Back in 2016, I recognized 3525 Turtle Creek for having the best high-rise floor plans. I said they were pretty fine as-is, but also were very malleable for owners to change with the times. Most of you know this building was built in 1957 as Dallas’ first residential high-rise. Since that column, I’ve often wondered why older buildings generally have better floor plans. I mean, you’d think they’d get better – learn from the past and all that. But they don’t. I’ve quizzed a few architects and come up with a theory.
Too many cooks. Back in the early days, the architect who designed the exterior also designed the interior – typically at the same time. Working this way enabled one mind to be at work at one point in time. As it is today, the municipal and neighborhood approval processes are so long and cumbersome (and expensive) that all too often the designer of the skin is far removed from whomever eventually completes the interior floor plans after whatever concessions are (or aren’t) made. So while in the olden days the same architect would meld exterior look with interior reality, today’s agreed-upon building envelope constraints (or the unavailability of the original architect) produce sometimes bad interiors – or a few wonky floor plans.
I know of one recent high-rise where finding windows centered on walls is limited to just a few floor plans. Instead, the rest have window banks shuffled to one corner or another. In the worst case, I’ve seen double and triple window banks separated by structural and decorative “blank” spaces. This resulted in floor plans with a triple window, a six-foot blank wall and then a single window jammed into the corner – the second of the set being crammed into the corner on the other side of the wall. The exterior balance doesn’t match the interior’s unbalance.
In addition to the lack of cohesiveness between the interior and exterior resulting from too many cooks, there is also assembly line construction methodology to consider. Back in time, high-rises were more handcrafted than they are today. Older high-rises often used custom support structures and columns whose forms were often assembled on-site. Being purpose-built, these immovable objects were sized and placed with greater concern for their outcome.
Today, modern high-rises seem enslaved to the cylindrical column invariably placed 18-inches back from the curtain wall of glass and sometimes even in the middle of a room. Mid- to late-20th century high-rises don’t generally have this problem. The columns of that era were typically square or rectangular and placed on the skin and again further into the building (as needed) where they’re easier to bury into walls.
Looking at the partial floor plan above, I understand the intention of having glass corners, but I think the tradeoff is too high. Aside from interior furniture placement, the number of patios with a column ruining the space is bizarre and an “oops” I’d expect from a school project.
This is not to say older building floor plans were always great, but a higher percentage were. I’m racking my brain to understand why we’ve gotten worse, less precise, and most concerned with an exterior instead of how a building functions for its residents.
I think these two issues are connected. Were a single architect working on both the interior and exterior, a lot of floor plan issues would disappear. Similarly, understanding the structural elements and how they could be managed differently would make for more out-of-the-way columns. And finally, throwing back to more custom and purpose-built structural elements would make them more hide-able. And please, covering one of those concrete cylinders with tiny mosaic tile just accents the problem rather than disguising it.
So, when you’re looking at a high-rise (or have a client looking), make sure they have a copy of the original floor plan (even if they have to snap a picture of it at the building manager’s office). It’s invaluable to understanding if unmovable objects are livable in a way a perfectly-staged unit can’t be. And as always, don’t shut out older buildings just because they need work — it might just be worth it.
Remember: High-rises, HOAs and renovation are my beat. But I also appreciate modern and historical architecture balanced against the YIMBY movement. In 2016, 2017 and 2018, the National Association of Real Estate Editors recognized my writing with three Bronze (2016, 2017, 2018) and two Silver (2016, 2017) awards. Have a story to tell or a marriage proposal to make? Shoot me an email firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to look for me on Facebook and Twitter. You won’t find me, but you’re welcome to look.