Typology is a method of classification in architecture that places buildings in categories based shared formal and functional qualities.1 Categorizing buildings by type contextualizes current models within a historical framework, especially when the boundaries between categories become blurred due to the introduction of new building types. This organizational method promotes new methods of examining the built environment and aids in the process of understanding buildings within their sociocultural and historic contexts.

Typology is a tool of association. In Nikolaus Pevsner’s book titled A History of Building Types (1976) he examines how architecture reflects the character of society.2 This is done by choosing examples from history, such as hospitals, prisons, factories, and public buildings to illustrate the utility, monumentality, form, materials, and style of each. He places these examples within categories, as a way to connect architecture to a particular historical moment.

In the nineteenth century, the growth of cities prompted a crisis in typology, where new building types, like skyscrapers, were being created that reappropriated historical examples in their designs. The integration of historical precedents and their associative aesthetic and functional details into new building types was a strategic attempt to familiarize the public with daring, new styles of architecture. However, the conflation of types became problematic, as architectural historians began to realize that one type was morphing with another to create something new. Consequently, types became less and less exact and reappropriations of old types were popping up in urban environments, especially in the form of the skyscraper.

New York City is representative of this morphological change in type, as skyscrapers were being constructed during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that integrated other historical types, like a gothic cathedral, into its design. Within the modernist architectural discourse, typology is especially helpful when attempting to classify innovative forms of architecture, as one can identify part of a structure and contextualize it based on historical types. Typology can also provide a palette of tools for designers and that allow them to play with form and create unexpected buildings that do not replicate historic pairings of form and utility.

56 Leonard Street, the first high-rise building designed by Herzog and De Meuron, illustrates a new type of residential building in Manhattan [Figure 1]. Under construction in the TriBeca neighborhood of Lower Manhattan, the building, known as the Jenga Tower, is familiar in that it follows the typological trends of tall residential buildings, yet it looks like no other tower of its kind–with a stacking of individual residences and open floor plans, through an unprecedented application of stacking and compression.

Figure 1. Herzog and De Meuron, 56 Leonard Street, 2007-, New York City.

Figure 1. Herzog and De Meuron, 56 Leonard Street, 2007-, New York City.

The design of the building is a pixelated tower with lightness and structural variation reaching to its roof. The design method focused much more on the individual pixel, in this case the design of a single room, and its multiplication into floor plans, and then into multiple floors. Typologically, this can be understood from the historic precedent of the stand-alone home. Essentially, Herzog and de Meuron have taken the individual cell of a home, and morphed it into an open and interconnected space by locking the pieces together and compressing them along the extreme verticality of a skyscraper.

Architect and critic Martin Symes writes that “an architectural firm may say that part of its skill is in knowing enough about previously produced solutions to advise on when they may be applied…to a new building task.”3 Yet, if the real estate developer is interested in creating an iconic building, they must provide the architect with the freedom to innovate the envisioned typology. Symes includes this in the architect’s task as well, stating, “the culture of architecture as a profession is made of mixing such innovative creativity with the use of standards, norms and models.”4 It turns out that the direct connection to historic precedents in identifying new building types is an unrealistic goal, as types are no longer articulated as meticulously to relate to past types, but rather, are becoming transformed into hybrids of those types.

56 Leonard is emblematic of a hybrid space, as the application of the stand-alone home was transformed through stacking and opening up the floor plans. The effect of the stacking transforms into one of cascading balconies and glass enclosures. The full height scale is the one at which seemingly every other skyscraper in the world has been designed on a much less comprehensive approach. The architect looks at a tall rectangle and finds new ways in which to articulate preexisting forms, thus promoting a diversity through innovation.

Often, typology “can provide a means for ordering those preconceived notions and can provide a sufficiently broad enough array of examples so that incorporating types in the design process is not necessarily limited by a narrow range of options.”5 56 Leonard may be the first high rise in the world to be designed floor by floor, on the scale of the single floor, and it seems that there are various ways in which this will make the building revered by onlookers and loved by users.


  1. Micha Bandini, “Typology as a Form of Convention” in AA Files (London: Architectural Association School of Architecture 1981), 73.
  2. Nikolaus Pevsner, A History of Building Types (Princeton: Princeton University Press,1976).
  3. Martin Symes, Architects and their Practices: A Changing Profession (New York: Architectural Press, 1995), 172.
  4. Ibid., 174.
  5. Pevsner, A History of Building Types, 75.