Singapore has been in the news lately for its dangerous amount of smog. Photo via
Last week, Singapore was plagued by record levels of air pollution, which enveloped the city in a thick poisonous smog and exposed its residents to an innumerable list of health hazards. But while the life-threatening miasma was caused by farmers clearing fields in nearby Sumatra, the city's recent woes echo conditions in other metropolises with high levels of air pollution.
As the above map illustrates, pollution "hot spots" are centered around the world's largest urban conglomerations. Worldwide, cities consume more than 75% of the world's energy and emit 80% of global greenhouse gas emissions and pollution, since burning fossil fuels provides power to the skyscrapers and other infrastructure that define urban areas.
Because effective policies to reduce carbon emissions have developed slowly, architects and designers have the unique opportunity to re-imagine their buildings as active solutions to combating poor air quality and climate change. This week, President Obama addressed the roles that energy-efficient buildings play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in a momentous speech. The American Institute of Architects, concerned that the Senate will vote to repeal a law that sets targets for cutting fossil-fuel use in new and renovated buildings by 2030, replied to the president's words, stating, “Increasing energy-efficient design, construction, and building performance throughout our communities is a key element of the value proposition architects offer." This, said the organization, "leads not only to a better environment and improved quality of life, but also job gains and lower costs throughout the economy."
The Prosolve370e helps clean the air while creating a visually striking facade. Photo: Elegant Embellishments
First off, if cities are to effectively combat their air pollution problems, they need to address the aging structures that make up urban environments. Berlin-based firm Elegant Embellishments has developed the Prosolve370e, a decorative architectural tile that reduces air pollution and can easily be installed on any existing building. Coated with a superfine titanium dioxide (TiO2), a pollution-fighting technology that is activated by ambient daylight, the tiles neutralize air contaminants when situated near traffic or other dirty conditions.
The 2,500 square-foot façade of the Torre de Especialidades in Mexico City was recently adorned with Prosolve370e. Photo: Elegant Embellishments
The technology also adds a visually striking element to buildings' façades, making them more in tune with their immediate environment. So far, the Prosolve370e is one of the few technologies developed to retrofit aging structures to reduce air pollution.
The Museé du Quai Branly in Paris, by Jean Nouvel, has a living wall. Photo via
Taking cues from photosynthesis—the naturally occurring process in plants that absorbs carbon dioxide while emitting oxygen—some architects have opted for a more organic approach to improving the air quality of cities. On the Seine-facing façade of Jean Nouvel's Museé du Quai Branly in Paris, landscape architect Patrick Blanc designed this beautiful living green wall full of lush grasses and shrubs that absorb toxins in the air without the use of chemicals.
The great thing about Blanc's exterior living wall and the Prosolve370e technology is that both approaches deploy air-quality-improving architecture to residents in any parts of a city, not just in highly urbanized, expensive central cores.
Milan's Bosco Verticale, currently under construction, will be covered in trees. Photo via
Giving a whole new meaning to the term "concrete jungle," the façades of the Bosco Verticale (vertical forest), a residential tower complex designed by Stefano Boeri Architetti currently under construction in Milan, are covered by a thick green canopy of trees. The shrubs sit on the individual terraces of each unit, cooling off the interiors by shielding them from direct sunlight. More than 2.5 acres of forest—comprising roughly 730 trees, 11,000 ground-cover plants, and 5,000 shrubs— will be planted on the 260-and-360 foot towers. These (literally) green towers will help to dramatically decrease the city's C02 emissions and problems with dust, albeit mostly in the area surrounding the residential condos.
"Farmscrapers" in China remove air pollutants while providing green jobs. Photo courtesy of Vincent Callebaut Architects
Some architects believe that architecture should play a more aggressive role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions by making cities more sustainable overall. Nowhere is this more crucial than in China, where 75% of the population is expected to live in urban areas by 2030. Addressing this conundrum, the Paris-based firm Vincent Callebaut Architects has proposed a complex of futuristic "farmscrapers" in the Chinese city of Shenzhen.
The Asian Cairns—named after stacked-stone trail markers made by hikers—comprise six six towers that function as a completely self-sustaining ecosystem, with individual orbs containing specific functions. Incorporating solar panels, wind turbines, vertical organic gardens, carbon-absorbing algae panels, and water recycling systems, the towers tackle a breadth of issues that are crucial to creating a cleaner, less polluted environment, while reducing the city's overall carbon footprint. City residents are reconnected to production, rather than just consumption, by bringing the concept of a farm into the city center.
Meanwhile, to help reduce CO2 emissions from the 77,000 cars that use Chicago's Congress Parkway Interchange everyday, Danny Mui & Benjamin Sahagun have proposed the pollution-eating Congress Gateway Towers. The irregularly shaped residential buildings bridge the highway by a linking public restaurant, and have a complex air filtration system. C02 is first absorbed at the crown of the tower by carbon scrubbers and then by algae growing inside the building. The algae is then processed into biofuels to provide energy for the building residents' clean vehicles.
No, this is not a screen shot from a movie about an terrifying alien invasion. Photo via
The most bizarre and outrageous concept to help combat the pollution woes of highly industrialized cities definitely comes from Hao Tian, Huang Haiyang, and Shi Jianwei. Their PH Conditioners look like enormous floating jellyfish but actually help clean the acidic fog commonly found in many of China's cities. The conditioners are kept afloat by hydrogen gas and utilize a system that filters Sulfur Dioxide and Nitrous Oxides, two chemicals that lead to destructive acid rains in China's forests, out of the air. While the architects' outlandish design will probably never be realized, the attention-grabbing potential of the concept helps to generate discussion of the role that architects can play in the health of cities.