Sorry, but this rotating apartment block isn't the solution to segregated cities

By Barbara Speed

When space is at a premium, it becomes a premium product. You can see this effect at work in cities like London, where residential space is short, and flats and houses are treated like blocks of gold (except that they make a much better investment).

Urbanists and architects alike are becoming increasingly preoccupied with how to stop our cities becoming segregated – or, worse, solely the domain of the rich. Meanwhile, others are undermining these attempts by developing ways to keep different classes of residents as separate as possible, even within the same building.  

The latest bright idea to tackle this problem comes from Shin Kao, an industrial designer who has developed an apartment block, “Turn to the Future“, where each apartment is, in every sense, created equal. Each is built to the same design and size, while a mechanism shifts each around a spiral axis at designated times to give all its residents an equal shot at the building’s views: 

Once an apartment hits the bottom rung, a crane zooms it back up to the building’s zenith, and the whole process starts over:

As the apartments move, their doors will be locked, so that no unfortunate resident can accidentally fall out into the machinery. What’s more, gas and electricity connections would, rather improbably, be cut off, then reconnected at the apartment’s next docking station. 

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While the design is certainly outlandish (and has as much in common with rollercoaster design as building design), it’s clear that it’s not just a clever gimmick. In a design competition entry for the concept, Kao writes:

In the future, all the top floors of buildings will be owned by people with very high incomes and the middle to lower income people will only have a limited view from their living spaces.

The building is meant to tackle inequalities of position and view, and, in doing so, create a building where no resident is superior to the rest. According to Kuo, his concept would mean that “all people who live in the city will have a chance to enjoy the high quality of living spaces and share the equal view of their city and landscape”.

In principle, I can see his point. But to be honest, the most troubling gulfs within cities aren’t between those in a luxury tower block’s penthouse, and those at its base. If this concept were to come to fruition, its outlandish technology would presumably make it pretty pricey – and while mixed-income housing is far from easy to execute, its crucial premise involves using high-end properties to subsidise cheaper ones nearby. In a city like London, if all apartments are equal, they’re all likely to be unaffordable, too. 

Kuo also argues that the concept would end NIMBYish complaints about “blocked views” and allow for a greater density of buildings in city centres. But people complaining of blocked views, while annoying for impatient developers, can be beneficial: it ensures that no area gets so built it up it never sees the sun at street level. Meanwhile, current “Right to Light” laws in the UK, through which long-standing building owners can block developments which would decrease their light levels, would be pretty tricky to apply to a rotating block: what would the law say, if apartments were shrouded in darkness, but only some of the time?

There’s ample room to build in most cities – it just requires reclaiming old industrial land, improving zoning and planning laws, or expanding the city’s limits a little. A vision of the future where we gratefully hang on for the couple of days a month when our apartment is high enough to give us access to daylight is, in more ways than one, a pretty dim one.

Images: Shin designs. 

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