Let’s pretend for a moment that buildings are built out of Jenga blocks. For the past century or so, skyscrapers have more or less been built from pieces that are uniformly stacked on top of one another vertically, creating solid, streamlined structures. We did this because it was efficient: it saved space in dense urban environments and was easy to construct. It didn’t hurt that the towers looked pretty cool, too.
Now imagine that someone came along, plucked a few of those Jenga blocks out of the tower, flipped them horizontally, stuck them back into the edifice, and walked away. What are you left with? Something that looks a lot like the tower that architect Ole Scheeren is proposing for Vancouver.
The architect,a former partner at Rem Koolhaas’s OMA, recently unveiled his 1500 Georgia project, a residential high-rise near downtown Vancouver. The building looks as though a handful of shipping containers have been inserted into an otherwise normal, glassy tower. Scheeren see it differently. “It gives the sense of arms and fingers reaching out and floating in the sky,” he says.
It’s an odd-looking building, but Scheeren believes it marks the beginning of a new typology in urban towers. The high-rise, in all its soaring and streamlined glory, has become boring, unoriginal, and detached from its landscape. “When the tower was created more than 100 years ago, it might have been an exciting typology at the time,” he says. “But I think it has become very formulaic, repetitive, and in many ways, not a very engaging mode of built existence.”
Because cities don’t have the luxury of building outward, architects respond by building upward, away from the cities themselves. “They [buildings] become vertical silos that simply stack people on top of each other without a lot of sense of connectivity and community,” Scheeren says. “They provide very little engagement with the urban or natural context around them.”
Scheeren’s Vancouver building is meant to combat that idea. By creating a series of cantilevers toward the middle and top of the building, the architect hopes to encourage residents to connect to the world outside without growing the structure’s footprint. Scheeren began designing the building as a series of modular living spaces that would be stacked vertically. He then selected around 20 of these modular sections and rotated them to fit into the building horizontally. The cantilevers will be made out of steel, while the rest of the building is concrete. The cantilevers’ relatively lightweight material is meant to counterbalance its totally uneven form.
This isn’t the first building Scheeren has designed with cantilevers that jut into the open air. Much of his firm’s work in Asia—this is his firm’s first building outside the continent—plays with the idea of creating three-dimensionality by extruding portions of the building (see: Singapore’s DUO and Kuala Lumpur’s Angkasa Raya). The Vancouver building is arguably the most aesthetically challenging of all Scheeren’s designs , but he believes that ultimately, if humans want to be more connected to their cities and one another, we’ll need to figure out another way to design our buildings.
“We have to really ask ourselves, How do we want to live, and what qualities do we want in our lives?” he says. “There’s a real moment now of realizing that the tower, in its mute verticality, is simply devoid of the things that are quite important to our lives.”