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Urban Grids / Respiratory Oases
Geoff Manaugh, 10 Oct 06

In direct response to the 2005 EU Clean Air Strategy, a London- and Berlin-based design firm called Elegant Embellishments has developed "a decorative, three-dimensional architectural tile" that can reduce vehicular air pollution, including nitrous oxide and ground-level ozone. The tiles – algorithmically designed and modular in assembly – can thus "rapidly improve urban environments in terms of air quality and visual appeal."

According to the company's own recent press release:

The tiles are coated with titanium dioxide (TiO2), a pollution-fighting technology that is activated by ambient daylight. TiO2 is a photo-catalyst already known for its self-cleaning and germicidal qualities; it requires only small amounts of naturally occurring UV light and humidity to effectively reduce air pollutants into harmless amounts of carbon dioxide and water. When positioned near pollution sources, the tiles neutralise NOx and VOCs (volatile organic compounds) directly where they are generated. They transform previously inert urban surfaces into active surfaces, re-appropriate polluted spaces for safer pedestrian use, and invert problem spaces – dark, polluted, uninhabitable – to benevolent spaces that benefit communities.

The physical design of the tiles is itself meant as a visual provocation; the resulting grid resembles a kind of crystalline ivy, sculpturally attached to the otherwise bare walls of urban downtowns, where it assumes "endless varieties of physical structures."

But the firm's own description says it best:

Using computer generated design methods, EE have developed an alternate system of tiling that combines new visual complexity while maintaining the economy of scale. Derived from a five-fold symmetric pattern, the substrate is a mathematical grid that appears irregular, yet is made of only a few constituent parts.
Further, "the new grid produces a seemingly non-repetitive, tiled pattern, resulting in visual randomness," and, though it "resembles an organic growth pattern, the system is still composed with only two modules."

This particular design has the added benefits of being easy to assemble and of massively increasing exposed surface area, thus maximizing the efficiency of the TiO2; it does this "by exposing an increased surface area where sunlight is otherwise limited, and by providing omni-directional reception of light."

Finally, Elegant Embellishments offers its own recommendations for where the grids could be installed. They speculate that the material's eye-catching and asymmetric nature might also provoke public dialogue about the renovation – and reclamation – of public space for healthy, non-vehicular uses (though why not pave highways and bridges with the stuff if you can?).

However, while admitting open enthusiasm for the project, I also have to admit a bit of cultural skepticism. For me, at least, a stark white, geometric cobweb hanging over the U-Bahn at Eberswalderstrasse might not necessarily inspire a sense of public ownership toward that space. The designers may want this material to "instill a new sense of ownership in disenfranchised areas," for instance, but I think the grid may blend in so thoroughly to its immediate infrastructural surroundings that people, after a few days, may stop even noticing its presence. Others may even challenge the firm's sense of aesthetics, finding these somewhat weird, off-center grids humanistically disconcerting.

Having said that, though, I am excited by other uses for the material, including the creation of much more explicitly artistic and sculptural forms. Reinforced, three-dimensional, even vaguely resembling work by Alexander Calder, the freestanding objects could act as new centers of play (or solitude) within urban plazas. Install some benches, plant some trees, and new, respiratory oases – scrubbed of vehicular particulates – would result. They'd be wonderful to visit and even something of a tourist draw.

As Elegant Embellishments themselves admit, they hope for the material to become "a recognizable symbol of a safer place to breathe."

Meanwhile, as many readers will no doubt know, much has been made lately about Trafalgar Square's fourth and final plinth, which has stood empty and statueless for 150 years. Empty, that is, until an ongoing – and insanely well-publicized, if recently quite controversial – design competition called Fourth Plinth began. I mention this simply because the idea of using EE's pollution-reducing grid as an art installation on the fourth plinth – like an elevated coral reef at the center of coach and taxi routes – could be an absolutely fascinating addition to Trafalgar Square: under the gaze of national history comes a geometric glimpse of the city's green future.

