Do Highrises Dream of Technicolor Floors?

(The full text of a book written in conjunction with my independent thesis in satisfaction of Master in Architecture degree at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, 2015.)

Hardcopy book available at: http://www.blurb.com/books/5932023-highrise

World: floor
Do highrises dream of technicolor floors?

by See Jia Ho

The problem is simply this: What does a science fiction writer know about? On what topic is he an authority? It reminds me of a headline that appeared in a California newspaper just before I flew here. SCIENTISTS SAY THAT MICE CANNOT BE MADE TO LOOK LIKE HUMAN BEINGS. It was a federally funded research program, I suppose. Just think: Someone in this world is an authority on the topic of whether mice can or cannot put on two-tone shoes, derby hats, pinstriped shirts, and Dacron pants, and pass as humans. Well, I will tell you what interests me, what I consider important. I can’t claim to be an authority on anything, but I can honestly say that certain matters absolutely fascinate me, and that I write about them all the time.
- Philip K Dick, How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later

ROSE: But, all this plastic stuff. Who else knows about it? DOCTOR: No one. ROSE: What, you’re on your own? 
- Doctor Who, Ninth Doctor, Season 27, Episode 1

Is it not a matter of consequence to try to understand why the flowers go to so much trouble to grow thorns which are never of any use to them?
- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

Table of Contents

Chapter.........................................................................Page No.

1. Highrise                          13
2. World: 3 Definitions                          21
3. World: floor (Insert)                           51
4. World: floor (World as floor)                   59
5. Filigree and Toile: Amiens Cathedral flipbook         81
6. Do highrises dream of technicolor floors?            129
7. Singapore Highrise                         139
8. World: floor (Proposal)                  155

Afterword                          180

Appendix                                   189

This is a thesis project about a residential highrise building in Singapore.
I never liked highrises, and I didn’t know exactly why. It could be that I thought they were arrogant because of the unmistakable verticality that rises from a flat ground and the obviousness of human effort that erected such tall structures, but I also thought there was yet something else that bothered me about highrises.
Far more than aesthetic appearances and questions of style it seems to me that there is something limiting about the world they imply, contain and purport to be.

{3 Definitions}


World - Definition 1

I started by approaching this question architecturally (or physically.) If the world is what we perceive with our physical senses (Definition 1: World as physical experience), then it can be said that the city dweller’s world is the urban context.

It is here where one experiences the city, the cars, people, signage, noises and all the paraphernalia of the city.

Vertical Continuity

Does this city extend upwards with the skyscraper? In A Pattern Language, Christopher Alexander talks about how after the fourth story a highrise inhabitant is no longer able to connect to the ground floor city context (p.24-29).

Above four stories these connections break down. The visual detail is lost; people speak of the scene below as if it were a game, from which they are completely detached. The connection to the ground and to the fabric of the town becomes tenuous; the building becomes a world of its own...
- Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language

If we agree that the four storey limit applies, then the highrise after the fourth storey disengages from the urban context and “becomes a world of its own”.


In Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas presented the ‘1909 theorem’ (p.33), a Life Magazine cartoon, as the prototype of the skyscraper with fractured floors.

Each of these artificial levels is treated as a virgin site, as if the others did not exist, to establish a strictly private realm [and] create at each elevator stop a different lifestyle and thus an implied ideology...The “life” inside the building is correspondingly fractured....Incidents on the floors are so brutally disjointed that they cannot conceivably be part of a single scenario.
- Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York

The elevator enabled the addition of more and more floors in the sky, in that way it is the generating mechanism of the skyscraper. This mechanism works by way of a box that travels vertically, carrying passengers to each floor of the highrise. The elevator is the only thing that moves; the passengers are stationary. With the modern push-button smooth-travelling elevator, it can be said that the fractured floors of Theorem 1909 are expressed faithfully, each floor of a highrise is a different world to be entered into from the elevator portal. Each world is distinct from any other world in the building, they cannot be experienced as a single world.

World: Floor

Then, as such, a highrise building cannot exist as a world to be experienced as a whole; the experienced world is limited to the floor of the highrise, one at a time.

The famous scenario of the naked oyster-eating boxers (p.37) in the Downtown Athletic Club at first glance seems to illustrate the strangeness and excitement of the mashing together of worlds that could happen in a skyscraper, but I was somewhat disappointed by the realization that this is only the result of a single floor. The oyster bar, the locker room and the boxing ring are all on the 9th floor; architecturally, this does not require a highrise - the same scenario can take place in a one-floor building...
But this is a good example of fractured world-floors, predicted in Theorem 1909. What then am I disappointed with? Why does the original cartoon hold so much more promise and imagination than the Downtown Athletic Club section?

World - Definition 2

Theorem 1909 seems to give the promise of a satisfying slice of world at each floor (Definition 2: World as a set of components - ground, sky, air, scenery, habitation, URBAN CONTEXT.) Each floor is not treated as a floor in a building but as an entire landscape, or its own (sub)urban context. We see this actually illustrated in the cartoon that comes right after Theorem 1909 in Delirious New York, titled ‘Cosmopolis of the Future’ (p.34). This is a more faithful development of Theorem 1909: the urban context is replicated in the air by the elevated and air-borne traffic systems.
This is very different from the Downtown Athletic Club where each floor is tethered to the ground floor urban context by the elevator.


This replication of the urban context in the sky is illustrated with great power in many science fiction movie backdrops (such as The Fifth Element) and in sci-fi futuristic art. These artworks are usually densely populated with moving vehicles, inhabitants, bridges and sky traffic systems that imply a great density of life and complex social interactions (congestion is desirable.) At every vertical strata, a great amount of activity is taking place, in effect the city exists at all levels. The ground floor has finally lost its status - in fact, there is no ground floor (p.42-45).


Take my love, take my land
Take me where I cannot stand
I don’t care, I’m still free
You can’t take the sky from me.

(Opening theme, Firefly TV series)

“Light is a powerful substance. We have a primal connection to it.” (James Turrell)

“We are born of light. The seasons are felt through light. We only know the world as it is evoked by light.” (Louis Kahn)

“The history of architecture is the history of the struggle for light.” (Le Corbusier)

The necessity of “sky” (and with it sun and daylight) as a component of the world (Definition 2) cannot be understated. Sci-fi futuristic art is usually dark. The sun cannot be seen, the sky is glimpsed through gaps between infrastructure and the air is a perpetual fog. The level of daylighting in The Fifth Element cityscape cannot be achieved naturally. Worlds (Definition 2) in the dense sci-fi art are broken: the ground can be replicated but not the sky.

Observation Deck

On the other hand, Le Corbusier’s Contemporary City for Three Million Inhabitants (p.46-49) ignores ground replication. All movement and urban context is limited to the ground level, as it is in most cases today. Floors in the Contemporary City’s highrise towers are not complete worlds (Definition 2): lacking the urban context each is only an observation deck tethered to the ground floor. However, the important component “sky” that is missing in the each of the sci-fi city’s broken worlds (Definition 2) can be experienced here. Because Le Corbusier did not bother to replicate the ground plane, he had no need to replicate the sky either - one sky is enough for one world.
World - Definition 3
The worlds discussed so far are physical. There is also a non-physical world (Definition 3: World as experienced in the mind.)

