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Misconceptions about high-rise

Why do we want or need to build high into the sky, if necessary?
Text by
Ravenna Westerhout

In the city portraits of Amsterdam from the seventeenth century, the city clearly shows its pride in its varied silhouette. Towers that determined the urban landscape from afar were further emphasized by depicting them higher than they really were, representing the power of the city, like artists’ impressions avant la lettre. Over the years, the public debate about tall buildings has shifted substantially. It has become a theme that arises regularly, involving all echelons of our society: the sense and nonsense of high-rise buildings in the otherwise flat Dutch country, and their growing impact on the cityscapes. Why do we want or need to build high into the sky, if necessary? What chances does high-rise offer in facing urgent challenges of our time, such as the environmental crisis and the problem of the mono-culturalism and –functionalism of our modern-day cities?  Are high-rise buildings good, or bad?


The history of urban development in the Netherlands is characterized by a fairly horizontal height landscape, punctuated with accents. In the 16th and 17th centuries these were the church towers, mills on the strongholds and city gates. The other buildings had an average height between six and twelve meters. Before 1850, the height accents in the cityscape had a symbolic meaning. They represented the importance of religion, the economy (in the case of the stock exchange) and the presence of a public administration in the city (the town hall and the towers on the city gates).

City portrait of Amsterdam. Source: Stadsarchief Gemeente Amsterdam.

The first height accent to be built for purely aesthetic reasons, without a public function, was the ‘Witte Huis’ in Rotterdam in 1898. The 43-meter-high office building was the first European high-rise. In 1932 the 40-meter high ‘Wolkenkrabber’ of twelve floors was realised in the city of Amsterdam, a design by architect JF Staal, and part of the Plan Berlage Zuid.

Although it was already possible to stack several floors on top of each other from a technical point of view, these two buildings would remain the only precedents for a relatively long period, until after World War II. The solutions found to the Dutch housing shortage after the war included not only the country’s familiar terraced houses, but also galerijflats with continuous balconies at each level providing deck access to the apartments. These flats were generally built on the urban fringe, in a strict grid pattern with green strips. There was a strong preference for this open style of development, along with a strict separation between residential zones, central business districts, and areas for working.

Bijlmer, 1975. Source: Stadsarchief Gemeente Amsterdam.

From the 1970s onward, due to the negative association with the Bijlmer, such post-war districts were criticized for their monotony and their lack of architectural quality, grandeur, individual character, or privacy. High rises fell into discredit and for a while were even banned entirely from some city centres – even in Rotterdam – and a countermovement, in which the pursuit of small-scale operations prevailed, dominated the architectural debate of the seventies and eighties of the 20th century.

However, in the late eighties, urban renewal took place in the larger cities and high-rise buildings were reintroduced. Rotterdam set the tone with first the tower of the WTC (93 meters) and not much later the Delftse Poort (151 meters) on the Weena – which remained the tallest building in the Netherlands for a long time. In those days, high-rise buildings were mainly seen as a means to polish up the corporate identity of cities, with the business community as the main investors. That often happened with shiny office towers. This way, it could happen that even provincial cities such as Leeuwarden (Achmeatoren of 115 meters) and Tilburg (tower of Interpolis of 92 meters) were treated to high-rise buildings. En passant, this broke the taboo that initially rested on this construction method.


Whereas high-rise was primarily used for office towers in the nineties of last century, nowadays it is again widely used for residential buildings. This is mainly due to the substantial housing challenge which many cities face. The available space in the Netherlands is under great pressure and cities anticipate steady population growth in the near future. Demand for new houses is strong, and most buyers are looking for distinctive, high-quality places to live. In short, there is a shortage of quality homes.

