The Groundscraper: a construction typology to decentralize cities

The Groundscraper: a construction typology to decentralize cities
The Groundscraper: a construction typology to decentralize cities



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A groundscraper It is essentially the opposite of a skyscraper: a large building that extends horizontally outward rather than rising vertically into the sky. Although there is no strict definition, the groundscrapers They are generally described as extremely long but low-rise buildings with more than 92,000 square meters of space, sometimes called sidescrapers either landscrapers. The term rose to prominence with Google’s plans for its massive $1.3 billion London headquarters. Designed to be just 11 stories high but over 300 meters long, this vast office block epitomizes the use of horizontal expansion creating immense space for thousands of employees.

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Apple Park / Foster + Partners. Image © Foster + Partners, ARUP, Kier + Wright, Apple

Its defenders argue that the groundscrapers They offer advantages such as minimal impact on a city skyline, lower construction costs, and better energy efficiency compared to the intense climate control needs of skyscrapers. They can also foster inclusive spaces that bring workers and the public together. Although they were once considered less prestigious than skyscrapers, the capacity of groundscrapers to house entire populations on a single floor has fueled an increase in its appeal and use for major corporate projects in recent years.

Although the projects of groundscraper High-profile tech giants like Facebook and Google have garnered new attention, the typology is not an entirely new architectural idea. The concept traces its lineage to the postwar exodus of white-collar jobs to suburban office parks in North America as companies abandoned urban skyscrapers. Influential precedents range from the historic Royal Crescent in Bath to Le Corbusier’s sinuous unbuilt Obus Plan for Algiers and Alison and Peter Smithson’s controversial Robin Hood Gardens public housing in London. Despite their diversity in shape and presentation, these elongated structures share the central formal characteristics that define the typology of groundscraperwhile opening the concept to broader interpretations.

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The groundscrapers have sparked the imagination in architectural competitions, such as the 2016 “New York Horizon” concept, which envisioned transforming Manhattan’s Central Park into a sunken landscape surrounded by a huge underground development with spaces for offices, homes and services. The radical plan by designers Yitan Sun and Jianshi Wu, winner of the eVolo skyscraper competition, aimed to increase density around the iconic park through innovative “building down” in a groundscraper underground, rather than up in a standard skyscraper. His concept reinvented how to add urban spaces and programming to New York’s vertical environment while preserving the open green space of Central Park.

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New York Horizon / Yitan Sun and Jianshi Wu. Image Courtesy of eVolo

At the Harvard Graduate School of Design, students have analyzed the typology of groundscrapers and have faced challenges related to circulation and connectivity. Unlike skyscrapers with centralized elevators, groundscrapers Extremely long and low heights require creative solutions for movement between spaces, including multiple vertical connections from floor to ceiling, as well as wide internal horizontal hallways. However, these expanding corridors present an opportunity to transcend mere circulation by potentially functioning as social public spaces similar to sidewalks or streets. As Professor Camilo José Vergara explains, the mixed uses, the numerous access points and the indefinite public/private boundaries in the groundscrapers led students to carefully question the fundamental nature of architectural programming itself within this distinctive design.

A compelling advantage of the typology of groundscraper is its potential to facilitate more decentralized, evenly distributed growth across cities as an alternative to skyscrapers concentrated in dense central business districts. Horizontal expansion and the ability to occupy large spaces allows groundscrapers be built flexibly in various neighborhoods, suburbs and peripheral areas rather than being limited to limited plots in the center. This flexibility allows for the creation of multiple mixed-use centers encompassing employment, commercial and residential functions dispersed throughout a metropolitan region, rather than funneling all development into a single overcrowded urban core.

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Google London / BIG and Heatherwick Studio. Image Courtesy of Google

This decentralized distribution could help alleviate overcrowding and transportation tensions in city centers. With more localized work and lifestyle options closer to residential areas, groundscrapers They have the potential to reduce long travel times, traffic congestion and the overall burden on transportation infrastructure by reducing the need for people to travel downtown daily. Additionally, the integration of residential, office, retail and community amenities within developments of groundscraper Singular and independent buildings allow for the promotion of more cohesive and walkable mixed-use communities, aligned with the modern urban planning objectives of sustainability, livability and reduced dependence on personal vehicles. Overall, this decentralized urban live/work/play model enabled by the way groundscraper provides an alternative to the vertical density of skyscrapers by distributing development more equitably across a city’s geography.

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The Squaire / JSK. Image © Roland Horn

According to Amy Webb, American author and futurist, groundscrapers They may become increasingly common in the future, especially in areas with wide open land such as the American Midwest. Webb predicts that as people potentially relocate to lower density regions due to climate change, groundscrapers they could create entirely new urban footprints in emerging economic centers. His vision is for future employees to use lateral lift systems that can move laterally and diagonally, not just vertically, a technology that already exists in places like Berlin. Webb suggests that the accessible heights of the groundscrapers They would also facilitate services such as drone deliveries.

While skyscrapers have been linked to affordable housing and economic prosperity in dense cities, she argues that the lower-rise, more dispersed developments enabled by groundscrapers could offer a better quality of life. With innovations in areas such as autonomous vehicles and wireless elevators, Webb believes that groundscrapers They are not only a preferable option, but could become inevitable in shaping the future of living and working environments.

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The Line at NEOM. Image via NEOM, used under terms of “fair use”

Over the past century, architectural design has been fascinated by ever-taller skyscrapers. These monolithic towers often show little regard for human scale, context or environmental impact. The obsession with the aesthetics of verticality demands a reevaluation of how we construct the architecture of cities. The typology of groundscraper challenges designers to redefine the connection of our built environment to the ground plane and sphere of pedestrian life. It allows a reconciliation of architecture with the physical and social context that surrounds it. Prioritizing horizontal development over vertical development has the potential to create more grounded, integrated and people-centred urban environments. He groundscraper provides an intriguing alternative model that deserves further exploration and implementation.

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