Thomas Schroepfer’s latest book titled “Dense+Green: Innovative Building Types for Sustainable Urban Architecture” (Basel: Birkhäuser, 2016) was reviewed by Kee Wei Hui in The Singapore Architect 04/2016:
Dense+Green: Innovative Building Types for Sustainable Urban Architecture, a new book by Thomas Schroepfer, explores the urban and architectural discourse of density and greenery in urban developments through innovations in architectural typologies that have emerged from integrating green elements in high-density buildings. It also includes a wide range of case studies of architectural typologies, with contributions and reviews by local and international practitioners and experts.
Multiple conceptualizations, ideologies and approaches towards high-density and high-greenery buildings, and their evolution, technology, landscape, and urbanism are discussed, with examples of built architecture through which the “dense and green” paradigm has emerged. The book’s foreword by Chan Heng Chee, Ambassador-at-Large and Chairman of the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities (LKYCIC) at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), notes how the “sustainability conversation… has achieved a new urgency lately because the awareness of global warming has spread…” (p.9) It further questions what it means for high-density cities or regions to be sustainable and liveable.
Schroepfer directs the book’s focus in the introductory chapter, “The Dense and Green Paradigm,” expounding on the reality of rapid urbanization in our global society today. Rapid urbanization brings with it density, where design choices are made with the process of being ecological in mind. Schroepfer advocates an integrative holistic understanding of both being “dense” and “green” in the context of architecture and urban design in the 21st century. He traces critical moments through the history of architecture, where the dense and green paradigm had manifested in various forms and policies: the new, emergent paradigm does not originate solely from an architectural discourse, but from pivotal political, cultural, and environmental cataclysms.
The conversation on the theme of the book is further contributed by building specialist Naree Phinyawatana, landscape architect and urban planner Herbert Dreiseitl, botanist and ecologist Jean W. H. Yong, and architect and urban planner Kees Christiaanse. Collectively, they provide insights into the diverse approaches and technologies of “dense and green,” guided by their respective backgrounds and areas of specialisation.
Phinyawatana takes the view that building sustainability is driven by technology and should be empirical in nature. For her, “good buildings begin with good envelopes” (p.38), and hence facade optimization is important in developing a dense and green environment. She elaborates that the key challenge is to minimize demand for natural resources; hence, there is the need for advanced integrated systems design in buildings. Dreiseitl addresses the dynamic ever-changing nature of landscape manifested as blue (water) and green (vegetation) in the environment. With population growth and urbanization, the growth of cities is no longer horizontal but vertical. Consequently, the increasing scarcity of space will mean that built infrastructure will be in constant contention with blue-green infrastructure.
Yong highlights that plants are “the backbone of all life on earth” and “central to a functioning global ecosystem.” (p.60) He lists the attributes of greenery to our environment and elaborates on maximizing the benefits of green in buildings and developments where greenery not only complements but also defines spatial presence, while being an alleviator of human stress (p.62). Christiaanse cites the many ways greenery can be incorporated architecturally, and acknowledges its use in urban planning and architecture to “soften the transition between public and private space,” (p.73) though he also questions the sustainability of urban greenery.
Schroepfer characterizes dense and green building typologies by assessing five building types: institutional, office, residential, infrastructural, and mixed-use facilities. He adds a filter of four architectural strategies (p.84) in describing how green in different building typologies are manifested today, regardless of their building types, and formal and functional needs. The first strategy, “the topographic ground plane,” refers to how the ground level of a building is continuous with the natural undulating contours of the surrounding topography. The second strategy, “the atypical section,” uses unconventional sections via courtyards and enhanced vertical spaces. The third strategy, “the vegetal
habitat,” identifies the integration of programmes and vegetation within the building, creating “contained ecosystems” while the fourth strategy, “the transgression between indoor and outdoor space,” describes the deliberate blurring of interior and open exterior spaces.
These strategies transcend typology, but are well illustrated in the numerous case studies and “Dense+Green Practice Reports” (pp.246-281), populated with projects from the likes of Foster + Partners, MVRDV, WOHA and T.R Hamzah & Yeang.
In the book’s concluding chapter, “Dense+Green Future”, Schroepfer postulates a possible model of a future dense and green paradigm in three discrete levels: firstly, “Trajectories of the Urban,” where dense and green typologies are part of the larger, intertwined urban landscape ecosystem; secondly, “Trajectories of Architecture,” where architecture must respond to address environmental quality and liveability rather than architectural form per se; and thirdly, “Trajectories of Ecology,” where the built environment can no longer be delineated from the natural environment. Though discrete, these trajectories “have the potential to coalesce, support one another, and magnify their relevance” through the involvement of a “broad and committed array of people”, including not only “architects, engineers and planners, but also politicians, business leaders and policy makers (p.288).
The takeaway message from Dense+Green is that architecture, urban design, and planning must transcend discussions on form and style, and be driven instead by a larger ecological impetus. Design and planning professionals must steer the current course towards an integrated approach, in “solving the problems posed by the immense and historically unprecedented ecological stress and population pressure” (p.289). Understanding the titular dense and green paradigm as a by-product of social, political, and economic systems would thus be necessary for the sustainability of our future buildings and cities.