As cities grow, perhaps our most serious concern should be how they expand into the surrounding countryside. Contrary to popular belief, the past century urban settlements have not only expanded demographically, they also have sprawled outwards – covering some of the world’s most valuable farmland in the process. There is no doubt that by sprawling, the densifying cities are a major threat to the future sustainability of the planet. Neither the UN’s sustainable development goals nor the Paris agreements climate targets will be achieved if this challenge is not addressed. Far harder limits should be drawn around our cities. In order to increase the chances for the landscape surrounding the cities, there should be a lot more radical condensing inside, and a lot more radical diluting of the landscape itself.

Now that the metropolises are growing considerably, it is important to organize them well in order to accommodate all residents, and at the same time make sure the cities do not sprawl. Compacting cities is essential for our new economy. To think more in circles instead of growth, we will have to structure our current cities better and coordinate existing streams in the city. Compaction can be realized in many ways. In the discussion about densification, high-rise buildings are often suggested as a means of compacting. High-rise buildings can relieve the pressure on the surrounding space. This is not necessarily the case, as high-rise also requires space for sun, wind and greenery. Another misconception is that high-rise by definition leads to a higher density than compact low-rise or medium-high rise. With some high-rise buildings, a higher density is hardly achieved on site than with traditional building forms. For example, despite only five storeys, the density of the Pijp in Amsterdam is way higher than that of the Bijlmer, with its 11-storey honeycomb apartments. High-rise thus is a suitable tool for densification, but not the only one.

Therefore, the current densification task in itself is not sufficient reason for high-rise buildings. High-rise buildings are a means of achieving a higher density, which can be used for enriching the city with the right spatial arguments in specific places. In addition to the advantages of high-rise buildings – such as a limited use of space, the economic advantage of compaction and safety – there are also obvious disadvantages: a purely profit-maximizing land use is problematic, construction costs are higher, and the environmental factors such as wind nuisance and less sunlight. There are also legitimate concerns about our landscape, the authenticity of nature areas, and the tradition of ribbon development along dikes and waterways in the polder landscape. These concerns are legitimate; after all, the places that still fit the poet Hendrik Marsman’s famous description – “Thinking of Holland I see wide rivers passing slowly through endless lowlands” are few and far between.


However, some of the objections against high-rise seem to conceal a fear that cannot be fully justified. In the Netherlands, the concept of density has noticeably negative connotations. Many of the objections to densification and high-rise buildings stem from an unreasoned fear of urban growth and the demise of the seemingly idyllic city centre. High-rises often provoke fears of the unknown, or visual pollution, or aesthetic damage to the city. People are scared that they will be deprived of sun and fresh air, that green outdoor spaces will disappear until the only thing left for them is the balcony of their apartment. They do not see themselves reflected, or not sufficiently, in the dimensions, scale and culture or the increasingly vertical city. They have Edward Hopper-like visions of metropolitan isolation, reinforced by images or megacities like Shanghai and Dubai. Scepticism about high-rise and fear of the vertical is also, and primarily, a question of an insufficiently evolved urban culture as well as a widespread unfamiliarity with the unique potential and advantages of living and working higher off the ground. This fear cuts off a balanced discussion about densification and high-rise buildings. Density can give concrete added value to residents, society and the environment.  

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, 1942. Source: Art Institute of Chicago.

The barricades of unfamiliarity, scepticism and fear have to be broken down before high-rise buildings can be accepted as one of the appropriate responses to a scarcity of available or affordable land. People have to be shown that compaction and high-rise buildings are of all times and that they can create added value for people, society and the environment. The high-rise metropolis should not be understood as a living environment with a lack of outdoor space, greenery and living comfort, but rather as a biotope with an excess of sustainable living options, living opportunities and living comfort. And yes, we must recognize that towers do not function as freestanding objects in the urban landscape. They cast shadows, block light and impact their surroundings, creating fundamental questions about the nature and character of the public realm. The way in which high-rise buildings are experienced in the urban landscape has everything to do with the location and the character of the surrounding buildings. Inventive planning and urban-design interventions are needed. When developing an initiative for high-rise buildings, it is important to take proper account of the impact that this can have on the immediate environment and the silhouette of the city as a whole. High rises should be in harmony with their surroundings at street level and enhance the quality of the city and, especially in cities with a rich cultural history and a low average building height, one should carefully handle when adding new height accents. But then, if the context and culture permit, high-rise buildings can contribute to the quality of the city as a metropolis and add to the appeal of the city as a whole, their district, and their particular street. So, if we choose to build a high rise, then we must use it as a powerful urban development tool and aim for the best possible quality: high rises that offer space instead of taking it away.


