Category Archives: NATURE

Infrastructure as Landscaping

This article appears in the publication Infrastructure And Landscape produced by the Michael Graves College School of Public Architecture at Wenzhou-Kean University. I will post a link as soon as the book is published on ISSUU.

Landscape has long been valued for its role in the creation and enhancement of public space and the recognition that landscape is vital for the infrastructure purposes such as the control of flooding and the amelioration of storm surges is long overdue. Landscaping is now seen as a kind of infrastructure that counters the negative effects of excessive development in the form of buildings and those spaces between them called roads. There are many metrics by which urbanization can be measured but the quantity and density of buildings and roads is a usual one.

In Australia not too long ago, the felling of trees and the clearing of land was equated with progress and civilization. When the city of Perth was founded in 1829, the occasion was marked by a certain Mrs. Dance felling a tree. It’s clear from the painting that Mrs. Dance’s role was to fell the tree symbolically but that was the only symbolism the event had for, in the minds of the early settlers, the subjugation of the natural environment was not symbolic of progress but progress itself. Even today, Australian capital cities have a relaxed attitude towards the felling of trees and the clearing of bushland to create new outer suburbs farther out.

By George Pitt Morison –, Public Domain,

The desert interior of the United Arab Emirates is as much a part of Emirati national identity as the Australian desert is to Australians and, in both countries, the amount of land not yet built on remains a measure of how much urbanism is yet to be done. The contrast in the U.A.E. is more extreme as no hinterland buffer zones separate city from desert. The inner desert landscape is respected for its cultural associations but the adjacent desert is merely land yet to be developed.

Dubai receives much attention for its artificial islands, peninsulas and other landforms that have added more than 1,600 kilometers of coastline to the original 72. Much of this attention is negative because, while the building of islands and reclaiming significant areas of land for airports and harbors is generally accepted for economic reasons, the building of islands to generate lengths of coastline for tourist and residential investment is typically seen as frivolous. Both have economic imperatives but the former counts as infrastructure and the latter doesn’t. Artificial landforms such as The Palm Trilogy are landscape and infrastructure combined but exist outside an architectural and urban discourse that admits and comprehends them only as branding devices.

Roads and bridges are more clearcut and the 1960 First Dubai Master Plan by British planner John Harris shows the new Al Maktoum Bridge crossing Dubai Creek to link Deira on the north bank and Bur Dubai on the south. This road didn’t yet extend south to Abu Dhabi or north to the historic town centers of the other Gulf coast emirates that had grown up around other natural harbors for fishing and pearling vessels. In time, this road was to become national route E11 but its historic and continuing importance is evident by its other names such as Sheikh Maktoum Bin Rashid Road and Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Road in Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai, Sheikh Muhammad bin Salem Road in Ras al-Khaimah and National Road in Sharjah.

In 1960, the modern roundabout had just had its form and simple give-way rules standardized in the U.K. and could regulate significant amounts of traffic without recourse to traffic signals. Harris’s masterplan features roundabouts on all major intersections not just to regulate the increased traffic but to represent increased activity and prosperity. Not all of the roundabouts in this masterplan were built but, of those that remain, the one at the north end of Sheikh Maktoum Bridge is known as Clocktower Roundabout. Before the bridge connected both sides of The Creek, travelers would enter Dubai at a point close to this and the clock tower was built to house a clock given to His Highness Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the then ruler of Dubai to commemorate the occasion of Dubai’s first oil exports. Clocktower Roundabout had a presence as symbolic landscaping and entrance to the city before the bridge was completed to become functioning infrastructure.

Dubai Clocktower Roundabout, circa 1962, with the off-ramps from Sheikh Maktoum Bridge under construction in the foreground

Other roundabouts from the same time include Satwa Roundabout and Fish Roundabout, both of which still function to commemorate a place and a point in time. In Dubai roundabouts and the roads they connect are most definitely infrastructure as development but they also represent progress and that progress is celebrated with landscaping that, in turn, represents a kind of progress by the greening and watering of the land. In the short growth period between one global crisis and the next, it was almost a condition for any important transportation infrastructure to be celebrated with landscaping such as grassed verges interspersed with beds of marigolds or petunias. Infrastructure and landscaping do different things but they both represent progress.

In the 1960s, Sheikh Rashid made the decision to shift the centre of the city away from the mouth of Dubai Creek and its fishing and pearling, and towards the E11 and trade with Abu Dhabi to the south and the other emirates to the north. When Dubai World Trade Center opened in 1973 at the stretch of E11 that was to become the new Dubai, it was the tallest building in the Arab world and a symbol of Sheikh Rashid’s intention to make Dubai a centre of not just national trade but also global trade.

The adjacent roundabout is still known as Trade Centre Roundabout but is also sometimes called Interchange One. This next image shows Dubai World Trade Centre in the distance, the white building which was Dubai’s first residential tower completed in 1974, and Interchange Two which was then called Defence Roundabout. It already had two slip roads to facilitate traffic flow.

