Author of skyscrapers Karen Cook: The debate is too often about height and beauty, while it should be about public space

Karen Cook significantly influenced the face of Prague. In 1999, she started to participate in the development of River City in Karlín. Danube house and other buildings became iconic and still offer popular and sustainable offices. The modest lady has also completed a number of high-rise buildings around the world. Currently, for example, 22 Bishopsgate in the City of London, which is the second tallest building in the United Kingdom. However, the achieved metres are not decisive for her, she is mainly interested in public space and functionality for users. Karen Cook visited the Faculty of Architecture CTU during the November Talks lecture series.
Karen Cook navštívila Fakultu architektury ČVUT v rámci přednáškového cyklu November Talks. | © Lubomír Kotek

You had the possibility to influence the face of Prague. Could you think back to RiverCity and your role in the construction of Danube and Nile House?

My first visit to Prague was in 1999 and it was very special for me. We had studied your city in architecture school and all we knew about it really was what Christian Norberg-Schulz had written, which was difficult to follow if you had not visited the place.

The area of the future River City was 60 hectares of undeveloped land. It had been part of the river where the goods were offloaded for workshops in Karlín, gradually it became railroad land, a sort of amusement fair and then nothing in the end.

The place was an inner periphery in the heart of the town.

If you compare Prague then to Prague today, the centre of energy has changed and shifted closer to Karlín. The purpose of the river project was to try to bring people from Karlín to the river and now, finally, 20 years later, there will actually be the pedestrian bridge linking to Holešovice. I guess the connection with the concert hall in the future would be even more exciting.

Danube House je pravděpodobně nejvýraznější budovou River City.  | © H.G. Esch

Could you describe your work with the bank of the Vltava river?

The actual riverbank was a forbidden zone because there were ecological constraints to protect not only the existing wildlife, but the existing plants that the wildlife use as their habitat. So we were not allowed to do anything to the actual river bank. The entire land is built up a little bit higher than it was originally because to deter any flood water. But of course, when the building was nearly finished, there was a terrible flood and it turned out that this level was still not high enough.

The river walk seems to me today to be very successful. People use it for cycling, to work, but also for leisure, for walking their dog or taking their children for walks. When I look now at all the buildings built up along the river, it's a huge transformation. The traffic authorities did not want interruptions to Rohanské nábřeží, which I think is unfortunate because it prevents this area from becoming more of a part of the urban fabric. A highway remains, dividing Karlín from the river.

How did you cooperate with Czech colleagues?

I've worked all my life in commercial buildings. Working for developers, we often do not meet the occupant. The projects are designed to be pleasing to everyone, which means not very particular in character, but reaching the standards that the real estate agents seek.

Working in Prague was a completely different experience at the time, as we are talking about the year 2000. The cost of purchasing a catalogue component was more expensive than having someone here make it by hand. It gave us the opportunity not only to design everything uniquely for the building, but also to speak to the person.

I would say that gave us a really rich experience in bringing together all sorts of different collaborators. We could not speak the same language, so they would bring actual samples in their actual material which for us was also a very different way of working. We always worked in drawings before. I was so pleased with the result because of this input from everyone, from all the different artisans and craftsmen. It is something I have tried to bring into my future work after working here.

Karen Cook pracovala na územním plánu River City s českými kolegy ze studia A.D.N.S.

You prepared a lot of interesting solutions, especially supporting sustainability. I am also quite interested in the tunnels which connect the houses.

The sustainability objectives were driven by the developers. They wanted it to be the most sustainable building at the time in the Czech Republic. We developed an underfloor air system. It has been around since the Romans and it's used in many European buildings. It allowed us to have a flat slab concrete ceiling which is exposed and a raised floor with underfloor air supply, which is very comfortable. Postcovid people are saying it is a healthier way of delivering air to space.

The underground tunnels are of two types. The air is brought in under the building through the third basement. And the idea is to use the earth to temper the air. In the summer it is cooling the air a little bit and in the winter it is warming the air before it goes into the mechanical system of the building.

And then there is a tunnel that connects all the buildings to avoid delivery vehicles above the ground. I have been in cities where every single office building has a ramp entrance from the street and it can really kill the public space.

Karen Cook během své návštěvy na FA ČVUT | © Lubomír Kotek

Can you describe how Prague changed from your first visit?

My first visit was in 1999, so it has been more than 20 years. I really remember it very well because Vít Řezáč, who is one of your professors here, was working on the project at the time and he invited me to go and see the castle after dark. There was a snowstorm and hiking up the hill seemed longer with every step.

I think Prague has gone through different changes since then, hasn't it? Initially there was a wave of money and commercialisation and some of the original inhabitants can not afford to live in the city centre anymore. I think that is unfortunate because of the risk that the centre is becoming a museum.

The city should think about that, maybe in terms of measures to maintain the population who would stay permanently in the centre or in whatever area of Prague. I know from the visit to CAMP that the city is experiencing growth. I think growth can be favourable if the designs for the urban spaces and the uses are correct. Prague has a prescribed zoning system like most of Europe. This can be a good thing, but it can also be a handicap because when things need to be changed, it can be a little bit slow to go through the government procedures.

As long as there are good open spaces, as long as people feel safe, then I think higher density can be a positive thing rather than just extended growth at the same density. It is economical, businesses can afford to be in the area. You can comfortably walk to your bakery, your office or to meet your friends. And this generally makes a better city.

You talked in one of your lectures about the planning and regulations in London which are not so normative. Could you describe this process more profoundly? I ask because we are trying to find some new system in Prague.

The London approach has pros and cons. The pro might be that if a change needs to be made due to pressures on the city, these needs can be addressed more quickly. The con would be that when land is in private ownership, it's very difficult to get a consensus with enough landowners to make a significant difference for a whole area. So you end up negotiating one site at a time. If you need to put in new infrastructure or if an area is really short of a particular use, it is very difficult to say to a private landowner, you must put a hospital on your site instead of a luxury highrise residential building.

