Asian Cairns by
Vincent Callebaut


Belgian architect Vincent Callebaut has developed a concept to introduce natural ecosystems into cities with designs for "farmscrapers" made from piles of giant glass pebbles for a site in Shenzhen, China (+ slideshow).

Asian Cairns by Vincent Callebaut

As a response to the rapid urbanisation going on in the country, Vincent Callebaut wanted to completely rethink the current structure of cities and do away with suburbs. "The more a city is dense, the less it consumes energy," he explains.

Asian Cairns by Vincent Callebaut

He continues: "The challenge is to create a fertile urbanisation with zero carbon emissions and with positive energy. This means producing more energy that it consumes, in order to conciliate the economical development with the protection of the planet."

Asian Cairns by Vincent Callebaut

The architect proposes a new type of urban habitat based on the rules of the natural world, with stacks of giant pebbles housing entire communities. All energy would be sourced from the sun and wind, anything produced would be recyclable and local expertise would be capitalised wherever possible.

Asian Cairns by Vincent Callebaut

Residents of each tower would also work there, reducing the need to travel. All food and commodities would be produced within the building, in suspended orchards and vegetables gardens, plus all waste would be fed back into the ecosystem.

Asian Cairns by Vincent Callebaut

"The garden is no more placed side by side to the building; it is the building!" says Callebaut. "The architecture becomes cultivable, eatable and nutritive."

Asian Cairns by Vincent Callebaut

Entitled Asian Cairns, Callebaut's proposals are for a series of six towers, with some containing as many as 20 glazed "pebbles". A steel structure would create the curved shapes, while solar panels and wind turbines would be mounted onto the outer surfaces.

Asian Cairns by Vincent Callebaut

The project was commissioned by private Chinese investors.

Asian Cairns by Vincent Callebaut

Vincent Callebaut has developed a number of conceptual architecture projects in recent years. In 2010 he revealed a conceptual transport system involving airships powered by seaweed and has also been working on a tower with the same structure as a DNA strand.

Asian Cairns by Vincent Callebaut

See more architecture proposals in China, including a Zaha Hadid-designed cultural complex in Changsha and a pair of opposing museums in Tianjin by Steven Holl.

Here's a lot of extra information from Vincent Callebaut:

Sustainable Farmscrapers for Rural Urbanity, Shenzhen, China

From Rural Exodus to Chinese Urban Biosphere

At the end of 2011 in China, the number of inhabitants in the cities exceeded the number of inhabitants in the countryside. Whereas 30 years ago only one Chinese person out of five lived in the city, the city-dwellers represent now 51.27% of the total population of 1 347 billion of people. This urban population is supposed to increase to 800 million of inhabitants within 2020 spread mainly in 221 cities of at least one million of inhabitants (versus only 40 in Europe of the same scale) and 23 megapolis of more that five million of inhabitants.

Asian Cairns by Vincent Callebaut

According to Li Jianmin, an expert in demography from the Tianjin University, the Chinese population will be urban at 75% within 2030! Facing this massive rural exodus and the unrestrained acceleration of the urbanisation, the future models of the – green, dense and connected – cities must be rethought from now on! The challenge is to create a fertile urbanisation with zero carbon emissions and with positive energy, this means producing more energy that it consumes, in order to conciliate the economical development with the protection of the planet. The standard of living of everyone will thus be increased by respecting at the same time the standard of living of everybody.

Asian Cairns by Vincent Callebaut

The green city

The cities are currently responsible for 75% of the worldwide consumption of energy and they reject 80% of worldwide emissions of CO2. The contemporary urban model is thus ultra-energy consuming and works on the importation of wealth and natural resources on the one hand, and on the exportation of the pollution and waste on the other hand. This loop of energetic flows can be avoided by repatriating the countryside and the farming production modes in the heart of the city by the creation of green lungs, farmscrapers in vertical storeys and by the implantation of wind and solar power stations. The production sites of food and energy resources will be thus reintegrated in the heart of the consumption sites! The buildings with positive energies must become the norm and reduce the carbon print on the mid term.

Asian Cairns by Vincent Callebaut

The dense city

The model of main contemporary cities advocating the urban spread and based on the mono-functionality and the social segregation, must be rejected! Actually, the more a city is dense, the less it consumes energy. This is the end of ultra secured ghettos of rich people against quarters of huge poverty! This is the end of bedroom suburbs without any activity alternating with uniform commercial area and without any inhabitant! This is the end of museum city centres fighting against monofunctional business districts. This is the end of embolism of the all-car eating away the city centres! This is the end of the explosion of public and private transports devouring our lands because based on an obsolete geographical separation of housing and work! The social diversity and the functional diversity must be the key words to build more intelligent cities! Ecologically more viable, the dense, vertical and less spread city will constitute an attractive open pole and offering many services. The social will be reinvented!

