The Designs of Vincent Callebaut

Agora Garden, Luxurious residential tower, Taipei, 2010-2016, Taiwan. Copyright Vincent Callebaut Architects.
Liam Shaugnessy meets an architect from Belgium who is challenging our concept of green building with designs of fantastical elegance bordering on sci-fi.............
Architecture can be a facet of ecological resistance

Re-wilding, the process of bringing back to life extinct species and landscapes, and of reclaiming dead space for the wilderness, has become a hot topic in ecological circles. But despite its credentials re-wilding is a concept which continues to rely on a perceived distinction between human habitats and the ‘wild'. However, one young architect from Belgium is challenging this dichotomy and bringing the wilderness into the city.

The designs of Vincent Callebaut, heavily indebted to naturally occurring shapes and patterns like double helixes and butterfly wings, have won him numerous awards and plaudits including the Napoleon Godecharle of the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts and the René Surrure. He is widely considered to be a young architect to watch. What kind of world do his designs imagine though, and is it a world that could ever be realised?

Casting a glance over some of Callebaut's more outlandish work you might be tempted to answer ‘no' to the above question. His vision is a profoundly fantastical one, which challenges perceived distinctions between urban and rural, natural and synthetic, body and spirit. Projects like Elasticity for instance, a proposed waterborne city of 50,000 - energised entirely by processes which mimic those of biology, have marked him out as an especially theoretical and imaginative architect. Elasticity, which he acknowledges is more a utopian vision that a likely piece of architecture, would be entirely photosynthetic and, as its years at sea wore on, slowly become an inhabited coral reef.

Possibly even more otherworldly is Callebaut's Sensual Attraction; an interactive democracy. This project imagines a world 20 years from now when light can be stopped dead and manipulated and humanity is freed from the bounds of corporeality by the internet and its myriad technologies. In Calleabaut's own words, Sensual Attraction is a project for a world where "all concepts of frontiers have gone, and man has become his own territory".

And, in many ways, it is this commitment to challenging barriers - whether between interior and exterior space or between built and natural environments - that defines Callabaut's work. And whilst Sensual Attraction and Elasticity is architecture best described as sci-fi, at its root is an attempt to address the real problems cities pose for humankind and ecological balance. According to the UN, 2007 was the year we entered the ‘urban millennium' - the point where for the first time ever, a majority of the global population were living in a cities.

Architecture can be a facet of ecological resistance

And, with cities being responsible for something in the region of 75% of the world's energy consumption and around 80% of CO2 emissions, it is clear to see why investors are commissioning projects like Elasticity and Sensual Attraction. Even though they are unlikely ever to be realised these are projects which address the crisis of sustainability and the balance between economic success and ecological balance.

Nowhere are these pressures being felt more so than in emergent economies like China - economies where the sheer speed and scale of urban development is hard to comprehend. Often freer from the shackles of local democracy and planning restrictions than planners in Europe, and engorged on high technology, optimism and staggering wealth, the cities of the emerging world are redefining the limits of the urban landscape. China's rapid exodus from rural to urban is expected to ensure that, by 2030, 75% of the country's population will be urban - an increase from around 20% in 1980.

Whilst exciting however, one of the potential future scenarios which these economies have thus far failed to address is ecological disaster. But, for Callabaut, architecture needn't exacerbate these problems. In fact architecture can be a facet of what he describes as ‘ecological resistance'. As he puts it: "Having built the city on the landscape, and then the city on the city, it is now time for the landscape to rebuild itself on the city."

It is perhaps because of rapid economic growth and urbanisation that much of his work thus far has focused on Asian, and other emerging economies. Europe and the US have become the new old world, economically flat-lining and mired in crises of legitimacy and identity; the urban future now lies elsewhere.

The Agora Tower is a case in point. Currently under construction in Taipei, this is a building which reeks of the kind of confidence that just isn't evident in Western economies. In some ways the tower represents the moment when artistic vision meets commercial viability and market forces. Social activism doesn't tend to have a great deal of money behind it and the tower is one of pre-sold luxury apartments.

Nevertheless the Agora Tower is an amazing piece of architecture and well suited to the ecological challenges of the urban millennium. Shaped like a double helix and designed to mimic an active metabolism the building, when complete in 2016, will be covered in vertical gardens created for both aesthetics and consumption.

As Callebaut himself describes it, the aim of the Agora Tower is to: "pioneer a concept of residential eco-construction that limits the ecological footprint of inhabitants by finding the right symbiosis between human beings and nature".

When finished, the tower will boast a number of features which, in the search for sustainable cities, could become the norm. These include architectural measures to break down barriers between the building's interior rooms and exterior gardens and advanced biological and renewable technologies such as photovoltaic panels and rainwater filtering plant boxes.

More radical projects too, are generating interest amongst investors and planners alike. A recent commission from unnamed Chinese investors has seen Callabaut express in some of his boldest tones yet, his vision of the urban future. Asian Cairns is a hypothetical design for vertical urban farms. Built like a giant stack of pebbles, with each pebble hosting a self-contained community of farms and living quarters, Asian Cairns would produce food in the city, for the city, cutting down food miles and utilising urban waste and refuse. If built, it's a project that would redefine completely received perceptions of the rural and urban.

Along with this it is a project which addresses China's rapid exodus from rural to urban. Shenzhen itself, where the project is proposed, is one of a conglomeration of cities centred on the Pearl River Delta, which between them have a population of some 42 million.

Borrowing to an extent from the Arcology School of architecture, championed by the late Paulo Soleri, projects like Asian Cairns, Elasticity and Lilypad - a floating island for climate refugees - envisage a future where unnecessary movement is reduced and kinetic energy saved. The cities themselves become self-sustaining organisms in symbiosis with their populations.

These ideas sound radical but, according to Callebaut, they are merely ancient ideas being remade for the 21st century. For him, the amalgamation of living beings, biotechnology and IT replicates the pre-modern idea that the perceived distinction between man and nature is a false one. And whilst fanciful, smart cities and the increasing capacity of humankind to modify its biological self through technology, point to some kind of truth in his philosophy.

Most futurists and technologists anticipate the technological ‘singularity' - the moment when technology and mankind merge - to occur sometime around the middle of the century. Whilst Avant-garde at times, Vincent Callebaut's imagination could well see him designing cities for the singular times we are living through.

To see more of Vincent Callebaut's designs visit;

Liam Shaughnessy is a freelance writer. Check out his website here.

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