Six Architectural Ideas That Could Change the Way We Live in Cities

Whether in response to polluted air or shrinking space, architects keep coming up with novel approaches to reshaping urban life

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Industrial designer Shin Kuo thinks everyone in a building should be able to live in the penthouse for a time. Shin Kuo

Cities have always presented unique challenges for architects. Now, with space at a premium and a greater need to consider environmental impact, designing urban spaces may require more imagination than ever. Here are six bold ways architects are envisioning the future: 

Bubble Parks

You know pollution is bad in cities like Beijing when architects start proposing concepts like this—parks enclosed in bubbles that let city dwellers escape the nasty air. Called Bubbles Biodiversity Parks, they're a vision of designers at Orproject, an architecture firm with offices in London, Beijing and New Delhi.

These would be parks, or more precisely, botanical gardens, enclosed in specially designed transparent bubbles. Erecting flexible domes over large areas is not only expensive, but can be downright impractical. But Orproject says it has devised a lightweight structural system where the skin is modeled after the veins of leaves or butterfly wings.

The parks would be open to the public. But here’s a twist—buildings around the park, which could house apartments, offices or stores, would have easy access to that refreshingly clean air.  

Rotating Views

Industrial designer Shin Kuo doesn't think it's fair that some people always have the best views. Why not give everyone in a building a chance to see how things look from the top?

So Kuo came up with a bold idea—a design that would make it possible for the units in a building to move so that a resident’s view and perspective constantly change. His solution was to devise a system through which each unit slides on a spiral track around a central pillar to a new location. The residents would determine how frequently their living spaces rotated.

Each home’s gas and electric lines would detach before places start moving, and then reattach to new ports at its new spot. There would even be a touch of an amusement park in Kuo’s concept, which he calls “Turn to the Future.” When it’s time for a unit to rotate to the penthouse, a crane would lift it up from the ground floor right through the center of the building to its new position at the very top. 

Gardens in the Sky

There's nothing new about skinny skyscrapers in Manhattan any more. Developers keep finding ways to squeeze high rises into ridiculously narrow spaces. Consider that a 80-story condo building going up on West 57th Street is rising from a lot less than 60 feet wide. 

But a proposed building on East 44th Street will push the limits of pencil thinness—it will be only 47 feet wide. This is a tower that will rise 41 stories when it's complete in 2017. But what the building, designed by ODA architecture, lacks in girth, it will make up for in gardens. 

It will feature six 16-foot high gaps in the facade. These are private gardens for people who live on the top floors. There will be another private full-floor garden on the roof for residents of the skyscraper's penthouse. The lower floors, without gardens, will be divided into one- and two-bedroom apartments, with full-floor units starting on the 22nd story. No price has been set yet for the units at the top with the gardens, but they are expected to be quite expensive.

Life Inside a Turbine

Of all the curious places to call home, it's hard to top a wind turbine. But that's what a group of Dutch developers have in mind. They want to build a giant contraption called the Dutch Wind Wheel in the port of Rotterdam that would be part amusement park ride, part power generator and part apartment building.  

That's right, in addition to an outer ring of rotating cabins from which tourists would be able to take in Rotterdam from almost 600 feet up, the Windwheel's inner ring would have at least 72 apartments, along with 160 hotel rooms and a restaurant. It would be built on an underground foundation and surrounded by wetlands, giving it the appearance of floating in the harbor.

The idea is also to make the Wind Wheel a model of sustainability. Not only would it produce wind power—without the noise associated with turbines because there would be no spinning blades—but it would be designed to capture rainwater, use solar panels and create energy from the waste of the people living inside.

Tall Timber

The tallest structure in North America made entirely of wood will soon be rising in Quebec City in Canada. Called the Origine, it will be a 13-story condominium building—the base will be a concrete podium, but the 12 floors above will be made of solid wood.

Most building codes in the U.S. still forbid tall wooden buildings for fire safety reasons, but the development of cross laminated timber, which is much more fire-resistant than conventional wood, is starting to change attitudes about building tall with timber. Constructing a building from wood not only takes less time than one made of concrete, but it also can result in a lower level of greenhouse gas emissions.

The Origine, being built by a company called Nordic Structures, will have 94 condo units, plus a number of other green building features, including an intelligent garbage chute that routes different waste into the proper storage bins and an electric car charging station.

An Algae Canopy

It's hard to imagine algae in an urban setting, at least not in a good way. But ecoLogicStudio, a London-based architectural firm, has created something it calls an Urban Algae Folly, a concept that combines technology and biology to create both shade and energy.

The structure, now on display at the "Feed the Planet" Expo in Milan, works by pumping oxygen and a solution of water, algae and nutrients through its cushions. The algae grows more quickly on sunny days, turning the canopy a darker green and providing more shade. The system also responds to the movements of people walking beneath it—those movements trigger sensors that affect the speed at which the algae flows through the canopy. 

But this creation isn't just about visual effects. Its designers say it will be capable of producing as much oxygen as almost 10 acres of forest and will be able to generate as much as 330 pounds of biomass a day.