This next image shows the former Defence Roundabout in 2007 after it had been renamed Interchange One and reconfigured to handle more than 16,000 vehicles per hour, still without traffic lights.
Image Credit: Gulf News archiv

This is it in 2012 after it had been reconfigured once more, this time as a three-quarter orbital and one-quarter cloverleaf interchange with four slip roads.
Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

Burj Khalifa opened in 2009 as the centerpiece of a large development in the quadrant known as Downtown. This entire side of Dubai is also known as New Dubai, as Sheikh Rashid had envisioned. As recently as 2012 much sand could still be seen from  the tourist observation deck on the 125th floor of Burj Khalifa.

By 2015 there was a plan to landscape the 14 hectares of sand in and around the interchange. That plan was implemented and completed within two years. This landscaping is visual amenity for drivers and passengers on Dubai Metro and wasn’t designed to be accessed or even appreciated by pedestrians. The design has obvious visual associations with the ramps and the flowerbeds are planted with annuals such as marigolds and petunias.

Simultaneous with the 2015 Interchange One landscaping project was the demolition of some social housing that had been built by the Sheikh Zayed Foundation in the 1970s and that had had 40+ years of ad-hoc extensions. By 2019 the redevelopment was complete.


Two blocks south was some similar housing known as Sha’abiyat Al Safa and that was distinctive enough and by then incongruous enough to feature in the U.A.E. exhibition at the 2017 Venice Bienalle.

This too has disappeared and the site is currently being redeveloped piecemeal and slowly, as a subdivision of detached villas.

Image: author’s own

This redevelopment can be thought of Middle Eastern gentrification and a consequence of economic pressure to exploit to the maximum land that has suddenly become central. Alternatively, it could just be seen as ‘tidying up’ by removing and replacing building stock that, however historic, is not in keeping with an image of modernity and mastery of one’s environment. Not too far down the line of Dubai Metro are places where the infrastructure represents modernity and progress but the landscape has yet to catch up.

Encroaching landscaping

This pressure is particularly strong around Burj Khalifa and the encircling Downtown high-rent and tourist hotel band designed and masterplanned as a single piece of infrastructure with Burj Khalifa as its symbolic centre and The Fountains as the geometric centre of the three-quarter circle of The Boulevard and, increasingly, walled by the apartment and hotel towers lining it. Dubai Mall completes the last quarter of the circle.

The three above views are of the stretch of The Boulevard in the top centre of the image below.

The Boulevard may never be one of the world’s great thoroughfares to rival New York’s Broadway or Paris’ Les Champs Elysées but, for something brought into existence within a decade, it might be too early to say.


Landscaping in Dubai is still being used to celebrate infrastructure. Roundabouts and exit ramps are continually being irrigated and prettified with combinations of rocks, lawn and pampas grass. However, and beyond the call of the usual role of landscaping in celebrating infrastructure at ground level, that in the Downtown District is also designed to do so when seen from the gulf side of the observation floors of Burj Khalifa.

  • The tall building in the foreground and its smaller neighbor have screened rooftops to hide unsightly equipment.
  • In the distance, the numerous eight story apartment buildings of the Citywalk development all have roofs screened in similarly decorative ways.
  • Newer towers close by have tapered rooftops that minimize rooftop area.
  • The 54th floor bridge structure of The Address Sky Views Hotel and Apartments has a pool deck which is a new focal point but neither landscape nor infrastructure. However, the projecting tip of this bridge-deck structure has a glass-floored observation platform celebrating the infrastructure and landscape at ground level.
  • Landscaping alongside Sheikh Zayed Road and in and around Interchange One has large geometric motifs most legible when viewed from above.
  • Much of the green you see in the photograph above is not grass but a succulent that requires less water and produces a constant and more vibrant green.

The Gardened City

The French left Shanghai with the former French Concession streets lined with plane trees. Many more trees were planted across the city in the 1950s and they continue to provide shade and coolth today. Streets like the one below are attractive and also very welcome on hot days.

We now know that the bark and leaves of plane trees can trap airborne pollutants and so many Shanghai roads now inadvertently have a degree of pollutant removal at source. None of the scenes below is exceptional but Shanghai has many many scenes likes these and this is exceptional.

In this next photo is a wide sidewalk with two rows of plane trees and a gathering of rental bicycles.

Further to the left is a new and additional belt of trees and planting called Shanghai Greenway. This section was maybe 15 metres wide but the greenway totals about 112 kilometers in length and links several parks. This section had the distinctive smell of conifers.

Shanghai was blessed with trees anyway but this greenway is a recent addition. New residential developments are planned around existing trees and supplemented with others. The newly planted street trees at the entrance to this housing development are going to have yet more plants at their bases. This is a private developer going that little bit further to make a difference.

The same happens with new retail developments. Trees might be seen as part of the charm of Old Shanghai but they’re a significant part of the charm of the new.

It seems you can’t have too many plants in a city. The sidewalk in this next photo has a row of plane trees, a line of kerbside planters and three lines of stepped planters on the other. This shouldn’t seem strange but it is. There’s some sort of policy at work and it seems to involve growing plants on any piece of land not built on, driven on or walked on.

If you wanted to discourage people from jaywalking – not that people do – then this would be a good way to do so. It’s an opportunity for more plants – hibiscus, in this case.

