Spend a little time on websites devoted to what’s new and next in global architecture, and you might notice a surprising abundance of greenery on buildings. Not just a living wall here or a rooftop meadow there but entire façades draped with plants and terraces overflowing with lush vegetation.
These days, more and more architects—including such celebrated names as Thomas Heatherwick, Kengo Kuma, Pritzker Prize winner Jean Nouvel, and the firm MVRDV—are designing structures that would put the mythic Hanging Gardens of Babylon to shame.
High-rise towers are being reimagined as vertical forests, while some visionaries are contemplating future cities where virtually all buildings would be arrayed with plants, trees, and other flora.
It’s all an extension of the decades-old movement promoting environmentally sensitive, sustainable, and socially conscious architecture—a movement made more urgent by climate change and explosive population growth.
Increasingly, architects and developers are embracing the benefits of using extensive vegetation on buildings, ranging from energy-saving thermal insulation and solar shading to mitigating air pollution, increasing urban biodiversity, and enhancing quality of life by bringing nature into places that are often proverbial concrete jungles.
“Trees and green spaces have been disappearing from our cities for decades, and this has taken a big environmental toll, from worsening air quality to extreme urban heat islands with no plants to help absorb that heat and cool the air,” Mun Summ Wong, co-founding director of the Singapore-based firm WOHA, told The Daily Beast. “We’re also losing community spaces. So much can be gained from re-greening cities—not just on an environmental level but on a social one.”
Among WOHA’s best-known projects is the five-year-old Parkroyal on Pickering, a hotel and office complex in Singapore that’s raised up on stilts with lush gardens all around its base.
The most distinctive feature, however, is the series of huge, curvaceous, and seriously eye-catching garden terraces that are dramatically cantilevered between the blocks of hotel guest rooms.
The firm took a quite different approach to the nearby Oasia Hotel Downtown, a 30-story mixed-use tower wrapped in a striking red-mesh lattice that hosts 21 different species of tropical vines, creating, as WOHA has put it, a “perforated, permeable, furry, verdant tower of green.”
The building features open-air gardens on multiple levels that serve as communal spaces, permit cross-ventilation, and enhance light and views.
All of these things contribute to a “biophilic effect, which is the positive impact that green environments have on our psyche and general well-being,” WOHA’s other co-founder, Richard Hassell, told The Daily Beast.
Hassell added that the benefits of such factors are harder to measure than things like a building’s reduced energy and water consumption or its effects on biodiversity (both the Parkroyal and Oasia properties have seen an increase in species of birds, butterflies, and other small animals like lizards).
It’s no wonder that so many of the new vegetation-clad buildings are popping up in places with warm, often tropical climates (better for growing a wide variety of plants), especially in Asia, where runaway development in exploding megacities has often obliterated most traces of nature.
Vietnamese architect Vo Trong Nghia, known for his innovative and arresting use of traditional bamboo, typically incorporates extensive vegetation into his designs.
His most spectacularly lush projects include the Atlas Hotel in Hoi An and the nearby Naman the Babylon resort, as well as the under-construction FPT University in Ho Chi Minh City, where he is based.
The new campus was conceived as gently undulating, densely forested hills wrapped around a central garden courtyard, with trees and plants providing an almost seamless canopy that extends across the structure’s rooftops and many balconies.
In Shanghai, British designer Thomas Heatherwick drew on similarly topographic allusions for his 1000 Trees development, now being built on a riverfront site next to the city’s M50 arts district.
The sprawling, 75-acre complex of residences, shops, offices, and schools takes the form of two tree-covered mountains. The sloping concrete structures are supported by several hundred columns that extend to the surface and hold large planters filled with trees and shrubs.
Slated for completion later this year, Heatherwick’s verdant peaks rising among Shanghai skyscrapers are already a social media sensation.
