Visionary architects uproot trees, shrubs, and plants to rearrange them in lofty heights. Enjoy this year’s best-of selection of vertical gardens, farms, and planted facades.

A forested high-rise complex for Liuzhou, China

Italian architect Stefano Boeri is considered something of a “father of green high-rises.” In 2014, his two generously overgrown residential tower blocks right in the heart of Milan, “Bosco Verticale,” won the International Highrise Award, turning vertical forests into one of the hottest contemporary trends in architecture. With his “Forest City” in the Chinese metropolis of Liuzhou, scheduled for completion in 2020, Boeri now plans to crown his ambitious vision of a thriving, verdant city with a brand new, 175-hectare district on the banks of the Liuyang River designed for a total of 30,000 residents – including apartments, hotels, offices, and public buildings.

Forest City: a forested high-rise complex
A forest of highrises in China.
Photo: Stefano Boeri Architetti

At the same time, this green metropolis will be home to at least 40,000 trees, shrubs, flowers, and hundreds of different plant species, soon becoming a vibrant, wild oasis for insects, bees, and birds. While digital blueprints already show the buildings seamlessly blending into the surrounding hilly terrain of Southern China, the actual, physical structures will take this harmonious relationship with nature even further via roof-based solar panels to lower the city’s overall energy consumption, significant air quality improvements due to the green facades and an overall reduction of noise. Say hello to a green, livable future.

a city with green facades and roof-based solar panels
The visionary structures blend into the landscape.
Photo: Stefano Boeri Architetti

Green boho haunt in Paris

Locals usually roll their eyes when there’s talk of a new hotel project in their own neighborhood. Not so with 1Hotel in Paris. From 2020, this luxury eco retreat promises to become the green hub and oasis of Paris’ rive gauche (those living on the left bank of the Seine). Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, who accepted the commission, turned out to be the perfect fit. His motto: “The nature of my work is using natural materials to design airy, open spaces filled with sunlight.”

For his Parisian project, Kengo Kuma applied this adage not only to the actual hotel building, but its entire environment and surroundings. A facade that playfully juxtaposes irregular wooden and metal cladding lends the resulting complex a sense of surprising lightness, detracting from its overall bulk, and reflects the light in interesting ways. Countless of ledges, balconies, and patios double as impromptu facade gardens, playing host to a wealth of different plants. Cafes, co-working-spaces, and gyms on the lower levels all have access to these urban gardens. Right in the center of Paris, but also surrounded by soothing nature – this hotel easily unites the best of both worlds.

balconies and patios double as green facade gardens
The irregular facade serves as home to miniature gardens.
Photo: Luxigon
inside of hotel1: irregular wooden and metal cladding
Natural light is reflected to the interior.
Photo: Luxigon

A visionary farm for Shanghai

In most cases, urbanites get their food from farms and greenhouses in the city’s green belt. The architects at Sasaki decided to turn this principle thoroughly on its head with their “Sunqiao Urban Agriculture District”: This 100-hectare acreage claims a prime slice of metropolitan real estate, right between Shanghai’s city center and airport. Soon, it will be used to grow lettuce, spinach, cabbage, and other leafy vegetables – but not on traditional soil. Here, all plants are raised on vertical posts under LED light, fueled by rain water and highly nutritious fish waste from the system’s own water reservoirs.

Explicitly designed to encourage interaction, this visionary farm also incorporates museums and educational institutions as well as restaurants, shops, and even a marketplace selling locally grown produce. “Food production is one of the most important functions of a city,” adds Michael Grove of Sasaki. And while this statement might still sound a little strange and unfamiliar to most, we might soon accept it as the natural – and obvious – status quo.

a visionary farm with a green facade for Shanghai
Vertical farming is at the center of this vision of Sasaki architects.
Photo: Sasaki Architects

The vertical park of Bac Ninh, Vietnam

With 270,000 residents and counting, Bac Ninh in the northern regions of Vietnam is bursting at the seams, prompting city planners to rezone a huge nearby nature reserve for redevelopment, allowing the city to grow and expand. As part of this major shift, Bac Ninh’s city hall will also relocate, moving to a complex of two touching high-rises designed by celebrated Vietnamese architect Vo Trong Nghia. The up-and-coming talent decided to use the commission as a springboard for his own green message: “The city is like an urban jungle. And we need to be more connected with the earth and the trees.”

So, it shouldn’t come as a great surprise that Vo Trong Nhia’s city hall concept also resembles a vertical park: Each level is surrounded by a swathe of green, from garden-size retreat to tiny balcony forest. This helps the building to enter a harmonious relationship with its surroundings, to merge the structures in- and outside, and even save a sizeable amount of energy. A stunning flagship project for the city, it hints at Bac Ninh’s possible future as Asia’s foremost garden city.

two touching high-rises with green facade
Buildings in harmonious relationship to the environment.
Photo: Vo Trong Nghia Architects
balconies with greenery
An urban jungle – with balconies.
Photo: Vo Trong Nghia Architects

An urban apiary for Istanbul

Take a traditional wooden cabin and multiply it by a hundred or so. What might sound like a child’s spontaneous pipedream, turned into a visionary apartment building thanks to the capable architectural minds at Eray / Carbajo. For their “urban rural” blueprint in Istanbul, the award-winning US/Turkish studio reassembled cabins in a honeycomb-style structure featuring lusciously planted roofs and balconies. A welcome side-effect: The hexagonal, beehive-inspired composition also minimizes material use and construction costs.

Meanwhile, the solar roof and green facade boost the building’s overall energy efficiency – and recreational value. Trees and shrubs not only shield windows and residents from harsh sunlight and provide natural air conditioning, but also – according to Eray / Carbajo – introduces a sense of countryside living to the city. An ambitious vision that could soon become reality – at the latest, when real bees discover this green gem and make it their new home.

building with a honeycomb-style structure and green facade
An energy-efficient facade …
Photo: Eray / Carbajo
honeycomb-style facade of a building
… reminiscent of a beehive.
Photo: Eray / Carbajo