For that matter, of course, a whole series of such installations, standing like totem poles along popular walking routes across the city, could take advantage of lines of sight, pedestrian curiosity, and even historical narrative to transform – in the respiratory sense, literally – urban space in London.

But I digress. The material is exciting, its possibilities even more so. Like something out of J.G. Ballard's The Crystal World, I hope to see even more of it, taking on different forms and colors, at different scales, spreading organically across the cities of the future.

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How sturdy is this stuff?

It might be neat to make bus shelters out of it.

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 10 Oct 06

Melbourne freeways now have substantial sound barriers erected as they are built. These are given a nod to aesthetics by putting some sort of simple squiggle across an otherwise bare slab of concrete (improving, but you get the picture). This stuff looks much more appealing and useful, if placed next to a busy freeway with lots of trucks!

It would a neat trick to configure things so as to encourage the polluted air to flow past these structures.

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 10 Oct 06

CONTAINS TITANIUM DIOXIDE WHICH MAY CAUSE CANCER. Risk of cancer depends on level and duration of exposure. ... Titanium Dioxide may cause cancer in humans.

Posted by: max on 10 Oct 06

So does half the aromatic hydrocarbon crap coming out of exhaust pipes!

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 10 Oct 06

Yet again, I am struck ... not dumb, not speechless, but with a great humility and gratitude ... Geoff, what would we do without you? My life simply wouldn't be as good without the information, which I otherwise wouldn't have, that you
accrete and share. Thank you again, in words. I thank you often daily, mostly weekly, silently.

Posted by: christine on 11 Oct 06

"CONTAINS TITANIUM DIOXIDE WHICH MAY CAUSE CANCER. Risk of cancer depends on level and duration of exposure. ... Titanium Dioxide may cause cancer in humans."

Well, considering all the products that it is used in... (sunblock, toothpaste, etc.):

Either we're all poisoning ourselves with it or it's reasonably safe to use. I would lean toward "safe," though I'm sure picking up a handful of powder and rubbing it into your gums every day would probably give you cancer eventually.

Posted by: Bolo on 11 Oct 06

Bolo, I have a better idea. Let's have everyone in the world put on sun screen and walk around major cities. It's bound to reduce pollution, if what you say is right - sun screen contains titanium dioxide.

Posted by: Benjamin Farahmand on 11 Oct 06

Hey Christine - thanks for the thank you. I'm glad you like this and other posts! Now the pressure's on...

As far as the carcinogenic aspects of TiO2 go, I defer to more expert testimony; but I'm inclined to think that as long as this material isn't being abraded into fine dust - and you're downwind inhaling it all - you're probably going to be okay with its urban use.

Which does, however, bring up the question of how this stuff weathers over time...

Posted by: Geoff Manaugh on 11 Oct 06

I think this is a fascinating product. I'd like to see some cost data and some more specific performance data in Elegant Embellishment's website. We need to understand the costs to evaluate whether we should implement this product or something else. For example, how do the costs of the 3D tiles compare to, say, the polysiloxane paint with nanoencapsulated TiO2. And, do the tiles' rockin' appearance or stellar performance makeup for the cost difference?

I really do like the aspect of combining public art with pollution control or green tech. It brings the fourth "E" to sustainability: environment, economics, equity, and (a)esthetics.

(Photocatalytic product article in New Scientist:

Posted by: Katherine S on 11 Oct 06

"it requires only small amounts of naturally occurring UV light and humidity to effectively reduce air pollutants into harmless amounts of carbon dioxide and water"

CO2 & water vapour both cause climate change.

Posted by: carbon criminal on 12 Oct 06

The architectural illustration makes the idea look great. However what happens when all the surface area on the tiles collects soot & ground up tire particles? White they are now but what about next month, next year.... & when dirty, what happens to their efficiency?

Posted by: Richard Wheeler on 12 Oct 06

Photocatalytic is apparently self-cleaning - I read about a church built with white photocatalytic self-cleaning concrete which should supposedly be white in 100 years time...

The concrete:

and the church:

Posted by: tim on 12 Oct 06



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