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SimCity-like arcologies as self-sustaining living ecosystems

When we recently visited the courtyard of 25 Verde, the condominium of 63 wooden-shingle-clad apartments on a five-story, corten steel structure shared with 150 fully grown trees on huge pots, we were shocked by the transition from the noisy street in a city center to the tree-covered, calm interior.

The soothing experience seemed to attune to some traditional activities that have earned academic respect in the last years like “forest bathing” or Shinrin-Yoku in Japanese, a meditative stroll on a proximity forest to benefit from both the meditative effect of walking in the woods and essential, volatile oils from plants that alter the activity of our chemical receptors (and hence, state some researchers, our mood).

Designed by architect Luciano Pia in the Northern Italian industrial city of Turin, in the area where Fiat started its car production activity, 25 Verde brings back innovation to the area, this time showing the possibilities of a “forest building” that is not shy of experimenting both aesthetically and in a subtle, circular inner functioning that blends neighbors with vegetation, celebrates the city’s four seasons with Vivaldi natural vigor, and reminds us of how poorly we have emulated some of nature’s most successful designs, from the complexities of a forest ecosystem to synthesize nutrients out of carbon dioxide and water.

See the forest and the trees: a forest condominium

From the street, approaching 25 Verde is quite an experience, as if Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers’ “inside-out” deconstructivism (attempted with iconic —and highly controversial— Pompidou Centre’s in central Paris had) been adapted to the residential aspirations of our times: a rational structure holding over 60 apartments and 150 full-grown trees of different local species in the 5-story height fashion of the area. With 50 more trees on the courtyard, this urban forest is 200-trees-strong.

The street gives any visitor the perspective of the whole: coming down the street at a certain distance, one seems to enter a simulation where modern construction rationality blends with nature organicity. We visited in the fall, where the several pre-Alpine deciduous tree species were changing the color of their leaves as if somebody had blended in front of us the façade of the Pompidou Centre with the autumn beauty of a little tree-covered New England Hill.

The 4 arcologies available in the original version of videogame SimCity 2000 (left to right): Plymouth, Forest, Darco, and Launch

Any visitor realizes this is not your typical greenwashed “vertical garden” type of façade, but an actual rich forest where trees have been placed with the apparent randomness of nature, softening the structure’s rationality and inspiring in the observer the sense of awe only felt when we intuitively observe the emergence of patterns and order out of chaos.

Nature, music, and properly-executed organic architecture bring us back to the forest, and so I mentioned, once we entered the building’s hall and saw the building’s understory: metal columns have the changing shape of trees, some of which disguise drain pipes collecting the rooftop rainwater that has not already circulated through some of the plants that conform the complex symphony of trees in the five-story “residential canopy.”

Recreating a forest ecosystem in a city block

I mentioned our host Paolo Botto, a civil engineering expert involved in 25 Verde, how entering the courtyard is such a sensorial experience —noise decreases, and a tree-shaped structure leads to apartment steps and an exuberant sylvan forest in the middle.

“There’s a big difference in temperature,” explained Paolo as we entered the hall opening to the shared interior of the building. “In the summertime, there’s a difference in temperature from the exterior to here. If you go to the top floor and then come down, there are between three and five degrees of temperature difference. You can feel it in your skin. It [normally] takes a lot of energy to do that, and this is done here naturally, just by having trees.”

The water pond, fed with filtered rainwater, helps regulate the temperature and bring to the “forest” the moisture and water sound of natural ponds; ambiance, we forget quickly, affects mood and quality of life.

25 Verde condominium (by architect Luciano Pia, Turin, Italy)

The air felt cleaner, too: no more traffic sense of presence in a matter of meters.

“When you walk in, you have this feeling that quiets you down. People come here from the street and, once they are in, their voices immediately start lowering down,” Botto added.

“It feels like entering a cathedral,” I could not help but say.

“Correct,” said Paolo: “Well, it’s all designed to make an effect. [With cathedrals] The effect they were striving for is reminding you of the presence of God; and here, God is Nature so that you can take it in many ways.”

Making condominium life an inspiring experience

Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza famously stated this vision of transcendence with a noted equivalence that made him controversial within his community in Amsterdam, writing in Latin: “Deus sive natura”. God, or Nature. But we didn’t have time to sit and meditate about pantheism, and we left the courtyard respite to get to know the building inside and out.

With Paolo’s mediation, we were able to talk to several neighbors, two of whom opened their different apartments to us —a bottom-floor open apartment in mezzanine occupied by a single parent (with, sporadically, his five young children); and one of the apartments high-up benefiting from several dedicated balconies amid trees leading both to the outer façade and courtyard. In both cases, the soothing tranquility and sense of privacy were remarkable.