My first story had to do with a dog who imagined that the garbagemen who came every Friday morning were stealing valuable food which the family had carefully stored away in a safe metal container. Every day, members of the family carried out paper sacks of nice ripe food, stuffed them into the metal container, shut the lid tightly — and when the container was full, these dreadful-looking creatures came and stole everything but the can. Finally, in the story, the dog begins to imagine that someday the garbagemen will eat the people in the house, as well as stealing their food. Of course, the dog is wrong about this. We all know that garbagemen do not eat people. But the dog’s extrapolation was in a sense logical — given the facts at his disposal. The story was about a real dog, and I used to watch him and try to get inside his head and imagine how he saw the world. Certainly, I decided, that dog sees the world quite differently than I do, or any humans do. And then I began to think, Maybe each human being lives in a unique world, a private world, a world different from those inhabited and experienced by all other humans. And that led me wonder, If reality differs from person to person, can we speak of reality singular, or shouldn’t we really be talking about plural realities?
-Philip K Dick, How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later

Many science fiction novels and movies have been made regarding the multiplicity of worlds as experienced by individuals. Architecture has very little to do with this last type of world. A man with a book in a prison cell could have a larger world (Definition 3) than a man in a palace with nothing - how does one measure this world?
Is it the necessities that make a sufficient world? If there is a supermarket down the street, does this make a world? Or, one can live in a room with a computer and the internet without ever having to leave, is that a world?
But, all things being equal, architecture could influence a Definition 3 world. If one man lives in a windowless basement while another in a light-filled apartment (assuming all other things equal including a preference for sunlight), we can assume that the second man’s world is better. In this case, architecture defined a Definition 2 world (with sky as a component) which affected the Definition 1 world (physically sensed world) which in turn influenced the Definition 3 world (world in the mind).
All definitions considered, it is a mistake to think that architecture cannot change the world.

World: floor

World: floor
{World as floor}

Hacking the World(floor)

Man’s physical constitution, and also his sense of orientation, is geared to predominantly horizontal movement. His life unfolds in horizontal expanse, and thus it is in conflict with the vertical dynamics of all substance.
- Heino Engel, Structure Systems

World: floor - Definition

“World: floor” is an expression of “World as floor” - the world experienced as a floor; alternatively written as “World(floor)” or the world which is the floor. The floor is defined as the inhabitable and predominantly horizontal plane, the result of the horizontality of man’s movement (“the world is what you walk on”) and sight (“the world is what you see”), both related to the notion of ownership and possession (p.54).

World(floor) in the Highrise

The world(floor) concept is applicable universally beginning from “flat earth” (p.52), but it becomes particularly prominent in the case of the highrise building where the mechanism of the elevator creates a distinct and unique world(floor) at each elevator stop.
In a highrise building, each floor is its own world; there are worlds stacked upon worlds, and these do not interact or add up into a bigger world. In the existence of parallel worlds, our experience is limited to one.

Expanding the World(floor)

Method 1
Expanding the floor height vertically or the walkable floor expanse horizontally.
Method 2
Providing visual accessibility between floors.

I sought a few examples of various architects addressing the issue:

ZKM Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, 1992, OMA

(The building) is composed of discontinuous and differentiated plans. Inside the rather cubic building, plans punctuated with the vertical struts of six-meter-deep Vierendeel trusses alternate with column-free plans to produce a stack of spaces that, like an architectural montage, evoke a series of radically different architectural types, or the architectural equivalent of time travel. 
- Preston Scott Cohen, Successive Architecture
The first example is not at all about expanding the world(floor). Rem Koolhaas’ design for Karlsruhe  accepts that floors in a building are fractured, hermetic worlds, and does not attempt to subvert the condition. He designed each world to be different and unrelated.

Jussieu Library, 1992, OMA

In this project, ramps and escalators are used prolifically to create a continuous ground plane in the building (method 1 & 2). As opposed to accepting hermetic worlds, it sought to puncture and melt the worlds together.

Guggenheim Museum, 1959, Frank Lloyd Wright

A continous spiral as ground plane (method 1) attempts to create a building with just one world(floor.) In other words, Guggenheim can be said to function as a world(building). The void in the center of the building also functions as the atrium in John Portman’s hotels (method 2), discussed in the next example.

Hotel Atriums, John Portman

Rather than trying to make connected (inter-walkable) worlds, the atriums of John Portman’s buildings bore holes through the world(floors) for purely visual connection; inhabitants of one world(floor) can see into another one (method 2). The staggering stacks of worlds that exist in a building are exposed. The glass elevators also make visible the mechanism of travel; it is no longer teleportation, but like a railway train there are windows and passing scenery.

Unité d’Habitation, 1952, Le Corbusier

The Unité has a shopping street located about halfway up the building, which is a floor stretched vertically to about two to three stories tall (method 1). The urban context is missing from this world (see “World: Definition 2”, p.31) at mid-building: there is no traffic in or passing through to create business for the shopping street, which remained mostly deserted.

Habitat, 1967, Moshe Safdie

Safdie wanted every home to have a garden in a high-density housing complex: ‘garden’ is here part of the (sub)urban context of the Definition 2 world which is replicated. In the sense that from one vertical strata other floors are visible (terrace scenario), it can be said to be a Method 2, together with open circulation stairways as Method 1.

Linked Hybrid, 2009, Steven Holl

Holl used skybridges to expand the world(floors) at certain stratas, linking isolated islands into a bigger walkable world(floor), creating a new ground plane condition in the air (method 1). The city context is however not replicated; there is simply not enough density, activity and players.

Renewal of Tsukiji District, Tokyo, 1966, Kenzo Tange

Kenzo Tange and the Metabolists wanted to save Tokyo which was becoming increasingly congested in the 60s. The Metabolists were concerned about moving things quickly and efficiently; in a pre-digital age, communication (the life-blood of the city) was strongly dependent on physical transport. In short, the Metabolist city is about a superefficient traffic system. Their bridges in the sky (unlike Holl’s bridges) are built for megacity density and movement - if realized, it will be a type of true replication of the urban context. (Method 1 can be seen here on a large scale.)

Hexahedron Arcology, 1966, Paolo Soleri

In Paolo Soleri’s Arcology, urban sectioning takes the place of urban planning. “Public”, “City Center”, “Commercial”, “Residential” and other zones are laid out vertically, occupying different stratas of this world in a terrace condition (method 1 & 2). Because the context permeates every level, there are no observation decks here.

Hyper Towers

Soleri’s Arcology leads into a discussion of the so-called “Hyper Towers”, massive structures such as Sky City 1000 and X-Seed 4000 in Tokyo, or Friedrich St. Florian’s Vertical City - usually an entire city is contained within a building frame.

If the city context is replicated at every major vertical strata (for instance, ever 4 or 5 storeys), the outcome approaches the scale of the Metabolist cities or the Hyper Towers. The monumental scale of the massive framework is inseparable from an image of power, which is very antithesis to the spirit of this age that resonates with individual freedom and choice. Other than that, there is also the question of material consumption and cost of construction.

