Houses dressed in cascading branches and leaves usually make us think of decay; buildings that have been neglected and abandoned, or ancient architectural ruins since long swallowed by its environment. But vertical gardens are something that can now be seen in our cities to an increasing extent.
In the last decade however, the global quest to halt the warming of our planet has given new wind to an idea most famously championed by the Italian architect Matteo Thun in the 1950s: namely the renewed connection between man and nature.
Indeed, what is called living walls or vertical gardens is emerging as a carefully calibrated attempt by architects to solve many of the most pressing urban issues of our time.
And at the top of that list is the rapid warming of our cities.
Thanks to something called the heat-island effect — where buildings and roads absorb the sun’s energy and release it well into the night — urban areas could warm as much as 4.4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. While that might not sound particularly threatening to someone living in northern Cananda, it will have an especially devastating effect on city residents along more southern latitudes, including respiratory difficulties, cramps, exhaustion and even health-related deaths.
Architects are now touting plant-covered facades as a solution beyond merely cooling individual buildings, but lowering the temperature of entire urban areas. And of course, in every major city there are millions of square meters of wasted walls and roofs that could be transformed into spouting forest and lush, towering fields.
If implemented on a large scale, such Babylonian design would drastically change our existence: beyond keeping us cool, millions of plants would become the lungs cities, cleaning the air while providing fresh oxygen; it would absorb the clattering of a busy street while sound-proofing our houses and offices; it would increase biodiversity, providing habitat for nesting birds and pollinators; and it would improve the mental wellbeing of urban dwellers.
So if the benefits abound, why haven’t our cities been turned into green oases already?
While ambitious projects are underway, from Singapore and London, to Amsterdam and Sydney, biophilic design is still in its infancy, with some architects questioning the viability of turning cities into meadows: What will be the commercial impact of creating vast and robust vertical fields requiring the same maintenance as major parks? Can we build suitable irrigation systems? Can vertical gardens withstand extreme weather conditions like storms? And will all the greenery come with a scourge of mosquitoes and other bugs?
Indeed, important questions still remain. But we should remember that other environmental solutions were also marred by skepticism before reaching a tipping point; experts across the globe said solar energy would never become commercially viable — today it’s the cheapest form of electricity in many countries.
To Thun, the Italian architect, a renewed connection between man and nature represented a “return to normality,” Today of course, that phrase has acquired both new meaning and urgency as “normality” means limiting the warming of a planet that is careening towards destruction. Should the introduction of living systems into architectural design become a central part of the solution, the future city might not look like a scene out of the Jetsons, but Indiana Jones.
The potential of merging urban life with nature is one of the topics we discuss in our latest episode of Wicona Meets featuring Rudi Scheuermann. Specializing in building envelope design, Rudi is the “green hand” of Arup, a multinational firm at the forefront of some of the world’s most ambitious and challenging design and engineering projects.