Jason Pomeroy, author of The Skycourt and Skygarden, discusses his book's take on skycourts and skygardens.
Why did The Skycourt and Skygarden need to be written?
Population increase, inner-city migration and the consequent depletion of open spaces and its greenery, has necessitated a re-evaluation of the city’s urban fabric by replenishing the social spaces that we have lost. The public realm has given birth to alternative social spaces that have been created as a means of replenishing the loss of open space within the modern city. The creation of more hybrid building forms and typologies that balance open space within high density development is a phenomenon increasingly being realised in Asian cities, and has started to redefine the tall building within the city.
The Skycourt and Skygarden: Greening the Urban Habitat (Routledge, 2014) focuses on these two semi-public social spaces that cross the urban-architectural-landscape boundaries. It considers them in light of their social, economic, environmental and spatial contribution to the urban habitat. The book argues that they are ‘alternative’ social spaces that form part of a broader, multi-level open space infrastructure that replenishes the loss of open space within the urban habitat. It sets out to illustrate how such semi-public spaces can be incorporated into high-rise structures, and be suitably placed into a hierarchy that supports the primary figurative spaces on the ground or, in their absence, create them in the sky.
How is it different from other books in the field?
The book provides a balance between academic research and a richly illustrated account of exemplary case studies that are drawn from completed works, to works under construction, to works on the drawing board, to the future vision of architects and academics from around the World. While other books may fleetingly discuss skycourts and skygardens from an aesthetic or horticultural perspective (and have generally been focused on rooftop gardens within the residential or hospitality sector), this book is dedicated to the exploration of skycourts and skygardens for their socio-environmental benefits or for their spatial contribution to the broader urban space network. The examples from around the World are also drawn from the retail, commercial, residential, hospitality, civic / institutional and mixed-use sectors of the built environment.
What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
Readers ranging from students, academics to industry peers operating within the built environment industry will hopefully appreciate both the research and case studies that balance masterplanning, landscape, architecture, urban greenery practices aswell as social science. It will in particular appeal to those who operate in high-density urban habitats such as Hong Kong, Sao Paolo Tokyo, or New York). Geographers and sociologists who study social behaviour in urban settings will be particularly interested in the social and spatial content, while students and academics in built environment related fields will perhaps be interested from its academic perspective. The book also serves the purpose of being able to bridge the gap between practice and academia, as many of the examples / theories have been executed in parts of the World, and are increasingly being adopted as part of a new urban legislative vocabulary within high density urban habitats.
Are there any key messages you’d like to highlight?
In today’s rapidly urbanising world, it is important not to forget the benefits of urban greenery and social spaces in high-density environments. In the rush to build evermore skyscraping offices, condominiums and malls, open spaces such as parks and squares are being removed to the detriment of the overall liveability of the urban habitat. Skycourts and skygardens can play a vital role in replenishing such social spaces and form part of a new urban vocabulary alongside other, more established semi-public social spaces such as the court and arcade. In addition, they can help improve the health and well being of not only the individual but also the built environment.
Why are skycourts and skygardens so significant?
For centuries, public spaces such as the street, square and park have provided areas and civic platforms that have supported society’s day-to-day civic needs. However, the depletion and privatisation of these spaces has resulted in alternative social spaces evolving, and becoming more influential. In land constrained environments that have become increasingly high density (for instance Hong Kong’s buildable surface area equates to 25%; the remaining area being rocks, steep hills and marshland), these alternative skyrise social spaces have become a necessary part of living, working and playing.
Can you share a story/anecdote from the book that illustrates the use of skycourts and skygardens?
Studying the role skycourts and skygardens play in replenishing social spaces is of particular interest to me, especially the ways in which space-constrained cities such as Hong Kong and Singapore have endeavoured to create communal spaces in the sky for their citizens. The Pinnacle, in Singapore, demonstrates such an approach. The Pinnacle is an example of the Singapore government’s Housing Development Board programme (HDB) – a programme which effectively houses 85% of the city State’s population. Located in the center of Singapore with little recreational space at street level, the Pinnacle elevates the social spaces skywards. The development comprises of 1,848 family units within seven housing blocks that are then interconnected by skycourts and skygardens. These social spaces form a place for social interaction and co-presence amongst its residents on the 26th floor; while visitors can glean a view of the city from the 50th floor observation deck.
What are some of the controversies surrounding skycourts and skygardens?
