Steven Holl’s Utopia

(This is hanba’s longest post yet! bear with me here and please help me with comments of any sort. hanba is a new to blogging and appreciates advice!)

Steven Holl’s Utopia –  Or Can Good Neighbours Exist Without Mending Walls?

Hanba has recently discovered a new, utopian housing project being built in Beijing, not far from the Forbidden City. This housing complex, called the Linked Hybrid, is designed by the American architect Steven Holl. It consists of eight towers interconnected with a walkway on the 20th floor. The high rise towers are divided into three vertical layers. The first layer consists of shops and commercial spaces on the ground level. The second layer consists of roof gardens and terraces. A third consists of the elevated walkway. The walkway and towers form a space in the middle, where parks and a cinema reside. Holl: “This is a city within a city.”  Along the elevated walkway are swimming pools and gyms, forming a platform dedicated entirely for pedestrians. This is a site for random social exchange between the inhabitants. Holl uses the word “utopian” to describe this walkway.

Linked hybrid (Source Wikimedia commons/ nicolette_mastrangelo)

Linked hybrid (Source: nicolette_mastrangelo)

A blast from the past

It’s 2009, but hanba’s thoughts escape to the 1940s. This housing project has much in common with another utopian, large scale social housing project, Unite d’Habitation. Situated in Marseille and designed by Le Corbusier, it includes apartment buildings woven together with a central walkway of shops. On the top terrace, a common cinema and bar were supposed to provide entertainment and quality of life for the inhabitants. The vision was, not unlike Holl’s, to allow people to share life and interact.

History, however, proved the Unite to be a miserable failure. The number of inhabitants was not sufficient to sustain the enterprises on the seventh and sixth floors, where the shops were situated. It was too difficult for the potential customers from outside to ascend to the the higher floors of the apartment buildings. The stores, one after another, had to close, leaving an empty hallway of semi-public space, belonging to nobody and everybody simultaneously. The hallways were referred to as spooky, even hostile – the inhabitants could not avoid being funneled through this hostile-seeming territory, on walks between the ground floor and their apartments.

Unite d'habitation (source: Wikimedia commons / emmar)

Unite d'habitation (source: emmar)

Other architects followed the fashion, and several large-scale housing projects were built all over the Western world. Migration from rural areas to urban centers caused a demand for affordable housing. Entire suburbs in Le Corbusier’s spirit were born. This gave rise to an architectural style known as concrete brutalism.

Holl is not the only architect trying to re-introduce Corbusier’s ideals after the initial wave of brutalism passed. For example, in the 1970’s, a British housing project called the Robin Hood Gardens was built. This is a colossal housing unit, providing shelter for thousands of people. The project was in response to the housing needs of the lower classes. It also featured walkway structures designed to increase communication between the inhabitants. This wave, called New Brutalism, was as large a failure as the Habitation. Crime flourished in The Gardens, changing the utopic housing community into an unattractive slum.

The semi-public space

Why does the same ideal keep coming back? What is it in Le Corbusier’s original utopia that leads  us to build more of the same? Why is the concept of semi-public space so attractive? How will the semi-public pathways be utilised in the Linked Hybrid? How will the unwritten social rules be formed around the walkways this time? Are the neighbours going to break into a chat while taking a swim in the tub?  What are there cultural factors at play here, when the concept is introduced within the Chinese culture?

One might argue that since the Hybrid is designed for a modern upper class, it may have good chances of success.  In my opinion, however,  a prerequisite for success when it comes to common semi-public spaces is that the neighbours make a “social contract” with each other. This contract is not unique to a particular social class, and involves that you:

(1) are willing to interact with neighbours ,

(2) follow the unwritten rules that form around semi-public spaces,

(3) respect each other’s integrity

It is not self-evident that this “social contract” materializes the moment people move in. (In more traditional apartment buildings, the “contract” forms more easily, since most of the space is either public or private. The Hybrid, however, contains far too much semi-public space to be considered an ordinary high-rise. This will invariably have social implications on the community.)

