Ken Yeang – Bioclimatic City / Vertical urbanism.

On 28 March 2008, as part of the Academy of Architecture Rotterdam /AIR lecture series on the future of Rotterdam – Rotterdam Reinvented, the Malaysian architect Ken Yeang talked about high-rise, and about eco skyscrapers in particular.

Ken Yeang does not view tall buildings as isolated objects in the city, instead he maintains that high-rise offers enormous potential for the city. Indeed high-rise is an extension of the city; but simply stacking identical storeys or programmes one on top of the other is not sufficient to realize this potential. To ensure that high-rise forms part of the city it must be designed as city, as vertical urban design. And like the city, tall buildings must be able to accommodate a variety of functions and places. Living, working, shops, recreation, public places, parks, the option of taking various routes, vertical streets, etc. In the light of his own designs – some of which have been realized – Ken Yeang illuminated various aspects of the theme.

All these aspects were brought together in The Nagoya Expo 2005 Tower (Japan). The Nagoya Expo was sited in an area with a valuable ecosystem. As an alternative to the traditional horizontal layout of an international exhibition, Ken Yeang designed a 600-metre-high tower. This open-structured tower could accommodate all the different national pavilions and other facilities of a world expo. The tower also included a complete public transport system to convey the expected 25 million visitors to their required destinations. Ken Yeang designed an overall site area of 150 hectares into a footprint of just 2 hectares. Regrettably the Japanese organizers of the Nagoya Expo did not opt for his proposal and this groundbreaking design was never realized.

When designing a specific building Ken Yeang takes the local climate as his springboard. He harnesses the building to optimize the interior climate for the occupants. Alongside architecture, he also makes use of plants which can have a positive impact on the interior climate. His use of plants on the exterior of the building to improve the interior climate is striking. This spawned a ‘hairy building’ whose summer interior temperature was several degrees lower than a building not covered in plants. Ken Yeang also seeks to find simple solutions to ventilation and he showed a number of buildings where meticulous design (and a great deal of simulation) had obviated the need for air-conditioning. Natural ventilation was sufficient.

In more recent designs the sustainable nature has been visually reinforced by means of planted flyovers – ecoducts – that rise up the building from the immediate environment connecting the atria/gardens with each other and the surrounding area. Ken Yeang said that he also hoped that these ramps would attract animals. In his view buildings should be used by more than one species (man). A compelling idea, but would a roe deer really climb up to an atrium on the eight floor? Whatever, in the designs Ken Yeang exhibited, this consideration for animal life seemed to relegate the ground plane to no more than a service level.

At the end of the lecture there was time for questions. Ken Yeang did not answer these directly, no doubt due to his Malaysian background. Instead the answers were evasive or allegorical in their nature. Nonetheless the public was able to learn a great deal from them. It was clear that to run a successful architects’ firm it’s not sufficient for an architect to able to draw and design, but marketing, accountancy and management skills were also needed. Ken Yeang maintains that trust is vital in convincing a client. The client must trust the architect to deliver a good design – on time and within budget – that meets the stated requirements and, perhaps, also offers something extra.

Unfortunately the most important question was not satisfactorily answered: why have no tall buildings of this nature been realized in Rotterdam, especially given the much-publicized Rotterdam Climate Initiative? It’s certainly not to do with climate. Ken Yeang also builds in Toronto. Nor to do with being unknown. Ken Yeang gave a lecture in Rotterdam 10 years ago setting out his vision. After hearing that lecture I was convinced that Ken Yeang’s eco skyscrapers would complement the current monotonous supply of tall buildings in Rotterdam and the Netherlands.

Tim de Boer | Den Haag | 10/06/2008 | published on Archined, translated by Nicolien Gatehouse