Guest Blog: City Space – Height and Hierarchy

Samuel Tibbs

This is a guest blog by a former SHP Architecture co-op, Samuel Tibbs. As part of his studies he traveled abroad to study the design, culture and history of Southeast Asia during the fall semester of 2015.

How does an individual define what is important? And how does an individual assign value, particularly to objects or space?  For some, the higher the cost of an object, the more valuable it is. For others, the frequency of a space or an object’s use implies importance. But even more elementary, is the concept that size identifies importance. We can see this concept as a trend everywhere in our world. This is not to say that other factors do not play a large role in ascribing hierarchy, but size is a factor which is hard to be ignored by the passing eye. Consider a diamond, crystal clear in color and cut to near perfection. The clarity in its shape visually amplifies its weight in carats. These simple factors define its market value, as its rarity makes acquisition less attainable. But, once purchased and delivered to its owner, often the size of the diamond informs the initial reaction. Throughout advertisements, commercials, and even in conversation, it is clear that bigger is often considered better. And maybe rightfully so – maybe size is important.

Consider the modern city skyline; tall buildings tower over local businesses and operations, between small relief spaces and busy intersections. Smaller installations populate the streetscape, unmatched in their number, and yet overshadowed individually when compared to the height and footprint of their neighbors. The business district of Hong Kong shares a similar description of our imagined city. As I walked the city grid, block by block, and scaled the walkways that had been carved out of the land’s exciting topography, I felt as if the city had covered me. Admiring every structure that surrounded me, it was easy to lose track of orientation. Each building built to seemingly unbelievable heights desperately grabbed at me for attention, the size simply impossible to ignore. Each adjacent building seemed to compete for the same attention, but built even taller, or more exotically. Before me was a sea of structures, all impressive, but also impossible to admire individually.

By using height as the primary element to regard hierarchy over their neighbors, the designers of these structures had effectively made their smaller neighbors invisible. But this invisibility was only short lived; as the excitement faded, I felt as if the mass of skyscrapers had essentially formed a series of alleys along my path. The dull shadows of the, now forgotten, giants washed over the area, and once again appeared the smaller structures, using vibrant and varying colors, intricate details, and compelling imagery to reclaim the attention once stolen. By choosing to relate to the human scale and not to that of an inanimate structure, the low built community had established itself as more receptive of my attention. So perhaps size is important, and maybe bigger is better, but it seems that this perception is only fleeting, and soon replaced.

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