Power block - Issue 25 - Magazine | Monocle

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The city block should be the beating heart of a neighbourhood. All too often though planners, architects and developers get it wrong – they build too high, too dense (or not dense enough) and, worst of all, create monotonous street façades that alienate both visitors and residents.

In our perfect block, we went back to the drawing board, consulting with a team of experts to re-imagine it as the cornerstone of the community. On the panel was Kim Nielsen, founder of Danish architectural practice, 3XN (his firm’s imaginative designs are reinventing districts in cities including Copenhagen); Mónica Rivera, co-founder of Barcelona-based Emiliano López Mónica Rivera Arquitectes (who wouldn’t want to live in elegant López-Rivera housing?); and Paris-based architect Eric Firley, co-author of The Urban Housing Handbook.

We reposition the block as one that functions as a stand-alone community with its own identity supported by a mix of independent businesses and community minded global brands, galleries, cafés and restaurants. We spanned the globe, taking the best elements from the most successful city block models, re-interpreting the classic blueprints to create a holistic, contemporary design.

The Monocle block is fully sustainable and slightly larger than a typical Belgravia terrace unit in London. It sits on a cleverly masterminded grid-like system, inspired by the straightforward lay-out of New York.

It has a series of inter-related buildings by our favourite architects – take a look and you’ll recognise the clean, crisp work of Toyo Ito, Kengo Kuma and Swiss firm Wespi de Meuron, among others. Construction is by local labourers (a team of workmen can arrive in a flash for quick repairs).

Behind a varied street-scape, there’s a secret life – community parks, cobbled alleys, and the rooftops are bustling with activity. There’s an etiquette, though. Considerate residents (and that includes the shopkeepers too) chip in to tend the veg patches, organise summer drinks, and keep the parks and streets clean. Want to move in?

The courtyard Room to grow

Kim Nielsen wants to see an “inner life” in blocks, referencing the “beautiful” tucked-away gardens of London and Rome. We don’t want just one park though – our block has lots of secret green pockets to get lost in, all connected by winding paths. With play equipment for kids, benches and dining areas, there’s always a little patch of privacy.

The inner passageway Walk this way

“The inner-part of the block should be for residential or special uses,” says Eric Firley. He highlights as inspiration the maze-like blocks in Tokyo and Paris, complete with courtyards, smaller homes and parks. We want a sense of discovery too so our block is broken up with cobbled, pedestrianised alleyways. These are the lifelines of the community. Here we’ve got a farmers’ market and shop outlets just for the residents to run. Our trusty maintenance team have an office that’s open 24/7, and a drop-off pet pen means a doggie-walker is always on hand.

The Monocle block basics

  1. Wind turbines: Carbon footprints are zero thanks to our wind turbines.
  2. Doorstep tram: Commuting is easy with our trusty tram at hand.
  3. Mini golf: Challenge your neighbour to a round.
  4. Tennis: Take in the view from our sky-high court.
  5. Basketball: School teams train on our courts.
  6. Rooftop pool: Getting fit is easy with our 50m pool.
  7. Inner park: Just one of many green pockets.
  8. Urban farming: We’ve got fruit and vegetables growing on our roofs.
  9. The passageway: Enter our block via a network of paths.
  10. Solar power: Panels keep our block running green.
  11. Greenhouse: Residents are on a rota to tend the tomatoes.
  12. Playgrounds: Away from traffic, it’s extra safe for kids in our rooftop park.

Scaling back

When it comes to building cities, it’s important not to ignore scale (also see essay page 64). This subtle issue underpins the very foundation of our metropolises, yet remains a tricky area to negotiate. A ­soaring skyscraper can either inspire or intimidate according to its design; density treads a very fine line. And planners are often flummoxed by the most basic issues of size and form.

While some refute the notion that an ideal exists, Philipp Rode, executive ­director of the Urban Age Programme at London’s LSE, says, “a ­retreat from any kind of acknowledgement that universal standards still exists is naive.” He thinks that guidelines can be gleaned by “comparing and contrasting already existing models”.

Josef Hämmerl at Stuttgart-based MGf Architekten says, for example, that a park has to be “big enough so that you can have a 40-minute run in it. There has to be space for games and some water.” He likes the density of a city such as Stuttgart, so that “people can walk or cycle to work,” and adds, “A neighbourhood feeling is also important.”

On the street, Swedish architect Erik Andersson wants to see communal benches, 2.4m long, and suggests roads should be 5.5m wide and pavements 1.7m wide.

Underground parking

Charging ahead

Rivera wants to see space for underground parking. Our residents never get stressed (or a parking ticket) looking for a spot to squeeze into. There’s nothing dungeon-like about our underground parking either. We appointed Spanish architect Teresa Sapey to create a bright, airy space with stand-out graphics (we loved her parking for the Puerta América hotel in Madrid). Zipping around in electric cars, residents can charge up empty batteries at specially designed hot-spots. There’s a friendly valet on hand to keep a watchful eye on parked vehicles and keep them sparkling too.

Communal residential hall

Lobby for change

The entrances to our residential buildings are full of life and activity – Rivera is inspired by blocks in Barcelona. These should be “open and large with spaces for bikes, children’s strollers and recycling bins”, she says. We’ve got hard-working, bespoke storage spaces to hide everything away. A Barcelona-style porter is always on-hand to relay important messages, and we’ve got an in-house post team to sort and deliver mail promptly. Specially-designed chutes deliver washing direct to an on-site launderette.


Road map

“It’s very important to create life in front of the blocks,” says Kim Nielsen. We hired landscape designers Gustafson Porter to create a sensitive masterplan for our streets. Pedestrians can take a walk on generous pavements lined with shading trees, and our landscaping is always well maintained by businesses and residents – it’s not just the city’s job. Our planting hasn’t done air-miles – it’s all local. Every 20 metres, we have sturdy wooden benches, manufactured by Swedish outdoor furniture specialist Nola. When the weather warms up, cafés, bars and restaurants can extend dining out to the streets without any pesky red-tape. A string of streetlights, lining the boulevard, keeps everything well lit at night. We’ve got Copenhagen-style cycle lanes, and hop-on, hop-off trams shuttling commuters to work. Awnings ensure flats and shops stay cool.

Street front

Butcher, baker... vinyl record-maker

Our block has “elegant, solid and well-crafted” buildings, as recommended by Mónica Rivera. Giving dynamism to the streetscape, we’ve got shops and offices on the ground and first floor, and homes up above (visiting friends and family can also rent micro-flats by the day). Blocks are no higher than five storeys, “so you can call to someone from the top floor and they can hear,” adds Rivera. We don’t want a dull street façade – there are gaps with paths leading into the inner-block. As for stores, we’ve got everything from independent bookshops through to a butcher, hardware outlet, tailor, pharmacy, and of course, a Monocle Shop.


The secret level

Don’t ignore the rooftops – it’s precious real-estate not to be wasted. Residents feast off the communal vegetable patches and jointly look after the cucumbers and tomatoes growing in our rooftop green-houses. There are outdoor terraces and parks for catching up with the neighbours. Nielsen wants to have playgrounds for the kids too. We’ve got a 50m pool for early morning swims, and residents book ahead to reserve the tennis court. Wind turbines and solar panels power the block.

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