Social considerations

Here hanba has listed some pros and cons concerning the semi-public space – concept introduced by the Hybrid:

(+) Perhaps the semi-public space will be a success in a modern megapolis. Beijing is swarming with people who have little possibilites to experiencing a small community atmosphere. Perhaps the walkways will be embraced by the people as an immense relief from the street level hassle.

(+) Social rules may be formed effectively within the Chinese culture. For instance, messages telling people how to behave in public are already broadcasted on TV. Perhaps “programming” a code of conduct, (i.e. the “social contract”) may be easier in China.

(+) Mass housing in China has historically been standardized and repetitive. The Hybrid, albeit massive, provide a change from the monotony.

(-) How will the common facilities be governed? Will there be rules by which the people have to arrange their lives after? In this case, how will the rules be followed? What if a neighbour stays in a pool from dawn to dusk every day without letting anybody else in? Are there going to be social polices or staff members to deal with this? If there are staff members, what will their relationship to the inhabitants be like? (The example may seem trivial, but banalities like this may very well do harm to the social climate.)

(-) One of the key points where the Unite and Robin Hood Gardens fail, is that they have not taken the individual human factor into account. In my opinion, an overly utopic ideal is placed on the positive aspects of human social behaviour. Throughout history, some people have got along while others have not. This is an irrational process, and the outcome is hard to predict. Thousands of people cohabiting the common spaces will constantly have to define their relationships to each other. This may lead to complex social undercurrents. Ultimately, these undercurrents may lead to the neighbours “watching each other from the corners of their eyes”. The leap from these undercurrents and observing each others’ behavior, to the kind of spooky, hostile semi-public space of d’habitation, is minimal.

(-) Several people move in simultaneosly. Interpersonal relationships, however, take time. A positive culture around the walkways may not form when hundreds (thousands?) of hurried people tread them for the first time.

(-) All the three projects lack in community involvement. A large-scale community is built without asking future inhabitants questions as how to design the common space. If the people were invited to the blueprint drawing tables, they may have had a chance to define the distance to each other already before the concrete was being laid.

    Robin Hood Gardens (source: Wikimedia commons / joseph beuys hat)

Robin Hood Gardens (source: joseph beuys hat)

(-) This brings up another point where the two previous utopists failed. Corbusier did not pursue community involvement in the building process. The process was characterized by autocracy instead of democracy. Corbusier was criticized for selfishness, creating a large-scale monument for the glory it gave himself. Similarly, the creators of The Robin Hood Gardens, Alison and Peter Smithson, were known for having enjoyed their social status as “great architects”. Perhaps, a utopist may be wise tuning down his desires to produce a historical monument and dreams of becoming a great social reformer. Instead, a more humble dialogue between the designer and the dweller could be emphasized.

Good fences make good neighbours

Hanba is reminded of Robert Frost’s poem, Mending Wall. Only by mending walls between them, can the two neighbours in the poem, year after year, make peace with each other. “Good fences make good neighbours”, they tell each other. The peace is maintained by a constant process of defining the distance between the neighbours. This process takes time and effort. No shortcuts from this fact can be taken through elaborate, “utopic” design.

If given the possibility, I would like to ask Mr Holl how he relates to his predecessors, and what steps he took to prevent the Hybrid from repeating the mistakes. If he has a good answer, the Hybrid may have a chance to succeed. In any case, it will be interesting to see whether the Linked Hybrid will strike a cord in the Chinese culture it has been built and immersed in.

Linked Hybrid - Utopian model (Source: Wikimedia commons / nicolette_mastrangelo)

Linked Hybrid - Utopian model (Source: nicolette_mastrangelo)

A list of links and references is coming up soon.


2 responses to “Steven Holl’s Utopia

  1. very interesting posts!
    for me, what can really make a difference on this project is the location and the target.
    is there any similar project running in Dubai?

  2. Pingback: Horror vacui « THE HANBABLOG

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