The Anti-Hyper Tower

The anti-Hyper Tower expands horizontally as much as it expands vertically.

Building scale
At the scale of the building, each floor is expanded vertically (see “expanding the world(floor), method 1”, p.59); each floor contains a world (see “3 definitions”, p.20).

Town scale
At the scale of the town, bridges link each world(floor) to adjacent existing buildings at the same strata to create an extended world(floor) (see “expanding the world(floor), method 1”, p.59).

At a further point in time, new buildings are built with a similar concept. As with existing buildings, bridges link each floor to create an extended world(floor).

City scale
The city gradually transforms.

Filigree and Toile
{Amiens Cathedral flipbook}

The Case of the Gothic Cathedral

Written in a rambling
style, carelessly:

Before I ever was an architect, I loved Gothic cathedrals. Not so much other things like Greek, Renaissance or Romanesque structures. For instance, I didn’t feel much for the Pantheon. (Not to mention modern architecture, which I found inexcusably boring.) But I liked Baroque a lot, and even more so Rococo. In short, I was a lay person.
I never let go of the fact that I was educated to appreciate modern architecture. It didn’t make much sense to me, that something as universal as architecture becomes an exclusive type of academic pursuit and acquired taste... at the worst moments I wondered if architects are content to just design for the appreciation of other architects; what about all the rest of the people?
Is it worth a thought? It seems that in recent times more architects have given that a thought. We see the proliferation of ornamented facades - digital displays, lace, hexagonal structure, etc. Building form, massing and silhouette are also articulated to become a sort of ornament (if ornament is defined as that which is not structurally required but something for the eyes, for ‘affect’). Farshid Moussavi and Michael Kubo’s The Function of Ornament lays out many examples of such.
But this treatment of ornament didn’t seem satisfying, as much for the masses as I think architecture should be, using ornament as a sort of aesthetic wrapper seems condescending. It is a type of marketing in general (the issue of packaging versus the actual goods...) Very old-fashioned-ly, I thought it is the best to be good both inside and out, but if there had to be a choice between the two, I would buy an ugly box of really good chocolates rather than a beautiful box of really bad ones. As non-consequential as this sounds, it had been a topic of debate for centuries in diverse arenas and fields (significantly in the  literary and oratorical arts.)

...men began to hunt more after words than matter; and more after the choiceness of the phrase, and the round and clean composition of the sentence, and the sweet falling of the clauses, and the varying and illustration of their works with tropes and figures, than after the weight of matter, worth of subject, soundness of argument, life of invention, or depth of judgment.
- Francis Bacon, On the Vanity of Words without Matter (16th c.)

He should also avoid, so to speak, cementing his words together too smoothly, for the hiatus and the clash of vowels has something agreeable about it and shows a not unpleasant carelessness on the part of a man who is paying more attention to thought than to words. But his very freedom from periodic structure and cementing his words together will make it necessary for him to look to the other requisites. For the short and concise clauses must not be handled carelessly, but there is such a thing even as a careful negligence.
- Cicero, Orator (46 B.C.)

Here, Ernst Gombrich talks about ornament and decorum.

Once again there is an obvious transition from the conviction that the charms of ornament can be used for a base purpose, to the suspicion that a profusion of such charms is likely to conceal a base purpose. The old proverb that ‘a good wine needs no bush’ has its correlate in what advertisers call ‘sales resistance’ to conspicuous bushes.
In the history of Greek rhetorical theory such ‘sales resistance’ developed into an aesthetic prejudice on the part of the purists against the artifice of so-called Asiatic oratory with its rhythmic cadences and its far-fetched imagery. Their cult of the plain and simple threatened indeed to subvert the whole tradition of rhetoric with its panoply of tricks and devices. It was for this reason that Cicero expended much energy...in countering their arguments while conceding the limited validity of their case. Briefly, he acknowledged the force and value of the plain or Attic style where such a style was appropriate. But he urged that there were also occasions to which more solemn and artificial diction was appropriate. This is the influential doctrine of decorum, which lays down the conditions under which display is admissible and even necessary, while appealing to good taste to set it limits and to be aware of its pitfalls.

- Ernst Gombrich, The Sense of Order (1979)

And pushing exactly at those limits of good taste were the decorated sheds of Venturi and Scott Brown. But here, Venturi’s observations from the point of view of contrasting scales and layered openings shed a certain angle of light on the power and mystery of the Gothic facade:

...the complex super-adjacencies in the cloister facades at Tomar compose a wall validly containing spaces within itself. The multiple layers of columns - engaged and disengaged, large and small, directly and indirectly superimposed - and the profusion of superimposed openings, architraves, and horizontal and diagonal balustrades create contrasts and contradictions in scale, direction, size, and shape. They make a wall containing spaces inside itself.
...the Gothic traceries of the cathedral at Strasbourg, or the interior of the choir at Notre Dame, Paris...are all disengaged and superimposed on contrasting window patterns. The big public-scale and the rigid order outside contrast vividly with the small private-scale patterns required within. This play of layers of openings...

- Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction (1966)

The Amiens Cathedral Flipbook

On the right page in this chapter is a flipbook of the facade of Amiens Cathedral. It strips away the ornament a little at a time - first the filigree (including all surface detail such as brick work) and small sculptural elements, then removing the depth of the openings by uniform shading, and finally removing even the idenitity and hierarchy of the openings and the building silhouette, forming a uniform field of windows that become subdivided further. The end result is a stock image of an office building.


Looking at the original image of the cathedral facade on paper (p.83), it can be argued that all detail is filigree. Filigree is a predominantly two-dimensional surface ornamental treatment with no depth.

If at first glance it is all filigree, the shadows lead us to think there is depth. The existence of depth then leads to the next thought: the existence of spaces. Then, spaces lead to life, life leads to activity, activity leads to interaction - all these that make up the urban context or the desire to live in the city.


A relative of the filigree is the French toile. Although physically even flatter than the filigree (it being a canvas print), the toile presents a deeper and bigger world (Definition 3).

The toile plays not only with repeating pattern, but also with hierarchy: the scenes themselves are most emphasized, then smaller objects (like the hot air balloon in the above example) and finally foliage that fills in the gaps.
When looking at a toile, our eyes zoom in to check out the details of the scenes, and they find human figures, horses, romance... These are the ingredients of a story.
The Amiens facade is a story-telling facade. The most obvious being the sculptures and reliefs that tell stories from the bible, but the hierarchy of the portals also tells of grandeur and order and places of entry, and the existence of spaces in the layered wall system tells of spaces where life could be contained. Because so many ingredients are in this story, the eye is occupied and the mind wanders to form a conclusion; compare this with the final image of the office building (p.127) - even though a degree of filigree is achieved, there is no element of toile; there is no deepness of world nor ingredients of a story. We can understand one window and understand the entire facade, or we can understand nothing and the facade is as a black hole of meaning.

