Recently, whilst holidaying on the northeast coast of England, I became fascinated by the vertical quality of the built environment there. In the Yorkshire coastal settlements of Staithes, Runswick Bay, Whitby and Robin Hood’s Bay, many of the houses are constructed on steep-sided land fronting natural bays or man-made harbours. Built mainly from the 16th century onwards, these villages and towns presented a remarkably dense built environment, presumably to take full advantage of what nature had provided – to cash in on the lucrative coming together of sea and land, whether through fishing in the case of Staithes and Whitby or smuggling at Robin Hood’s Bay.
The density of these settlements – their small houses all connected by extremely narrow cobbled paths and steep steps – and their fascinating vertical topography reminded me of the favelas of Rio-de-Janeiro and other informal housing in Latin American cities. Of course, the scale of the favelas doesn’t compare with the compact quaintness of Robin Hood’s Bay; and the middle-class holidaymakers that now occupy many of the houses in these villages could not be more different than the vast urban poor of the favelas; yet, these settlements are connected because they all maximise population density on the barest minimum of available land. And they all achieve this through a form of vertical stacking that doesn’t sacrifice horizontal connectedness. Taking inspiration from this bringing together of the vertical and horizontal, the photographic constructions of Dionisio Gonzalez – his Favela series (2004-2007) – imagine how the vertical stacking of the favelas might transform architecture more generally. His fantastic multi-storey hybrid constructions bring together the spontaneity and vibrancy of favelas and more formal design elements that seem to have been inspired by the outrageous geometries evident in the work of architects Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid.
In a sense, these kinds of vertical built environments challenge how we conventionally imagine and construct vertical cities, namely through the ubiquitous model of the skyscraper which has dominated solutions to the problem of urban density from the early twentieth-century onwards. One only has to imagine a typical skyscraper laid on its side to get a sense of just how constricted horizontal movement is in these buildings. As an illustration of this, one might imagine London’s 95-storey Shard being moved from the vertical to the horizontal axis – in other words, a ground-scraper, namely a very long and narrowing low-rise building. What results is a city of multitudinous interior cul-de-sacs with just a small number of entrance/exit points clustered on only one end of the building. Of course, a horizontal building would never be this spatially limited in reality, but the illustration serves to reveal just how different the vertical built environment is from the rest of the city. Indeed, it might be argued that skyscrapers cannot help but reduce the range of choices that are open to urban citizens in terms of how they negotiate the city’s spaces: on the ground, cities offer a fine interconnection of streets, where an almost infinite number of lateral interconnections are possible; in the vertical city, those interconnections are always much more limited and usually heavily proscribed in terms of how they can be used.
Yet, at the dawn of the skyscraper age many speculated that future high-rise cities would incorporate multiple horizontal levels connecting tall buildings that effectively multiplied what counted as the urban ground. Thus, in the early twentieth century, numerous speculative visions of vertical cities articulated a radical vision of an enhanced sense of horizontality. These included: perspective images of multilevel cities such as ‘King’s Dream of New York’ (1908) and Corbett’s ‘City of the Future’ (1913); the novels The Sleeper Awakes (1910) and The City and the Stars (1956); the film sets of Metropolis (1927), Just Imagine (1930), and Things to Come (1936); and speculative architectural projects, from Antonio Sant’Elia’s Citta Nouva (1914) to Archigram’s Plug-in City project from 1964. Many of these visions were predicated on the rigorous separation of different forms of urban transport, ostensibly to relieve traffic congestion on the ground level; yet, they also envisaged an enriched horizontal experience for inhabitants in the future city that encompassed multiple grounds. Despite some successful attempts by urban planners to implement elevated transportation networks – for example, Chicago’s elevated railway ‘L’ and Bangkok’s Sky Train, and pedestrian skywalks linking many tall buildings in Minneapolis and Hong Kong – the radical visionary tradition of multi-level cities has mostly been sidelined in favour of the dominating paradigm of vertical stacking in tall buildings.
What old settlements like Robin Hood’s Bay and newer ones like the favelas of Rio show us is that is does not have to be this way. A whole rich web of horizontal connections are possible even in the most vertical built environments, so long as those who design, build and live in them are willing to embrace those connections. What struck me most about Robin Hood’s Bay was the lack of privacy for its residents – public paths passed through gardens and courtyards and every house seemed to connect to the next in organic assemblages. It is this sense of privacy that must be given up if the high-rise building is to become a space of connection rather than isolation. Of course, this can be done even in the most isolating of tall buildings – witness the sociability and community spirit of many high-rise social housing projects. Yet, as the horror of the recent Grenfell tower fire demonstrates, that willingness to connect must come with an architecture that nurtures and protects it, rather than turning it into a death trap.