• Omar Garcia

Modern Hills

Updated: Dec 13, 2019

*If you listened to or watched episode 3 of the Student Architect Podcast, you can feel free to skip to the next *. The beginning is a recap of the episode. Or you can watch it here.

Historical Context

The Parthenon

When the Greek peninsula was leading the way in human ingenuity, philosophical thought, art, writing, and warfare, it laid down the foundation for which some of the world’s most iconic architecture was to be created. This was thanks to the Athenians, Spartans, Corinthians, Thebans, and others uniting to form the Delian League, a powerful pact, both militarily and economically, which would bring safety, stability, and massive wealth to the region. As the warriors fought to keep the land safe, the Athenians began construction on the most iconic piece of topography known today. So popular, in fact, it has taken the name and definition for what was a generic term, the Acropolis.

Yes, acropolis is a word which is defined today as:

a settlement, especially a citadel, built upon an area of elevated ground—frequently a hill with precipitous sides, chosen for purposes of defense.

A small mesa in Utah; another form of an acropolis.

But, of course, most of us will think of the Acropolis in Greece. It is the large hill which holds western culture’s ancient roots. Where the philosophers philosophized, the mathematicians mathed, and, as we all know, where the architects thrived.

Up to this point in time, the greatest advancement in architecture, and some would say its true inception, came from the enigmatic Vitruvius. Ictinus and Callicrates, the architects of the Parthenon, the Temple of Athena Nike, and more, decided it was time to design some fresh structures.

And, to be specific, what I care most about here is where they decided to build these temples, the acropolis (lower-case a).

Machu Picchu

Hills, mountains, topography, anything with a significant slope, are significant in architecture and human culture as areas for protection, rituals, and incredible views of the earth and the heavens. It's important we understand why we've historically built on hills. This topography allowed for cities to thrive, battles to be won, and religions to be worshipped. The architecture found in these areas barricaded and permitted for the advancement of these aspects of human culture to evolve and expand. Entire civilizations, such as the Romans, the Incan's Machu Picchu, the Tibetans, were all built on elevation.

But today, we have little need or want to pursue those actions on hillsides or mountains. Sure, there has always been war, but unless you live in an area with a very long history, you most likely don't associate these items with hills. Instead, mountains or hills are places where we run, bike, slide, sled, ski, race, and so forth.

Modern Hill Building

So with this modern world and its modern desires, what does it mean to build (on) a hill and how are we building today?

First, we'll quickly tackle how you start building on a hill and this all comes down to foundations. Slopes create an issue when it comes to building what your home, lodge, condominium, barn, and so forth, will be sitting on. It's not as simple as carving a flat square into the ground and laying concrete. Picking the correct foundation will help with the disadvantages associated with hills.

This house must have a good foundation.

Disadvantages of building on a slope

-Mass Wasting: this is when the soil moves down the slope at an uneven rate. Landslides are a violent version of mass wasting.

-Accessibility: Getting up and down the driveway or landscaping your grass. A steeper slope requires more energy and traction to go up and down it.

-Drainage: Moving water efficiently off the slope. The hazards with poor drainage involve things such as landslides/mudslides and soil creep.

Types of foundations

There are two types of foundations: shallow or deep. I'll have to correct my podcast-self here where I made it seem as though shallow foundations were just slab-on-grade foundations. Not true. Here's a corrected list.

Example of a shallow foundation.


-Individual Footing: Essentially a bunch of columns carrying the load with footings beneath each.

-Strip Footing: these are long strips that hold the weight and are usually found in masonry walls.

-Raft Foundations: This is used when basements are used. The basement floor acts as the foundation. It's good for weak soil or soil that moves a lot.


End-Bearing Pile: This is a when a pile is driven down into the bedrock or stronger soil to hold the weight.

Friction Pile: A pile that is driven into the ground with strong soil being immediate. It uses its friction with the soil to bear the weight. Think of a spoon stuck in hard ice cream.

Costs and ground conditions will help determine what type of foundation is best.

I found a great example of what, I believe, is a pile-based foundation that was beautifully incorporated into the design of the structure.

Gracia Studio designed what they call the Encuentro Guadalupe residential buildings. These are built right on the hillside of the Valle de Guadalupe in Baja, California. These one-room floating boxes are held up by two geometric piles on either side, with some extra support underneath, which connect to hold up the building. This is a great way to expose part of the foundation and have it seamlessly sewn into the design of the structure.

Diving deeper into hills, literally, we have a curvy example from JDS Architects called the Casa Jura. This home both digs itself into the side of the slope, but also begins to create its own topography. The curvy swoop upward adds a moment of elevation not once there and this creates a new form of engagement to the users and transforms the architecture's relationship to the landscape. It does not simply wedge itself into the ground. It also brings an extra edge and platform to the conversation. A new view, a new way to connect the ground to the second floor and the rooftop.

