Talking to designer Daan Roosegaarde about the large-scale structure creating a sphere of clean air in China.
Last week brought the public opening of the Smog Free Tower in Beijing, a 7-meter high structure that’s being billed as the largest outdoor air purifier in the world—it collects 75% of pm2.5 and pm10 airborne smog particles, cleans 30,000 cubic meters per hour using ion technology and green electricity, and creates a radius of clean air around the Tower in which to gather.
The mind behind it is Dutch artist and architect Daan Roosegaarde, who first struck upon the idea in 2013 when visiting Beijing and noticed the intense pollution that blanketed the city. Instead of passing through and letting the environmental problem worsen, he decided to use his collaborative resources at Netherlands-based design firm Studio Roosegaarde to tackle a creative solution.
Roosegaarde has navigated this route before. He calls these projects “landscapes of the future”: a Smart Highway project that lit roads using solar power; a sustainable dance floor that generates electricity through dance; or Windlicht, which connected windmills to one another with lines of green energy-produced light. When it came to the Smog Free Tower, he combined his own finances with a crowdfunding campaign to create a pilot version, which was erected in Rotterdam last year to great success. As an incentive to contribute, Roosegaarde and his team of environmental experts and designers made a line of Smog Free Jewelry, which encased the captured smog particles in clean-cut rings and cufflinks.
The Tower’s recent move to Beijing’s 798 Art District posed a new set of challenges for Roosegaarde—namely, gaining support from the Chinese Government about a sensitive issue, and figuring out how to best implement the Smog Free Project in the city that inspired it and other cities afterwards. To learn more, The Creators Project recently jumped on the phone with Roosegaarde, who’s currently stationed in Beijing overseeing the project’s launch.
The Creators Project: How different is the completed Smog Free Tower compared to when it was first conceived?
Daan Roosegaarde: Initially I was thinking of making the project more immaterial, by looking at a normal park and thinking the technology would somehow be buried into the grass, basically invisible. But then I thought, “No it would be good to give it more shape, like a place where people can meet, come and have picnics.” We started to focus more on the notion of a clean air temple, which is why the design is based on a Chinese pagoda, but at the same time we wanted to make it look like something from the future, like a satellite or spaceship. So it connects the history and future.
How did the physical design of this project emerge from its environmental purpose?
I think I'm 100% inspired by these global challenges, like clean energy, water, air. And I think it's the role of the artist and designer not to make more stuff, like another chair, lamp, or table. I'm so incredibly tired of going to these design fairs and seeing the same old version. It's like, "Come on, we have enough of that." I think we should use design to improve life, and to use our creative thinking and to use our technology to make places that are better for people. We live in a world where we're sort of stuck beside a computer screen most of the time, including myself, and I'd venture to say you as well. We're feeding the virtual world with all our dreams, hopes, and desires, and at the same time our physical world is completely crashing. You're oblivious to it. So what happens when technology jumps out of the computer screen and gets more connected with our physical world? You can use buzz words like open reality, but I'm linking the virtual world to real places that are good for people again. And people get that.
On one hand it's technology, and we love technology, but at the same time it's the medium, not the message. There's that famous quote from Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian author, who said, "On Spaceship Earth, there are no passengers. We are all crew." And that's how I see myself. I'm not only a consumer, but I'm a maker, I make inventions. So I hope that the work that I do triggers that mentality a bit more.
Do you envision the technology of the Smog Free Tower will grow smaller and more compact, like transitioning from a phone booth to an iPhone?
I think there will be two trajectories. One path will be the Smog Free Tower as a solution for local parks. We're cleaning 30,000 cubic feet an hour, so it's a football stadium size of air per day, with 75% cleaner air than the rest of the city in which to play. The other path is on a bigger level, triggering the hopes and thinking of the city. We invited Chinese makers and designers to a symposium in the 798 Art District about smog solutions and what kind of inventions can improve the air quality. So there's one guy who's built a bicycle that can suck up polluted air, clean it, and releases clean air. So you can cycle and still breathe clean air. There's a woman who has clothes that changes color when the smog level is too high. I think this kind of creative thinking will trigger solutions with benefits for the entire city. So yes, The Smog Free Tower is a local solution that will get smaller and smarter to start with, but then the real solution is creative thinking, and showing the beauty of green cities and green energy.
How was it convincing the Chinese government to face this issue and sign off on the project?
It wasn't easy, for sure. But the dream was always to do it in Beijing, because that's where I got the inspiration from. I knew it wouldn't be easy because it's a sensitive topic. But in the meetings we had, and especially when we launched the Rotterdam version, I realized that China's central government is really open to change. I think five years ago it was a non-topic, you could not really talk about [environmentalism]. But nowadays they've launched a war on smog; they've changed their attitude and they're learning really fast. They're smart people. They embraced this project because it physically works on the park scale. It's a direct solution. And also it really connects people to become part of the solution instead of the problem.
I wanted their support as well to really create impact. So after this week we will work on more versions and it will tour through different cities in China. I think China, and every good government, realizes they have to invest in new ideas to be future-proof, and you can never do that alone. So yeah, it took some time to get to know each other but we understood we needed each other to create impact.
What are the main lessons you’ve learned after executing a number of creative projects within the public and cultural spheres, and the bureaucracy that might come with it?
You really have to believe in what you're doing. I don't care about opinions anymore, I care about proposals. I don't mind if you disagree with me, but come up with a better solution. I apply this thinking with my own design team, but this is also with clients, or civil servants. We should move forward, not sit silent. I'm a guy who fell in love with places before girls, which is maybe a weird bit of me to know. I really have a strong connection with places, and it was really a dream of making this place that was good for people, instead of damaging them. That was the Smog Free Project.
You also have to be a happy infiltrator. On one hand figure out the system, figure out what is meaningful, but at the same time question it, and look at it from a different way. Be very determined, and build prototypes. Build it, show it, make a mistake, continue. That' s why this project is special to me, because we really started from scratch. There was nothing, but I can sleep 30 minutes longer per night. I have more space in my brain again. I believe that if we keep pushing this kind of project and this kind of thinking though, we will have Chinese cities in 10-15 years where these kinds of smog free towers aren’t necessary any more. That should be the real goal. In a way it's about the desire of beauty, and in a way clean air is the true essence of beauty.
For more information on the Smog Free Tower in Beijing, visit Studio Roosegaarde's website.