Page 1


2010 1988 1932 1876 Lower Manhattan development 2

Brutalism of Modernity: The disjointed relationship between ground and sky

by Asya Ivanova 3


Contents: Preface pg7 1. Rise of the City pg11 2. Flaws pg15 3. Moderating factors pg19 4. Division pg23 Conclusion pg29 References pg31


 view from Beetham Tower, Manchester



No other building type captures the imagination like the skyscraper. Eric Howeler The title Brutalism of Modernity is the desire of the tall building to dominate the city skyline visually and spatially. In a metaphorical sense it refers to the negative impacts of living inside one. The desire to inhabit the sky has resulted in a new rather fragile relationship between up and down. It has been termed as ‘disjointed’ based on the architectural failure to connect both entities, but instead creating division between them. Aims and methods The rapid vertical expansion of the cities between 1900 and today led to significant difference in the way people live. Despite the technological advance and stunning views, tall apartment buildings impose isolation on their inhabitants. The aim is to trace the relationship of ground and sky throughout the development of skyscrapers and outline the manner in which this affects the inhabitants. My methods include analysis on the comparison basis of multiple surveys, a fictional movie and a novel, accompanied by the making of an object based on personal reflections. It is important to note that the term ‘skyscraper’ is defined as a tall building of many storeys, but never actually stating the necessary height of one. The high-rise building attracts attention by its monumental height and power over its context. It creates a desire inside one to venture to the top and look down. This natural desire to inhabit the sky clashes with the norm of living close to the ground, leaving the middle as a grey area. 7

planning out presentation of model


Investigation My research on the topic, although considered as a whole, can be clearly divided into four chapters. The first chapter discusses the rise of the city and the technical innovations that contributed to it. The second chapter focuses on the most common and specific flaws in tall buildings that often lead to dissatisfied residents. Chapter three introduces a number of moderating factors that could contribute to the success or demise of the building. In chapter four the topic of division is followed through the events in a fictional novel High-rise by J.D. Ballard where the residents of a 40 storey apartment building question whether the Modern way of life is better. It also looks at the storyline and influences behind the film Metropolis (1927) and compares it to factual events in tall buildings. Model Significant part of this investigation is a 1.200 conceptual model produced to record the discoveries and reflections on the topic. A sequence of photographs explains the construction and destruction of the object in relation to the research. Sketches from development work have been included and annotated to facilitate the readers’ understanding of major influences.


construction of mould from chipboard

economic pyramid


1. Rise of the City

The city is a microcosm of humanity. If we are trying to understand society in the present, we can examine its cities for guidance and examples. The way we shape our cities defines how we spend our lives. The perception of a tall building is not so much the height or number of storeys but rather a reflection on the relative terms of tallness. In other words, human response is a central variable in the consideration of tallness and receptivity. Residents are the most important factor in determining whether the high-rise housing solution works. They are the people who eventually have to live in the buildings that planners propose, architects design and developers build. Very often we imagine the city of the future as high-rise and cinema plays a vital role in this portrayal. It can be considered as an urban experiment gone too far or too high, and while a century ago it was the latest expression of modern achievement, its integrity as an urban typology has been increasingly questioned. The concern with how the rise of the city affects the humanity and sociology of the individual has existed as long as the tall building itself. In a fictional novel by J.G. Ballard, High-Rise, the story develops in the relationship between the residents of a super modern apartment tower building, where the marvel of technology cannot satisfy the needs of the modern society, causing the demise of the high-rise. Another factor in inhabiting a tall building is determining what an uncomfortable height is, although regardless of this factor many high-rise apartment buildings fail at their connection to the ground and context. Most people would wish for an apartment on the top floors but not all of them are. The solidity of the top depends on the integrity of the base which makes a direct analogy with current economy. Another problem in apartment buildings used for social housing or low income housing is that the common areas have low or no degree of ownership. There is little supervision and any damage caused can easily be blamed on the other residents. 11

