Anyone who has ever lived in New York, Singapore, Tokyo, Sao Paulo or Hong Kong, very probably, i.e. in nine out of ten cases, lived in a high-rise building. A sign of things to come here in Germany as well? A guest contribution by Thomas Beyerle of Catella Research.
High-rise buildings going up in Germany’s city centers
Especially in highly sought-after, extremely concentrated cityscapes in America or Asia – in contrast to Europe’s sprawl, high-rise buildings are not only extremely popular, but often the only type of residential structures that are available and – depending on one’s perspective – affordable. In some cases complemented by the first mixed-use or hybrid towers, these residential towers make up the city’s structure and skyline.
In Germany, too, living in high-rises has again become fashionable. In fact, the idea of living in high-rises was conceived as a solution to urban problems right from the start (think of Le Corbusiers’ “Unité d’Habitation”, a concept that was considered positive in the early 1920s). At that time, high-rise residences were very modern and well equipped compared to the backyard status quo. In contrast to the initial, hesitant experiments conducted in both East and West Germany in the 1960s, however, this development is no longer taking place as a “new urban concept” on the edge of a city, but in the midst of urban life. This shift to the center describes a new dimension in European cities, which hitherto have been marked by medieval city structures.
High-rise residential buildings: pros and cons
What are the pros and cons when one compares all the requirements of urban and regional planning and the massive re-urbanization trends in Germany? What does it mean to have large numbers of people living in a relatively small area? From the perspective of sustainability, there are more advantages than disadvantages: think of soil sealing, the close proximity of shopping, services and work, and the convenience of a centralized infrastructure. However, the current boom in high-rise residential buildings is driven by the availability of investment capital and the necessity of repurposing high-priced properties in city centers more than by interest in creating affordable housing. Thus far, this form of residential construction is to be found almost exclusively in the highest price segment. This is the arena where investors, city planners, financiers and a clientele with an entirely new demand are now battling it out.
The dream of owning a home surrounded by green
In most Germans’ attitudes toward housing, three elements define their negative feelings against high-rise residential buildings over the past sixty years: first, the dream of a detached house surrounded by green plants instead of an urban atmosphere, second, Germans’ extreme disinclination to move and third, the frightful examples of apartment complexes built in the sixties, seventies and eighties, for example in Cologne-Chorweiler, Munich-Neuperlach, Neue Vahr Bremen, Rostock-Lichtenhagen or Berlin Gropiusstadt, including social erosion.
Ultimately the question arises as to what high-rise living means for urban development. In the current debate, the pendulum swings all the way from decline and desolation to the enrichment of social life. In my opinion, this vertical urbanity can lead to enrichment, provided residents are successfully integrated in their immediate social settings. To be honest, however, we in Germany lack positive experience in this area.
Here again, it may help to take a look at the USA or Singapore. This may require increasing density and new forms of communication and construction that are as yet unknown in Germany. Nonetheless, when thinking about the city of the future, everyone always has this image in mind: urban, densely populated and always high-rise. Even if cinematic examples ranging from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis of 1927, through Blade Runner of 1982 to the Star Wars series exhibit more of a dystopian character.