Inside versus Outside

The facade of the Amiens Cathedral is not to serve the those who are inside the cathedral. The facade’s service is to the city outside that looks upon the cathedral building which occupies, as a tall building, a prominent visual space in the city.
Inside, it is a different agenda. The sculptures and narrative of the facade cannot be read inside. Here, stained glass windows and soaring arches: all strive to be as tall and as high as possible. It is hardly about the view out; it is about the light coming in.
In Delirious New York, Koolhaas presented the complete disconnection between the inside and the outside of a skyscraper (the ‘lobotomy.’)

Buildings have both an interior and an exterior. In Western architecture there has been the humanistic assumption that it is desirable to establish a moral relationship between the two, whereby the exterior makes certain revelations about the intenor that the interior corroborates. The “honest” facade speaks about the activities it conceals. But mathematically, the interior volume of three-dimensional objects increases in cubed leaps and the containing envelope only by squared increments: less and less surface has to represent more and more interior activity.
Beyond a certain critical mass the relationship is stressed beyond the breaking point; this “break” is the symptom of Automonumentality. In the deliberate discrepancy between container and contained New York’s makers discover an area of unprecedented freedom....
The architectural equivalent [of surgical lobotomy] separates exterior and interior architecture. In this way the Monolith spares the outside world the agonies of the continuous changes raging inside it.
It hides everyday life.

- Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York (1978)

The outside of the Downtown Athletic Club (p.102) hides the life that takes place inside it; there is no story to tell when looking at its facade or its massing. However, all the devices that are at play in the narrative facade of the Amiens Cathedral is multiplied at a megascale in a proliferate amount of varied details when one looks not only at the Club building but at its surroundings - the Manhattan cityscape.

Manhattan vs. Amiens

The reason for the powerful visual attraction of Manhattan when seen as a whole (in panoramic bird-eye shots or when standing in the middle of a major street) lies in the fact that at that scale, all the individual buildings and their facades become the filigree and the toile. In the case of the Amiens, it was built as the single high structure in a medieval city - lacking the backdrop that the Manhattan building has, the cathedral had to be the filigree and the toile all by itself.

The Filigree vs. the Toile

Is it necessary for a city to be like a story-telling toile? If every facade in Manhattan was the same, it would not have the power seen in the aerial shots. A city like this is rarely seen, but can be approximated by some housing block landscapes (p.108). The filigree by itself cannot imagine life, but is the first step at suggesting spaces for life - this can be seen even in the same housing block landscape; almost every city approaches a toile to some extent. In the design of a new highrise structure, the design of the exterior facade, form and massing is in effect an exercise in completing the toile or inserting a new element into the toile. It can be said that the design of the outside is more like painting and graphic art.

Two Interior Worlds

1. James Turrell: Sky Without Context

Light is a powerful defining ingredient of a space, and the sky with its light is the most important component of a world (definition 2). The gothic cathedral demonstrates this in the interior.

By the late 1960s, he was also experimenting with outdoor light. He painted the windows of the hotel and scratched lines in the paint, allowing narrow slits of light to enter the room. He found that he could create patterns and illusions, much as he had with the projector. He called the series “Mendota Stoppages,” and he felt they had at least one advantage over the projection series: Because the light came from outside, there was no machinery in the room. He had created a gallery in which the art was made entirely of light.
By the early 1970s, Turrell was exploring another phenomenon with natural light. Instead of scratching paint on the windows, he cut large holes in the walls and ceiling of the old hotel to create a view of the open sky. With the right size of opening and the right vantage and some careful finish work, he found that it was possible to eliminate the sense of depth, so the sky appeared to be painted directly on the ceiling. Then he pointed electric lights at the hole, marveling at the dissonance between the light coming in and going out. He discovered that when he changed the color of the electric lights, he could change the apparent color of the sky. He called the series “Skyspaces.”
- On James Turrell, New York Times article (2013)

Turrell’s “Mendota Stoppages” can be compared with the detailed windows of a cathedral (art ‘made entirely of light’ from the outside). His Skyspaces (p.114) can be seen as worlds (definition 2) because the weightier component of “sky” is present, trumping the lack of context.

2. Kowloon Walled City: Context without Sky

Kowloon Walled City (p.116,8) is the opposite of Turrell’s Skyspaces. Admired by outsiders for its density, chaos and mysterious atmosphere, it is not what would be called humane architecture. Besides the lack of toilets, plumbing, waste disposal system and water supply, most apartments apart from the outermost have no source of daylight.

"An informal network of staircases and passageways also formed on upper levels, which was so extensive that one could travel north to south through the entire City without ever touching solid ground.”

While they are steeped in context, the interior worlds have no sky.

While the imaginative power of the maze that is the Kowloon Walled City continues to inspire and is referenced by designers who wish to create an intensity of context (e.g. video game designers), the physical City cannot conceivably be rebuilt the way it was; is there meaning in creating a Kowloon Walled City that is humane? Not only this, but is it possible at all, at what point does it stop having the spirit of Kowloon Walled City? And not only that, but what is that spirit, and is it desirable?
On the other hand, Skyspaces would make a really poor video game setting with no context and no plot, but here is the difference between life and game.

Skyscraper and Cathedral

The highrises of today are more like Turrell’s Skyspaces than they are like Kowloon Walled City. Each floor is all sky with no context. The Cathedral, on the other hand, is more like the City than like the Skyspace: an interior full of context but without a view of the sky.

Do high-rises dream of technicolor floors?

Death of the High-Rise

The high-rise is dead, and no one is mourning. Conceived and birthed by a young urban context, it was murdered by the elevator in its infancy. Its carcass was cloned and piled up, sometimes with earnestness, sometimes with callous indifference, sometimes with swiss precision, nonetheless like pancakes. The elevator that murdered the high-rise did it over and over again, placing the carcasses on display like an obsessive serial killer with a penchant for arrangement and artistic expression - masterpieces wrapped in shiny material as if to hide the ultimate lifelessness and futility of the effort; like a rain soaked cigarette butt on the pavement it is no longer able to invent any future. The elevator has one quest: height. It is a psychopath unable to deal with emotions, sympathy or context. Lacking the ability to dream of anything other than height, it created taller and taller pancake towers, sometimes constructing gymnastically impressive pancake towers. Its accomplice and hustler is the square foot price. Prestige and status are its ancient lovers and patrons.

The Elevator

There is no high-rise building. The only thing that rises is the elevator, skewering through stacks of single-storey worlds. Each floor is lifted from the ground like a baby with its umbilical cord still attached. The elevator has always suffered from an inferiority complex - it is the underachieving sibling of the teleport machine. The reigning king of worlds survives on cables and maintenance men and can hardly yet deviate from the straight line, but it does its job. It does not matter that the floors are stacked vertically: if the 3rd floor is in Antarctica and the 72nd floor is on Venus, we are in still in a high-rise, unless our eyes (these days we can trick them) tell us that we have moved a hundred million kilometers between two worlds.

72nd Floor Pizza Place
: A whole new world

If the world at the 72nd floor is complete, man does not have to go down to the ground floor. If the world at the ground floor is complete, man does not have to go up to the 72nd floor. There are fractured worlds in a high-rise but each world is not a vacuum. If you live on pizza on the 72nd floor for the rest of your life, someone would have to deliver it to your door from the ground floor, human or android. If the pizza place is on the 72nd floor someone would have to deliver the ingredients from the ground floor. If the ingredients are on the 72nd floor someone would have to grow the wheat somewhere in the world on the ground floor. If the wheat field is on the 72nd floor then we have a whole new world.