block: top floor windows and entrance, mould


The Modern movement in architecture served as a background for the formation of the tall building typology. The motivating forces behind the rise of these buildings were economic and financial. A developer with a small plot will obtain a higher rental income if the building constructed on that site rises through several floors. The rise of the city began in the turn of the century when first high-rise buildings began to be built in Chicago and Manhattan. First building of 12 floors was the Home Insurance Building in Chicago completed in 1884. Not long from that moment, empowered by two main technical innovations: the first elevator designed in 1850s and a prefabricated steel girder, first used to build the Crystal Palace in London in 1851. (Lees, 2011) Both inventions were applied in New York, ‘the world’s ultimate skyscraper city’, already at the end of the 19th century, the restricted space on the island caused developers to build ever taller towers. In the case of Manhattan, Koolhaas (Delirious New York, 1978) states that ‘through the simultaneous explosion of human density and invasion of new technologies, Manhattan became a mythical laboratory for the invention and testing of a revolutionary lifestyle: the Culture of Congestion.’ The elevator and the steel frame made heights achievable, reduced construction costs and decreased building time. The new technology quickly allowed the height of buildings to increase dramatically.


mould, filled with plaster and wax

block coming out of the mould layers of plaster and wax to symbolise division 14

2. Flaws

Defined height of high-rise buildings is between 12 and 39 storeys (100 meters), higher buildings are termed as skyscrapers. However, human perception of height can be contingent on a building’s proportion in relation to its immediate context. For example a narrow 9-storey block would appear even higher in a 3-storey context. (Gregoletto, Reis, 2006) In his paper Consequences of living in High-Rise Buildings (2007) Gifford discusses six of the most common fears of residents: to fall or jump from a high window or balcony; being trapped inside during an earthquake or fire; being attacked from stranger; fear of crime; lack of community and social support; as well as contagious diseases. According to Dr Aldeberky (2007) tower blocks can cause a number of discomforts for their residents, both internally and externally. She believes most problems stem from the failure of neighbourhood community, due to the high number of residents per building. This in many occasions leads to isolation, withdrawal, and depression. Moreover, ‘one can lose his physical and psychological sense of safety and security when living in high-rise buildings detached from nature’. Another one of highrise’s impacts on the city environment is increase of urban temperature (with 2-10˚C) compared to countryside and suburbia. Main reasons for the “Urban Heat Island” phenomenon is the change from horizontal to vertical shading as well as absorbed and reflected solar radiation from neighbouring buildings is converted into heat. Occupants initially fascinated by altitude and uniqueness, could soon after moving in face the grim reality ranging from decreased sense of belonging to a community, nature deprivation, to the trivial increase in temperature. 15

 Pruitt-Igoe housing, St Louis, 1972


A recent survey conducted via internet by Gregoletto and Reis (2006) points out that the already built urban environment is adversely affected by high-rise buildings. Few of the impacts include radical change in the typical neighbourhood pattern, overload of infrastructure, overshadowing and damaging the aesthetics of the city image as a whole. The survey further proves that academic education influences the individual’s choice of dwelling as most scholars would prefer low-rise accommodation. Tall buildings were said to affect visual permeability and cause wind tunnels, by creating extended vertical urban space, often uncomfortable and overlooked. Majority of the respondents indicate tall buildings of main cause of high population density. The award-winning scheme Pruitt-Igoe in St Louis, Missouri (completed 1955) was designed with the ideology of Modernity, in a purist language with elegant 14-storey slab blocks, safe elevated streets, open green spaces, and separation of vehicle and pedestrian circulation. It was to encapsulate all of Le Corbusier’s notions of modern thus better architecture. Nevertheless, just 17 years later, the blocks were demolished due to continuous vandalism, high crime rates, and damages initiated by its inhabitants. Major flaws of the project were indicated to be its lack of controlled semi-private space, long walkways, and involuntary anonymity. Jencks (1981, 9) affirms the collapse of Pruitt-Igoe scheme as the death of Modernity with a warning to “keep a live memory of this failure in planning and architecture”. 