Asian Cairns by Vincent Callebaut

The connected city

The information and communication technologies have now a major role in the development of city network and will be able to reduce the carbon emissions from 15 and 20% within 2020. The communication solutions such as the optic fibre and the satellite systems enable already thanks to their associated applications (videoconference, telecommuting, telemedicine, video surveillance, e-commerce, real time information, etc.). to reduce considerably the carbon emissions and to save the travel costs by reinforcing at the same time the economical dynamism and the attractiveness of the cities.

Based on innovation, the TIC solutions favour the diminution of physical goods and means of transport via the dematerialization. They empower also a clever logistics and a synchronisation of the production operations. Everything tends to new opportunities of profitable growth and to a saving with low carbon print. The sustainable development must thus enable to find innovative solutions for an economy resilient to climatic changes which is in total harmony with the biosphere in order to preserve the capabilities of the future generations to meet their needs.

Asian Cairns by Vincent Callebaut

The Biomorphism, the Bionic and the Biomimicry at the Service of the Renaturalisation of the City

The oldest living beings appeared 3.8 billion years ago. In terms of durability, the human societies are thus far behind the nature that made its proofs. If only 1% of the species survived by adapting themselves constantly without hypothecate the future generation and without any fuel, their subsistence merits the respect and reminds us the laws of their prosperity:

» The Nature works mainly with solar energy.
» It uses only the quantity of energy it needs.
» It adjusts the shape to the function.
» It recycles everything.
» It bets on the biodiversity.
» It limits the excess from the interior.
» It transforms the constraints into opportunities.
» It transforms waste into natural resources.
» It enhances the local expertise.

Based on these billions of years of Research and Development, new innovation approaches aiming at modifying the carbon balance, guide us to three additional scales operated by the contemporary biotechnologies: the shapes, the strategies and the ecosystems.

Asian Cairns by Vincent Callebaut

The Biomorphism is based only on shapes from the Nature, e.g. the vertical wings of the Steppes Eagle, the spiralling and hydro-dynamical shape of the nautilus, the ventilation of the termite mounds.

The Bionics is based on living strategies, natural manufacturing processes, e.g. the plasticity of the lilypads, the hyper-resistant structure of the hives in bee nests.

The Biomimicry is based on mature ecosystems and tends to reproduce all the interactions present in a tropical forest such as: the use of waste as resources, the diversification and the cooperation, the reduction of the materials at their strict minimum, e.g. the autogenerative agriculture, the reproduction of the photosynthesis process (main energy source of humanity), the production of bio-hydrogen from green algae.

Whereas the primary reason of architecture is since time immemorial to protect Man against Nature, the contemporary city desires by its emergent methods to reconciliate finally Man and the natural ecosystems! The architecture becomes metabolic and creative! The facades become as intelligent, regenerative and organic epidermis. They are matters in movement, recovered by free plants and adjust always the shape to the functionality. The roofs become the new grounds of the green city. The garden is no more placed side by side to the building; it is the building! The architecture becomes cultivable, eatable and nutritive. The architecture is no more set up in the ground but is planted into the earth and exchanges with it the organic matters changed in natural resources.

Asian Cairns, Towards a New Model of Smart City

Benefiting from its privileged geographical position in the heart of the Chinese megalopolis of the Delta of the Pearl River, Shenzhen faces a spectacular economic and demographic development. Since the return of Hong Kong to China, both cities have been merging together and constitute now one of the greatest Chinese metropolises with more than 20 billions of inhabitants! In this context of hyper growth and accelerated urbanism, the "Asian Cairns" project fights for the construction of an urban multifunctional, multicultural and ecological pole. It is an obvious project to build a prototype of green, dense, Smart city connected by the TIC and eco-designed from biotechnologies!

Asian Cairns by Vincent Callebaut

Three interlaced eco-spirals

The master plan is designed under the shape of three interlaced spirals that represent the 3 elements which are fire, earth and water, all organised around air in the middle. Each spiral curls up around two magalithic towers and forms urban ecosystems implanting the biodiversity in the heart of the City under the shape of vast public orchards and urban agriculture fields. Huge basins of viticulture and vast lagoons of phyto-puration recycle the grey waters rejected by the inhabited vertical farms.

