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Vertical Farmwash

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When we have an architecture that fulfils no shelter need, it’s no surprise we get vertical farm proposals that satisfy no real food requirement.

Vertical farms are not going to look like this. Ever.

They’ll most likely look like this if they don’t already – sheds providing conditions suitable for plants to grow. Plants being plants, those conditions will be different from how and where we might like to see plants grow.


This next image is taken from “The Living Skyscraper: Farming the Urban Skyline” by Blake Kurasek. Chives, peppers, lettuce, tomatoes, spinach and peas are all good and yummy but the only metric that matters is the nutritional content this structure delivers per cubic meter. If we’re not going to evaluate vertical farms according to that metric, then they’re nothing more than very large window boxes dreamed up by architects to show how visionary they are. Visionary. I’d forgotten the architect’s name so I bit my tongue and held my nose and googled “Belgian visionary architect”. Got it in one. Please understand I did this not because I believe Vincent Callebaut to be a visionary architect but because I thought that’s what he probably calls himself.

balanced diet

But isn’t Dragonfly just the bees’ knees! For those who want numbers, it has 132 floors and is 600 metres high which is pretty big. Its TWENTY-EIGHT fields FFS will produce fruit, vegetables, grains, meat and dairy. Here we have a nutritionally-balanced press release but unless we’re told its nutritional/calorific performance per cubic metre then it’s all meaningless architect PR. As for the image, “dragonfly” nailed it in one.


Dragonfly can be easily dismissed as media blather but this next proposal is sickeningly overladen with earnestness and, because of that, the more sinister. I get the feeling this proposal cost zero to produce. Interns in the corner probably had to pay their way by generating some “fresh thinking” for the content generator to feed into the media machine.


The concept is to cram as many competition-winning clichés into a proposal as possible. What’s not to like?

  • It’s a vertical farm. (On-trend; socio-enviro-planetarily a good thing)
  • It collects and stores rainwater at the top. (Rain is good. Collecting and storing it is good.)
  • That captured water is allowed to trickle down. (Ingenious use of gravity.)
  • Layers of plants use it. (As Nature intended.)
  • Leftover water finds its way to the fishtank. (We should eat more fish.)
  • It’s built out of bamboo. (Rapidly renewable resource, recyclable as flooring or furniture or whatever you want to make of it; strong if you use it with the intelligence of a Vladimir Shukov [although the vertical members suggest this is not the case here])
  • It’s circular. (Sunlight comes from more than one direction; bamboo likes a circle)
  • It has a vertical wind turbine. (As it must; to power the elevator.)

This proposal maybe has 150 sqm. of growing area  sufficient to keep a west London Italian restaurant in basil for one month. If it were to be fully and continuously cultivated with the right crops it might just provide sufficient calories and nutrition to sustain the life of three adult humans having an average body weight of approx. 70kg.

So, to conclude, whenever you see another concept design for a vertical farm,

  1. Make a quick assumption of its growing area (for you will not be told).
  2. Divide it by 50 sqm. and you’ll get an idea of how many lives it will sustain. 
  3. Make your own decision as to what the concept design was really intended to do.

• • •

One last thing. 

  • If this project were a patent, it would be difficult to determine what problem is being solved and the inventive step requiring protection. In any case, it’s not possible to patent a natural process and the water cycle is one of those. (Rain falls – thanks to gravity – and – thanks to gravity again – waters plants before finding its way – thanks to gravity – to the vast and purifying ocean with the little fishies and is evaporated etc.)
  • Notwithstanding, this proposal was submitted to a 2015 architectural competition and awarded a prize. It must therefore embody some way of thinking our new architectural media overlords wish to encourage.
  • First of all, winning a prize in an architectural competition does not mean a project is any good. It is merely recognition of the project’s aspiration to kill off any useful idea before it becomes too entrenched in society and no longer the domain of architects. After all, we do not need (or, increasingly, expect) architects to produce things of use.
  • The easiest way to kill off a good idea is to represent it. To aestheticise an idea is to neuter it, kill it, divert all attention from the good it was once intended to do. 
    1. Functionality came to be represented in inverse proportion to something actually being functional. This principle is alive and well in the field of design.
    2. Architecture started going down the same route as soon as a house came to represent a machine for living in yet still be handmade from concrete and stucco.
    3. Architecture became about the feeling of “space” at the precise moment people were at last on the way to being provided with a minimum amount of the stuff.
    4. Architecture became about “the play of light” at exactly the same time problems of quantity of light were being solved by dwelling layout, orientation and glazing area.
    5. Architecture (PJ, specifically) almost immediately aestheticised the social benefits of Modernism into The International Style.
    6. Post-modernism. Taking CJ’s story as the parable he believes it to be, Post-Modernism never replaced Pruitt-Igoe with anything better – it just killed the desire to.
      Here’s Pruitt-Igoe in 2014.
    7. More recently, some commentators pointed out with Jencksian glee that some green roofs weren’t all that green after all, so damning sustainability and its useful attitudes and goals. We became used to this and now no longer care if green roofs aren’t green. More to the point, we no longer care if they are. Mission accomplished. This is the process in action.
    8. We know we’re facing the sinister front-line of architect backlash when we see the phrase “Concept design for …” heralding some lame, award-winning proposal.

We can now add vertical farmwash to greenwash and, thinking back, spacewash and lightwash. This list will grow as fast as misfit architects can come up with socially beneficial ideas challenging the existence of Architecture Inc.