 block, presentation in March


3. Moderating factors

When determining the success of a tall building many moderating factors should be considered. They can be generally divided in two groups: related to the residents (social relations, cultural background) or in relation to the context (immediate environment and city district). A major moderating factor in regard to living in high-rises is often the residents’ economic status. Gifford discusses in his paper ‘The consequences of living in high-rise buildings’ that few contributing factors can determine the overall satisfaction of the residents (2007, 3). …if high-rise residents (a) are not poor and (b) choose to live in a high rise when they have other housing options and (c) the high rise is located in a good neighbourhood, and (d) its dwelling-unit population density is low, they may well escape most negative outcomes and experience many of the positive outcomes. What he discusses consists of two residents related moderators, one context moderator, and one planning/design moderator. A good example would be the highrise residential blocks on the perimeter of Central Park in New York, which are usually spaciously designed, and in a very desirable location. Building location can be closely related to the exposure to crime within the building, and according to Brill (1972) crime occurs more often when the building is situated near escape routes or on corners. Crime can also be reduced with a secure entrance, porter, or CCTV cameras situated in the semi-private spaces. 19

further destruction of block, dents and nails


Whether the resident chose the dwelling or he was randomly assigned to it also plays a vital role on the future satisfaction with the building. When randomly assigned, dissatisfaction could stem from the lack of control over the choice, or alternative resident’s preference. Resident’s economic status is often a moderator in relation to the overall satisfaction with the high-rise. Most interactions come with residents of the same floor (in a neighbourhood pattern) and subsequently perceive the rest of the residents as strangers. Often people do not befriend neighbours from within the building even though they come from similar economic backgrounds. (Bochner, Duncan, Kennedy & Orr, 1976).

It is … wrong to identify tower blocks as ‘vertical slums’ and insist that they should all be flattened. Many are clearly acceptable places to live for their residents. Church & Gale, 2000

When considering cities with high density, currently Singapore and Hong Kong lead the way of high-rise residential developments. It is observed that living in flats may soon replace other vernacular forms of accommodation. Yeh and Yuen(2011) argue that better design and planning can reduce the feeling of crowding within buildings, which correlates with the amount of personal space. Due to increased urban population in many Asian cities, urban analysts advocate high-density living opposed to urban sprawl and compact city policies are supported by the government. Negative impacts of high-rise living are addressed with secure entries, porter, thicker apartment walls. In many areas high-rise living is becoming the norm, and emphasis is put on its privacy, quietness, and expansive views. It is observed that denser neighbourhoods have stronger sense of community in the cities studied by Yeh and Yuen.


Metropolis, tower of Babel

 Metropolis, workers at shift change


4. Division

The potential issues stemming from inhabiting high-rise buildings analysed and in some cases exaggerated in various art forms including literature and cinema. For example Metropolis (1927) is the first silent science-fiction movie to be inspired by the modern movement in architecture. Its director Fritz Lang, a German expressionist, was particularly inspired by the Manhattan skyline when he visited New York in 1924, and had the idea to present the city of the future.

The buildings seemed to be a vertical veil, shimmering, almost weightless, a luxurious cloth hung front the dark sky to dazzle, distract, and hypnotize. Lang (interview, 1924)

Metropolis is set in a dystopian future mega polis dominated by high-rise cityscape, with elevated motorways, and helicopter transportation. It has a clear class division between the thinkers (architect and rulers, dominating the preferred high storeys in the towers) and workers (low constricted to catacombs under the city). Lang’s classic was said to impress and influence many architects with its bold outlandish sets and vivid vertical expansion of the modern city, especially at a time when modernity was being embraced by architects and urban planners in Europe and America. In Metropolis Lang ‘exploits the potential of the vertical as a universally understood metaphor of social power’ focusing on aggravating issues between capital and labour. Thus he organises his city of the future from the top down.(Elsaesser, 2000) The movie was banned in Italy and Turkey just few days after its premiere because it screened propaganda that preyed on the emotions of the working class. Metropolis was clearly a movie made by the elite for the elite. Although it propagates the idea of class reconciliation, it addresses the fears of those in power and offers a solution that does not disrupt the existing status-quo. Therefore it silently re-states tall buildings as edifices of power, a dream to reach the sky disjointed from the ground level. 23