Indeed, environmental and social benefits aside, vegetation can lend architecture major visual impact, making it a hit with the cool-hunting crowd. The most compelling projects not only gain a sense of organic vitality but can also take on a fantastical, almost surreal quality.
That is certainly true of most proposals conjured up by Belgian architect Vincent Callebaut, a self-proclaimed “archibiotect” whose boldly futuristic designs include a proposal for a 132-story, dragonfly-shaped urban farm for New York City.
In Taipei, Callebaut is behind the soon-to-be-completed Tao Zhu Yin Yuan residential complex, inspired by the double-helix structure of DNA. A pair of wings, containing 42 apartments, twist vigorously around a central cylinder, enhancing light and views and creating open balconies, from which the foliage of trees, shrubs, and plants—some 20,000 in total—will cascade.
“This is a prototype of a carbon-absorbing green building that can fight against global warming,” Callebaut told The Daily Beast, “while the balconies include gardens for vegetables and medicinal plants for the inhabitants.”
For Jean Nouvel, trees and plants are, among other things, a way to break down—dematerialize—the conventionally stark forms of modern architecture, and many of his latest buildings incorporate elaborate vegetation.
The French architect has worked frequently over the years with pioneering botanist Patrick Blanc, and their recent collaborations include the much-lauded One Central Park residences in Sydney and the Le Nouvel KLCC towers in Kuala Lumpur, a pair of condo buildings covered with spectacular top-to-bottom vertical gardens composed of nearly 250 different plants.
“Sometimes we use special systems for vegetal walls, for the integration of vegetation into the buildings themselves, but for me the vegetation is an architectural material,” Nouvel has said. “I never think that landscape is on one side and the building on the other—it’s part of the same concept.”
Among Nouvel’s forthcoming projects is the 22-story Rosewood residential and hotel tower slated to open next year as part of a redevelopment project called Cidade Matarazzo in the heart of São Paulo.
The building, envisioned as a new icon for the city, features a distinctive asymmetrical façade of layered lattice panels through which a profusion of trees and plants will protrude, almost as if the adjacent gardens and park had invaded the building.
That’s the effect envisioned by Nouvel, who has described the project as “inventing the hanging gardens of São Paulo, with luxuriant greenery and outrageously stunning views.”
The idea of creating a lush urban oasis also defines projects such as the Dutch firm MVRDV’s showstopping Valley development now under construction in Amsterdam.
The mixed-use complex is composed of three jagged peaks of varying heights, with unassuming glass walls at the street-facing base giving way to almost chaotically stacked stone volumes, planted terraces, and gardens (masterminded by renowned garden designer Piet Oudolf) on the interior and upper levels.
Promising to be equally spectacular is the proposed 1 Hotel conceived by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma for a site on Paris’ Left Bank. On the exterior, overlapping wooden and metal panels will create a pixelating effect, with vegetation spilling out between them.
An interior courtyard garden will sit at the rear of the U-shaped building, overlooked by private balconies arrayed with more plants and trees. Kuma’s firm has colorfully described the project as “a green lung for the city.”
If Italian architect Stefano Boeri had his way, cities themselves would serve as green lungs for the planet.
A vocal advocate for principles spelled out in his manifesto Vertical Foresting (you can check out his TED talk here), Boeri first realized his vision with a pair of influential high-rises in Milan, completed in 2014. Covered in a combined 700 trees and 20,000 plants, the towers serve as a model that Boeri is adapting for projects in a number of other cities.
He has even devised a masterplan for a new 30,000-resident sustainable—and, yes, vegetation-covered—community, dubbed Liuzhou Forest City, in southern China.
According to Boeri’s firm, the city will be home to some 40,000 trees and almost one million plants, whose impact will include absorbing almost 10,000 tons of CO2 and 57 tons of pollutants per year, while producing approximately 900 tons of oxygen.
Whether or not Boeri’s Liuzhou project will become a model for sustainable cities of the future remains to be seen. In the meantime, it must be said: The renderings are pretty cool.