As more people move to cities, architects and developers have to design and build enough housing to fit them all—and within a landscape that’s already extremely developed. This often means the construction of bland mega-buildings and sleek towers with no personality or connection to their surrounding neighborhoods. Yet as the battle for land and development contracts continues, here’s one potential silver lining: It could push architects to become more creative and outlandish with their designs, if only in an effort to nab the job.
If that turns out to be the case, they would be well advised to take inspiration from any of the architects in the new book Building Community: New Apartment Architecture by Michael Webb. The book collects examples of wild and eye-catching apartment complex designs, all completed within the last 10 years. These buildings are meant to stand out, not blend in—yet they still manage to complement their city’s urban landscape and provide a good quality of life for their inhabitants.
“There is an urgent need to build many more apartments—to relieve an acute shortage of housing, to use land more economically, to save the energy wasted on long commutes to distant suburbs, and to revitalize cities abandoned by an earlier generation,” writes Webb in the book’s introduction. “Indeed, from Sydney to Los Angeles, young people are moving back into urban centers and giving them a jolt of energy. The very notion of suburbia has been discredited as a wasteful delusion: neither city nor countryside, increasingly isolated by traffic congestion.”
Unimaginative developers and architects who do not want to deal with circumventing municipal code regulations settle for constructing boring and generic block buildings. Seen in every city worldwide, these monolithic apartment buildings are “faceless, placeless, and differing only in the expense of the decorative veneer,” as Webb puts it (we’ll also add: tasteless). Yet in every city there are also wholly original apartment buildings, enlivening the city in the spirit of Moshe Safdie’s experimental Habitat 67 in Montreal, or Oscar Niemeyer’s voluptuous Edificio Niemeyer tower in São Paulo. The best of these buildings are as much lessons in the creation of enjoyable living environments in tight spaces as they are lessons in unforgettable designs.
Take Italian architect Luciano Pia’s 25 Verde for example. Located in Turin, Italy, the building is an intriguing mix of rusted industrial materials and flourishing greenery. Native species of plants sprout out of structures that look like gigantic planters, placed on each of the building’s broad terraces, giving the look of a “tree taking root in an abandoned factory,” as Webb puts it. There’s nothing else like it in the quiet industrial area on the outskirts of town.
The unique, industrialized treehouse look also serves functional purposes–the terraces extend the living areas, sunlight filters in between the wood planks, and the plants offer shade, absorb noise, and give each resident his or her own forest oasis. It also gives those who live there a sense of ownership and community: “Residents are deeply devoted to the plantings, maintaining their own balconies with help from the gardeners who tend the courtyard,” writes Webb.
Meanwhile, in the town of Vejle, Denmark, in the southeast of the Jutland Peninsula, a building called the Wave produces a very different, though no less attention-grabbing, effect. The undulating luxury apartment building is the work of Henning Larson Architects, which won a competition in 2003 with their nautical design for the seaside town. Although only two of the five buildings proposed were completed, the building’s unique shape serves its inhabitants well. The units themselves have a glass facade that allows for plenty of light and a great view, while the sloping side walls give residents a sense of privacy and protection.
As another example, in Singapore, a building called the Interlace designed by architect Ole Scheeren (then at OMA), takes the concept of the bland vertical towers for mass housing and turns it sideways. The complex is a series of 12 buildings laid out horizontally instead of vertically, and stacked on top of each other in a criss-cross fashion. The design is meant to provide its residents with a better quality of life, with apartments of varying sizes, eight hexagonal courtyards, and an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
All 30 buildings in Webb’s book are spectacles in their own rights, but what truly sets these designs apart is a dedication to a beautiful building for the city as well as a livable space for its residents. As cities only get denser and denser, with developers pricing each other out for the rare piece of building property, architects will do well to learn from the unparalleled originality of these buildings.
Check out more images from Building Community in the slide show above, and find the book here.