When size matters : How small buildings shape our cities for good

Simon Allford, co-founder and director of Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, discusses the buildings of the future.

There is an office building in Florence that 700 years after opening still serves as inspiration for what a building can do for a city. Originally conceived as home to the Medici Court, it was the place where the prominent family lived, worked and ruled.

Standing just thirty metres high, its profile far outgrew its physical size and it became a modern precursor of a low-rise building that packs a punch – as well as an emblematic image of what Florence stood for in the minds of millions.

It served a number of purposes: living quarters, a centre of administration, ceremonial palace and world-famous museum and much more over its impressive lifespan. Not just an example of how Renaissance builders created multi-purpose spaces, but also an effective rebuttal to the argument that building high is the only way to attain density and legacy in a crowded urban space.

Buildings have an inherent influence over the way people live and work in a city. In the world’s biggest cities – London among them – buildings are increasingly looked to as the way to deliver commercial growth and attract the very best people. Interestingly, low-rise buildings are fast becoming the way to do both.


Low Rise, High Ambition

Buildings must serve those who use them. Every commercial one needs to offer people more than just being trapped at a desk for the nine-to-five routine. Instead, they should inspire creativity and teamwork in the workplace. Every residential one should be built in ways that encourage mixed communities and are environmentally friendly.

Buildings – small and large – create and contribute to communities by having a sense of openness and connection with the neighbourhood. An attractive way to achieve that is by having mixed-use and low-rise buildings that facilitate chance encounters between the buildings’ users and visitors, and shared communal
facilities like restaurants, bars, gardens and crèches.

Teams working in a low-rise are much more likely to interact with the outside world during the day, encouraging them to get fresh air, break out of the corporate bubble and feel like they’re are part of the social fabric that exists outside their office door.

Meanwhile, for residential buildings, the zeitgeist continues to move away from high-rise buildings as study after study proves the benefits of multi-use and low-rise buildings. These include: less financial risk for the client, greater use of the building over a day, week, season and year. And they tend to reject monocultures, creating the conditions for a diverse community, mirroring the makeup of any good, modern city.


Precedents and Places

This is a delicate moment in time for the future of London’s residential and commercial spaces. A juncture that is not helped by the polarising opinions of policy makers and pressure groups alike, who tend to sit on one end or the other of the spectrum when it comes to the high versus low-rise debate.

The key is to understand London’s big enough for both. There is a balance waiting to be struck where high-rise buildings can intermingle with low-rise; multi-purpose spaces can fit in nicely next to strictly commercial spaces – all in the name of securing a bright future for all Londoners.

Thankfully, there is a precedent for the UK keeping a steady head on the matter of changing how we interact with residential and commercial spaces to suit our needs.

I think of Britain’s 19th century industrial leaders lounging at White’s Club discussing business strategies over libations and how it bears a resemblance to present day co-working spaces, furnished with ping pong tables and open bars where conversations really get going.


Make an Impression

There are, naturally, challenges that arise with both. In a small building the challenge is to ensure that the connecting circulation spaces are large enough to encourage connections and conversations and not too large to overwhelm them. Whereas in a tall building the challenge is to resist Louis Sullivan’s description of a skyscraper as just “a whole lot of floors”, something that can be avoided by easily connected clusters all the way up the building.

While each building is unique, other points to consider include: generosity of space, volume, and addressing the needs of the particular city. There is also the opportunity to innovate: think about the use of shadow and depth. Consider using an exoskeleton to pique interest. On the interior, push for an engaging promenade, an entrance that is inviting and inspiring – not just a way to get to the lift. At every stage, question whether the building is fit to become a living, working piece of the city.


Plan and Perform

Without problems there would be no great design, goes the adage. And when building in a city with the density of London, there is no shortage of problems and the creative solutions that they bring to life. The more attention paid to design means fewer mistakes will be made: after all, it’s wrong to assume a building can be too small to work out, and too big not to.

In highly urbanised areas, planning is rightly complicated and if low-rise buildings continue to receive more attention and profile then London will be moving in the right direction. This should not come at the expense of very tall residential and commercial buildings, but rather be delivered in tandem with them.

That’s how London’s architects, developers and buildings can shape the city for good.