Changing Worlds

Certainly, I decided, that a dog sees the world quite differently than I do, or any humans do. And then I began to think, Maybe each human being lives in a unique world, a private world, a world different from those inhabited and experienced by all other humans. And that led me to wonder, if reality differs from person to person, can we speak of reality singular, or shouldn’t we really be talking about plural realities?
(How to How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later, Philip K. Dick)

What is a world? In Strange Days (1995), one man’s mundane and desperate existence is another man’s technicolor. People pay big bucks to procure black market ‘experience tapes’, living the moments of another person’s life (or perhaps their own in a better age), seeing the world through a different set of eyes, touching what another touched, feeling what they felt. In Dollhouse (2009-2010), worlds are fully imprinted into a person’s brain, one day she is a negotiator with nine successful hostage situations under her belt, the next day she is a hitchhiking pilgrim born blind. These may appear to be fantastical science fiction, but movies and television show us possible (albeit extreme) extrapolations of strands of reality. The entire show business industry thrives on creating, describing, articulating, filling with details, live-actioning and visualizing dreams of a better (or at least more interesting) world for a humanity that feeds on hopes and dreams: Strange Days without the touching.


It is argued that human beings cannot fly. This is a serious hindrance to the resurrection of the highrise, post elevator. There is a need for human beings to live in highrises where the demand for land exceeds the supply. (Where there is no need, there is no argument - like a copycat murder the motive is only an attempt to achieve the original’s fame.) The limited physical potential of human beings with regards to stair-climbing created the ancient scenario of servant attics and wealthy ground floor parlors. No sooner had the poor hailed the elevator as a new saving power that destroyed the ‘airy graves’, it  revealed itself to be a false messiah came only to lift the rich above the clouds. But even for them it is a spurious salvation; there are no worlds up there, only observation decks.

Amiens Cathedral
: There is no boredom in heaven

There had been wars - says a historian of 13th century French high gothic. A lot of glass had been lost. As most gothic cathedrals, it would have risen above the town. It would have been the highest structure and you could see it from miles and miles.

One of the ideas of the gothic - unity.

Flamboyant late gothic rose window. You can see there is more glass than stone.

I promised you a plan, a plan that makes all things clear.

Amiens Cathedral is the new high-rise. There are no fractured worlds: from one viewpoint a multitude of worlds present themselves. Ornaments are world-creating devices. Every window is a world, a -

Most of the Amiens was rebuilt after the two world wars, the destructions of world war I and II.

Amiens Cathedral is a one-floor highrise - without physical teleportation there is a changing of worlds; there is no boredom in heaven.


Duxton Plain Public Housing
: International Design Competition

“In 2001/2 the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), on behalf of the Ministry of National Development (MND) and in consultation with the Singapore Institute of Architects (SIA), organised an International Architectural Design Competition for a high density and very highrise public housing development at Duxton Plain in the Central Area of Singapore.
In view of the historical significance of the site as the place where the first public housing blocks were built by HDB (Housing Development Board) in the area in 1963/4, the development is envisaged to be a landmark housing development....
...To meet the Concept Plan 2001 objectives, the density and height for the Duxton Plain site will be increased to between 7.4 and 8.4 plot ratio and up to 50 storeys. The new development will therefore be a landmark: the tallest public housing in Singapore. This public housing scheme, which will provide up to 1,800 new homes, will be built by the HDB...”

Design Brief and Technical Requirements

Historical Significance
“In view of its historical significance as the site of the first public housing built by HDB in the Tanjong Pagar area, the Competition called for the proposals to be innovatively and meaningfully designed to capture the memory of the existing two housing blocks, and re-site and integrate the plaques commemorating the laying of the foundation stone, on 15th March 1963, and the opening ceremony, on 10th April 1964, which were officiated by the then Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, now the Senior Minister.”

Tanjong Pagar Community Club
The Competition also required the design proposal to relate to the adjacent Community Club, which was built by the People’s Association in 1960 as part of the first batch of community centres, so that it formed part of the housing community and incorporate a 25m wide view corridor to increase the visibility of the building from Cantonment Road.

Duxton Plain Park and Landscaping Strategy
Competitors were also required to put forward landscaping strategies that seamlessly extended the adjacent Duxton Plain Park horizontally and vertically into the development and incorporated roof top and high level sky gardens. The mature trees around the perimeter of the site, together with the Jambu Ayer and Nutmeg trees planted by the then Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, now Senior Minister, in November 1984 and 1989, respectively, were also required to be retained and integrated into the landscaped areas.

Urban Design Strategy and Cost
A strong urban design strategy was also required to create a landmark to the surroundings that contributed to the city skyline, yet related meaningfully to the adjacent context. Environmentally appropriate forms and buildings were to be proposed, capable of creating a strong sense of ownership and community. As a subsidised form of housing, proposals were also to be cost-effective, providing the best public housing available within the budget.

Technical Requirements
To give Competitors greater freedom and flexibility to introduce new & innovative solutions, the Design Brief and Technical Requirements were specifically drawn up to include only the minimum, mandatory requirements pertinent to the site context, cost considerations, or public housing in the local context. Many of the standard HDB design requirements, including site coverage, building setback, interbuilding spacing, floor to floor heights, minimum room sizes and dimensions, and flat typologies, were all omitted. There was also no control on number of units to be provided and a range of dwelling units and layouts were allowed within two broad size types given.

Key Planning Parameters
Site Area: 6.2 acres / 270,174 sq ft
Gross Plot Ratio (GPR): 7.4 (min) to 8.4 (max)
Gross Floor Area (GFA): 2.0 to 2.3 million sq ft
Allowable Building Height: Approx. 500 ft
Building Setback: 25 ft from Duxton Plain Park; 10 ft from common boundary with adjacent developments
Size and Proportion of Dwelling Units (DUs):
2/3rds Type S1 = 860 to 1,080 sq ft (net internal floor area);
1/3rd Type S2 =1,090 to 1,190 sq ft (net internal floor area)
Accommodation: Living / dining room, 3 bedrooms, kitchen, 2 bathrooms, household shelter, service balcony
Social / Communal / Commercial Facilities:
Inter-Precinct Open Space: 16,150 sq ft;
Childcare Centre: 3,770 to 4,300 sq ft;
Resident Committee Centre: 1,720 sq ft;
Cafeteria / Foodshop: 2,150 to 2,690 sq ft;
Convenience Shop: 1,080 to 1,610 sq ft;
Covered Space for Future Social / Communal Activities: 3,230 to 4,300 sq ft
Car Parking: Type S1 =1 lot / 1.8 DUs; Type S2 =1 lot / 1.3 DUs; Additional lots for supporting uses
Construction Cost: S$125/sq ft (maximum) of internal floor space of the DUs


“Tanjong Pagar is a historic district located within the Central Business District in Singapore, straddling the Outram Planning Area and the Downtown Core under the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s urban planning zones.”
When Singapore was founded in 1819 as a British trading port, the Tanjong Pagar area served as an enclave for Chinese and Indian migrant dock workers. Colonial era shophouses were the predominant type of architecture. With modernization, modern highrise office buildings were erected along with the deterioration of the shophouses. In the mid-1980s, Tanjong Pagar became the first area in Singapore to be gazetted under the government’s conservation plan, and the remaining enclaves of shophouses were restored to their original appearance.

