Agritecture, a portmanteau that marries agriculture and architecture, has made it into the art world.
Roca London Gallery‘s 2019 spring exhibit London 2026: Recipes for Building a Food Capital explores the question “Can ‘agritecture’ make cities self-sufficient?” Curated by Department 22, this fascinating exhibit imagines architecture morphing into agritecture over the next decade in order to feed London’s ever-growing population – projected to pass the 10 million mark in 2026. The exhibit runs through May 18th, and admission is free.
Of the exhibit’s 25 projects – most at the prototype stage, a few at the implementation stage – my favorite is Power Plant by Dutch designer Marjan van Aubel, whom I’ve written about previously. Using transparent solar glass to power her proposed rooftop greenhouses, van Aubel envisions a future in which urban residents can harvest both food and clean electricity by maximizing the use of under-utilized rooftops on existing infrastructure.
But agritecture is not limited to green roofs and hydroponic rooftop greenhouses. Think urban insect farms and floating dairy farms. Think edible walls and living bricks that are “fed” with grey water. Think balconies filled with suspended orchards. Think commercial vertical farms inside converted warehouses or underground in abandoned WW2 bomb shelters. Think edible schoolyards and agrihoods dedicated to soil-based community gardens. Think regenerative agriculture and food systems more broadly.
The concept of combining agriculture and architecture is not new: Babylon’s fabled Hanging Gardens are believed to have been built between 8th-6th century BCE somewhere in south-central Mesopotamia. Today, in the context of climate change, agritecture refers to an architectural renaissance that could transform cities from consumers into producers by dramatically increasing local food production – notably fresh fruits, herbs, vegetables and insects – in order to feed rapidly growing urban and peri-urban populations. Note that grains and pulses such as maize, rice, wheat, soy, lentils and quinoa would still have to be produced on farms outside of urban centers. Nevertheless, cities that embrace urban agriculture will be more resilient in the Anthropocene to food shortages and global warming than cities that don’t.
Coined in 2011 by the self-described agritect Henry Gordon-Smith, the portmanteau agritecture builds upon the work of pioneering architects such as William McDonough who was an early adopter of green roofs and biophilic design. In a 2008 article, Vanity Fair described McDonough as “a prophet of the sustainability and clean-technology movements, which set in motion many of the green design practices that are commonplace today.” (I will write about McDonough and Braungart’s manifesto Cradle to Cradle in a future post.)
To me, the concept of agritecture speaks to a new way of thinking about urban planning that, in the words of architectural firm Sasaki Associates, “celebrates food production as one of the most important functions of a city.”
For example, Sasaki has designed the Sunqiao Urban Agricultural District (currently under construction; see rendering below) in Shanghai where urban food production could become, in the words of Gordon-Smith, “the main cultural connectivity, the main producer of jobs, the main connector of public spaces and the main scientific driver for innovation in the community.”
Another example of iconic urban food production design is currently under construction near the city of Tainan, Taiwan. The Tainan Xinhua Fruit and Vegetable Market, designed by the Dutch firm MVRDV, is an open-air wholesale and retail market with an undulating terraced green roof that grows a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. This living roof also includes sheltered spots, benches and picnic tables for visitors to relax and take in views of the surrounding landscape. Like Shanghai’s Sunqiao Urban Agricultural District, the Tainan Zinhua Fruit and Vegetable Market aims to become a destination for meeting, socializing, learning, employment and commerce. Urban agriculture 2.0 for the Anthropocene.
“In the next 50 years, we will consume more food than in the last 10,000 years combined,” predicts the Austrian architect Chris Precht in an interview published on Designboom. “The world population will grow more and more, specifically in urban cities. I think future cities will need to have a vital role in growing their own food.” In a recent Instagram post, Precht added “During the last two centuries, we became disconnected to our food. The process of farming moved out from our sights and out of our minds. If food reenters the centers of our cities, it reenters our minds and we become reconnected to a life-cycle. This offers a great opportunity for architects!”
The United Nations projects that by 2050, 68% of the world’s population will be living in urban areas, up from 55% today (and up from 12% at the start of the 20th century). Furthermore, large cities – which represent just two percent of the Earth’s land surface – consume two-thirds of the world’s energy and create over 70% of global carbon emissions. Further still, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) has calculated that the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry is the single largest contributor to global warming, at 39% of global energy-related C02 emissions. Houston, we have a problem.
Cities are clearly at the forefront of global efforts to reverse global warming and to ensure adequate food, water and shelter for two-thirds of humanity’s 10 billion who will be living in urban areas by 2050. Speaking about the architecture profession’s central role to help urban planners navigate these multiple daunting challenges, Drawdown‘s Paul Hawken recently said, “There may be no other profession better positioned to leverage innovation toward (these) challenge(s).” The American Institute of Architects has gone on record to state, unequivocally, “We believe that the climate change battle will be won or lost in cities.”
Agritecture, urban agriculture, biophilic and regenerative design, and cradle-to-cradle material flows are but some of the many strategies that are crucial to urban design in the Anthropocene. With regard to rooftop gardens, greenhouses and living roofs, let me end here on a positive note by citing a recent tweet by William McDonough: green roofs have the “potential to make the cities and farms one organism again.”
(Top image: Rendering by Sasaki Associates of their proposed vertical farm at the Sunqiao Urban Agricultural District in Shanghai. Reprinted with permission.)
This article is part of the Foodstuff series.
Daughter of an architect, Joan Sullivan writes frequently about the architecture profession’s central role in reversing global warming. As a renewable energy photographer, Joan has found her artistic voice on the construction sites of utility-scale wind and solar projects. Her goal is to help others visualize – to imagine – what a post-carbon world will look like. Joan is currently working on a photo book about Canada’s energy transition. Her renewable energy photographs have been exhibited in group shows in Canada, the UK and Italy. You can find Joan on Ello and Twitter.