First published in the Journal of Biourbanism #1&2/2015 Vol.IV, 2016:
In 1974, the architect Gyorgy Chakhava completed the Ministry of Highway Construction in Tbilisi, Georgia on a wooded location at the edge of the city. He called his design, which sought to retain the natural conditions of the terrain, the ‘Space City’ method. In 2015, a project in Singapore called ‘The Interlace’ won the World Building of the Year award. The design of ‘The Interlace’ uses some ideas that were first presented in the ‘Space City’ method. This paper looks back through architectural history at the origins of the ‘Space City’ method in the work of Constructivist artist and architect El Lissitzky, and in the work of one of the first Suprematist architects, Lazar Khidhekel. This is to argue that a reconsideration of such idea can have relevance in the contemporary metropolis when trying to achieve a balance between urbanity and rurality.
THE SPACE CITY METHOD REVISITED
In 2015, ‘The Interlace,’ a project by OMA and Ole Schereen, won the World Building of the Year award. The project consists of 31 horizontal apartment blocks stacked diagonally on top of each other and covering eight hectares of land in Singapore. Apart from the striking sculptural identity of the housing project, I would like to analyze how the project addresses the ground plane. Some of the horizontal blocks are built from the ground up in a traditional way, but many blocks are only present high above ground. Resting on the lower ones, these blocks are lifted off the ground by at least four to five stories and allow the space below the buildings to extend itself horizontally throughout; communal spaces, courtyards, pools, and trees flow over the ground plane, allowing both natural elements and social activities to articulate the space below the large urban project. The residential blocks are stacked diagonally on each other, leaving gaps for views, sunlight, and ventilation. At the same time, the diagonal stacking forms hexagonal-part courtyards that create a sense of partial enclosure, which would be entirely missing in the standard high-density typology of a tower block arrangement.
There are reduced amounts of visual and physical building barriers than in a more traditional courtyard project layout on all levels from the ground up. The role of the permeable hexagonal courtyards is to reinforce “the notion of community life within a contemporary village” (World Building, 2015). In this way, the nature-filled semi-enclosures add a village-like dimension to an otherwise highly dense urban housing development. The courtyards have different degrees of enclosure, yet are never fully enclosed so as to always allow views out; some are partially open to one side, others are very open half-courtyards that allow wide views out of the site. The semi-courtyards are designed to provide much needed shading and cooling via ventilation through the gaps and over water basins positioned on the ground level. They have names that relate to the natural themes or activities that identify them: bamboo garden; waterfall; theatre plaza; waterpark; central square; lotus pond; rainforest spa; the hills. These intermediate spaces become magnets for the reduction of a larger urban conglomeration into manageable parts, like squares, gardens, or parks did in traditional villages. In terms of the residential blocks, it is their horizontality rather than verticality, which emphasizes their socially interconnected nature, rather than the perceived isolation of life within separated singular tower blocks: the standard solution that is generally used in the region and beyond for high density housing. As one resident wrote, “I lived here for a few months now and love the place, it’s very open and [has] a great community spirit” (Tung, 2015). But who were the architectural progenitors of ‘The Interlace’s’ original approach to space?