According to Georg Simmel(1950), who lived in post-war Berlin, metropolitan life could be extremely hard on the previously rural human mind. He witnessed the changes caused by the Modernist city planning and their effect on people’s perception. In the chapter The Metropolis and Mental Life he follows a comparison between the fast-paced modern city life and a cinematic experience as they both consist of a sequence of strong visual stimuli. Another perspective on living in high-rise buildings derives from the novel High-rise by JG Ballard, first published in 1975. In it Ballard explores how advanced technology affects the human psyche and questions whether modern life is better. The story revolves around the day-to-day lives of the residents of an ultra-modern 40 storey apartment building in London. He often makes the analogy of the building being a vertical city, with its 2,000 residents ‘boxed up’ high in the sky. It further portrays the message of strong vertical division and the causes of its slow deterioration. The tower block is depicted as a liberator, “huge machine designed to serve, not the collective body of tenants, but the individual resident in isolation.”(Ballard, 2000) The building succumbs to all consumerist needs: the whole 10th floor consists of a supermarket, bank, hair-dressers, swimming pool, gymnasium, liquor store and a school with further swimming pool, sauna, and restaurant on the 35th floor, and the rooftop has a tennis court and a garden for the children of the residents. The two commercial floors create an observational division between the lower, middle and upper class. The isolated self-sufficient nature of the tower block takes away the need to suppress anti-social behaviour, as most residents do not care to know residents from the floors below. We follow the transition which the residents are going through from successful professionals to restrained prisoners of an eventless environment. In the event of a murdered dog inside the swimming pool the whole fragile existence in the building changes. Everyone becomes a suspect and blame is easily transferrable to other residents. There are many services malfunctions: power outages, faulty air conditioning, blocked bin chutes, graffiti, alcohol misuse; which additionally contribute to the further building division in three ‘uneasily coexisting armed camps’. Ballard describes the trio of main protagonists: Richard Wilder, TV-producer and family man, resides on the 2nd floor, Dr Robert Laing, a recent divorcee looking for solitude on the 25th floor, and Anthony Royal, the architect who designed the tower block, lives in a luxury penthouse on the top. While most residents suffer from insomnia, Wilder develops a phobia that the weight of the building is crushing down on him. Royal, like Wilder comes with the burden of his class, often portrayed as a 25

 Beetham Tower, Manchester

 Silverline, Almere


scientist living on the top of his laboratory, he is well aware of the built-in flaws and waiting for the outcome of this social experiment.

His sense of physical superiority … had been rekindled by the presence of so many people directly below him, on the shoulders of whose far more modest dwellings his own rested securely. Ballard (2000, 72)

Laing on the other hand enjoys life in the high-rise because of its anonymity, where he can forget his past and merge with the crowd. He has a nonchalant, unemotional personality and strong sense of self-preservation. Two high-rise buildings visually reflect my idea of vertical division. The Beetham Tower in Manchester, completed in 2006, is a 47-storey luxury skyscraper, where the bottom 22 floors are a hotel, with a bar on the 23 floor, and residential apartments above. The architect, Ian Simpson, resides in the top three-storey penthouse, benefiting from a roof top garden and the highest view out of the city . In this case the context of 2-3 storey buildings predisposes the Beetham tower as a glass landmark, with public access to the 23rd floor. Another example is the Silverline residential block in Almere, Netherlands. Completed in 2001, it is situated on the edge of Weerwater Lake, within a context of few other high-rises. Designed by Claus en Kaan, it follows a very market-oriented practical approach: the foot and the top of the building have been maximized while the middle is minimal in order to offer more upper apartments. Similar logic lies behind the windows’ sizes which correspond to the rooms’ dimensions. Both buildings’ designs reflect on the notion of division in the middle of the high-rise which singles it out as less desirable place of habitation.


