The high-density future of cities around the world, rendered crisply in photo-realistic drawings and computer models, will be one of massive skyscrapers performing wonderful tricks. They'll grow food, they'll generate renewable energy, they'll spin and twirl to cater to our whims and give us a shady spot beneath a tree, thousands of feet in the air, where we can sit quietly and ponder the urban condition evolving around us, above and below.
This is the future as imagined by architects and designers, who have dreamed up fantastic new ideas for housing and feeding and keeping sane the billions of people expected to concentrate in urban centers all over the planet.
Their designs, available widely online through design competitions and architecture websites, offer an almost tangible vision of the city of tomorrow. One example is a design recently named to the shortlist for the 2014 World Architecture Festival awards. It's a split tower design for Hong Kong that features floors for housing, commercial use and offices, as well as fish farms, solar power stations, rooftop rice paddies, and vegetation growing down its facades. Projects like this offer smart, sometimes ingenious ideas about how we can and should live in buildings and cities. And that's what makes it so disappointing to realize they will never be built.
Since the late 1990s, Dr. Dickson Despommier, a professor of microbiology and public health at Columbia University, has been the primary advocate behind one of these skyscrapers of the future, the vertical farm. The idea is to build a skyscraper right in the center of the city that would house not people nor offices, but rather dozens of floors of hydroponically-grown produce.
The system could operate on a closed loop, recycling its water and harnessing the power of the sun. And because the farm would be located in the city, the negative externalities of transporting food from rural farms would be erased. This good idea hasn't taken shape mostly because of the economics of tall buildings. The primary materials used in skyscrapers – steel and concrete – make them expensive to build, which in turn makes the spaces within them expensive to rent or sell. A developer will make more money renting space to a law office than to a bunch of turnips.
The Hong Kong tower proposal, designed by the Mexico City-based Studio Cachoua Torres Camilletti, is closer to addressing some of the economic realities of skyscraper building by including a more diverse mix of uses. It's an innovative combination, and an example of the ways designers a rethinking what a skyscraper can be. But it's just a design, and there's no client standing by with the hundreds of millions of dollars likely needed to build it.
But in both cases, the fact that the projects haven't been and likely won't be built isn't necessarily indicative of absurdity, or that their conceptions are pointless. Architecture has a long history of this type of speculative design. Often it's good for boosting the visibility of an architecture firm or winning some awards, but even more often this speculation achieves the goal of identifying problems in the built environment and launching efforts to eventually solve them.
When R. Buckminster Fuller proposed building domes over cities in the 1960s to reduce their energy demands, it was more of a thought experiment aimed at drawing attention to the waste inherent in the modern city. And when the avant garde architecture group Archigram suggested a few years later that the educational and entertainment resources of a city could be packed into a zeppelin-like airship and transported to share the resources of city living with less urbane places, it highlighted some of the exact benefits of city living that can and should be encouraged.
These projects weren't built, and weren't really meant to be. Their purpose was to call attention to the different roles architecture can play, and the potential of cities to function differently.
The speculative architecture of today can play that same role, and it often does. While Despommier's vertical farm hasn't yet popped up in a city skyline, much progress has been made on the front of using buildings in cities to grow food.
The startup Lufa Farms has built a revenue-generating farm on the roof of a Montreal warehouse, growing vegetables under a greenhouse year-round. It's not a skyscraper, but it is producing food right in the city. Another group in Singapore called Sky Greens has edged slightly closer to high-rise agriculture with a three-story greenhouse system that uses hydraulic lifts to slowly cycle it grow beds up and down like a slow motion carnival ride.
The architecture and engineering firm SOM has a design in the works for a 99-story building Jakarta that will generate all its own energy. Some of these seemingly far out ideas are already being realized. In 2011 Safdie Architects completed a resort complex in Singapore that features a line of three hotel towers linked across their roofs with a three-acre park, pool included, 55 stories above ground. And in Copenhagen, BIG Architects are building a new incinerator that also doubles as a wintertime ski slope. In small steps, the crackpot architectural ideas of the past are becoming built parts of our cities.
The process is slow and incremental, which can sometimes make it frustrating to look at the futuristic speculative designs that imagine a more efficient, sustainable and enjoyable urban future. But don't feel bamboozled; the pipe dream architecture of today is laying the intellectual foundation from which the cities of the future will gradually rise.