In 1974, the headquarters of the Ministry of Highway Construction of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic was completed in Tbilisi. The building was designed by the architect Gyorgy (George) Chakhava with Z. Jalaghania, T. Khilava, and V. Kimberg (Ritter, 2012). George Chakhava was also Deputy Minister of Highway Construction and was in a position to choose a sloping site in the woods along the Kura River at the edge of Tbilisi, which was being used as a rubbish dump. Chakhava said, “I found a waste dump. I thought it was the right place” (Warsza, 2013). The concept for the design was based on Chakhava’s ‘Space City’ method. The ‘Space City’ method consisted of minimizing the ground space used by the building in order to allow nature to flow beneath it with minimum interruption. At the same time, the building opening at higher levels allowed light, wind, and views through it, together with the sense of interconnectedness horizontality versus isolated verticality. In evoking the metaphor of a tree, compact vertical circulation cores served branch-like extended horizontal office accommodation. This is how Chakhava described the ‘Space City’ method:
“Space City (Sakpatent [Georgian Patent] Certificate #1538) is a proposal for an architectural structure, delivered from the earth and based on the ground with communicating trunks of the columns. The columns occupy less space on the land than traditionally built houses and keep the natural landscape unchanged. With the Space City approach we are able to build over any terrain and not destroy the life which exists there. Contemplating the laws of nature, I formulated this solution: as we know forests cover most of the earth. A forest consists of different trees, which have crowns separated from the earth, connected by tall communicating trunks to the roots. Between the earth and the crowns—columns—there are a lot of free spaces for other sentient beings to create a harmonious, balanced world with the forest.” (Warsza, 2013)
Chakhava elaborated on the forest metaphor further:
“A harmonious world consists of interdependent and balanced organisms. One of the examples of such harmony is a forest. The crowns of trees above the earth are joined to their roots by the ‘communicating’ trunks. This liberated terrain and space is occupied by other sentient beings, and creates a harmonious world within the forest. The suggested approach of Space City—like the forest—preserves the square of the building, not diminishing the volume of the building, by constructing it on columns and urbanizing the space above the earth. Space City gives the possibility to construct buildings in areas of complicated terrain or on the coast—and to not be afraid of natural calamities.” (Warsza, 2013)
Apart from the vertical circulation columns being inspired by the trunks of trees, stacking the horizontal blocks of the building at 90 degrees from each other allows larger natural elements, such as real trees themselves, to continue growing in proximity to and below the cantilevering building blocks. The building has been effective in its use as offices and now serves as the headquarters of the Bank of Georgia. Although there are some superficial similarities, the ‘Space City’ method is very different to the widely adopted idea of Le Corbusier. It also differs from placing buildings on pilotis or columns, which raise the building off the ground, but do not raise it high enough or in a way that nature can actually keep on living below the outer parts of the building itself.
In the late 1960s, architect Karel Prager had—as part of a research project for the Ministry of Construction and Technology of Czechoslovakia—designed a residential housing superstructure over the Košíře district of Prague. This structure had strong resemblances to the later Ministry of Highway Construction in Georgia, yet had extended it to create floating square courtyards that Chakhava’s project did not fully create. The vertical circulation would occupy the corners of the square courtyards. Throughout his career, Karel Prager concerned himself with the idea of the ‘city above the city’ (Lednická & Vašourková, 2011). It is possible that Chakhava may have been influenced by Prager’s work, but it is important to remember that the ‘Space City’ method had its seeds planted much earlier in the work of the first pioneers of Soviet architecture. Between 1923 and 1925, El Lissitzky had developed horizontal skyscrapers called Wolkenbügel or “Cloud-Hangers” (Burgos, 2004). Eight of these horizontal skyscrapers were meant to be located at key positions along the Moscow Boulevard Ring. These horizontal skyscrapers were raised on vertical circulation cores over 50 meters above street level, and would allow the existing city to be preserved beneath them, adding a higher contemporary layer to the historic layer of the city below, with the main purpose of not having to demolish historic buildings in order to increase city density.
While El Lissitzky was working on his ‘Cloud-Hanger’ horizontal skyscrapers over Moscow, another Soviet architect was developing similar ideas for more nature filled settings: his name was Lazar Khidekel.
Khidekel had studied at the Vitebsk People’s Art School in Russia at the same time as El Lissitzky taught there between 1919 and 1920. Kazimir Malevich, the founder of Suprematism, also taught in Vitebsk and a young Khidekel and older Malevich joined the student/teacher collective UNOVIS (Affirmers of the New Art). Malevich steered Khidekel from art to architecture, and they moved together with other UNOVIS members to Petrograd in 1922 where Khidekel studied architecture at the Petrograd Institute of Civil Engineers.