Back on the sidewalk, there’s no need to choose between using land for plants or for bicycle and scooter parking.

It seems that any urban space that can be cultivated will be cultivated. Durable and low-maintenance hard landscaping isn’t preferred. This next is a green roof on some underground ventilator. It could easily have been some other kind of roof but it’s not. It’s reducing the urban heat-island effect and the rate of stormwater runoff but we can also appreciate how it looks.

This construction site hoarding could easily have been a sheet metal wall or even a masonry wall topped with ridge tiles but it’s a living wall. The plants are real.

Otherwise unused and unfriendly spaces beneath bridge approach roads are opportunities for parks and gardens. The photo on the left below is of a park and monument to the workers who built the nearby Nanpu and Yangpu Bridges. It’s a handsome monument.

This footbridge has been designed to have containers of plants on each side, dwarf bougainvillea in this case.

If I were caught in traffic on the Yan-An Elevated I might appreciate the planters of dwarf bougainvillea lining each side of it, as they do many other sections of elevated road. It’s prettiness where you least expect it and potted bougainvillea are not plane trees growing in the ground but, theoretically at least, this is another example of pollution control at source. Narrow tubes looping between the planters are probably the reticulation system.

Note the trolley busses.

Planters only seem to be used only when there’s no alternative. The footpath outside this public toilet can’t be compromised, and the ferry is a ferry.

The spaces below elevated motorways are typically difficult to love but it doesn’t take much coaxing to get ivy to grow up the supports and to even creep along the underside in some places. It’s going to be wonderful, more effective than an upside-down High Line, more surreal than a Stefano Boeri or a Heatherwick, and for less cost, maintenance and liability.

It’s said “Doctors bury their mistakes – architects cover theirs with ivy” but using ivy to cover something that people don’t generally like the look of anyway must surely make it better than it was before, even if only visually – which it’s not. I don’t understand why all cities aren’t doing this instead of letting billionaires and architects distract us with visions of futures less immediate. This should be our Plan A.

• • •

Urban gardening is extremely good value for money and especially so if the climate is plant-friendly.

Shanghai’s is warm-temperate with precipitation all year round and an average minimum above freezing. But just because things can grow doesn’t mean people will want to plant things everywhere and take pleasure in watching them grow. The 2010 Shanghai Expo no doubt prompted movements to prettify the city in readiness and this may have set this greening process in motion. “The rate of increase of [Shanghai’s] surface urban heat island (SUHI) effect has slowed due to reasonable urban planning and relevant green policies since the 2010 Expo”. If there’s some sort of policy at work, then I’m amazed how unforced it all looks, probably because it resonates with a cultural preference anyway.

It’s more apparent in the smaller cities but there is a Chinese tendency to not leave any patch of land uncultivated.

Vegetables aren’t about to be grown on the street verges in China’s largest city but its surfaces can still be cultivated to provide other types of nourishment. If I had to think of what links all this, I’d say it’s an appreciation of an everyday symbiotic relationship with plants, and not just in Shanghai. This electrical substation is in Wenzhou at that mall I keep mentioning. The grass is real.

The construction site hoarding as living wall was a spectacular exception but, back home now, the default construction site hoarding is a masonry wall, painted white and capped with brick intended to resemble a traditional wall. It took me a while to realize they were construction hoardings.

More short-term hoardings for roadworks are often covered in some Astroturf equivalent. I’ve seen others with images of grass but I’ve also seen them with images of fake grass. On the surface, an image of fake grass is no better or worse than an image of real grass but it does encourage us to see them as equivalent, continuing the postmodern project for representations of things to substitute for the things themselves.

And on it goes. We now call mountain-shaped buildings mountains and call vegetated buildings forests. I suspect the real reason gardening the city is not being promoted more in Western economies is not because it costs money and labour but because it’s free for the public. The trend in Western societies these past few decades has been for anything free to become paid and for anything public to cost more. So instead of more plants in our cities we have projects like Boeri’s Vertical Forest (2014) in Milan which is PRIVATELY-OWNED NATURE attached to privately-owned apartments even if the public can still see it. This is not the case for Boeri’s Mars proposal which would be CORPORATE-OWNED NATURE.

It would also an example of SEQUESTERED NATURE for all the benefits of growing plants are kept inside the enclosure for the people wth a reason [$] for being there. In that sense it’s no different from BIG and Heatherwick’s proposal of a enclosed garden environment for Google Headquarters.

Foster+Partners Apple Headquarters (2017) and Gehry’s (2015) Facebook Headquarters are also sequestered nature but at least their plants were on the outside where people unable to see them can theoretically benefit from a marginally improved air quality and urban heat island effect.

Ultimately, there is PAY-PER-VIEW NATURE which is gardens accessible to the public at a price. Heatherwick’s London Garden Bridge proposal was going to be this. The “sky garden” at the top of Rafael Viñoly’s 20 Fenchurch Street (2014) is free to the public until 6:00pm but after then accessible only to paying customers of the restaurants. So far, Heatherwick’s Little Island (2021) in NYC remains free of charge.

