John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
The visionary architect imagines metropolises built like vast orchards.
Belgian architect Luc Schuiten thinks that modern society is driving itself into environmental doom, what with our fuel-burning, sea level-raising ways that are literally erasing countries from the map. The solution to such a huge problem, he believes, must by necessity be equally huge – nothing short of a complete overhaul of how we build cities.
In Schuiten's idealistic world, blocks of concrete and glass buildings are replaced with hedgerows of foliage-sprouting structures shaped like trees and lotus flowers. Roads would have streams splashing down the middle of them, and people would scoot around in cars that look like they're made from twisted twigs. Schuiten calls his nature-inspired metropolises "vegetal cities," constructed around a principal known as "archiborescence," and he's been churning out different iterations of them for more than three decades now.
The visionary architect recently gave us permission to run a few examples of these ultra-sustainable cities. To begin with, here's a model for a "woven city" that is built onto the intertwined roots of strangler figs, which grow parasitically on trees in tropical forests. Habitats are built into these vine-clad trees using biotextiles that mimic silkworm cocoons. If you need to run to the store for groceries, you can use a network of bridges hanging from tree to tree:
This is another view of a "lotus city" (a wider vista graces the top of this post). The lotus should be of symbolic importance to urban planners struggling to fight climate change, Schuiten thinks, because of its innate resistance to weather extremes. That curled-up flower on the right is actually a valve that caps methane emitted by the city's garbage; the city's operators can open and close the petals to manage the flow of greenhouse gas:
Many features in these fantastical cities are modeled after biological entities like flowers and vegetables, a principal known as biomimicry. Contrast this humble artichoke with one of Schuiten's standalone homes:
Here's a more arid but still naturally majestic concept for an "urbacanyon," or a society living in a maze of immense mesas. These structures would be fabricated from a transparent "silicate concrete" that copies the properties of coral and mollusc shells. Indentations on the roof of each chunk of tableland serve as water-collection pools:
The "city of the waves" is designed to grow along the shores of a lake. "Gardener-architects" would tend to its abundance of forest life, using decomposing trees as a medium to grow fresh saplings. The wave-shaped skyscrapers would have solar panels that collect rays reflected from the water:
Schuiten's also conceived of a line of pixieish, low-emission vehicles for his plant people to putter around in. Here's a "click car" that combines the advantages of public and private transport. To use it, drivers make a call that triggers the car to come to their house (if you're wondering where the engine is, there are electric motors in the back wheels). Two or three people get in, and the vehicle directs itself to a convoy of other cars riding in preset routes along an electric track:
And who wouldn't want to fly around in an "ornithoplane," an airship that transforms sunlight into electric-propeller propulsion? And yes, the wings would flap also:
All images courtesy of Luc Schuiten.