The people who are unhappy with the system say, could we please have a prescribed zoning plan like most of Europe? So I do not know what the best solution would be. I think maybe it is healthy to have master plan competitions regularly so that ideas can be debated not only in public, but among the architectural professionals. If you have a master plan competition for an area, you debate the uses, the density, you try to solve where the open space should be. I think there is no perfect solution and you just have to keep constantly modifying.

The London procedure needs a very good reputation of the city clerks because they have to discuss the solution more profoundly with the investor.

Yes, but London has 33 different governmental districts and they do not talk to each other. What I see as an architect is that it is very different working in different districts because even if it is London, it is still very difficult to get 33 qualified teams in the planning departments. Moreover, when we need to build homes for 10 thousand people, some districts do not have enough planners that have that experience. So there are boroughs who are better organised than others. Some recruit people from all over the world.

Karen Cook během diskuse s publikem. | © Lubomír Kotek

You have big experience in high-rise buildings. Their construction is like a never ending story in Prague. The big question is: how to protect existing heritage?

Some cities have a simple rule like no buildings over 22 or 28 metres. Paris, for example, said: we build all our tall buildings at La Défence. And I think that worked in the 60s but not today. In London, if a building is in a conservation area, it can be very difficult to build anything tall. There are also strategic views of St. Paul's which are in the immediate vicinity of the cathedral. In addition, the London View management framework covers views that have been debated by advisors to the mayor, agreed by the mayor and enshrined in the planning law. There are views from different locations, some of which are obvious, some of which are less.

I saw a map of these views and zones in your lecture. Isn't it too complicated?

People who initially supported this approach now argue that it is not complicated enough. In fact it is very easy with computers today to make a CAD model of the whole city and quickly check all the viewpoints and see from where a building can be seen.

The development is heading to kinetic views because people experience the city as a complex. I would say that probably exists in Prague too. If you are walking along the Charles Bridge looking at the castle, it is not a single static view which is relevant, it is the entire sequence.

Do you have any recommendations on how to moderate this discussion about highrise buildings?

I think that too often the debate is about height and beauty, while it should be about public space or quality of the services that are provided. The discussion should be more about what happens at the ground level. If those needs are met, people will be happy living there. One characteristic of Prague which I think is perhaps unique to Prague is the extent of art which can be found everywhere in the city. It is on the pavement, buildings and in the public transport stations. This helps to elevate the mundane experience to a sublime one. That would be something that should be brought into the discussion about the tall buildings as well.

22 Bishopsgate je v současnosti druhou nejvyšší budovou ve Spojeném království. | © Michel Denancé

How did you work with public space in the project of 22 Bishopsgate?

We do offer a public route across the site which is, apparently, opening up an old Roman route. It is open 24 hours a day, there is no door or gate, totally open air. And then there is also a new public space at the top of the building, which is something that the mayor wanted. Previously, the idea was that buildings would have paid viewing galleries, but these will be free to access during the day to compensate for the lack of generous public space at street level.

The building should also be very friendly to commuters.

I hope so. 22 Bishopsgate has what the client calls an active commuter park. There are 1,700 bicycle spaces, which is a significant number. And so the owner and the developer realised that to service that many people, it would be better to offer an improved class facility because otherwise you could have quite a mess on your hands. They provide towels for everyone, there are showers and lockers, places to clean or repair your bicycle.

We were also thinking of folding bicycles. The commuters are not allowed to bring the large ones on the train, but you are allowed to bring a folding bicycle. Especially those people who have a longer journey when they go back home, they can use their bicycle on the train. I think the developers main intention was to create a building where people would feel better at the office than they would if they had stayed at home.

Společné prostory se snaží probudit touhu vrátit se po pandemii do kanceláří.

The website said that it is a vertical village. I have to admit that I was sceptical at first sight because I thought it was just a marketing catchword.

Maybe it is one of the reasons why the building did continue to lease during the pandemic. 22 Bishopsgate has a lot of, for the city standards, small tenants, so they take one or two floors of space. Those spaces are too small to offer amenities to their own staff. The building offering these different amenities allows the company to compete with much larger firms, like the bigger tech companies, who can provide these amenities to their own staff.

I have noticed that some projects have a very complicated and luxurious name and some buildings, like 22 Bishopsgate, use just the address. Does it say something about the investor?

The developer was keen that the building should simply be known for its address, first of all, so that people could find it. A building like this has a lot of international visitors. He also feels that it should be about the people inside and not about the building.

In the post pandemic world, the question is: will people want to come back to work in an office? The character of the building became secondary to the qualities of the building. And I as an architect find that really important. I feel finally that the values that an architect wants to bring to the building are actually the ones that the commercial client is seeking. How do I make better daylight? How do I make a better spatial experience? How do I give people some variety in their experience? Thanks to the new objectives of the developer, we were able to work with artisans and craftsmen to create the interiors and even to bring artwork to the street.

Při navrhování budovy 22 Bishopsgate byla věnována zvláštní pozornost spolupráci s umělci. | © Michel Denancé

Can I ask you where your home is now? Do you prefer the city centre of London or something more quiet?

London has multiple centres. I mentioned the 33 different boroughs and I live in one of the central boroughs. I have lived there for 30 years, so I sometimes think, perhaps I should move to the City, where my office is. I spent a lot of time in Paris as well. I met my partner Jean, working here in Prague, so it has a double purpose for me to be here.

The interview was led by Pavel Fuchs

Všechny přednášky z cyklu November Talks najdete na YouTube kanálu Fakulty architektury ČVUT. | © Lubomír Kotek

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