What will our cities look like, post-pandemic? One side-effect of lockdown politics has been the rush by politicians, “thought leaders” and other wonks to use Covid as a pretext to impose their obsessions on the rest of us – none more so than the environmentalist agenda, with “build back better” and “net zero” becoming mantras among the corporate and political classes. Everything we do as a society must now be reconfigured to the sole virtue of cutting emissions. Nothing else really matters.
Such is the grip of this monomania that the well-meaning professionals of British design can’t help but get stuck in. Thomas Heatherwick, the architectural wunderkind, might be the UK’s poster-boy for green-tinged design. Designer of the ill-fated Garden Bridge, feted for his Tolkienesque 2012 Olympic “cauldron”, and imagineer of the (widely hated) Vessel structure in New York’s Hudson Yards, Heatherwick is increasingly in demand for his eco-mindful, vegetation-filled architectural visions. His is “biophilic” design, in which greenery invades and merges with concrete and steel.
Heatherwick has just unveiled a new car design, the Airo, which purrs with environmental virtue: electric and driverless, it incorporates air-cleaning filters to scrub the outside air around it as it tootles us around our future cities – cities which will also be transfigured by architects such as Heatherwick. Opining in a recent Observer profile that Covid has made us realise that we “may hardly have to go anywhere ever again”, he argues that employers, used to building soulless office blocks for their 9-to-5 employees, and now faced with a part-time workforce, are asking: “How do you make people want to come together, then?” Heatherwick’s answer – as with other starchitect proponents of biophilia – are buildings and structures practically overrun with plants, trees, grass, and often semi-submerged in the landscaping.
Since this is a style that reeks of ecological responsibility – though one never asks whose minimum-wage hands will be doing the watering – biophilic style is increasingly claimed as its own by the corporate world. Billionaire CEOs signal their eco-credentials by building extravagant net-zero HQs. Heatherwick’s designs for Google’s new London building has a vast rooftop garden; Bjarke Ingels’s new offices for another Google campus in San Francisco are roofed with zigzagging ramps of parkland.
Amazon, not content with its tree-filled, glass-domed Seattle HQ, is taking the forest-fusion look to new heights of absurdity, with a proposed second HQ in Arlington, Virginia (both designed by NBBJ), a steel-and-glass double-helix tower with trees and gardens both inside and on its exterior slopes.
Biophilic style might clothe itself in virtue, but its popularity among corporate oligarchs and property developers should give us pause. Architects and urban designers may think they’re producing leafy places for people to feel good in, but that benevolence is increasingly the gift of property interests extending their control of urban “place-making”. Heatherwick’s studio, for example, is contributing designs to a vast new Google property development scheme in San José, citadel of the tech oligarchy. The drawings of this new neighbourhood look idyllic. But not far away, downtown San Francisco is struggling with the worst homelessness crisis in living memory, and wage disparities in tech-rich California are now some of the worst in America.