Tower architecture hosts urban farming
25 August 2021, Paul Finch
Occasionally a press release needs little re-writing, so here is a fascinating story announced this week:
‘International design and innovation office CRA-Carlo Ratti Associati has released the design for an office tower in China, whose façade features a vertical hydroponic farm extending the entire height of the building. The Jian Mu Tower, located in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, was conceived for an international competition organized by leading Chinese supermarket chain Wumart. It introduces a new kind of skyscraper where the natural and the artificial closely overlap. The building’s design makes it possible for the building’s tenants to cultivate, purchase and consume fresh vegetables and fruits directly inside the tower.
‘Jian Mu Tower occupies the last plot available in Shenzhen’s Central Business District, therefore completes the skyline of the area’s central axis. The 218m high tower dedicates 10,000 sq m of space on its façade to the cultivation of crops. The vertical hydroponic farm will produce an estimated 270,000 kilograms of food per year, enough to cover the needs of roughly 40,000 people. Jian Mu Tower establishes a self-sustained food supply chain, encompassing the cultivation, harvest, sale and consumption of crops, all inside the same building. In addition, the tower will house offices, a supermarket, and a food court.
‘Carlo Ratti, founding partner of CRA and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, commented: “Small-scale urban farming is happening in cities all over the world – from Paris to New York to Singapore. Jian Mu Tower, however, takes it to the next level, such approach has the potential to play a major role in the design of future cities, as it engages one of today’s most pressing architectural challenges: how to integrate the natural world into building design. In addition to producing food, the Jian Mu Tower’s farm helps with solar shading – a key issue in tall buildings.”
‘The name of the tower is derived from the mythical symbol of the jian mu tree which, in ancient Chinese folklore, connects heaven and earth. According to traditional belief, heaven is round while the earth is square. The skyscraper echoes this principle with its rectangular base that gradually morphs into a tubular form as it rises. The tower offers 90,000 sq m of space across 51 levels.
‘Working with ZERO, an Italian-based company that specializes in innovative approaches to agriculture, the tower’s farm is optimized to produce everything from salad greens to fruits to aromatic herbs, while remaining efficient and sustainable. An AI-supported “virtual agronomist” is tasked with the farm’s day-to-day operations, managing irrigation, nutritional conditions, and other matters.
‘Apart from the vertical farm, the building’s natural and artificial elements work alongside one another in many other ways. On the tower’s outside, a series of landscape terraces house a wide variety of flora including water lily, fern and lychee. These terraces promote biodiversity and take advantage of Shenzhen’s abundant precipitation in their sustainable irrigation system. In addition, the office workers inside Jian Mu Tower are able to utilize the inner gardens for relaxation and social interaction. The gardens themselves are double-height and seamlessly integrated into the interior spaces, allowing tenants to feel immersed in a natural setting. The prominence of greenery on the building’s surface effectively reduces solar irradiance in indoor areas and the need for air conditioning. Furthermore, workers can use a mobile app to customize the micro-climatic conditions of their offices.
‘Jian Mu Tower is the latest example of CRA’s efforts to incorporate natural and agricultural systems into urban structures. Projects sharing a similar sensibility include VITAE, a building complex in Milan currently under construction for Covivio, which is anchored by a 200-meter-long vineyard accessible to the public.
‘In Singapore, the studio is collaborating with BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group to construct the CapitaSpring Tower for CapitaLand. The 280-meter high building, set to open in late 2021, features an indoor forest that stretches across several levels. Finally, the Shenzhen skyscraper’s proposition for a smart supermarket was preceded by the Future Food District at the 2015 Milan World Expo, designed by CRA for Coop Italia, Italy’s leading supermarket chain.’
This is surely a foretaste of how our cities will become, to some extent, self-supporting.
Not everything needs saving
Confected outrage about the replacement of an office building on London’s Piccadilly, to new designs by Make Architects, is a good example of how redundancy goes hand in hand with sentimentality. The existing building, developed for the promotion of French railways, is a good example of 60s modernism applied to office design. Its crisp detailing contrasts well with many of its ‘traditional’ architectural neighbours. Unfortunately, its mean floor-to-floor dimensions (not uncommon with buildings of this type and era) mean it is no longer fit for purpose. A pity but no catastrophe.
If you can get outraged by demolition of such a building, you must be a very sensitive soul – or you are making it up.
By contrast, there is genuine and justified concern for the future of a Modernist masterpiece in Rio de Janeiro, well expressed by historian and critic William Curtis: ‘The Ministry of Education and Health (named the Gustavo Capanema Palace after the Minister of the time), designed in 1936 and completed in 1945 by Lucio Costa and a team including Oscar Niemeyer and several others (with Le Corbusier as consultant), must be counted as a masterpiece of the Brazilian modern movement in architectural terms: a seminal work expressing the aspirations towards a more equable and just society.
‘Even though ministerial functions have long since shifted to Brasilia, this work continues to play the role of a national and civic monument marking a progressive epoch in Brazilian history. With its airy public plaza, monumental columns lifting the tower into space, sensuous curves, roof terrace filled with tropical plants, vast glass façades and incisive grilles of brise soleil, the building has a direct impact on the observer and marks out an area of civic importance in the urban landscape of Rio de Janeiro. Visible from afar, even from the sea, the building recalls Le Corbusier's urban visions of the 1930s in which there was the yearning to harmonise industrialisation and the natural world. More than just a building, the Ministry embodies an ethical vision of social improvement, a utopia of a kind.
‘This astonishing project showed how the skyscraper as a type normally reserved for private commercial purposes could be modulated to deal with the local climate and to serve a civic, public and symbolic function. Combining the sculptural talents of Costa and Niemeyer, the landscape interventions of Roberto Burle Marx and the public mosaics of Candido Portinary, the project was conceived as a synthesis of the arts embodying national ideals linked to the abstraction of nature as a key to Brasilian national identity.
‘The proposed idea of handing over this masterpiece to the short-term calculations of private ownership constitutes an ideological assault on civic values and on the history of the nation itself, yet one more attack by this particular regime against the public sphere and progressive values in general whether at the scale of rain forests or that of public national health. Everything must be done to protect this universal masterpiece from an act of vandalism which ignores the values of long term memory in Brazilian society.
‘The Ministry of Education and Health - the Gustavao Capanema Palace - also constitutes a major addition to universal architectural patrimony. and as such deserves protection and preservation in the long term.