The Groundscraper: A Building Typology to Decentralize Cities

A ground scraper is essentially the opposite of a skyscraper – a large building that sprawls outward horizontally instead of soaring vertically into the sky. Though no strict definition exists, groundscrapers are generally described as extremely long but low-rise buildings with over 1 million square feet of space, sometimes called sidescrapers or landscrapers. The term came into the spotlight with Google’s plans for their massive $1.3 billion London headquarters. Designed to be only 11 stories tall but over 1,000 feet long, this vast office block epitomizes using horizontal expansion to create immense space for thousands of employees.

Proponents argue that groundscrapers offer advantages like minimal impact on a city’s skyline, lower construction costs, and better energy efficiency compared to skyscrapers’ intensive climate control needs. They can also foster inclusive spaces that bring workers and the public together. While once considered less prestigious than skyscrapers, groundscrapers’ ability to house entire populations on single floors has driven a rise in their appeal and use for major corporate projects in recent years.

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

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Groundscrapers have sparked imagination in architectural competitions, like the 2016 “New York Horizon” concept which envisioned transforming Manhattan’s Central Park into a sunken landscape ringed by a massive underground development with office, housing, and amenity spaces. The radical plan by designers Yitan Sun and Jianshi Wu, winner of the eVolo Skyscraper Competition, aimed to increase density around the iconic park by innovatively “building downward” into a subterranean groundscraper, rather than upward into standard skyscrapers. Their concept reimagined how to add urban spaces and programming to New York’s vertical environment while preserving Central Park’s open green space.

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At Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, students have studied the ground scraper typology and grappled with challenges around circulation and connectivity. Unlike skyscrapers with centralized elevator banks, extremely long and low-rise ground scrapers require creative solutions for movement between spaces – including multiple vertical connections from ground to roof as well as extensive internal horizontal passageways. However, these sprawling corridors present an opportunity to transcend just being circulation by potentially functioning as social public spaces akin to sidewalks or streets. As Professor Camilo Jose Vergara explains, the mixed uses, numerous access points, and undefined public/private boundaries in ground scrapers prompted students to thoughtfully question the fundamental nature of architectural programming itself within this distinctive layout.

A compelling advantage of the ground scraper typology is its potential to facilitate more decentralized, evenly distributed growth across cities as an alternative to skyscrapers concentrated in dense central business districts. The horizontal sprawl and ability to occupy vast footprints allow groundscrapers to be constructed flexibly throughout various neighborhoods, suburbs, and peripheral areas rather than being confined to limited downtown plots. This flexibility enables the creation of multiple mixed-use hubs encompassing employment, commercial, and residential functions scattered throughout a metropolitan region, rather than funneling all development into a single, overcrowded urban core.

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Such decentralized distribution could help alleviate overcrowding and transportation strains in city centers. With more localized work and lifestyle options closer to residential areas, ground scrapers have the potential to reduce lengthy commute times, traffic congestion, and the overall burden on transportation infrastructure by decreasing the need for people to travel downtown daily. Moreover, integrating residential, office, retail, and community amenities within singular, self-contained groundscraper developments allows the fostering of more cohesive, walkable mixed-use communities aligned with modern urban planning goals of sustainability, livability, and reducing reliance on personal vehicles. Overall, this decentralized live/work/play urban model enabled by the ground scraper form provides an alternative to skyscrapers’ vertical density by distributing development more equitably across a city’s full geography.

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According to Amy Webb, an American futurist and author, groundscrapers may become increasingly common in the future, especially in areas with ample open land like the U.S. Midwest. Webb forecasts that as people potentially relocate to lower-density regions due to climate change, groundscrapers could create entirely new urban footprints in emerging economic centers. She envisions future employees using lateral elevator systems that can move sideways and diagonally, not just vertically – a technology already existing in places like Berlin. Webb suggests that groundscrapers’ accessible heights would also facilitate services like drone deliveries.

While skyscrapers have been linked to affordable housing and economic prosperity in dense cities, she argues that lower-rise, more spread-out developments enabled by ground scrapers could offer improved quality of life. With innovations in areas like autonomous vehicles and ropeless elevators, Webb believes groundscrapers are not just a preferable option, but could become an inevitability in shaping the future of living and working environments.

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For the past century, architectural design has remained mesmerized by ever-taller skyscrapers. These monolithic towers often display little regard for human scale, context, or environmental impact. The obsession with the aesthetics of verticality calls for a re-evaluation of how we construct the architecture of cities. The ground scraper typology challenges designers to redefine our built environment’s connection to the ground plane and the sphere of pedestrian life. It allows for a reconciliation of architecture with its surrounding physical and social context. Prioritizing horizontal development over vertical – has the potential to create more grounded, integrated, and human-centric urban environments. The ground scraper provides an intriguing alternative model worthy of further exploration and implementation.

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