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Notes on ‘A History of the Highrise’

3333 Broadway, Tower Block, New York. Photo by pdstahl via Creative Commons / Flickr

3333 Broadway, Tower Block, New York. Photo by pdstahl via Creative Commons / Flickr

The New York Times has a new multimedia presentation called “A Short History of the Highrise.” As an overview of dense, urban living, it’s pretty great.

The interactive feature touches on many themes and subjects already addressed in this blog. For example:

Social Status. The role of high-rise buildings as instruments of social hierarchy is a complex one. In different periods and parts of the world tall, urban living has been both a symbol of  wealth and luxury (e.g. the Dakota Building in NY or skyscrapers in Hong Kong), poverty and social strife (social housing projects in NY), and everything in between (a Modernist manifestation of middle-class ideals).

Trickle-Down Aspirations. Like suburbia, the desire of the rich to live in high-rise apartments creates a middle-class American dream to live similarly. See the Dakota building and Asian skyscrapers above.

The Persistence of Public Housing. According to the Times, there are currently 60 million people who live in vertical public housing projects, despite the “epic fail” of Pruitt-Igoe and its kin. Started as a communist initiative in Vienna, social high rises saw mixed success worldwide. But I find it interesting that while these projects were blamed for crime and sundry social diseases in the United States, they thrived consistently in Asia.

Which raises the question: why? What conditions made dense, vertical living a nightmare in the US during the 1970s (hint:  Jane Jacobs has some ideas), but at the same time made them desirable in Hong Kong?

Incidentally, this is the first – and, I hope, last – instance of the New York Times using the term “epic fail.”

Comparing Micro-Apartments to Industrial-Era Tenement Housing. On the surface, I find this laughable, as such tenement housing was essentially the American slum where immigrants lived with their multigenerational families in inhumane conditions out of necessity. Micro-apartments, on the other hand, house single, college graduates who earn enough to move out of their parents’ basements but not enough to rent a one-bedroom in an expensive city. But this argument should be investigated further.

Humane vs. Social Housing. Social housing doesn’t have to be inhumane. It can be great under the right conditions. But what are they? Amenities? Utilities? Building quality? Connections? Density? Community? Size?The greatest design minds and urban experiments of the 20th Century (See Robert Moses, Urban Renewal, Brasilia, Chandigarh, which is the Asian exception that proves the rule) couldn’t identify all the conditions. But those details are at the crux of success.

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