I have never been to Dhaka, indeed there are so many cities I have not been to, and for this I am regretful. Why should I regret not going to a city that is in all probability not a very nice place to live? Indeed on paper, it would seem to be a supremely bad place to live but one which people move to in a constant stream of migration, a city – a mega-city – that has grown from a modest 500,000 in 1961, when it was in the former East Pakistan, to a staggering 18 million today. Nowhere on the planet is there such a density of human beings. And no other city on the planet is considered to be as at risk to the perilous effects of climate change. Just above sea level on a coastal floodplain, the city is made up mostly of slums which are mottled atop a network of at least 200 rivers. Most of the city’s sewage goes untreated, the environment is degraded and the cityscape itself toxic and fetid.
But how do I know this if I admit I’ve never been to Dhaka? Because I’ve read it in a book, Garden City Mega City, a fat Tête-Bêche book published by Pesaro Publishing which looks at the work of WOHA, an architecture firm from Singapore. Written by Patrick Bingham-Hall, who knows the work of WOHA well and has a soft yet precise tone, the book is billed as much as a wake up call or rather a call to arms as it is a fancy coffee table book of humdrum photos of fancy buildings. I remember the excitement that a book by Richard Rogers could generate at the turn of the century, doing for architecture what Naomi Klein’s No Logo did for the anti-globalisation movement: it made the idea of architecture as a force for good in the fight to ensure that the environment and the idea of public space are taken into consideration. That the public realm could be incorporated into how any city of the future is planned: a holistic, sustainable approach. Garden City does something similar, albeit with a strong focus on the firm’s projects, both realized and proposed, and with the clear focus on those Asian cities that are deemed Mega Cities (conurbations with a population of more than ten million people). The first part outlines the problem, while the second part outlines a solution, and indeed gives not only examples of the solution but a methodology of examining their success.
Le Corbusier, La Ville Contemporaine
To understand the problem with Asian mega cities, or at least one contributing factor to it, we have to go back the 1920s. Le Corbusier, with the best intentions of a utopist, drew out plans for blocks of living quarters, designated by use on a 2d page, and which would be linked by car travel (cars being the saviors for Le Corbusier of the city in the century yet to pass). His Ville Contemporaine has served as a model eversince, whereby tower blocks of residential units are isolated from public, commercial and recreational areas – to say nothing of agriculture and the production of food and energy. Parallel to this, the idea of the garden city had taken hold in post-industrial revolution UK, and by the post-War age had birthed the suburbs of the USA and indeed the western world as a whole. So while post-war countries mass produced tower blocks that quickly became isolated, the garden city was isolating communities and creating socially homogenous, somewhat segregated situations premised on the endless availability green space near to cities and the access to fossil fuel burning cars. The exploding economies of Asia fell head first into this model and many of China’s mega cities to this day are expanding one isolated grey tower block at a time. Connected by pedestrian-free motorway.
In one such suburb wrote a father and widower, JG Ballard, and from his suburban aery at Shepperton, where the UK’s biggest film studio resides, he wrote stories of the dystopias these plans of Corbusier engendered, something the book (and recent film) High Rise all too clearly shows. But it was more his earlier work that came to mind (but then, these days, when we are all already living in the future, so much of Ballard comes all too easily to mind) when reading about the devastating effects climate change and rapid urbanisaiton is having on the denizens of these nightmarish realities, namely The Drowned World. The unfolding nightmare for so many millions mainly comes down to the fact that the tropical world of many mega cities is fundamentally different than the temperate world of Corbusier: the work of WOHA is an engaged effort to address the fact that a lot of the rapid, ill-conceived urbanization of Asia is simply misplaced, misguided and ill-suited. With the disastrous tipping point of no return (a 2 degree rise in global temperatures) not all that far away, and runaway use of concrete and asphalt, these cities have micro-climates called urban heat islands – it is now so immensely hot it often feels inhuman, alien and deeply uncomfortable. Like Ballard’s characters, the denizens must suffer the unrelenting heat of the sun, the air itself delivering death and ill heat. The question is not one of sustainability anymore, but of survivability. Ballard’s The Drowned World is not all that faraway.
