Whilst writing my dissertation, one of the technologies I was unfortunately unable to cover, that could become a major influencer in the way in which humans live in future, was vertical farming. The concept is simple, crops take up space, require monitoring and nurturing as well as being vulnerable to natural disasters and pests, so why not totally control the conditions in which they are grown, and do this whilst expanding upwards rather than outwards?
Approximately 50% of the world live in cities now, and the question of how to feed all of these people as well as dealing with issues of climate change and pollution find potential answers in bringing the natural environment back into the urbanised human’s life. Plants and trees are natural air and noise filters, as well as being producers of food and providing habitats for fauna. It seems almost too perfect and too simple that bringing plants into the urban environment can help to alleviate many problems it faces. The real difficulty is more in engaging plants within design, choosing the right plants and providing spaces for them to flourish without inconveniencing the people who live with them.
These Vertical Forests by Stefano Boeri, completed in 2014 are a brilliant example of the inclusion of nature into urban design. With over 900 trees, and 20,000 plants equivalent to a forested area of 7,000 sq.m the towers create their own microclimates, attracting birds and insects.
Boeri has completed further concepts for many such buildings for projects throughout China with a vertical forest to be completed in Nanjing in 2018, a concept for a forest city in Shijiazhuang and a Mountain Forest Hotel in Guizhou just to name a few of his ‘hortitecture’ sustainable urban planning projects.
Another fantastic example of this eco-urbanity, though not a residential area is the Gardens by the Bay area of Singapore, designed by Grant Associates and Gustafson Porter, that plays host to these fabulous ‘Supertrees’. It is often seen in design that mimicking nature can produce extra-ordinary results of productivity and aesthetics; organic forms often please the eye by their contrast with the more rigid, squarer structures that we like to build and these Supertrees do just that. Providing a space for plant growth all over their structures they create a functional forest that also maintains a relatively fixed shape given by their skeletons. Around 163,000 plants from over 200 species grow on these phenomenal structures that are both futuristic and totally familiar.
Usually at this point, I would get on my computer and start modelling something in Maya or Unity, but virtual plants aren’t yet as lifelike as real ones, and they do nothing to help the environment, nor do they feed me. I wanted to do something for real, and this would hopefully feed into my degree show. Without a billion dollars to create a public park, I found home-based vertical planting systems such as Tower Garden.
These hydroponics systems can bring amazing yields as well as having a relatively small footprint.
So, I wanna do that. As I’ve mentioned before, I am very partial to tower blocks, concrete, rectangles, squares, Soviet design, minimalist simplicity and modular systems and I like drawing buildings. So my plan was to create a vertical garden of my own, shaped like a building.
After looking into the area, I found a brand of small-scale, near ornamental vertical garden suppliers called Tower Garden as well as a number of DIY systems such as the rain tower below. [Embedded Youtube Video]
The model for how these systems work is fairly easy, a pump sits in a reservoir of nutrient infused water and pipes that to the top of the system where the water can drip down through the roots of the plants within an enclosed space. This should create a humid environment that should allow for a more even and constant absorption of water and nutrients, boosting plant growth. Furthermore to this, these systems can be kept indoors with grow lights attached to further boost productivity.
I wanted the garden to be 1m*1m*2m, the same dimensions as the tower-housings I created for the In the Far Future show. In a tutorial, my tutor asked, why these proportions? And the answer stems from Robert Morris’s Notes on Sculpture pt.2, where he expresses that minimalist art produces the feelings it does because it plays on the human scale, presenting ‘an image of neither figurative nor architectonic reference’ (Morris, 1966). The work I have been making on this scale very much references architecture, but these representations are difficult to see as such by their nature of size, they become more play objects. With this project, it is on the element of figurative reference that I wish to add; By creating a model of a building, the architectural reference is apparent and its model-form brings the intimacy of figurative objects, yet with the inclusion of plant-life, this object receives a further function that begins to obscure and yet enhance the architectural significance of itself. And this functionality factor occurs on the human scale, the plants that grow should hopefully provide an amount of food that could feed a couple of people for a while, it has not the overwhelming capacity of a more commercial farm, but still illustrates, by their interaction with the architecture, the scalability of the design.
Around this time, I tried out building an example in Maya and tried out rendering images from Maya, something I haven’t done before as I’ve usually moved the models to Unity and rendered images from there. The Arnold renderer that comes standard with Maya 2017 is easy to use and I spent a lot of time trying to get Bitfrost, a particle simulation plugin, to work so that I could render an animation of the water as it moved through the sculpture. Due to the intensive process involved in these simulations, they would fail after a while, but with an upgrade to my PC I hope to be able to complete them.
Whereas the DIY projects I have seen are plastic-based, I thought that for the custom design I was proposing, I would be most suited to crafting it in metal. Stainless steel was my first choice, (as it wouldn’t tarnish due to rusting from contact with water or corrosion by the nutrient solution) but after chatting with the technicians, I decided to use a mild steel at a much lower cost. The rusting of the steel would poison the plants, so it would be necessary to cover the metal with a clear acrylic lacquer.
I created a card and paper model with a couple of different designs. The net above was an attempt to be as efficient with materials as possible, but was too complicated to complete in the metal workshop in Chelsea due to the number of intricate cuts and bends. Instead, the creation of boxes, joined via spot-welded tabs, that would stack via a system of interlocking pegs was agreed upon rather than my original idea of a central load-bearing column. And thus I began building.
This is the stage that the tower will be presented at for the Interim Review show that takes place from 22nd February to 2nd March. Further work that will be done before degree show: the creation of the reservoir and the model walkways around the base, studding will be run through the pegs and stand the whole tower higher, a central column will be added to run the pipe up from the pump through and a small reservoir will be added to the top so the water can drop down gracefully through the plants.
One of the problems with this design is the open nature of it compared to other vertical garden system, this will result in greater evaporation of the water but is a design choice made to add the sculptural element of water to the piece, make it a water feature in addition to its other qualities.
For lighting I did initially wish to use fluorescent tubes. On the final piece these would be vertical on each corner of the reservoir, however for the interim show I intended these to mark out the metre square that the reservoir would take up. However, although I could find Linea neon tubes by Seletti, they are very expensive and wiring up fluorescents was more work than I had anticipated. Therefore I decided to go for LED strip lights inside the aluminium runners with plastic diffusers seen above. They don’t quite provide the diffuse light that I would prefer, with each LED being prominent on their own but they do suffice to light the sculpture.