MVRDV have experience with PSEUDO-NATURE and PRIVATELY-OWNED NATURE but their London Mound (2021) is unashamed PAY-PER-VIEW NATURE.

London Mound is a temporary artificial mountain built to monetize a patch of grass and paving at London’s Marble Arch. Not many people have anything nice to say about it. Organizers claim it’s because it was opened too early, presumably in an attempt to claw back the £6,000,000+ construction cost. Its purpose is to increase footfall past shops on London Oxford Street. MVDRV’s PR says the project has a serious message. It does. Once people begin to prefer representations of Nature over Nature itself, then it’s only a small step towards making them pay for it. The bigger game is to make real Nature redundant so nobody cares what happens to it.

All these dysfunctional natures work to lessen our attachment to Nature, so I’m not surprised nobody’s rushing to emulate Shanghai’s example of a simple, inexpensive and free-to-the-public approach to more plants in the city. I will surely visit Heatherwick’s mountain-esque “1,000 Trees” at Shanghai’s M50 arts space. Representing Nature was a bad idea but not as bad as objectifying representations of it on pedestals and disengaging plants from the ground.


For the bigger items you’re going to have to talk to your municipality. For a more immediate result you could always scatter some seeds along some public path or road. Nature will do the rest.


Habitat Compensation Island

This post appears as the article For The Birds in the publication Monument to Habitat Compensation Island, available on GoogleBooks.

For The Birds

Route E11 is the UAE’s longest road and runs mostly parallel to the Gulf coast and sufficiently inland to bypass the natural inlets around which grew the historic town centers of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain and Ras Al Khaimah.

The 1963 opening of the Al Maktoum Bridge across Dubai Creek made the E11 even more important for the movement of goods between Abu Dhabi and Dubai and the other emirates to the north.  

This 1960 First Dubai Master Plan by John Harris shows Al Maktoum Bridge crossing Dubai Creek

Dubai has only 4% of the UAE’s oil reserves compared to Abu Dhabi’s 92% and so, in the 1960s, Dubai’s ruler HH Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum made the decision to shift Dubai’s economy away from oil and towards trade and tourism. Abu Dhabi didn’t have the need and the other emirates didn’t have the revenue to invest as Dubai did with infrastructure projects such as Port Rashid (1973) near its northern border with Sharjah and the Port Jebel Ali (1979) cargo port near its southern border with Abu Dhabi. Both intensified the movement of goods throughout the UAE but the new cargo port freed up Port Rashid for cruise liners to service the growing tourist industry. Development in Dubai can still be thought of as infill along E11 between those two ports. 

When it opened in 1973, Dubai World Trade Centre was the tallest building in the Arab world and its location shifted the physical and symbolic center of Dubai towards E11 and the movement of people and goods along it.

Dubai World Trade Centre is the tall building in the distance in this photo, circa 1978. The original (old) town of Bur Dubai is in the distance to the left.

This pattern of building infrastructure attractors to stimulate infill led to the Financial Centre Free-Trade Zone (2004~) between Trade Centre and Dubai Mall/Burj Khalifa (2008/2009) and Mohammad bin Rashid City (2012~) residential development between Burj Khalifa and Dubai Marina (2003). Opposite Port Jebel Ali is Al Maktoum International Airport (a.k.a. Dubai World CentralDWC; 2010~) that will eventually take over the international passenger handling role of DXB. The goal is not to increase the movement of goods and people within the emirates but along the major global sea cargo and air traffic routes on which the UAE lies. 

Burj Al Arab (1999) stands on an insignificant dot of land which was Dubai’s first man-made island but no other building in the world is shaped and positioned as iconically. It sits offshore like a cruise liner and one thing we know about cruise liners is that they stop at destinations worth visiting. Burj Al Arab put Dubai on the tourist map but The Palm Trilogy made the world notice.

There’s no historic, logical or theoretical way to understand The Palms. They’re not copies of anything or a development of anything we know. They resist incorporation into Western architectural discourse. Outside the UAE, the attitude is that making islands for hotels, apartment buildings and villas is somewhat frivolous despite it being acceptable in the case of major economic imperatives such as airports. 

It hardly matters now. The 2008 Global Financial Crisis meant that short-term development costs suddenly outweighed whatever long-term value was anticipated. Trophy island projects like Palm Jebel Ali, Palm Deira, The World and The Universe weren’t the only casualties. 

The massive development of development of parks, lakes and towers that was to be Jumeirah Garden City downscaled to the Citywalk (2012~2019) mixed retail and residential development [above] around a multi-purpose arena.

This 2007 video shows how Jumeirah Garden City was imagined.

The new build the other side of the road is what it downscaled to.

The Red Line of Dubai Metro (2009) parallels E11 to link the two airports and everything in-between, including the old areas of Deira and Bur Dubai and the crowded towers of Dubai Marina (2003) and Jumeirah Lakes Towers (2006~) from which many people commute to Abu Dhabi. 

Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City (2009~) was downscaled as development objectives shifted from creating attractions for short-term tourists to creating amenities for long-term residents. The E11 extends to the border with Saudi Arabia but continues as the E10 into Abu Dhabi which is a city on an island surrounded by other islands. The history of Abu Dhabi is not one of making islands but of shaping and connecting them in the knowledge that tourist attractions will increase traffic and residential amenities will encourage infill development. The E12 is the new road into Abu Dhabi, passing through Yas Island (2006~) with Yas Marina Formula I CircuitFerrariworldWaterworld, and Warner Bros. World and then through Saadiyat Island with Louvre Abu Dhabi (2017) as the first of many planned attractions. All along the Gulf coast, marinas, peninsulas and detached islands are still being made to define sections of coastline for concentrations of retail and entertainment amenities. All have the economic imperative of appealing to visitors and residents alike. 

The centrepiece of the Al Raha development, just outside of Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi’s Habitat Compensation Island results from the economic imperative of keeping the harbor channels dredged and is partial compensation for all types of lost habitats, whether on land or undersea.

Dredge spoil can be disposed of in many ways but using it to make an island is neither quick, easy nor cheap. Countless barge-loads of rocks first have to be deposited to form breakwaters in positions and shapes that encourage currents to stabilize and deposit more sand that will eventually sustain flora and, in turn, fauna.  

The UAE lies midway along the West Asia – East Africa Flyway, one of the world’s nine major bird migration routes. It’s the dark blue one.

Abu Dhabi’s Al Wathba Bird Sanctuary, Ajman’s Al Zorah Nature Reserve and Dubai’s Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary are wetland stopovers for some 270 species of migratory birds but, most famously, the Great Pink Flamingo that migrates from Iran, the Caspian Sea, and Central Asia. Numbers swell to several thousand in winter but not all fly on.

The sanctuaries teem with birds but so do the frangipani and poinciana trees planted alongside roads, in parks, golf courses, and villa and hotel gardens whether on land or island. Birds don’t care if something is natural or artificial. Most will stay for a while and then fly on but some will stay for longer if the environment is sufficiently nourishing. We who live here are not that different.


Arboreal Angst

If I were a tree I’d be starting to get very worried. There was no need to worry back when roof “gardens” were first proposed as they didn’t seem concerned about plants. Besides, there was still significant garden at ground level. However, the idea that Nature was something to be looked at rather than experienced was planted. Also, having anything called a “garden” on the roof suggested the ground plane could now be used for other things.

In the eighties Ken Yeang produced some wonderful drawings of towers covered in plants and with spaces for trees to grow as part of an integrated building services system. The first built one was his 1992 Menara Meshinaga building.

Integrating rainwater collection, plants and biological waste recycling into a building system remains an excellent idea but the problem is that expensive structure is used to enclose large volumes of space to create “sky courts” for plants that don’t pay the rent. It’s a question of building economics and the multiple benefits of vegetation resist quantification. (This doesn’t mean people haven’t tried, or aren’t trying now.) It makes little sense to use significant structure to define large voids unless there’s going to be significant payback. There were big holes in these proposals. They were visually arresting because we‘d not seen anything like it before, but they were also unfeasible and never became mainstream.

Around the same time, people began to realise the benefits that growing plants on rooftops might have for stormwater runoff, heat-island effect, insulation and biodiversity and, not to mention, make us feel good about ourselves, and all for little extra cost! Green roofs returned some of the benefits that building on a piece of land had taken away. Ultimately however, representing these benefits – especially the one about us feeling good about ourselves –became more important than actually providing them. [c.f. The Demise of the Green Roof] In any case, it was all possible with only a small degree of construction complication as long as the greening bits were limited to grass or meadow plants.

For all the good they might do or might have done, the main problem with green roofs as far as representing green-ness was concerned, was that they were up on the roof where nobody could see them. One solution was to tilt the roof and, accordingly, we went through a stage of variously inclined and bulbous green roofs.

This must have resulted in too much unusable building volume because resolutely vertical “living walls” came next. Most people’s first architectural encounter was probably Jean Nouvel’s 2006 Musée de Quai Branly (with green wall by Patrick Blanc) and the second was probably Herzog de Meuron’s 2007 CaixaForum Madrid building.

We’d never seen buildings do this before. These two bookend and largely constitute The Golden Age of Living Walls. Brave attempts to prettify car parks and municipal buildings often underestimated the amount of maintenance required and ended up giving green walls a bad name. They simply required too much maintenance to ever be viable on public buildings.

Europeans have always liked to grow things on the upper floor balconies and terraces of apartment buildings, particularly so in Milan. Look at this next photograph. Apartments line a street with more than the usual amount of trees but people on upper floors want to grow their own where they can see them. [1]

The deal with apartment buildings such as this next one in Paris by Edouard Francois is that, in return for maintaining the plants, residents get to have plants outside their window as if it were a garden on land they could see through their window. 

This is a photo from 2017 of M6B2 Tower of Biodiversity in Paris, again by Edouard Francois, and when the plants hadn’t yet been added. The entire building is wrapped in a plant-friendly trellis. No doubt Inhabitat has some more recent images.

This brings us to Stefano Boeri’s 2014 Bosco Verticale (“Vertical Forest”). Let’s be clear on this: Vertical Forest is about horticulture, not forestry. After five years, the trees and plants all seem to have reached their optimum sizes, and there are no dead patches, or noticeable differences due to aspect.