25 Verde might stand out for the spectacular effect of its greenery integration and the size of trees surrounding its five-story façades, but most of the benefits accomplished by its design, from the building’s seasonal and energetic performance to the inhabitants’ wellbeing (more difficult to measure,) can be achieved with humbler approaches and even ambitious-enough retrofits of already existing apartment buildings.

The tree concentration, for example, produces more than 150,000 liters of oxygen per hour during the daytime, absorbing over 200,000 liters of carbon dioxide at night. Water is absorbed by plants from the top gardens to the ground floor vegetation and pond.

25 Verde condominium (by architect Luciano Pia, Turin, Italy)

After Kirsten posted the video on our visit to 25 Verde, some commenters raised the doubt of how much maintenance this type of condominium would represent if applied at a bigger scale, and what is the real cost of such an unconventional design for today’s standards. With today’s building codes regarding technicalities, such an apartment building would face permitting challenges anywhere in the world, which could be eventually cleared.

Ecology of self-enclosed city-buildings

Some inhabitants in dense, vibrant cities assume fixed fees and taxes based on the type, number, and characteristics (such as size) of habitations a residential building is applying to while building costs and amenities represent a sizable but not obstructive part of the investment.

Could 25 Verde be built with even less impact while at the same time incorporating a food forest (fruit trees, individual edible gardens, etc.) to feed its inhabitants, recirculating the grey water and organic waste used in the apartments into the nutrient cycle of the self-enclosed ecosystem?

Such is the idea of the conceptual design Italian-American architect Paolo Soleri wanted to put into practice with “arcologies“. The term combines “architecture” with “ecology,” or city-buildings capable of self-regulating their metabolism as if they were living organisms attuned to survival.

25 Verde condominium (by architect Luciano Pia, Turin, Italy)

It has been depicted recurrently in science fiction and, more recently, in videogames such as the SimCity sagas, a real-time city-building environment and construction simulator where players must strategically choose how to develop urban environments and their complexities, from habitation to utilities, public services, parks, institutions, transportation, and a wide range of options that need funding.

Real-time construction simulators such as SimCity allow anybody to experiment with some of the complexities of urban management and the consequences of poor execution, from crime increase to civil unrest and population decline, which in turn affects the primary source of income the city (that is, the player), taxation.

Arcologies in science fiction from Oath of Fealty to SimCity 2000

Frank Lloyd-Wright alumnus Paolo Soleri conceived arcologies to face some of the perceived challenges of the Cold War, beginning with self-inflicted cataclysmic events that could all of a sudden compromise supply chains, food production, and communications. His response was not a survivalist underground bunker furnished for essentials for a short period, but decentralized city-buildings capable of recreating self-sufficient societies, including food and tools production and maintenance.

Forest arcology, SimCity 2000; it included a protected rooftop garden

To Soleri, urbanism in times of crisis had the chance to become an opportunity to explore autonomous agrarian, technical and intellectual production at a small scale since “arcologies” would have the chance to survive the consequences of a nuclear war, which would focus on big cities as well as strategic production and communication hubs.

Science fiction explored a far less optimistic take of arcologies. In Oath of Fealty (1981), they become self-enclosed Medieval-like citadels housing the rich while fending off the plebs in a much more expletive way than today’s economic discrimination within gated communities. In Elysium (2013), such self-sustaining city-buildings reach the stratosphere, with a Stanford torus orbiting Earth to sustain the existence of a patrician elite.

SimCity 2000 (released in 1993) brought ideology to real-time management and construction simulators: any city can run with population decline, an unbalanced economy, a compromised environment, or sporadic civil unrest, but extreme deficit spending will bring the player to a game over. Letting a city stagnate keeps the player more time inside the game than taking big, bold movements with public spending.

Darco (from De-Urbanized Arcological Construct) arcology, SimCity 2000

Maybe its creators, Will Wright and Fred Haslam, were not aware of an example of their time: Barcelona had hosted the praised ’92 Olympics, an expensive event the city had profited from, reshaping its infrastructures and bringing its landmarks to the world’s stage.

SimCity original arcologies: Plymouth, Forest, Darco, Launch

SimCity 2000 also had one idea of the future, which included four arcologies to choose from (once the player hits the moment in the future when they are invented). A very sturdy but pollutant “basic” model is the Plymouth Arcology (designed for extractive colonies and capable of supporting up to 55,000 residents); the Forest Arcology is the counterpoint to the previous one, a cylindrical city-building with a forest on top and a circular economy capable of sustaining 30,000 residents.