Here is an incredibly bold way to connect architecture to its slope. The EFH Groth, designed by LP Architektur (not Gessato, another slip of the tongue on the podcast), engages the landscape in a truly unique fashion. When observing its ground connection, you'll quickly notice how it follows smoothly the slope, as if it were made to slide smoothly down the mountain. This is a great example of how to cleverly design to hide what's really going on. What LP Architektur has done here is hidden the stepped foundation, think of stairs and how they step down. And then they allow for the skin of the building to do most of the visual work. The foundation is also in deep enough to were you can't see the actual steps. It would be very bad if you could see them!

From this look into current ways of constructing on hills, we can look into some futuristic or technologically dense new ways of how to approach hills using architecture and design. The question to ask here is not, what is on top of the hill? but rather, what is the hill?

Architecture as Topography (hill/mountain, slope, landscape, etc.)

A popular form of phrasing to inspire though involves using the structure of "Architecture as _______." Fill in that blank with anything, essentially. Here, we can say "Architecture as Hill" or "Architecture as Topography." And with this phrasing structuring our search, I have found a few concepts from architects, I believe, who are starting to populate a response to this.

Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) have worked on several concepts involving Architecture as Topography. A specific project of theirs involves creating what first looks like tall geometric shards of mountainous, green, walkways. It's mix-use, and the green roofs allow for pedestrians to walk up some serious slopes or some less-intense slope. It starts to paint a picture for what could be a city of topography. This could be something we build in a relatively flat environment. Put this in Kansas or Nebraska and these structures could be seen for miles!

Other examples include the Chaoyang Park Plaza by MAD Architecture and the Wroclaw Mountain by Guallart Architects.

These forms of architecture would redefine the way we look at hills, mountains, and topography in general. I think the biggest potential for this type of architecture lies in areas where any form of elevation is scarce. I live in Illinois, boy, would it be incredible to drive down a few miles out of Chicago and visit any city or town which exists in one of these mountain-like structures. Just the views alone would be something new for Illinoisans (except for the view from the Sears tower I suppose. Yes, I don't say Willis.)

This would also give us a new way to tackle the usual issues with hill building. If we build the hills ourselves, we could greatly control the issues of mass wasting, drainage, accessibility, and so forth. We could redefine the hill in today's world.

*And here's where I continue past the podcast content.

Already Existing Modern Hills

Millennium Park and its view of the city

When I say these concepts could redefine the hill, I make it seem as if there isn't any architecture today that has challenged the definition of traditional topography. I'm going to argue that we already have instances where architecture has transformed what topography is.

These examples are specific, but I challenge you to look at your current environment to spot any instances that may be similar or even unique.

Yes, one of these examples lies close to home for me. I've been fortunate to live close to Millennium Park and, from my continuous interaction with this beast, I've started to connect it with this "Architecture as Topography" conversation.

I think you could argue these areas are many things, but for now I'll work with the idea of topography! And please, do share your thoughts on the matter in the comments. Your input would be greatly appreciated!

For those not familiar, Millennium Park is a relatively recent project designed by SOM in 2004. In essence, it's a roof garden. Beneath the park is layers of pedestrian walkways and parking garage levels. Millennium Park was created to hide all of this and make use of the valuable space for incredible views of the city and more. And while most of Chicago is actually above ground-level, I've chosen Millennium Park due to its nature as a roof garden. It acts as the top layer to its multi-layer construction. And from this, it's very similar to a hill or topography in general since topography itself is built up from multiple layers of rock and soil.

Now, from this logic, you could argue any building consisting of multiple layers could be considered topography. But I'd argue that what makes Millennium Park a modern form of topography involves how it evenly integrates into the landscape around it. It neatly connects all parts of its surrounding through its engineered curvature. Meanwhile, multi-level buildings and skyscrapers are reliant upon technologies such as elevators and stairs. I think there is a lot to dive into if you want to pick at the small details and definitions. But I'll stand here, for now, saying that Millennium Park is a contemporary version of a built topography.

A portion of Boston's Big Dig project.

Other examples I think of include all of the cities which are integrating their highways below ground and capping them over with parks. Sure, the topography was originally there before the highway, but with the decision to move the highway below ground, it adds a new dynamic to what the topography originally gave us. There is now a below to our above. This park isn't sitting on the ground, it is now being hoisted above an air gap with rushing cars inhabiting this space. In a more poetic fashion, the highway acts as a catalyst for a new sublayer of metal and rubber to grow (heavy car traffic). And from this metal and rubber layer, we get the energy and resources for the parks above to exist and be inhabited. They act as land-bridges, but its program dictates it to be a park and less a means for traversing.

But really, what do you think? Am I right about these modern examples? Are there other better examples or are there better ways of framing this concept? What do you think are the modern forms of hills and topography?

Thanks so much for reading and I hope to catch you in the next blog post or podcast episode.