Vo Trong Nghia Architects is an agency known for its innovative use of vegetation in architectural projects. In particular through the project of the Babylon…
Smog-Free, the anti-pollution tower: interview with its designer Daan Roosegaarde
During the Design Week held in Beijing a designer won fame thanks to one of his creations. The Netherlander Daan Roosegaarde from Rotterdam and his team of designers and experts have built a seven-meters high structure, which has turned to be the world’s largest air purifier. It can clean more than 30 thousand cubic meters of air every hour using only green electricity and an ozone-free ionic technology. This tower is able to catch more than 75% smog particles in the air and then purify them. These smog particles have then been compressed to create a “Smog-Free” jewelry line, a tangible souvenir of this project
Exhibited at the 751 D-park in Beijing, this is only the first step of a long tour that this year will travel across many big Chinese cities. Daan Roosegaarde’s idea is to extend this initiative in order to prove that changing things is possible.
How has the Smog Free Movement evolved since Rotterdam?
I had this idea three years ago, while I was looking for a room in Beijing. It’s crazy to see how much the city has been transformed by pollution. Since Beijing is one of the most polluted cities in the world it was quite logical to exhibit the project here first. I tried to raise awareness among the politicians and I succeeded, as I received support from the Chinese central government. This is an environmental commitment rather than a piece of art. I’m aiming at a longer tour across different Chinese cities. We also want to invest in M WOODS, a big museum where we will invite young designers, artists and engineers from all over the world and let them exhibit their ideas to fight pollution.
I receive many calls and emails from people who really have some new ideas to fight pollution. Many of them have attracted my attention, in particular a guy who wants to develop a new model of motorbike or scooter able to suck polluted and clean air and then expel only the clean one. Some people have developed clothes that change colors according to pollution levels. It’s crazy, we really have the feeling that we’ve started a movement, that we’ve raised the level of awareness of people.
What do you think about the impact of this work compared to its first exhibition in Rotterdam?
I think that it has been well received as it has turned to be a nice local solution for the parks. The idea of making parks and playgrounds 75% cleaner than the rest of the city is very attractive. For example, air was really overloaded and polluted in the last two days. But when I walk in the Smog-Free Tower circle I can really feel the difference: I can breathe!
The project has also become a source of inspiration for some NGO. People now think about reproducing it everywhere in the city in order to wipe out air pollution. By the way, we can produce nice jewelry compressing these harmful particles. And quite a hundred marrying couples are willing to buy a Smog-Free ring. This is probably because, nowadays, clean air is considered to be a luxury product.
Exhibiting this work in Beijing must be very exciting, since it’s from this city that you drew the first inspiration.
The day after the project was exhibited in Beijing for the first time I could not sleep more than thirty minutes by night. At first, people said that it was impossible or that I didn’t have the right to do it. But now, and I have to say that I’m proud of it, people say that it’s a good idea and that it should have already been realized a long time ago.
What was the most difficult part of this project?
We aim at having a real impact on our contemporaries. We are dreaming of a world where clean air is available for everyone. How to achieve this goal? Of course, we need government action, then the current regulations must be adapted to different technologies, but the fact is that coming to terms with regulations and politicians as well is not an easy task. However, in the end the most difficult part was not actually building the tower but shaping the image of it in people’s mind. If people had looked at it as a gadget, then it would have been a clear defeat.
What does it feel like to look at the evolution of the project, from the little project on Kickstarter to its Asiatic debut?
Honestly, I’m very proud of what I did. Design to me is not just about creating a new sensational chair or a table or a lamp. On the contrary, design means improving people’s life and see that our projects can really help everybody to achieve wellness. The success of Smog Free in Beijing is at the same time the ending of a chapter and a new beginning. I will keep you updated about the quantity of polluted clouds that we will have accumulated.
What are the next cities where the Smog Free Tower will be exhibited?
We’re receiving many requests. We have new ideas for each of them but we need time to answer back. Hebei province is heavily polluted, so we’ve already put it on our list. We’re planning to exhibit also in Shenzhen and Shanghai, as these cities need to take a deep breath of clean air, too. Some delegations came to check the results, to see what the Tower can do. It’s cool, it’s as if we’ve stirred up a hornet’s nest, since actually air has no price.
People now call me “the Netherlander pollution fighter”. They were quite reluctant at first, they probably thought that my project was not serious, only a joke to attract public attention. They don’t like the fact that their cities are associated with pollution. But when the beneficial effects of the project have become evident, many doors have opened. That’s why I was able to visit the Qinghua University in Beijing. Our common wish to improve the quality of our life motivates us to carry on a project together. Let’s just see where this path will lead us. I feel like a hippie with a business plan!
Did you already think of another place where the Tower could be a success, or at least be useful, after the Chinese tour?
Yes, of course. We are receiving quite good feedbacks from India as well as from Mexico. I am going to travel back to London and stop there for three weeks, then back again to Rotterdam. Even these big European cities are facing pollution problems. Beijing acted as a sort of life-size lab given the seriousness of its pollution problems, and I hope that the lessons learned from this Chinese experience will help us to grow and to improve our idea. We hope as well to have the chance to work with new designers and technologies so that in the future, maybe in 10 or 15 years, building a big city will never be as polluting as it is now.
I hope that, when my grandchildren will ask me: “Hey, grandpa, what did you do in your life?”, I will be able to answer that I am the guy who created the anti-pollution towers. And they will reply: “But, Grandpa…what’s pollution?”.
So, do you imagine the anti-pollution towers blooming everywhere in the world?
Yes, but with some differences, of course. Like that concept of a motorbike which can suck up pollution. We are going to work with a team of architects on larger infrastructures, to understand if it’s possible to use the sewer system to suck pollution and clean air. It’s very motivating, because the range of possibilities is becoming wider and wider. This could really make the difference in fighting pollution.
Moreover, it’s important to get along with the city halls and the different industries because it can encourage some young artists who sometimes are too much focused on their own ideas and enable them to fly higher, to see that if a project is well presented it can really come alive and win public support. Indeed, we pay as much attention to prevention as to communication. In the end, clean air is a dream that everybody is dreaming of.