SimCity 2000 included villains that resonate in today’s social media environment. The Darco Arcology, the game’s third arcology, is a macabre black structure with the fantastic shape of a chimera as in painted in pixelart by Hieronymus Bosch, the Dutch author of The Garden of Earthly Delights, or maybe by the creator of the sci-fi horror creatures depicted in the Alien sagas, the Swiss artist H.R. Giger.

The idealized world of the Launch arcology in SimCity 2000 (the largest and most sustainable, holding 65,000 inhabitants. Available at around the year 2150 in the game simulator)

According to the game’s narrative, the Darco arcology was designed by the villain Dante McCallavre, a reactionary artist/architect who fits the rigidities found in the arcologies of his time. Its interior is twisted, equivocal like an enchanted M.C. Escher drawing.

Finally, though, the game offered a bigger scale city-building: the Launch Arcology is capable of hosting 65,000 inhabitants. It is run by a technological meritocracy willing to use biogenetics and a nuclear reactor to power a world covered by a glass shield (resembling Buckminster Fuller’s giant geodesic domes) that allows the recreation of optimal living conditions.

If 25 Verde were an arcology

Almost 30 years later, the arcology reference is back. The Godzilla scare of the early Cold War has been replaced by the risk of societal and environmental collapse, as well as a milenarist, cult-like type of survivalism revived by the turn of the century that now feeds on social media conspiracies and perceived risks, old and new (from racial anxiety to biological war).

In this context, the alternative to self-enclosed city-buildings conceived as the futuristic gated communities of our time find their counterargument in self-sustained designs more attuned with their urban and natural environment, such as Luciano Pia’s 25 Verde in Turin: arcology examples don’t need to sprout in the desert such as Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti in the Arizona high desert.

25 Verde not only benefits its inhabitants but also alters its urban surroundings for the better, thanks to the microclimate and air purification effect of a façade including 150 trees and a courtyard adding 50 trees more to the count: for the urban area where it belongs, a residential development with over 60 apartments also doubles as a park with a sizeable effect on daily ambiance and well being, as well as surrounding temperatures and moisture, carbon dioxide absorption and oxygen production.

Launch arcology in the game’s context (SimCity 2000)

If it were an arcology, instead of fencing itself from its surroundings, the 25 Verde residential block seems to challenge conventions, serving as a mirror in which glass, steel, and concrete residential and commercial buildings should be looking at —especially in times where big-scale phenomena prompt people to stay more at home (with employers urging workers to accommodate to a more flexible workspace reality).

The point of vanity residential skyscrapers

Several phenomena should worry building projects aiming at emulating the glass-and-steel internationalism becoming pervasive across Asia and the Middle East: some starchitect offices and residential buildings deal with worker sickness due to poorly designed interiors and lack of clean airflow; ignoring their surroundings, some of these buildings cause harm to people nearby, such as the reflection beams out of Rafael Viñoly’s 20 Fenchurch Street (known as “Walkie Talkie Tower”) that roast nearby London streets (and cars).

The coronavirus pandemic’s first wave hit New York City especially hard. Until then, the talk of the town in real estate was not focused on using second homes that facilitate working from home at least some days a week but in exclusive apartments in one of the latest tall, skinny residential buildings popping up around Central Park. The buildings’ slim shape and height make them prone to a phenomenon that increases its intensity on the top floors: vibration and wind sway.

Residents of 432 Park Avenue, a 1,396ft structure towering the neighboring tall buildings, have serious concerns regarding leaks, malfunctions, creaky noises (such as these or these inside Burj Khalifa —the tallest building in the world— during a thunderstorm) and wind sway, at least some of whom are associated with an extreme height-to-width ratio of 15:1 (the Empire State is 424 feet across, whereas 432 Park Avenue stretches 90 feet).

This is how a commenter explained his wind sway experience under an article dedicated to the trouble explained by 432 Park Avenue residents:

“Was in Hong Kong staying at the Ritz in the newish International Commerce Center in Kowloon; when opened in 2010, it was the 4th tallest in the world. A cyclone hit, closing our office in the tower, but I was still staying at the Ritz on the top floor. You could feel and hear the building sway, move and groan, and its footprint is 100x these skinny towers, with vastly more structural bracing. Not terrifying exactly, but like being in a ship during a storm, sleep is difficult. If you had any experience in a tall building during strong winds, there is zero, absolutely zero, the chance you’d want to live in one of these needle towers.”

An elevator parking or a decent edible garden?

A majority among the exclusive residential buildings erected in the world consider efficiency, distinguishable designs, the quality and exclusivity of materials (for example, a new generation of cross-laminated timber tall buildings), and several other aspects associated to high-end housing, but only a few medium-to-big condominiums aim at exploring comfort and sustainability beyond the use of solar thermal and photovoltaic, balconies and gardens, fitness centers, or easy access to surrounding amenities.