On the south side of Vertical Forest is a large park having sixteen “circular forests” of single species. It’s pleasant, but it’s landscaping not forestry. [2]

Apartments aren’t cheap – a low-floor 80 sq.m apartment will set you back €512,000 (US$570,000) while a 200 sq.m penthouse costs around €1.6 mil. (US$1.75 mil.) This is about 20-40% more than comparably-sized apartments nearby. Nevertheless, making something like this work is a huge achievement, integrating horticultural expertise with pedestrian safety and structural concerns. Accordingly, Boeri’s office has been asked to produce vertical forests for Paris (2017), China “Vertical Forest City” (2017), Antwerp (2018), Eindhoven (2018), Cairo (2019), Utrech (2019), Tirana (2030) … [3]

Clearly, vertical forests are a product and part of the appeal is that people can have bigger and better plants outside their windows. This is not only more convincing as garden, but also watered, tended and maintained as a building service charge – and that’s fine. My concern here is not whether vertical forests are a new type of cosmetic facade or an integrated part of some building or urban ecosystem. Some will be and some won’t. Plants being plants, there’s always going to be some organism that will appreciate them. Moreover, benefits such as photosynthesis, of plants not retaining heat, and the moisture retention properties of the soil they grow in are going to be present no matter how marginal or at what cost of getting the plants up there and keeping them alive. Vertical forests don’t require expensive structure, they are highly visible and attractive from all sides. A balance between living wall and the proposals of Ken Yeang seems to have been found. What’s not to like?

I’m suspicious of any kind of any building or part of a building that is claimed to replicate some function of Nature, specifically those traditionally performed by trees.

When these new biometric organic fractal parametric shade-giving free facades can purify air, help out with the water cycle, reduce heat island effect, add to biodiversity and habitat, change with the seasons and also make a pleasant sound when the wind blows, we’ll finally be able to get rid of those stupid green things that obscure our view of them. [c.f. The Free Facade]

Remember what happened when artificial lighting and artificial ventilation began to supplement natural lighting and ventilation? They quickly became substitutes for it and various efficiencies of planning and construction meant bathrooms and kitchens were no longer designed to have those things called windows. This all happened quite a while ago and today we don’t think twice about windowless bathrooms and kitchens in tower apartments (or even detached houses). We never looked back. Hong Kong remains the last pocket of resistance. [c.f. Plan B]

The Objectification of Trees

Consider this next project by arch tree-objectifier, Thomas Heatherwick. It’s currently under construction in Shanghai. It’s not a project that could be designed by someone who likes trees.

Trees and other plants grown in elevated planters suffer the indignity of being part of a representation of trees. On the plus side, the plants look as if they might be left to form their own ecosystems without human interference apart from reticulation. By the look of it, it might not be a good time to be a mountain either.

This is the problem. Such projects offer some of the benefits of trees (and mountains) where previously there were none. However, my worry (on behalf of trees and mountains) is that should we become used to seeing privatised representations of Nature more often than the real thing, then these will become the real thing. And the preferred thing. To put it another way,

if a building can substitute for trees, then we won’t miss the land taken up by trees being used to build more tree substitutes. There’s no further need for forests.

This of course will only come about if we have a very narrow view of what a forest is and does. The objectification of trees and their subsequent mis-naming as vertical forests goes some way towards narrowing it. Forests are more than a lot of trees pleasant to look at. Trees are just one part of an ecosystem that involves climate, insects, soil and animals. This next image is an objectified tree that, if it had been planted in the ground and watered, might have helped enrich the soil and encourage the growth of less exotic plants requiring less water.

The only function of the objectified tree is to be ornamental. It’s a worry. Back in 2009 MVRDV were toying with the idea of fusing mountains, trees and buildings. This proposal is part of their China Hills project for Luizhou, in Guangxi, China. Trying to make buildings look like mountains has some inherent problems, not least of all the poor daylighting (for humans) because of the deep floorplates.

Their next proposal for Luizhou made the rounds not long after after. I don’t know if it was ever built but I can imagine it all to easily.

What is getting built in Luizhou is Liuzhou Forest City. It’s designed by Stefano Boeri Architetti. Clusters of buildings with mountain profiles from one or two directions looks like a typology we’ll be seeing more of.

Stefano Boeri

So what’s next? MVRDV were about five years behind the curve when it came to building a greened building and are now looking at the retro-greenification of entire cities, as described in the cover story of the current issue of DOMUS.

The Green Dip project jointly conducted by WhyFactory [the research side of MVRDV] @TUDelft and IAAC in Barcelona calculated the environmental gains of having vegetation covering the surface area of entire cities. Doing this for Hong Kong would absorb 3,450,000 tonnes/year of CO2, produce 2,070,000 tonnes/year of O2, save €1.97 bil. in cooling, produce 7,160,000 MWh/year of energy and retain 489.62 hectolitres of H2O. Similar calculations were done for Sao Paulo and St Petersburg.