The winning entry Pinnacle@Duxton (p.141, 153), built and completed in 2009, is a group of seven highrise towers linked mid-level and roof-level by bridges that serve as parks in the sky. The strength of this  building lies in the set of ‘plug-in’ components (bay windows, planters, balcony, etc) that are randomized to form a pattern which renders an otherwise plain and repetitive facade with a visual complexity (they can be said to act like filigree.) The combinations of plug-ins created numerous slightly differing apartment configurations which were marketed as unique, increasing interest and sense of ownership. But otherwise, it is a conventional high-rise (stacked floors with doubled-loaded corridors).
In the next chapter, I will be using the background, program, site and guidelines of Duxton Plain housing design competition as a basis to propose an alternative building based on the investigations of the highrise as laid out in this book, including the world(floor), the anti-hyper tower, the filigree and the toile.
I understand that my proposal cannot be said to be complete, lacking the elaboration of factors such as cost feasibility and structural resolution, but it is an ongoing investigation of the high-rise in a country filled with and building more highrises (see “Afterword”, p.180).

World: floor

World: floor

Using the idea of the anti-Hyper Tower (p.76), this proposal for Duxton Plain Public Housing is made of 41 towers (each either 40 or 80 stories tall) linked by bridges every five stories.


There are 41 towers (16 towers are 40 stories tall, the rest are 80 stories tall). Each tower has a 50’ by 50’ foot print that contains the floor plan of five apartments (p.159). This plan is replicated in each tower every five storeys.


Each apartment is a four-storey tall interior with only one floor (see Section a-a, p.159) and a default configuration of kitchen and bathroom (see Level +3, p.159). The idea is that when young families move in, they might only need to live on one floor; when the family expands, additional floors and stairs can be added inside the apartment envelope. Anticipating this, windows openings are provided for the future 2nd, 3rd and 4th floors. This gives an unlimited amount of choice to apartment owners for interior configuration.
Each apartment sits on a world(floor) level, with its front door opening into a walkway (like the five-foot-way of shophouses) that is shared by all five apartments of one tower in one world(floor). The 41 towers link to one another by bridges on world(floor) levels.


Stage 1 - Filigree
The highrise building complex is made up of the 41 towers on site, laid out in a grid following the grain of the adjacent shophouses (p.161-62) and Duxton Plain Park (p.164).  They are laid out in a density that satisfies the required number of apartments and the stated maximum height of 500 feet. There is a degree of filigree caused by the sheer number of apartments, their windows, the space containing facade (five-foot way and balconies), the vertical gaps between towers and the horizontal gaps between world(floors). A first sign of toile is present in the ground floor adjacent to Duxton Plain Park, where blocks are removed to create a continuation of the park (p.166).

Stage 2 - Doubling the Building Height
In Stage 1, any subtraction operation on the building (for light, etc.) is impossible as it would not have enough apartments. The building doubles itself in height.

Stage 3 - Subtraction
A major portion of the building is removed to expose more apartments to light.

Stage 4 - Further Subtraction
Holes are cut through the building to further expose more apartments to light. There is now an element of toile where the larger holes are noticed before the smaller building gaps.

Stage 5 - Elevator towers
The building is not served by embedded elevators, but elevator towers are inserted at four points. Elevator A and C are situated at the two nearest subway stations, Outram Park MRT and Tanjong Pagar MRT. Bridges from these elevator towers then bridge into the apartment complex at every two world(floor) levels. From the entry world(floor), residents can then use the stairs within the complex. Elevator D is situated at an existing carpark which will be extended underground for the new apartment’s lots. Elevator B is close to the south tip of the complex and can be used by residents who wish to travel only within the complex and its adjacent ground floor context.

The Anti-Teleportation Elevator

The elevators here counter the teleportation syndrome (p.131) caused by traditional elevators in two ways: First, at the subway station, users emerge in transparent elevators that provide views outside: they are aware of the vertical passing of scenery. Second, extended away from the building they serve, the threshold between elevator portal and world(floor) is increased from the null of traditional elevators to a whole city context.

World(floor) Entry Point

The elevator towers are the beginnings of a future city-scale World(floor) system, acting as entry nodes situated at every subway station (the transportation backbone in Singapore.) The entry from the subway into the city is no longer monopolized by the ground floor (p.179).


When asked what the most shocking thing he saw was, the photographer says it was a beautiful Cathay Pacific air hostess, in full uniform, wheeling her suitcase through the filthy streets.
- An internet magazine interview, 2014 (hongkong.coconuts.co)

Greg Girard, the famed photographer of Kowloon Walled City, never forgot the air stewardess he saw more than two decades ago. A shining light in a dark city - a pristine uniform in dirty streets: it isn’t the dirt or the darkness that we admire when we dream about the Walled City, and ultimately it is not even the incomprehensible maze of internal streets... it is the human in the architecture.


In the Fall semester before I entered my thesis preparation, I thought about what I wanted to do. Throughout my undergraduate architectual studies in Singapore, the predominant so-called problem was ‘what is a Singapore architecture?’ The kind of problem that troubled American architects in earlier times. The more I think about the idea of a “Singapore style,” the more distasteful and empty the proposition. There are two issues: Singapore is too young a country for any historical architectural precedent. Singapore is a mixture of cultures that originated in China, India and Southeast Asia. Any attempt to discover a Singapore architecture leads to either a climatic design (tropical response, sun shades, etc) or an ethno-cultural influenced design (Chinese, Indian, Malay, etc.) I had thought that all these are ok; if it is a contrived architecture, then that is the Singapore style. If the problem is the lack of a style, one need not worry, for that by itself is also a style. The problem is that these are not good enough for Singapore. Suffering from a paranoid attitude of being too small and weak in a big world, it had been constantly trying to be good at everything.
Singapore is too small. It is what I thought for a long time. Too small for what? Its economy is doing well for the most part. In terms of governance, the small size is an advantage. Crime rate is low. Employment rate is decent. Home ownership is the pride of the country. Too small for what?

Too small for dreams.

The smallness of the land is the most apparent (it is half the size of Los Angeles, two thirds the size of New York City, half the size of London, two thirds the size of Hong Kong and one third the size of Tokyo.) It is an island with no hinterland.
In a large country, if one travels for a long time, one would arrive at an entirely different place eventually. Not so here. You reach the sea-
To go anywhere further, one needs a passport - there is no middle ground between staying and going. There is a sense of loss that only a person from a small place can comprehend.

