Soft and Hairy Cities


By Jess Goulart

Photo courtesy of Raquel Baranow.

Salvador Dali predicted that the future of architecture would be “soft and hairy.”

He was referring to a break from the “logic and rationalism” that governed architecture back in 1922. While logic and rationalism still have a heavy hand in the construction of our cities, the building industry’s future face may indeed iterate the surrealist’s vision.

Several plates are shifting in the geography of urban planning. Over 54 percent of the world’s population lives in cities. The growing ratio of urban-to-rural dwelling combined with disappearing natural resources, birthed new innovations in a discipline called Biodesign.

Biodesign is responsible for inventions like a garbage disposal that turns the plastic waste of your used forks into nutrients for a mushroom garden; a kitchen table that catches mice, kills them, and utilizes their dead bodies to power your house; and a fashionable watch made from recycled cow cells.

Notable expert William Myers recently published the book Biodesign, in which, according to Architizer, he explains that the discipline “means forging relationships with non-human life to improve the ecological performance of manufacturing and building.”

Biodesign extends beyond the home, and, in some cases, beyond practicality even, laying the groundwork for an entirely new aesthetic. Outdoor developments include algae growing pods that cover unused buildings (from Architects Howeler + Yoon and Squared Design Lab) and trees that light up the night via branches infused with jelly-fish cells (from The Genetic Barcelona Project at the Universitat Internacional de Catalunya). As for inventions for the interior domestic space, French designer Mathieu Lehanneur created a mini-river that grows fish and plants for food, and New Jersey based MadLab designed a bioluminescent chandelier lined with tiny glowing bacteria.

Sustainable designs are essential to the well being of the planet, but with the current cosmopolitan overcrowding predicted to worsen, architects are also emphasizing building cities that account for the mental and physical health of their denizens.

Myriad studies show that human optimism and well being are higher in rural environments than urban, so firms like Gehl Architects focus on creating “mutually beneficial relationships between people’s quality of life and their built environment”–and that doesn’t just mean planting more trees.

“There’s something to social well-being, so the way our environment invites us to meet other people, [that relates to] the extent to which [it] can provide us with some joy and delight,” Jeff Risom, partner at Gehl Architects, tells BTR.

He adds that they consider “that opportunity for social interaction” immensely when they are planning architecture.

This goal of interactive shared spaces is now common, and its implications are far-reaching. A report by the Project For Public Spaces examined how open markets encourage upward mobility via “urban revitalization” and economic growth. Another survey out of the UK shows social interaction in public spaces can “influence tolerance and raise people’s spirits.”

Architects are also taking into account how city planning can impact people’s physical conditions.

“Our city design has advanced a lot since the 19th century, but today we face a different kind of health issue… we are not expending enough energy, and that has to do with the way city planners have designed our environment,” David Burney, Chairman of the Board for the Center For Active Design, tells BTR. “One great thing about cities is their walkability, so in that way urban situations can actually be much healthier for people.”

Burney says that this problem is global. Indeed, in 2008 the World Health Organization published a “physical activity planning guide” to help future cities be constructed in a way that discourages the sedentary tendencies he references. Its authors address key topics like how to increase bike and foot traffic; the role of government infrastructure on promoting a healthy lifestyle; the interaction between the public, civil, and private sectors of a city, and how each can contribute to increased activity.

“We’d like to think that a well-destined urban environment doesn’t require people to be conscious of it all the time,” concludes Burney. “We want people to be more mobile just going about their every day business.”

Thus as the cities of old crumble, new structures raise from the ruins that are built on the foundations of sustainability, mental well-being, and physical health. Will they be soft and hairy?

We shall see when the dust settles.