WOHA propose a multitude of ways of fighting back, taking the idea of sustainability but advancing it to a more applied approach. A holistic conception of the city as a 3D matrix is proposed (in contrast to the 2D grid of lot of 20th century city planning) that culminates in their proposal of a self-sufficient city. They layer cities, proposing multiple ground levels and high-density, high-amenity buildings that already exist in a city like Hong Kong, with its cantilevered walkways and multiple bridging points: the idea is to build up in a multifaceted building purpose as opposed to building out in uniform monotony. They have two prongs to fight against heat: planting cities and breathing cities. They turn buildings inside out and create horizontal and atrial breezeways, directly in the buildings. As for ‘planting cities’, this is where the work of WOHA really takes off and becomes something more than smart or trendy urbanism.
Parkroyal by WOHA Architects
What becomes apparent is that WOHA are ideally placed to look at mega cities. Singapore is a well off country that has an ‘autocratic democracy’. This is perhaps one thing that I took away from the book: a difficulty in finding a joyous optimism to match the ambition of the many ‘desirable’ prototypes that are presented. For while Singapore is indeed a good place to carry out such projects, its ‘paternalistic method of governance’ and ‘unflinching self-belief’, along with a ‘decisive bureaucracy that prefers to remain unquestioned’ is not something you would wish on a society, you do get the sense that other democracies such as India and Bangladesh, to say nothing of China (‘itself increasingly resemble[ing] a mega Singapore’) having failed in such a massive way that climate change, happening right now, is putting hundreds of millions of people at acute risk. Currently WOHA have a plan in development, a campus in the marshes of Dhaka – and the fact that they do have a project in Dhaka is a good thing because it shows an ability to work in the more challenging locale of Bangladesh.
To go back to the term ‘garden city’, first coined in 1898 by Ebenezer Howard, this saw workers living in pleasant countryside towns surrounded by green, with a train ride to work. The idea persisted and morphed and is now pretty much how we fantasise the perfect live-work scenario. But it is untenable really, especially in the face of the urbanization happening in Asia. What is presented in this book is the somewhat futuristic feeling idea of garden buildings. It helps that WOHA have actually developed a number of projects that demonstrate these notions, and the results are rather stunning. The iconic Newton Suites in Singapore was one of the first Sky Gardens they created back in 2003, while the Parkroyal on Pickering goes even further. The ‘topographic architecture’ that is demonstrated here is truly remarkable in that one gets the sense that this is architecture for the age of the anthropocene: the building seems to be saying that we may be taking over the planet and marking it irreversibly forever, but at least we’re going to mimic it’s structures while we do so. The podium of the Parkroyal was designed in such a way as to resemble the geological striations of the earth, as if wishing to symbolise the architects’ ideas of multi-layered, multi-dimensional buildings and cities. It’s a beautiful, utopian vision for how our cities could have gardens in the sky and food production in the urban environment. Buildings would take on the feel of hills, knolls, skyscrapers become mountains, the city itself breathe and produce the food and energy that currently is resigned to the faraway nowhere of the non-city.
The idea that these Asian mega-cities could somehow ‘leapfrog’ into the future may seem like wishful thinking, but it’s not impossible. The simple truth seems to be that mass migration will be the likely outcome if something doesn’t change the course already set. The grim, asocial vision of Le Corbusier was adopted afterall by planners in China and beyond, a city like Brasilia testament to how the direction a city should not leapfrog. But if we picture images of a Hugh Ferriss variety, married to the lush, tropical greenness of some of WOHA’s projects, we’re not left with some dark, grime encrusted Blade Runner future (or of course, something worse) but a green idyll of millions of humans living in proximity to where their food is produced, their water treated and energy generated.