block, eroding the bottom



Living in skyscrapers as a social experiment has proved effective in cities like Hong Kong and Singapore, where land is sparse and demand high. It is valued for what it gives; rather what it deprives its residents from. The predicted growth of cities may not leave another alternative to urban sprawl. Whether the skyscraper would slowly replace the vernacular as in Chinese cities is hard to foresee but it already alters the skyline of almost every city. The disjointed relationship between ground and sky can be ascertained in many ways: a class division, a rat race, a journey to overpower the context. However, its uncomfortable existence makes human ambition to leave the earth and reach the sky attainable. We are used to assuming that the greater height of buildings is as a symbol of progress, supremacy, and technological advance. Furthermore, human fondness of inhabiting tall buildings could be rooted in our desire to defy Earth’s gravity. And while this Manhattan inspired image remains as a shiny façade of deception, the drawbacks of inhabiting the sky continue to be overlooked by other countries, thus repeating mistakes of the past. It is important to point out the gradual destruction of the scale model in stages was provoked mostly by the High-rise novel. For me, the skyscraper phenomenon is at its best when serving a commercial purpose. Nevertheless its nature as an edifice will always create a clear division of up and down. The tall building is a marvel of technology which is to be admired from below and appreciated from the rooftop. 29


References Aldeberky, A A. (2007). The influence of high-rise buildings on the environment. Available: http:// Last accessed 8th July 2014. Ballard, J G (2000). High-rise. 3rd ed. Glasgow: Flamingo. 7-161. Bochner, S., Duncan, R., Kennedy, E., & Orr, F. (1976). Acquaintance links between residents of a high rise building: An application of the “small world� method. Journal of Social Psychology, 100, 277-284. Brill, W H (1972, May 1-3) Security in public housing: A synergistic approach. Paper presented on the 4th National Symposium on Law Enforcement, Science, and Technology, University of Maryland. Cappon, D. (1972). Mental health in the hi-rise. Ekistics, 33, 192-196. Church, C. & Gale, T., (2000) Streets in the sky: towards improving the quality of life in tower blocks in the UK, 1st report, London. 7-38. Elsaesser, T (2000). Metropolis. London: British Film Institute. 7-69. Gifford, R. (2007). The consequences of living in high-rise buildings. Architectural Science Review. 50 (1), 2-16. Gregoletto, D and Reis, A. (2006). High-rise buildings in the perception of the users of the urban space. Available: Proarq19_HighriseBuildings_GregolettoReis.pdf. Last accessed 9th July 2014. Howeler, E. (2003) Skyscraper, London : Thames & Hudson, 6-14 Jencks, C (1981). Post-modern architecture. 3rd ed. London: Rizzoli. 9-38. Koolhaas, R (1994). Delirious New York. USA: Monacelli Press. 9-29. Lees, S (2011). Visions of Architecture. London: A&C Black. 87-97. Simmel, G. (1950). The Metropolis and Mental Life. In: Wolff, K The Sociology Of Georg Simmel. New York: The Free Press. 409-424. Yeh, A & Yuen, B (2011). High-Rise Living in Asian Cities. Hong Kong: Springer . 1-8. 31


Images Cover &  – photograph, Slaveya Moneva   Elle Decoration, Beetham Tower penthouse, Manchester, Sept 2013  Jencks, C (1981). Post-modern architecture. 3rd ed. London: Rizzoli. 9.  Metropolis (1927) Lang, F. [2010 restored version] stills  





Asya Ivanova - Brutalism of Modernity  

A design research unit from my bachelor year in University of Dundee exploring problems with residential high-rise buildings.

Asya Ivanova - Brutalism of Modernity  

A design research unit from my bachelor year in University of Dundee exploring problems with residential high-rise buildings.