Magpie Projects: Designs that Won’t Ever Be Built

Your office of the future?

From time to time, an crazy, high-tech design makes a splash on front pages of social media streams, blogs and internet news. “Wow,” the authors gush, “this is the *future*!”

Well, no, it’s not. One only need look back at the design projects of the last 10 years and count how many were or are being built.  (Hint: It’s less than 1.)  These design sketches are usually the winners of design contests, where rampant creativity is rewarded, not cost effectiveness, suitability or likelihood of getting constructed.  They are thought experiments and wild imagining, tools to spark discussion and influence future design.

I call them magpie projects*.  They are shiny, exciting and inspiring, and we love to collect them.  But when the really groundbreaking projects happen, don’t be disappointed if they aren’t quite so shiny.

The image above is from the Workplace of the Future 2.0 Contest.  I will be surprised if the average workplace decides to engage employees in relatively high risk activities — like climbing a vertical garden wall, slippery with water and vegetation — without their worker’s comp insurance and legal department weighing in.  That’s before we worry about employees with allergies to pollen or bee stings.  Nor is crowd-source harvesting by employees going to be an efficient use of growing space.  But what we might see a are more employer-sponsored vegetable gardens, sunny workspaces and more employer attention to healthy eating and exercise habits while at work.

Shortlisted from the 2014 World Agricultural Festival, this surrealist combination skyscraper, rice paddy and fish farm has undeniable aesthetic appeal and would enhance any major urban skyline.  Unfortunately, it also incorporates unproven technologies like an “algae facade” and a politically difficult nuclear power plant in the basement.  The apparently top-heavy structure, no matter how well engineered, would be difficult to make it past those conservative insurance companies anywhere earthquakes are expected.  Reality check: we probably can look forward to more buildings integrating plants and agriculture, and hopefully they will be as beautifully designed as this one.

Of the recent headline-grabbing designs, this vertical greenhouse design from Hortus Celestia Sustainability is probably the most realistic.  It uses existing materials and technology and serves the needs of a specific Dutch industry.  Perhaps most importantly, it is designed as a piece that fits into specific surroundings.  This one I can see being built within the next 10 years, or possibly a version that is slightly toned down in design.  It will be unfortunate if it is taken out of the context of the eco-park surrounding it.

So what CAN we expect from agriculture and food systems in the near future?

  • More, and more efficient, rooftop gardens
  • More individuals modifying their private homes to add greenhouse-style growing areas to the interior
  • More integrated sustainability, like water collection and power generation
  • More buildings with conservatories, interior gardens and sunlit spaces designed to fulfill the needs of humans and pets
  • More mixed use buildings that cater to the growing demands of baby boomers and millennials to have everything they need and want in close proximity
  • More blurring of the life/work divide, which will be reflected in our architecture.  While I am skeptical about the ultimate direction of the Gig Economy, the employer/employee relationship is drastically changing.  A return to dedicated 9-5 workdays seems far more remote than the designs above.

Keep sending us these over the top ideas, designers.  They may not be feasible today, and when we see the reality, the original core concept may be hard to see.  But it’ll be there.  Meanwhile, shiny ideas help keep us motivated.


*My apologies to magpies everywhere.  Your obsession is an animal myth, I know.