“Tie him! What a queer idea!”
“But if you don’t tie him,” I said, “he will wander off somewhere, and get lost.”
My friend broke into another peal of laughter:
“But where do you think he would go?”
“Anywhere. Straight ahead of him.”
Then the little prince said, earnestly:
“That doesn’t matter. Where I live, everything is so small!”
And, with perhaps a hint of sadness, he added:
“Straight ahead of him, nobody can go very far. . . ”

- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

The dominant typology in Singapore is the highrise. Almost 70% of the people live in government-built public housing blocks ranging from four to fifty stories. Taller skyscrapers are found in the central business district. If there is anywhere to start making Singapore into a place where dreams could live (a bigger world?) it is the highrise.



Once, the great cathedrals taught the masses the meaning of life. Now, no building that understands the age attempts to teach anything. It is an insult to teach morality or the creation of the world. The so-called masses know about the solar system and the process of photosynthesis. Big bang theory and general relativity. Everything is known and scientists have the answer. It is a bored generation. Everything is spectacle.


Tall buildings are symbols - of a town, of an idea.

There had been wars, says a historian of 13th century French high gothic. A lot of glass had been lost. The glass was replaced, the cathedral rebuilt.


There are two worlds, interior and exterior.

In the gothic cathedral, what matters is not the view out but the light coming in.


1. Singapore is an island.
2. Singapore’s population needs to keep growing to sustain the country’s economy.

Parallels to Rem Koolhaas’ twin alibis for the inevitable Manhattan Skyscraper: limited land and insatiable demand for business (in this case, residence.)

What is a world?
: Architecture cf. fantasy

In 1909, a cartoon in Life Magazine showed stacked worlds in steel frame shelves. It appeared in Rem Koolhaas’ S,M,L,XL as a harbinger of the fractured worlds in an elevator-enabled skyscraper. Christopher Alexander argued in A Pattern Language that there is no longer any connection to the ground floor urban context once a person climbs above the fourth floor of a building. In Structure Systems, Heino Engel described man’s ultimate physical horizontality and his inability to engage in the vertical dynamics of the world.

But a man’s world does not consist solely of his immediate physicality. Of the senses that transcend the fetters of horizontality, we have sight and hearing. Taste and touch, and to a certain extent, smell, are limited to the physical location of the human body. We can see the moon and hear thunder in the clouds, but we cannot taste, touch or smell the heavenly realm.
The elevator is a well known teleportation device. Entering and exiting the elevator amounts to entering and exiting different worlds. Movement is not registered, except for blinking lights. It does not matter that the floors are stacked vertically. If the 3rd floor is in Antarctica and the 72nd floor is on Venus, we are in still in a high-rise - but not quite: our eyes tell us that we have moved a hundred million kilometers.
In a prison cell, reading a book can transport an inmate from the brick walled enclosure to a palace or a jungle. But he cannot be there physically. In a sense, the difference between architecture and fantasy is that the former is physical. It can signify the fantastic but it is also concrete. In signifying grandeur and luxury, a palace is also a palace, and you can tread its grounds.

What is a world?
: Architecture cf. hamster cage

What is a world?
: Visibilty, walkability & ownership

“Whatever you can see” - that is your world.

Then, what matters is if you can get there or not.

What matters, then, is the ground (or a ground subsititute.)

If you can see it, and you can get there, it is part of your world.

Then, the amount of effort needed to get there, or number of steps that need to be taken.

Sunshine and shadow
A New York City documentary

It hurts to watch - not a bad kind of hurt, but the kind one feels when one loves a man and sees his childhood photos - maybe not.
But those guys in bowler hats and all.
The workers… Are they Irish?
Before something becomes great,
Before a place becomes great, the people didn’t know it would become great, they were just usual people.
But the place became great,
And they’re special


A silent film



with Ginsberg, Carr...etc

2001 film

You can be whatever nationality you want.

On Ornament
: notes for an architectural thesis
(Draft) Sep 23, 2014

Disclaimer: Written very early in the thesis journey, influenced highly by the tone of 19th and 20th century architect-moralists, quite arrogant sounding, could be said to be immature, but I recognize some ideas here as continuing in the actual thesis; read at your own risk.

Summary: Beginning with ornament, ending with filigree, discussing the project of “Singapore high-rise.”