While skycourts and skygardens can provide much needed alternative social spaces for interaction, this is dependent on the ability for every citizen – however rich or poor – to be able to access and enjoy such spaces. The increasing privatisation of the city has resulted in impressive structures with equally impressive elevated ‘public’ spaces, but these are often constrained by explicit or implicit rules of exclusion, such as being available for residents only, or the owner levying an entrance fee. These constraints often limit the freedom of passage and negate the benefits of alternative social spaces. They do not replace the lost ground-level public spaces, rather they seek to enhance the overall quality of the urban habitat.
What findings in writing/researching the book surprised you?
Some have described Singapore as an ‘urban utopia’ given the governments attempts to create ‘a garden city’. But what surprised me was the sheer variety and creativity of many other urban habitats elsewhere in the world that did not necessarily have government incentives to green their urban habitats – rather it was the will of the individual developers vis, society expressing their preference and needs for more open space at height. The Kanchanjunga, for example, is a residential development in Mumbai, India, built in 1983. It is normal in Mumbai that buildings are orientated to catch the prevailing sea breeze. However, this also means that they face the sun and catch the heavy monsoon rains. This development utilised techniques employed by ancient bungalows that overcame this predicament by inserting a protective layer of verandahs around the main living areas. Kanchanjunga achieves the same effect through a series of high-rise verandahs acting as an environmental buffer for each unit.
How is the field evolving?
As a practicing architect and masterplanner in Asia, I can see that our industry is evolving and progressing towards creating more sustainable built environments, but the fundamental needs of man have stayed the same. I have had the privilege of researching and exploring many different Asian civilisations (particularly in my TV series, ‘City Time Traveller’), and the buildings and places they created. I have seen that aesthetics may change with time, but the basic spatial and socio-cultural needs of man have remained the same for hundreds if not thousands of years. They have been forged through an almost Darwinian process of natural selection, where only the strongest space planning principles survive. Superfluous detail or fancy gets quickly erased in history – what is retained is what is often key to a people’s living habits. In Asian cultures, we see the heightened importance of the kitchen as the matriarchal center of the home, the verandah as a social space, and occasionally the courtyard as the provider of natural light and ventilation. These elements transcend geographic location, and we can see similar models in Thailand aswell as India. But adornments and motifs may come in the form of religious or local crafts expression that provide a distinct local cultural flavour.
What are some current trends in the field?
I think that with regards to the Asian city, there has been an evolution (as opposed to a trend) towards creating a hybrid city – a marriage of old, contemporary and what we can call futuristic. The vestiges of a 19th century colonial or indigenous past (the ubiquitous shophouses of Telok Ayer in Singapore, or the Hutongs in Beijing) are being retained as urban artefacts of nostalgia to remind us of yesteryear. The layering of the contemporary (the tall buildings and new structures) act as a reminder of economic progress and technological advancement in the 20th century. Looking ahead, the 21st century layering will come as a result of climate change, inner city migration/population increase and further technological advancement. Buildings may not need unsustainable demolishing but will be simply extended upon above the rooftops that will grow parasitically upwards, and they will be interlinked to other structures via skybridges. Skygardens will be in abundance given the need for alternative social spaces for people to interact in such increasing inner city densities. They would also provide an opportunity for roof top urban farming as well as help reduce the noxious pollutants in the atmosphere and the searing heat of the city.
What got you interested in this?
I have been conditioned by the places where I have lived. I grew up in London, for me one of the great cities of the World that has wonderful parks and garden squares interspersed within the urban habitat. So when studying architecture at Canterbury I was interested in how high-density cities, like Hong Kong and Singapore, try to salvage open space for social amenity and recreation. That led me to doing my research degree at Cambridge, where I explored skycourts and skygardens in tall buildings and high-density mixed-use developments, and eventually my PhD at Westminster. I’m thankful to be now working in a part of the World that allows me to utilize this knowledge and to see our projects coming to fruition in some major Asian cities, such as Manila, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Beijing, and Singapore.
What experience led you to write this book?
Studying the socio-spatial role of skycourts and skygardens for my Cambridge thesis, and then moving from the relatively open, low rise cities of Europe, to visit the dense, high-rise cities of Asia (in particular Hong Kong and Singapore) allowed me to witness how some of my earlier ideas could be turned into reality or taken further. This piqued my interest in the more diverse role skycourts and skygardens play in modern cities. Singapore is an especially good example, and is living up to its vision of being a garden city, or more recently a ‘city within a garden’. It has 2800 hectares of parks and open spaces, and 3300 hectares of nature reserves, which accounts for 8% of the City State’s land area. So it comes as little surprise that it should have a natural penchant for its greenery to expand vertically given its high density / high rise nature.