We see that high-rises are only desirable if there is demonstrable quality added to the city and there is another motive in addition to urbanization. Then rests the question, what could this other motive possibly be? The answers are endless and have been partly discussed in this article. One example is the addition of new living environments, where sustainability plays a key role, as densification creates opportunities for collective solutions. Another motive could be that, in some places, high-rise is a powerful urban development tool that can be used as a landmark, a point of orientation, to strengthen the readability, orientation and structure of the city. In this way, high-rise can also strongly contribute to the identity of a city and a ‘sense of place’. One could think of adding contrasts in the city by designing urban nodes as spatially recognizable units that stand out from their surroundings. They could also be used to mark a major road, important public spaces, the entrance to a neighbourhood or city, or to enhance the redevelopment of independent sites.

Although it may sound contradictory in the first place, high-rise can actually be used to create lively street and qualitative outdoor space, as buildings with a small footprint create space at ground level. With that, the most important aspect of the architectural design of high-rise buildings comes to the fore: the plinth. High-rise buildings should be an enrichment for the city as a whole, be carefully integrated into their direct environment, limiting the negative effects, but the success of high-rise buildings is found on the level of the building itself, as it depends on how it functions at street level. High-rise, if well designed, allows more space to be freed up for a high-quality public space. Attractive public space optimizes the possibility of contacts in various forms (such as parks, squares and city streets, but also passages, atriums and other semi-public places).

The last point, the greatest asset of high-rise, is the possibility of hybrid programming within one building. This forms a solution for an international social-societal problem in cities, being the abundance of mono-functional, mono-cultural and mono-societal neighbourhoods.  Through high-rise, if designed as composites, a city of mosaics can be realized, rather than the prevailing segregation or illusion of absolute integration. As Jane Jacobs stated: “The metropolis, by its nature, provides what otherwise could be given only by traveling; namely, the strange. […] Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

Among the conditions she considers indispensable to generate exuberant diversity in a city’s streets and districts, are firstly that the district, and indeed as many of its internal parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function; preferably more than two, as well as that there must be a sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purposes they may be there. High-rise can offer exactly this. The attractiveness of living in high density is that you live in the middle of society, have different people around you and live in a culturally rich area. And exactly this is where the power of high-rise buildings, in the right context and location, can be found: creating hybrid neighbourhoods with dynamic public spaces with a lot of facilities, making a different way of urban living possible.

So, are high-rise buildings good or bad? High-rise offers a lot of opportunities that can have a highly positive impact on cities and the challenges they are facing. However, because of their size and impact, it is extremely important that high-rise buildings are designed well. Adding to that, the urban integration is at least as important as the design of the building and its iconic effect. The quality of buildings in a city is on the street, the connection to ground level, the plinth. As a very intensively used piece of land, high-rise buildings can contribute to sensible spatial planning and pleasant urban environments. And thereby also safeguard open green areas from buildings. The question should not be whether high-rises are good or bad, and if we should continue to stack, but about how we can create more quality of life for all people with buildings, high or low. The discussion should not be about density or not, but about whether a development provides a pleasant environment. One thing is certain: high-rises can definitely be a tool for creating very attractive places.



Dam, C. (2008). Lecture: The high-rise: not power but strength.

Haemmerli, T. (2017). Documentary: I Am, Gentrification. Confessions of a scoundrel

Hoogbouwvisie Amsterdam, Haarlem, Rotterdam.

Jacobs, J. (1961). The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

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