Six multifunctional farmscrapers

The six gardening towers engraved in a Golden Triangle pile up a mixed programmation superimposing farmingscrapers cultivated by their own inhabitants. Like our Dragonfly project in New York, the aim is to repatriate the countryside in the city and to reintegrate the food production modes into the consumption sites. The megalithic towers are based on cairns, artificial stone heap present on the mountains to mark out the hiker tracks. Clever exploits of the construction, these six towers pile up housing, offices, leisure spaces in the monolithic pebbles superimposed on each other along a vertical central boulevard. This central boulevard constitutes the structural framework of each tower. It choreographs the human flows, distributes the natural resources and digests the waste by sorting and selective composting. True city quarter piling up mixed blocks, these cairns make the urban space denser by optimising also the quality of life of its inhabitants by the reduction of means of transport, the implantation of a home automation network, the re-naturalisation of the public and private spaces and the integration of clean renewable energies.

Asian Cairns by Vincent Callebaut

These six farmscrapers are pioneer towers aiming at the 10 following objectives:

1. The diminution of the ecological footprint of this new vertical eco-quarter enhancing the local consumption by its food autonomy and by the reduction of means of road, rail and river transport.
2. The reintegration of local employment in the primary and secondary sectors coproducing the fresh and organic products to the city dwellers who will be able to reappropriate the knowledge of the farming production modes.
3. The recycling in short and closed loop of the liquid or solid organic waste of the used waters by anaerobe composting and green algae panels producing biogas by accelerated photosynthesis.
4. The economy of the rural territory reducing the deforestation, the desertification and the pollution of the phreatic tables.
5. The oxygenation of the polluted city centres whose air quality is saturated in lead particles.
6. The production of a vertical organic agriculture of fruits and vegetables limiting the systematic recourse to pesticides, insecticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers.
7. The saving of water resource by the recycling of urban waters, spraying waters and the evapo-sweated water by the plants.
8. The protection of the biodiversity and the development of eco-systemic cycles in the heart of the city.
9. The diminution of the sanitary risks by the disappearance of pesticides noxious for the health and by the fertility and total protection of the phreatic tables.
10. The diminution of the recourse to fossil fuel needed for the conventional agriculture in long cycle for the refrigeration and the transport of the goods.

Asian Cairns by Vincent Callebaut

Hundred of bioclimatic pebbles with positive energy

Each pebble is a true eco-quarter of this new model of vertical city. Structurally, they are made of steel rings which arch around the horizontal double-decks. These rings are linked to the central spinal column by Vierendeel beams that enable a maximum of flexibility and spatial modularity. These huge beams form a plan in cross that welcomes the individual programmation of each pebble. The interstitial spaces between this cross and the megalith skin welcome great nutritive suspended gardens under the shape of farming greenhouses.

True living stones playing from their overhanging position, the crystalline pebbles are eco designed from renewable energies. An open-air epidermis of photovoltaic and photo thermal solar cells as well as a forest of axial wind turbines covers the zenithal roofs punctuated by suspended orchards and vegetable gardens. Each pebble presents thus a positive energetic balance on the electrical hand and also on the calorific or food hand.

The "Asian Cairns" project syntheses our architectural philosophy that transforms the cities in ecosystems, the quarters in forests and the buildings in mature trees changing thus each constraint in opportunity and each waste in renewable natural resource!

  • pho

    Just stop.

    • Chris Foss

      Just stop what? We need things like this.

  • mlk

    It is build on the ground, and looks well balanced, great :) Quite realistic, except the trees.

  • Edward

    Looks like the towers MAD architects did.

    • philip

      MAD Architects are much better.

  • Things like this inspire me so, so much. Wonderful!

  • Chris

    I want to know who invented these trees that can grow to full size in a couple feet of soil. Apparently they don’t need root structures, which is a fantastic concept.

    • bonsaiman

      Actually, trees grow roots downwards only when they are very young. After reaching a few feet high they grow roots side wards; that gets the top balanced. When you see a tree uprooted by wind it is surprising how shallow the roots are. But most people do not notice it, so they think a tall tree must have very deep roots, but it is not true.

      • Stavros

        Regardless of whether or not there would be enough space for the root structures, halfway up a skyscraper is still a horrible environment for a tree.

        This article sums it up pretty well:

        • bonsaiman

          @Stravos: In this article it is funny when the guy says you can’t find trees in mountains, cold, hot or wind altitudes. Was he talking about the Himalayas? In the hot, sometimes cold and always windy tropical mountains where I live one can find billions of trees big trees. It looks they’ve been doing fine for ages. Besides, none of the buildings in question are as tall as mountains.

          By the way, my comments do not imply I think the Cairns here is a good project.