So there you have it. It’s all good news about easy-on-the-eye buildings, environmental gains and costs saved. Nobody’s saying that any forests need to destroyed but these fake forests are making it easier for us to think we’ll get along just fine in a world without them. To finish, here’s a current project by Jean Novel for Sao Paulo which, as you don’t need to be told, is in Brazil which, as I write, is burning.

• • • 





The Cycle of Cold

October 7: I love the times around equinoxes – they are the best seasons. They are complexly bold. For one, my apartment gets penetrated with sunlight right to its back wall. It is the only season when this happens for my window orientation. And it is during these seasons that day and night are the most expressed and pronounced. One is told that the day is done by the perceived change in the world and its state. In summer, I am always puzzled when I’d be doing stuff in the evening and then find it is 11 at night and still dusk but I must get some sleep. It is such an abrupt end to a seemingly infinite evening. It’s easy to catch insomnia in summer and, as a student on off-time, I often did.

Due to geometric reasons, the rate of change of the day’s length is most profound at the equinoxes as the Earth with its tilted axis is like a crank on a piston that has its lowest and uppermost positions at the solstices. Because of this changing rate of change, these inbetween seasons are really elusive and don’t seem to last more than a fortnight around their core date. Wait until a bit later in the spring, and the world behaves like it’s summer. Be it a bit earlier and it’s still wintry. 

Perhaps this affection for the equinox comes from my autumn birthday.

The Entrance of Cold

October 16: This week it began to snow. The sun sets earlier and the shimmering dusk is completely gone. The rate of change accelerates after the doldrums of endless sun. Approaching the pole, the solar sway gets more and more pronounced. Another sure sign that winter is coming is that the arctic air no longer feels like a refreshing blessing, but begins to hum with all of its weight for short times at first, until it stays for long. Foliage falls down, as does snow, but not for too long yet. Western Slavs call the eleventh month “Listopad”, but for us here the fall of the leaf is long past.

We are so used to snow in the northern hemisphere that we forget that snowy winter is mostly a northern hemisphere thing. In a hemisphere opposite, inhabited continents do not stretch too far toward the pole and do not cover such wide swaths to create a continental climate. Anywhere above 50°N and a thousand miles away from the sea it is much colder than it needs to be to give mood to holiday photos.

The Psychology of Cold

Prompted by the change in light, winter usually brings a change in my psyche, both hopeful and painful. This change is like gradually withdrawing from the summer world. Autumn two years ago for me was a challenging time for work and this and the decaying sun out there made me very emotional. By November life felt scarce and barren. So last winter I devoutly went out of the office at lunch for long walks to acquire sky exposure. I unthinkingly stopped doing this in March as the sunlight restored itself. After the sun sets suddenly and frighteningly at 4 pm there is no difference between 8 pm and 1am if you walk around through the darkness. Only there would be fewer people, but even transportation feels more abundant in the winter dark than in autumn. Maybe it’s because winter dark occurs even at 7 pm and there’s a lot of transportation then. Winter also appears to filter only those who need to be outside and it fills you with decency if you are out.

The Physiology of Cold

The crisp sound of snow crushing under your foot in the evening hints that it’s gotten colder. Such sound is usually heard beneath a clear sky. Walking every day in the cold for three months makes you recognize it by gut, with little notice. One winter, I discovered for the first time how human skin adapts to winter – what it never seemed to do in me before. In November my legs used to freeze and become pink but by February I could keep a bare hand in -15°C for 20 minutes as I photographed buildings and in the evening still see my usual tender hand. It probably has something to do with moisture freezing out of the air at less than zero. It makes the air drier and more bearable than a -5°C damp day. Winds are another element. Those who have moved here say that the wind here is baleful but I don’t notice. It’s nowhere near as bad as Saint Petersburg where the wind bites at your kidneys. My friend Kostya who moved there said that after four years you stop noticing. 

The Solitude of Cold

What else is there in winter? I love the privacy of my mightily insulated coat and in summer I miss its feeling of a protective spacesuit. Being out is already taking effort and, once you are, cold air is a very hospitable place. I do like the “northern challenge”. Northern latitudes require some patience, planning and management of scarce resources, all of which are virtuous. On the other hand, the wonder of wintry lands making progress is simpler, since no one can survive without complex provisions. Anyone disobedient can be easily converted or as easily discontinued. “To banish into the freeze” is still a widely used Russian saying.

On 18 March 1965 Alexey Leonov was the first human to exit an orbiting spacecraft and perform extravehicular activity (EVA). I recently read of the death of Bruce McCandless, the first American to perform an untethered “spacewalk” in 1985. He remembered it became so cold he was shivering and his teeth were chattering.

Cold air eagerly ventilates my apartment and makes it a very pleasant place to be. In summer I want to smash the open window as I hear the unobstructed screams of 1000-person population of the house converging in the yard over the course of the day.

The Otherworldness of Cold

In a rural place one might see a train swooping across the landscape as essentially a spaceship –  a vessel of habitable volume – transcending an inhospitable world. This feeling is most pronounced in the Arctic, of which I only have pictures.

The Colour of Cold

You’d have to see a taiga dusk to decide if you would trade it for a subtropical one. Folks who moved to Moscow all agree that skies there are rubbish compared to ones we get to have here.

