Groundscrapers: Exploring the logic behind long, low buildings

Image of aerial photography showing the architecture in its landscape context

Pedregulho Residential Complex, Affonso Eduardo Reidy, photographed by Leonardo Finotti

A visionary architect of the modern metropolis surveyed the vast urban scene unfolding from his high office window in 1920s New York. His awe mixed with an unsettling realization: “On a close scrutiny of the streets, certain minute, moving objects can be unmistakably distinguished. The city apparently contains, away down there—human beings!” The thought “gives one pause,” Hugh Ferriss mused, because “between the colossal inanimate forms and those mote-like creatures darting in and out among their foundations, there is such a contrast, such discrepancy in scale. . . .” Descending to the street, he declared, is “like Dante’s descent into Hades,” where one could perceive a deep inhumanity in the urban scene that adversely affected people’s “facial expressions, their postures, gestures, movements, tones of voice. . . .”

Black and white image of Ferris in studio with an iconic illustration of the metropolis behind him
Hugh Ferriss, 1889-1962, in Studio.

Although Ferriss, like many architects at the time, was deeply impressed by new trends in high-rise buildings, he criticized their “thin coating of architectural confectionary disguises,” and acknowledged “that they were fashioned to meet not so much the human needs of the occupants as the financial appetites of the property owners.” Over the last hundred years, not much has changed. Tall buildings continue to exert a powerful pull on designers and property owners. Their heights continue to increase, and skylines in cities throughout the world now bristle with competing forms reaching upward, indifferent to people and context. In their 1995 manifesto, S, M, L, XL, Rem Koolhaas and Bruce Mau explained that this indifference is a natural consequence of contemporary large-scale architecture. “Bigness [is] incapable of establishing relationships with the classical city . . .” it “no longer needs the city; it competes with the city. . .” and “It is no longer part of any urban tissue.” The result is that “the street has become the residue,” and people seem to matter hardly at all.

Camilo Restrepo Ochoa, founder of Agenda Architecture in Medellín, Colombia, and studio instructor at the Harvard GSD, declares that this situation calls for new thinking about the architecture of cities and the predominance of the high-rise building type. For the users of skyscrapers, their immense height means “somehow you’re trapped in the air,” he says, and “you condemn relations to take place in a vertical manner. . . .” Social and environmental relationships become tightly constrained by an enclosed lobby, elevators, sealed windows, and great distance from the ground. Restrepo argues that “other ways of social spatial organizations are needed . . . a new type is required,” so that architecture can “protect and create a more horizontal relation with an endangered community and ecosystem.”

Black and white image of birds eye perspective view of the master plan
1933 rendering of Plan Obus for Algiers by Le Corbusier.

In “Specific Ambiguity: Groundscrapers,” a studio he taught at Harvard last fall, Camilo and his 12 students explored the possibilities of large, low buildings whose scale and complex programs necessitate deep thinking about how architecture can “operate as a mediator between social and environmental conditions.” Unlike a tall building, which seeks a relationship with an ineffable abstraction—the sky—a long, low building challenges designers “to redefine our relation to the ground,” the field of public and ecological relationships.

If the “groundscraper” constitutes a building type, it is neither new nor well defined. As Camilo points out, its examples are extremely varied in appearance, scale, program, and architectural merit: the Royal Crescent in Bath, Le Corbusier’s sinuous Plan Obus project for Algiers, Alison and Peter Smithson’s Robin Hood Gardens public housing in London (“the largest failure of them all,” Camilo says), Constant Nieuwenhuys’s chaotic New Babylon project, and innumerable long, low office buildings and housing blocks help to establish the type. All of these diverse examples share the formal characteristics of extreme length and repetitiveness, but the type opens itself to broad interpretation.

Perspective view of architecture in a cool toned atmosphere and landscape
Steilneset Memorial by Peter Zumthor and Louise Bourgeois, photographed by Andrew Meredith.

To begin, the students studied examples of groundscrapers built over the last 70 years by Affonso Reidy in Brazil, Aldo Rossi and Herzog and de Meuron in Italy, Peter Zumthor in Norway, and Craig Ellwood in California. These relatively modest examples, ranging from 120 to 260 meters (400 to 850 feet), invest long, low buildings with a range of programs—offices, apartments, galleries, classrooms—as well as public spaces and building infrastructure. Their contexts also vary; they occupy urban, suburban, and rural sites.