  • Great stuff and I enjoy your perception and grip on reality. Funnily enough, my recreational structure experimentation I’ve been playing with here on the Isle of Man for the last few years, looks a lot like Skyfarm but the difference is, each of my scribbles is physically tested out in actual structures. I can’t afford the software to generate seductive images from the most in substantially developed ideas and I prefer to build rather than sit at a screen.

    I like the idea of vertical plantage…but as a giant lump of colour, a la Jeff Koons. As regards food generation, I’m constantly reminded of the reality of food generation as my lad works on a veg farm that has cows to produce shit for fertiliser. All that water and fertiliser up there would be a huge weight. And what exactly are those nutrients?! And the windmill would never generate enough energy to distribute water or anything else.

    Don’t the judges even slightly consider practicalities?
    And you’ve got me thinking about that maintaining food on the shelves thing. In the winter, our ferry might not be able to sail for a couple of days and very soon, the shelves empty thereafter. The difference here is that there are enough farms to keep the population of 90,000 going for a while. But if diesel didn’t get delivered, that would come to a stop.

  • Overall agree with this. But I would point out one thing:

    “the only metric that matters is the nutritional content this structure delivers per cubic meter. If we’re not going to evaluate vertical farms according to that metric, then they’re nothing more than very large window boxes dreamed up by architects to show how visionary they are.”

    We definitely do not evaluate traditional farms according to this metric (or else we wouldn’t be subsidizing corn, soy, and especially cotton to the extent that we are). I don’t think that it’s fair to have to evaluate vertical farms this way, though, if you did, with the more realistic models you mentioned (warehouses, rooftops, and garages), I’m reasonably sure they would out-compete industrial farming – especially if environmental externalities were considered.

    Looking at the issue of vertical farming from this perspective was very refreshing for me, thank you.

    • Hmm, that’s a good idea eebee. Maybe we ought to be more rigorous in how we evaluate traditional farms. The only difference is we’d be using nutritional value per square meter that doesn’t need expensive enclosing, instead of per cubic meter that does. Personally, I like the idea of combining food production and shelter but, like with traditional farming, any economies of scale tend will probably involve a distribution system that will negate the benefits to some degree. In the meantime, I recommend we keep a close eye on visionary architects and proposals representing the idea of vertical farming or raising awareness of vertical farming rather than proposing anything that helps it become a reality.

  • This is more about urbanism than architecture but if you want to see what the future of agriculture might look like, the organoponicos in Cuba probably provide a much more realistic version.

    Apparently, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the importation of fertilizers (and fossil fuels needed to produce them) almost ceased and the crop yields dropped drastically along with that. The percentage of people employed in agriculture rose accordingly. Since they also lack liquid fuels to bring the foodstuff back to the cities, a large part part of the agriculture moved into the city itself onto small lots cultivated with really low-tech methods (oxen and the like). Wikipedia says that about 350 of Havanas ~750 km2 area is used for the small urban agriculture farms and they produce about 280g worth of fruits of vegetable per resident daily. There are lots of coverage on Youtube about that and apparently even architects are taking notice

    Considering how resource intensive agriculture is after the Green Revolution and how the peak oil is approaching or has already passed, I’m worried the main question about agriculture isn’t going to be how we can stack the plants on top of each other.

    • David, thank’s very much for pointing me towards that article about the book. Three sentences stood out for me.

      • “Havana’s urban agriculture movement has been criticized as being a utilitarian and reactionary response to food scarcity rather than a proactive urban design initiative.”
      • “Urban farming has not been wholeheartedly embraced by the Cuban design community—perhaps in part because efforts occur outside of the discipline’s sphere of professional influence.”
      • “In Havana, the few examples of formally designed farms use hedge and flower plantings to mask farming from the surrounding city.”

      To me, the first two illustrate my notion that architects like to kill useful ideas outside their realm. If it can’t be aestheticized, it’s of no use. I should think that a utilitarian and reactionary response to food scarcity is better than having no food at all. If it works, it works. Moreover, there’s no guarantee any proactive urban design initiative would work – so why bother bringing in the professionals?

      The third sentence describes a very strange world and to me represents a big step backwards. Apparently the useful crops aren’t the pretty ones. (Isn’t that always the way?) It’s totally insane to place aesthetic expectations on agriculture. This attitude has caused us enough problems with buildings so we now have two types – the useful yet unpretty and the pretty yet pretty useless. ArchDaily is editorially neutral as to its content. If you put in “vertical farm” you’ll get 10 pages of links to various proposals.

      My friend Curtis mentioned to me that, at any given time, Manhattan has only three days’ worth of food on the shelves, and most of that is trucked in over a single bridge. No amount of urban lettuce growing is going to change that, he said. I think you’re totally right in that the main question isn’t how we can stack plants on top of each other. It never was. Therefore, we can surely expect more proposals for how to do just that.


      • Thanks for adding this. Would love to cite the statistic that Manhattan only ever has 3 days of food available at any time but couldn’t find anything when I searched. Could you help me out?

      • I’ll try to verify this for you. In the meantime, and by way of anecdote, my most recent Manhattan experience was the Upper West-side with its abundance of supermarkets along Broadway. I noticed them in a state of almost constant replenishment so my gut feeling is that it’s probably not too far off. I’ve just been thinking that Dubai where I live probably doesn’t even have three days’ worth.

  • I really enjoyed your creative and critical edge to cut through all the spin we get. You points (to me at least) are clear and with a necessary dose of humour. I too get tired of all the cliché’s.
    Well done.