Even fewer residential buildings experiment with circular systems capable of actively reducing their impact by using long-proven techniques such as heat interchange, geothermal energy, water reuse, or vegetation elements whose seasonal adaptation protects against weather extremes.

Plymouth arcology (SimCity 2000)

This may change soon as people demand more inspiring, silent surroundings with better air quality instead of, say, rooftop pools (or elevator car parking like those at One Hyde Park, the residential development in London’s Knightsbridge, also known for its empty apartments sitting on investors’ portfolios).

Anybody familiar with social media conversations about building and architecture has been spilled by the at times childish quarrel between perceived antagonists in the field: popular construction versus academicism, vernacular aesthetics versus internationalism, tradition versus (post)modernity, and the mother of them all: functionalism versus the most colorful and organic examples of architecture.

Functionalism and rational examples of the early and mid-twentieth century pay the consequences of the later global spread of atrocious examples of corporate architecture, an impersonal, glass-clad type internationalism that reshaped the administrative centers of the most dynamic cities across the world, at times highlighting the shameless coalescence between political electoralism, late-twentieth-century uprooted urbanism, corporate interests, and starchitects at the expense of local populations’ character and taxes.

How it looks vs. how does it feel being in it

The rise of wealth across the world also increased a global race for assets’ diversification among companies and wealthy individuals and families willing to invest in real estate in global cities. Some of these new exclusive office and residential addresses, often kickstarted by hedge funds uninterested in knowing about the intricacies of local realities and their accumulated vernacular, are sublet or remain empty most of the year, a phenomenon exacerbated since the subprime mortgage crisis and its global ramifications (2007-2010) and by ongoing the Covid-19 pandemic since early 2020.

In the last years, we have read about the spread of new types of workspace alienation that have little to do with the way Marxism defined the concept in the mid-nineteenth century: more than exhaustion due to meaningless, mechanical movements to keep up with the early Industrial Revolution manufacturing of physical goods for the masses, contemporary working spaces deal with phenomena such as SBS, or sick building syndrome, a chronic disease issued from the preliminary design of modern office buildings, some of them celebrated starchitects’ skyscrapers.

25 Verde condominium (by architect Luciano Pia, Turin, Italy)

In Barcelona, the Agbar tower has become a respected landmark of a skyline that shares its height modesty with other European cities; locals also know that some people who have worked inside the building designed by Jean Nouvel have experienced severe SBS, which prompted an investigation and an expensive transformation that could have been avoided.

With the new century, a push of diversification coming from oil-reliant economies in the Middle East, the attraction of regional megacities in the emergent economies, and the civilization-scale migration from rural lives to urban prosperity in China, dwarfed any previous era of big-building of office and residential space on city centers.

A real quality of life in dense, walkable, green environments

In the last two decades, a whole generation of impersonal, interchangeable glass-and-metal skyscrapers popped up like mushrooms across desert cities in the Middle East, in the megacities of the developing world, and across China’s urban centers.

China not only has amassed the largest number of tall buildings in the world, but its number of skyscrapers surpasses the number of tall buildings remaining to this day of the following ten countries with the highest concentration. The United States is now second, while the United Arab Emirates is third with over 310 tall buildings, at a comfortable distance from South Korea (over 270) and Japan (over 260).

China’s construction frenzy experiences a current slowdown that could affect growth to its economy and the world’s. However, the country still incarnates memes regarding fast construction and determination to coordinate infrastructure and communications projects locally and in resource-rich countries of the emerging world, where it competes with old colonial powers and the United States.

Beyond record-breaking fast execution of infrastructures and buildings such as entire hospitals in Wuhan at the beginning of the pandemic, highways, or fast train and metro networks, China has also shown a growing interest in maintaining its architectural heritage and developing a vernacular of sustainable construction.

The Venn diagram epicenter in density, urban scale, and quality of living that some big size and medium European cities seem to represent is more challenging to emulate than recreating a chunk of Paris (Eiffel tower included) in some random suburb.

Projects such as 25 Verde show a new perspective of what forest condominiums (literally and figuratively) could achieve at a bigger scale as a dense, urban type of habitation capable of making a positive local impact and, at the same time, developing a kind of urban wellbeing as connected to nature’s benefits as our ideal perception of the countryside. Minus the hassle, sometimes curses, of car dependence.

Neighborhoods can be at once dense, walkable, forested, and mental/physical health-boosting. Maybe the adjective “affordable” could also match this apparently contradictory sentence.