It seems quite apparent that in the present age, “ornament” is not part of the conversation. The discussion of “ornament” is of a past age. The designers of today’s buildings would be very quaint and eccentric indeed to discuss the necessity of ornamentation in architecture. There had been one or two recent discussions on “ornament,” I am not acquainted with their contents, and will not comment on those discussions here; but “ornament” has not come back in the way it was the topic of much debate and consideration in the 19th and early 20th century - not in school curriculum nor in practice.
Yet, though the overt mention of “ornament” has not resurfaced, there is a spirit of “ornament” - the spirit that is the essence of the matter, as great artists, musicians and writers know something about. Call a rose by another name and it is still a rose -- when the rose dies the spirit of the rose remains as an essence (or a memory). In an illustration, if the rock I hold in my hand has the spirit of a rose, then looking past all materiality which is known to be fading, temporal and transient, I could say that I have a rose. If the red rose I hold in my hand have the spirit of a rock, then while I say I hold a rose, I hold nothing when the rose dies in the habitual way of roses. Spirit is closer in distance to thought than it is to matter. Thoughts are not material, having no weight, no texture, no grain, no dimensions - yet thoughts are the essence of action and material. In a murder trial, for example, whether or not the crime was premeditated -in other words, did this thought exist?- is the crux of the matter in deciding for or against the gravest punishment. What is the motivation for much of today’s architecture? In this particular thesis, the subject of interest is the high-rise building. What is the spirit of the high-rise?
In most cases, the high-rise is a wrapped core. The elevator core as a practical necessity to transport inhabitants vertically - that being established, the program of the building wraps itself around the core in stacked floors, and finally the whole building is wrapped again in a “skin” which is the subject of much research in recent years in the form of facade treatment, technology and design. The skin is justifiably important, mediating between the weather elements and the inhabited interior, and its fine-tuning could translate into energy savings which is an important topic in a world concerned about climate issues. Yet here another old debate: one which in my view has not ended and should not be ignored until interested parties come to each their own satisfied conclusions - the question of the division between the architect and the engineer.
The spirit of “ornament” is not the spirit of “architecture” (whether or not the latter encompasses in some degree the former is open to discussion.) Yet, in the contemporary field, architects have not recognized, and if recognizing they have not deliberated, and if deliberating they have not articulated, the existence and nature of the spirit of architecture. This is perhaps a sweeping statement, considering that there are smaller scale houses and buildings which endeavor to experiment and converse about the spirit of architecture (also known as the meaning of architecture,) but in the high-rises, particularly the steel-and-glass skyscrapers, one could not sense it - the seeming oasis of architecture is as dry as a desert.
In fact, even the term “spirit”, and such terms as “meaning”, or “essence”, is kept inside dark closets in the elite schools of architecture. Rationalism reigns, structuralism is respected, materiality viewed with some interest, environmental or green design the new secret police chief. All these being means to various ends, the end not in essence “architecture.” To avoid confusion, at this point one would want to define the meaning of architecture. Here is a statement: the meaning is in life and not death.
Death is in the dearth of spirit, the dearth of spirit is the lack of conviction. Inventive conviction could be said to be choosing possible failure above safe banality. Then, I also ask, who should be an architect? Even in Manhattan the myriad of buildings each have their admirers and detractors, and others that are unremarkable - yet as a whole tapestry we cannot but be impressed by the majesty of a landscape of towers. My opinion is as such: the high-rise that stands alone, because of the verticality and the harshness of its figure rising upwards, could only appear arrogant - this arrogance reminiscent of the tower of Babel. It speaks of the mortal effort to achieve, to rise above, and yet this mortal body is bound to earth and returns to dust. The castles and fortresses of old, though majestic and towering, speak of a different kind of spirit, one of defence, of royalty, of country, of piety, of loyalty; even of community, of kingdom, of family and of life: these things by which even the modern man could be moved - we see them re-imagined often in movies. Yet today, the tall towers and skyscrapers speak of very little other than financial wealth and power. A pauper could be instantly a king if he had but money. Money as flag and banner has from the very beginning been the genesis of the high-rise. When land became expensive, landowners built more stories to gather more rent. With the old masonry construction, certain heights could be reached, but a limiting factor is the massive bearing walls swelling and eating away at the ground floors which are the most rentable and profitable. The height reachable is also limited by the human ability to travel vertically, five stories being the comfortable limit. With the invention of the elevator, the height was doubled. With the introduction of steel skeletal construction, the massiveness of the bearing walls at ground floor was done away with, enabling the height of the building to again be doubled. Indeed it was not a structural limit that barred the high-rises of earlier years from rising higher - the limit was profit. Hence, both the steel skeleton construction and the elevator are economic solutions. The skyscraper was generated from a dollar sign.
Singapore was generated from a dollar sign. The British had recognized the strategic location of the island as a gateway in the South-east Asian trade route, and bought the island to turn it into a free port under the empire. Business and revenue was the banner. The first immigrants to settle in Singapore were the Chinese from China and the Indians from India -- they came bringing not their loyalties but wallets to be filled and sent home to their families. There was no question about who they were culturally or nationally - Singapore was only a place to make some money. With the second generation, Singapore started to become a home. Further down the road, the Second World War and the Japanese occupation, and afterwards the independence from the British and merger and subsequent split from Malaysia were events that mixed and cemented the nation. Following the split from Malaysia, the communist saga and the race riots, Singapore gradually developed an identity, fostered in no small part by a national school curriculum which inculcated in young children the ideas of social harmony, racial tolerance and respect for authority. The government which developed such a program to nurture identity was also the decision maker behind all economic strategies including the choice of industries to build up, the focus of education, the promotion of a tourism image, the last of which led to the creation of the Merlion. This half-lion, half-fish creation became known as the symbol of Singapore, testified to by thousands of photographs by tourists through the years posing with the water fountain sculpture made in its likeness. It was a devious success, almost ‘cool’ in the way gaming and hacking could be considered as such, the best known evidence being its appearance in the 1998 Japanese cult-animation series “Cowboy Bebop.”
At this point, the project of this thesis is a “Singapore high-rise”: following the previous arguments we can see this phenomenon (Singapore highrise) as being generated from the original expression “$ $”. The thesis project is a discarding of baggages - we discard the dollar signs and we discard the genealogy and generation of both phenomenons “Singapore” and “high-rise”. Looking at only the present, the living and the remaining, we generate the project Singapore high-rise. It can be said to be a clean-slate project in spirit. It defines “Singapore”, “high-rise”, “architecture, “ornament.” If it cannot define, it discusses.

(----INSERT #1: High-rise: Singapore version

Human beings need a place to live.

Many people need to live on a piece of land.

Necessary evil:

Yet there are benefits. 1) Raised off the ground, the winds are stronger - a much appreciated phenomenon here. 2) In a building full of people, there is a sense of safety. Singapore children grew up never knowing the deep darkness of a farmhouse out in the country at night. The noise and the lights never ceases, they might be muted at some point, but the corridor lamps and every vibration of the inhabitants find their way, attenuated, into private spaces of others. Even if there is no material seepage, there is mental knowledge of the nearness of other human beings. The high-rise is a crowd. A crowd has the potential to be a community -- is a community desirable? There could be opportunities in the high-rise to create varied opportunities of community.


(----INSERT #2: Architecture of the high-rise

Function and beauty:

We are no longer tied to structure - to build high is not a structural concern - engineering gymnastics have been done in many examples, e.g. the CCTV. Anything is possible if it be pure structural limit. We do not need to, rather, this is not the age to be like the Gothic masons who discovered and evolved very beautifully the flying buttresses. That is not the spirit of architecture of this age. The spirit of architecture of this age is not about structure -- the structural feats accomplished in buildings, though great, are of the spirit of engineering. The economic facet, the cost of the structure, is a concern. In this sense we are limited by structure.
Regarding truth, honesty, authenticity in the old debate: To be authentic for the sake of authenticity is not authentic, it is pretentiousness. Yet one cannot deny that purely structural buildings are beautiful, for instance, bridges. The need for insulation and weatherproofing in inhabited buildings render it impossible to make an honest authentic building in this sense. Perhaps in a tropical region it could be possible - here again Singapore is an open question.
Here, again, the issue of the spirit of “ornament”. Ornament for the sake of ornament - that is out of the question. But in wanting to make a building attractive, be it with cladding, with form, with massing - is that not the spirit of ornament? What is not ornament is the part unconcerned with visuals. Here, I think about the human body. If earrings and necklaces are the old style ornaments, and clothing the new ornament in terms of cladding, am I considering then the body shape itself as ornament? The spirit in the body (the ghost in the shell) is the one important thing - yet, how could this spirit in architecture be expressed, and would not the material reflect the invisible?


(----INSERT #3: Ornament

I look at the picture of Amiens Cathedral and such are my thoughts:
Beautiful - why beautiful? Ornament, detail, arches, proportion
Impressive - why impressive? Scale, size, ornament, detail, arches, proportion
Imaginative - why imaginative? Detail, filigree, scale, size
This last point brings me to the landscape of the film Blade Runner. Why imaginative? So many spaces for so many lives (yes, even android lives) to interact, to touch each other, to speak to God. I thought, such is the characteristics of the filigree.
Filigree: it occurred to me that as we zoom in closer and closer into a city-scape such as Manhattan, the interesting-ness is carried by the detail, and these details (the windows, the doors, the dividing lines) are something like filigree. Filigree-like. Layers and layers of filigree - a filigree of possible spaces. Even in Blade Runner, the neon lights draw a landscape of filigree in the rain and the dark mist. Such is the difference between a real city and a model of a city made out of wooden blocks - from a certain distance the wooden blocks city is interesting, but zooming in they tell nothing more - it is a dead thing.
The meaning of architecture is in life. “You cannot clothe the petty things of life in majesty” - perhaps not (and that is why commercial high-rises are not seen as “majestic”, no matter how tall and imposing), but we can clothe them with imagination - the spirit of imagination can live anywhere, unlike the spirit of majesty it is not loathe to clothe the petty things of life.


This book is not intended for sale or distribution; sources are yet to be properly cited. Please contact seejia.ho@gmail.com regarding any copyright issues.