sit through tests with local housing government to make sure the novel building solution worked. Webb sees this as proof that “it’s all about creativity, not luxury.” The designs are more interesting and engaging than many of the high-priced rentals on Wilshire Boulevard. “It’s about using your head and your talent, and fostering more of this kind of work with city planning.”

Tietgen Student Hall in Copenhagen
Tietgen Student Hall in Copenhagen
Jens Lindhe, courtesy Lundgaard & Tranberg Arkitekter

Tietgen Student Hall (Copenhagen, Denmark: Lundgaard & Tranberg Arkitekter)

This is a huge upgrade from the spartan dorms found on many college campuses. The curved facade, clad in tombac, a dark copper-zinc alloy, offers transparency and connection, including shared window bays and balcony space accessible from student rooms. The entire six-story complex is lined with shared kitchens, study spaces, and even a bicycle repair shop, creating a true communal feeling within this waterfront student housing project.