The Intelligence of Cold

Blowing into ones hand is a simple example of recycling heat. In this photograph, a warm building exhaust port is veiled so that it keeps the tractor engine warm upon its startup when it sets out to sweep the premises.

Wild ducks converge upon wherever the water is open. The not-quite-frozen water is the warmest thing they can find. Pigeons, devoid of nautical pride, are perfectly fine with roaming around heating and sewage hatches on the ground.

The Meaning of Cold

Learning how to live with cold is learning how to live in one’s surroundings and it doesn’t get more basic than that. I have heard stories of elders in villages who waned and passed away quickly after their children had installed automatic gas boilers in place of furnaces at their village houses. I can understand how people for whom keeping warm is life suffer when they no longer have to make a daily effort to maintain the indoor and body temperature.

The Look of Cold

My local friend Anne who found work in Moscow saw my pictures of Yekaterinburg and said she had forgotten what the cold feels like. She could still see the cold in the images.

The End of Cold

February 17: Sunday this week was the first Sun Day. I had the sun projecting onto my back wall for 5 minutes. Clouds obscured the star though. Sunlight has been back since January but it is only now that one begins to see the difference. This winter bothered me little. Overall, my mood kept on the joyful side of contentment – and it must be the behavioural effect of daylight too. Weirdly, I don’t hang out with anyone on a regular basis since New Year and the craving is gone and I feel balanced. It’s like abandoning sweet products. Not quite though.

This winter my routinely defined life made me blind to the lyrical dimension that lies in plain sight. I had abandoned my noon walks but later rediscovered them. About late February the dark will break and light will be sudden and unstoppable and from February each day will be five minutes longer than the one before. It completes the cycle, which I will continue to observe for I do not know how long.

Last spring I would leave the office at the same time and notice the apartment building opposite. It was a wonder when it finally had a sunny spot on its attic. I remember one March weekend last year, when I drank tea the entire morning, facing the sun and doing some edutainment surfing as the best day I had. Spring is hopeful and it is compelling to watch the sun win back the wall at the rear of my apartment. Then, one April evening I got drunk and walked back home and wept, seeing the twilight with me all the way.

• • • 


Building Nature

Nature has been synonymous with Beauty for some time now. Despite what it’s about to do to us, we continue to have an image of Nature as something beautiful beyond bounds and an endless source of inspiration and PR blather for architects. That inspiration is without end because, try as one may, it’s simply not possible for a building to ever be a natural object. Attempts to make a building appear as if it were a natural object are a different matter. They fall within architecture’s traditional remit of showing how much money and resources one can waste throwing at an insoluble problem. Natural-looking buildings are just that – natural-looking. If we’re hearing “natural” and understanding it as natural then it’s just another example of the PostModern disease where the representation of something is more important than the thing itself. Buildings may be “natural” and not natural at the same time and for many they’re the same thing.

The fact Architecture hasn’t managed to define itself vis-à-vis Nature makes me suspect something more deep-seated is amiss. It’s an ongoing and troubled relationship with identity issues at its core. It’s as if Architecture is in denial, as if its very existence – or at least its self-image – is threatened by acknowledging and accepting the reality that buildings are not natural. This denial extends to language and cognitive frameworks when building –the noun –  is said to be the opposite of Architecture, and build-ing – the verb – is claimed to be the opposite of creating.

Lovely as St. Petersburg is for the casual summer tourist, I’m not sorry to be living in a place where public spaces aren’t dominated by self-important monuments and buildings aren’t graced by caryatids and atlantides. I’m untroubled by the Islamic prohibition on reproductions of the human form. If God indeed holds the copyright I only wish He’d extend its scope to include rocks and assorted landforms, trees, plants, leaves, animals, birds, fish and insects.

Architecture as metaphor for Nature

Organic architecture is a metaphor because buildings are, by and large, made of inorganic material. They have more in common with each other than they ever will with Nature.

“Organic architecture” was and still is unquestionably thought to be a good thing. The concept entered architectural lore via Thoreau’s 1854 book Walden that was wildly popular by the time Frank Lloyd Wright was old enough to read. The term is still in use and used to justify all manner of crimes against not only Nature but Architecture as well.

Architecture as substitute for Nature

Green roofs seemed like a good idea to begin with. They had the potential to act as rainwater runoff buffers and add a much-needed biodiversity to urban areas. These important roles were sidelined as architects and clients discovered green roofs were a relatively inexpensive, attractive and popular means of projecting an apparent environmental wokeness. There’s no lack of examples. Here’s one I would expect and hope is a biofuel plant. [c.f. The Demise of the Green Roof]

A variant substitute for Nature is the green wall or “living wall”. These first entered architectural consciousness with Jean Nouvel’s 2006 Musée du Quai Branly.

Despite being more high maintenance than actual Nature ever was, the concept of living walls shot around the world as a space-saving representation of environmental wokeness. Now, every city has at least one dead living wall adorning either an IBIS hotel or a sustainability awareness centre.

Stefano Boeri’s 2014 Bosco Verticale in Milan was doing very well last time I saw it. I put this down to the residents taking responsibility for the care of the plants outside their windows, something I think the Milanese like to do anyway.