Khidekel started bridging from Malevich’s abstract Arkhitektons towards some of the first Suprematist architectural compositions such as his Aero-Club of 1923. In 1924 Khidekel began painting his ‘Vertical Volumetric Compositions’ which consisted of horizontal planar blocks raised on vertical cores and lifted above a green natural looking ground plane.
Khidekel was also developing a larger urban version of this project: a city consisting of thin and long horizontal slabs raised on piers high above a nature-filled ground: what would then become known as Khidekel’s futuristic city on stilts or the ‘Aero-City’. In the Aero-City, vehicular transport would be relegated either in cuts in the landscape or partially below ground in order to free up the ground plane to nature and water basins. (Khidekel, 2014)
Relegating vehicular transport and parking below ground, and floating large sections of buildings above in order to free the ground for nature, pools and other activities is in fact what OMA and Ole Schereen did in ‘The Interlace’ 90 years after Khidekel’s utopian drawings. Singapore in 2014, with its tropical nature and climate provided the perfect fertile ground for the realization of an extended version of Chakhava’s ‘Space City’ method, the latter presented more than 40 years before Karl Prager had suggested horizontally permeable courtyards created by stacking lifted horizontal blocks over a valley in Prague. However, the scale of his proposal was such that it was bound to remain unrealized at the time.
The most common alternative to achieving the density of the ‘Space-City’ method is an urban object, such as a tower block or vertical skyscraper. The object building can be placed on a nature-filled setting in the attempt of integrating the two; this was Le Corbusier’s vision of urban arcadia in his 1929 ‘City of Tomorrow’ (Corbusier, 1971). The planning problem with Le Corbusier’s tower typology in a rural-looking setting is that it fails to create the necessary enclosures that mediate urban populations into smaller and therefore more manageable and identifiable village-sized communities. This is why, as a reaction to Le Corbusier’s ideas, the argument in favor of the traditional street returned in post-modern planning discourse. The ‘Space City’ method offers a third way for achieving high-density in our cities: ‘Space City’ offers an alternative to both orthodox modernist planning and the post-modern return to the street, square, or courtyard. In terms of ecological sustainability, due to their raised and stacked nature, the ‘Aero and Space-Cities’ do not compromise the possibilities of having some continuity in the flow of nature along the ground plane than a more rigid courtyard typology urban extrusion would. This benefits eco-systems as a continuous rather than interrupted arrangement of plants and trees to maintain a bio-diversity that is otherwise reduced by having clear breaks between nature and building—as would be the case in a traditional courtyard (Yeang, 2006).
The main organizing principle of both the ‘Aero-City’ and the ‘Space-City’ is the seemingly impossible coexistence of an urban reality above and a rural fantasy below. Occupying and holding onto the ground plane without relinquishing nature to an ecologically challenged version of traditional urbanism, while constructing the permeable yet dense metropolis above, has now become a workable model for a new urbanism that does not want to give up on either the urban or the rural, but wants to integrate them together. This becomes spatially and socially sustainable if the urbanism in question also maintains identifiable scales of enclosure that bring the characteristics and dimensions of the spaces of a village community back inside the metropolis. The conquest of rurality within a necessarily dense urbanity, so as to reduce distances of travel, is not only achieved via maintaining continuous natural eco-systems on the ground plane, if not also at higher levels, or in vertical building typologies positioned on the rural outskirts of our cities. More importantly, it is by bringing back the scale of the village into the city in a modern and permeable way: this is the vision of a new urbanism integrated with ecology that the ‘Aero-City’ and the ‘Space-City’ methods offered us many years ago, and that are proving again to be workable realities today.
Artworks by Lazar Khidekel courtesy of the Lazar Khidekel Family Archive and collection. For more on the work of Lazar Khidekel see: Lazar Khidekel and Suprematism
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