Camilo challenged his students to incorporate a diverse, mixed-use program in a single, very long, horizontal building, to develop a strong relationship between the building and the ground in order to foster social relationships, and to design “ambiguous” building enclosures responsive to the tropical ecology in Colombia. Camilo explains that an essential problem for an extremely long building is that its program loses some command over the building form, which tends to be fixed and repetitive. “The program cannot repeat constantly,” he says, and to make the building work well, “it’s not only about mixing programs; it is the way you place them.” In other words, the character of the building develops from “continuous questioning of the system versus the exception in the way we organize the space.”

Black and white image of architectural photography showing perspective of the elevation
1947 Pedregulho Residential Complex by Affonso Eduardo Reidy, Research and Documentation Center of the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism at Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro.

Connecting the parts of the program also presents challenges in a groundscraper. Unlike in a skyscraper—where a bank of elevators controls movement—a long, low building demands more creative circulation patterns. These include multiple vertical connections between the ground and the roof, as well as very long horizontal passageways, which might become social spaces like sidewalks or streets, rather than just circulation infrastructure. Camilo explains that the varied functions, multiple points of access, extended passageways, and indeterminate public spaces in the groundscraper building type presented students with important questions about the nature of building programs. “We tend to give a program to everything,” he says, “and we tend to over-program our layouts.” But in these large, low buildings the insistent repetition of program calls for relief—for “spaces for doing nothing,” or rather, “spaces where anything can happen.” Camilo argues that architects don’t understand these types of unprogrammed spaces well, but they are essential for the social dynamic of buildings.

Black and white bird eye perspective of architectural rendering
Groundscraper render in Perpetuo Socorro, a neighborhood at the crux of the Medellin valley by Isaac Pollan and Diandra Rendradjaja.

If the groundscraper type challenges the nature of building program, the building sites Camilo chose for the project help challenge the capacities of architecture. The students designed buildings with a maximum footprint of 30 meters by 300 meters on two sites in Medellín, Colombia, one urban and one semi-rural. In each condition the building is, Camilo explains, “not as big as a neighborhood, but bigger than a block.” At that scale, “architecture cannot solve it all. . . . You have to support it on landscape design and urban design.” The buildings’ large scale and insistent rhythms naturally vie with adjacent building fabric, sidewalks, and streets, as well as unbuilt portions of the site. This compelled the students to work simply and strategically to balance the competing factors of the project, and, “to question a limit of architecture as a discipline.”

The tropical climate opens other questions about the physical limits of architecture. Most important, it allows an “ambiguous” sense of enclosure, because, Camilo explains, often “in the tropics interior space doesn’t exist. Somehow it’s the transition that matters.” That is, a building envelope that supplies continuous enclosure is not necessary, and public space in particular often spans interior and exterior. Tropical architecture, he says, “is mainly driven by shade and air,” so its emphasis shifts away from enclosing curtain walls: “facades are not so important; the most important thing is always the roof.”

Black and white line drawing of the architecture
Groundscraper plan in Perpetuo Socorro, a neighborhood at the crux of the Medellin valley by Isaac Pollan and Diandra Rendradjaja.

In the studio, an indistinct sense of enclosure and an emphasis on horizontal protection from weather became essential components of the building type. This porosity also set up an ironic condition: as an earthbound alternative to the skyscraper, the groundscraper is much better suited to address the sky and its atmospheric conditions. Camilo points out that in the tropical context the students were addressing, permeability of buildings also corresponds with a reduction of their mechanical systems. The students—many of whom live in temperate climates—were amazed, he says, at the freedom this permitted. The ambiguities of space and reduced systems allowed them to “strip away all the technical stuff” to “produce a very honest architecture that’s as simple as possible.” They were able, he says, to “touch a little bit of utopia—a pragmatic utopia, let’s call it. . . .”

Hugh Ferriss’s utopian vision of a hundred years ago evoked astounding images of great edifices reaching to the sky—“Buildings like crystals. Walls of translucent glass. . . . A mineral kingdom.” But we have to question whether the immense skyscrapers built in that image over the intervening years have fulfilled his hope that architecture would contribute “to the harmonious development” of humanity and its “potentialities of emotional and mental well-being.” Perhaps, as Camilo contends, a new type of “horizontal building, belonging more to the ground and the horizon, rather than the sky and its psychological detachments,” is worth exploring—a building type that can act more effectively “as a mediator between social and environmental conditions.” While his students’ renderings may not carry the dreamlike quality of Ferriss’s ethereal graphite visions, their precise rhythms—portrayed boldly against the fabric of Medellín and the distant mountains beyond—offer a place for people together on the ground in the fresh tropical air.