Using plants to purify air, improving its quality and refresh it, is not only possible and pleasurable. It also saves energy, and creates a great economical advantage

Stefano Mancuso, director of the Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology of Florence, and indicated by The New Yorker as one of the World Changers of our planet, has asserted for some time that plants can teach us strategies for the modern age. And Pnat, the spinoff of the University of Florence, is demonstrating just that. For slightly more than five years, its team composed of architects, designers and botanists is working on projects based on cooperation between humanity and the world of plants. Revealing an original pathway for functional integration of plants in high-density buildings.

Social housing, supermarkets and large companies are the first proving grounds for Pnat, a sort of experimental sandbox in which Mancuso’s studies become practices. The results are very positive, for a number of reasons. Getting away from the idea of the plant as an ornament, an aesthetic ploy or an architectural oddity, greenery becomes a functional part of buildings, with major economic and human repercussions. The work scientifically demonstrates, with numbers, that using plants to purify air, improving its quality, or to create in-house vegetable gardens with high efficiency, is not only possible, but also leads to energy savings and economic gains.

Artificial and botanical can coexist

Urbanization is a synonym of artificiality, of extreme imposition on the part of man. This is nothing new: in Latin, urbs means “to mark a boundary,” to divide human space from natural space. Cities were founded in this way: legend has it that Romulus plowed a furrow, inside which Rome was born. And Remus leapt over the boundary, to tease his brother and his idea of separating the savage from the human. The story ended badly, and a power struggle leading to fratricide was the foundation event of a civilization. The extreme character of this symbolism encompasses a large part of the history of urban architecture, which transforms the botanical world and its inhabitants into ornament, taming them, kidnapping them and putting an end to the symbiotic relationship between humans and plants. Antonio Girardi, an architect at Pnat, explains: “To stay in metaphor, we might say that we are trying to recover the thinking of Remus: the idea that men and plants can return to a relationship of mutual cooperation.”

Plant-based solutions

“The first experiments with plant-based solutions,” Girardi continues, “have been tested in public situations. And they have demonstrated that massive injections of greenery in different types of buildings work, and have wide-ranging repercussions.” The Urban Jungle in Prato is an example of a regeneration project. A social housing complex has been equipped with a high-efficiency greenhouse, creating quantifiable employment, expertise and micro-economic initiatives. An Air Factory that replaces or supplements traditional ventilation systems has been installed in a sheltered market, to provide substantial improvement of air quality, better oxygenation and, once again, economic rewards. Plants are also pleasing to the eye, a universal factor of aesthetic enhancement. Around the Air Factory, inside the market, a market restaurant has been set up. The Coop at Novoli, where another Air Factory has been installed, has reported improvement in the health of employees and significant energy savings.

Greenery makes people happy

Girardo says these are scalable projects that can easily be shifted into companies and private residences. Massive injections of greenery boost architectural performance, transforming the relationship between design and plants into one of cooperation. The air is filtered by the terrain and absorbed by the plants, which purify it, transforming pollution into biomass. The result is clean air.

“We are natural animals, accustomed to living in open spaces, with a profound relationship with the botanical world,” Girardi continues. “This explains why coexistence with plants makes us feel well: experiments prove that instinctive memory produces a sensation of security and wellbeing when we are immersed in greenery.” Inevitably, this also happens in artificial situations.

Plants and gardens transform “non-places”

The experimentation conducted by Pnat and Mancuso, though it is the first to report quantifiable benefits, is not the first attempt to incorporate plants in buildings. The design challenge for cities of the future seems to be to create continuity between inside and outside, nature and civilization. Urban structures are constructed in which plants are a fundamental, pervasive and surprising functional presence for the use of spaces, with functions of social aggregation. The many terminals of Changi Airport in Singapore are connected by the Changi Jewel, a multifunctional building that contains shops and hospitality facilities organized on 10 levels, with an area of 136,000 square meters. It also contains tropical gardens with over 3000 trees and 60,000 shrubs. The project is by the firm Safdie Architects, the same one that has designed the Marina Sands urban complex in Singapore. An architectural giant that combines residences, hospitality structures, shops and offices, featuring a pervasive presence of plants and gardens.

The happy green dystopia

Moishe Safdie, founder of Safdie Architects, has worked extensively in the Orient and in tropical zones, where nature is completely different with respect to Europe. A nature that is harder to tame, invasive, omnipresent. Yet Safdie emphasizes that the rapid urbanization of the Far East is disrupting the appearance of cities. His aim is to restore harmony, to include surplus tropical biomass inside high-density architecture. Or the reverse: the design opens itself to the plant world, asking permission to coexist and cooperate in harmony.

A perspective that in the visionary projects of ecoLogicStudio, the Turinese duo transplanted in London, finds expression closely tied to technology, almost to a fantastic imaginary. In a world that has a desperate need to get away from anthropocentrism, biological intelligence provides responses like Photo.Synthetica, a bioplastic cladding that purifies air thanks to algae circulating inside it. And the future truly seems to resemble a happy green aesthetic dystopia.


Cover photo: Rotterdam-based firm Drom, in collaboration with Strelka KB, presents its renovation project for the main Azatlyk Square in the city of Naberezhnye Chelny (Republic of Tatarstan, Russia) that has been transformed into a dynamic and vibrant multi-use public space.