          • Ever heard of nano-coated glass that does NOT need cleaning? It’s already available. Even ketchup bottles now are going to be nano-coated inside to have the content gliding out with ease. I’ve used X- Rain on my car windscreen for the past 20 years and that cuts 80% of traces of rain and comes from use on planes.

      • Stop growing downward after the tree has is a “few feet” in height” only? I beg to disagree. I have personally excavated a palm tree that had its roots ball exactly 2m deep, and that was a palm tree known for shallow roots. The main crown of roots that appear when a tree is uprooted near the ground add to the stability when a tree grows old. But there is a whole network of feeders that can grow much deeper that will sever more easily when put under stress. Here you can read on

      • Perrydigm

        I think you are missing the circularity of your argument here: OF COURSE trees that have been "uprooted by wind" have surprisingly shallow roots. It's the ones that are still standing that have the deep ones!

  • Anon

    We’ll never move beyond the tower in the garden will we? Also, “no need to travel” – anyone ever read Ballard’s High Rise?

  • gABriel

    Belgian architect: why don’t you do this in Belgium, does it matter if its Shenzhen or Antwerp? “The project was commissioned by private Chinese investors.“ I bet that’s the simple excuse.

    • Jan

      You would not build this in Belgium because there is no growth. You would not build this in China either, because this is a project that belongs on the shelf labeled under fairy tails. Not worth publishing unless its for the kids’ section.

      • Who knows who will be told wrong? It takes dreams and money to take things into the real world and China has the latter way more than any other country, plus the ego to stand out even if it looks off the fairytale shelf. I don’t know many western architects who would refuse to have a go at some offbeat project in China like this if the money is there. Who would have thought that an entire hotel could be built in 30 days in China? And it was done. I am not saying it’s of the best quality, but hey, Belgium had buildings standing when in America they still lived in tents and log huts.

  • Stavros

    I can’t help feeling that Vincent Callebaut is far more concerned with how sleek and glossy his pebble-building’s renders look than with any realistic nature of the design. Those sections, for example, look awful – vast swathes of space wasted due to the curved walls. I’m also concerned by the lack of any structural and systematic diagrams to back up these bold claims of zero carbon emissions and producing more energy that it consumes.

    I’m also worried about the social nature of the design – seems a bit too close to the Garden City designs of Le Corbusier, which are mainly responsible for all these crime-ridden inner-city tower block estates. I’d hate to have to be responsible for policing those green areas at the bottom, as beautiful as they look.

    But I suppose this is set in some utopian future where we don’t have to worry about such things as practicality and crime.

    • And you think the curves have nothing to do with minimising the effects of wind and weather?

    • Cynthia

      Really good point about the social problems Stovros, plus I agree with you on Le Corbusier.

  • chinaimport

    Please stop. Mother nature will thank you ;)

  • chinaimport

    China and this architect don’t know how to use our planet’s resources in a useful way. The milion of tons of steal for this primary structure and this eco concept will never balance out the overexploitation of nature and its resources that would be neccesary to build this monster. This is not even a vision – this is the wrong path into the future.

  • Colonel Pancake

    This is the dumbest project since yesterday.

  • chinaimport

    We dont need smart cities; we need smart people and an end to this egomania of mankind. Technical solutions to solve the ecological problems and needs will never work. The change starts in our own minds and not in 3D software. Start buying only half the stuff you buy now and everything will be okay one day.

  • kaptnkrunch

    From a very basic level, how does he expect to clean any of the glass? You can’t get a window washing basket down a curved facade.

    I see endless terrible architecture all over the place, which looks great in renders but then gets dropped in the real world with oppressive grey skies and strange curved surfaces which are a nightmare to clean, so it ends up looking dirty.

    Good architecture is easy to maintain and looks good even when not rendered in unlikely weather.

    • guest

      Unless it doesn’t need to be cleaned because its made of self cleaning glass or covered in such substance that exists.You know its not XIX century anymore?

    • Ever heard of nano-coated glass that does NOT need cleaning? It’s already available. Even ketchup bottles now are going to be nano-coated inside to have the content gliding out with ease. I’ve used X- Rain on my car windscreen for the past 20 years and that cuts 80% of traces of rain and comes from use on planes.

  • guest

    This stuff belongs in an anime, not on an architecture blog, unless it really brings something new to the table (see Evolo, while you’re at it, if you want to look at more pseudo-architecture).

  • south

    Is "design a vertical farm" the first project in the Architecture & Urban Design 101 textbook these days? Or does it just feel like it?

  • MZK

    Vertical farms are not ecological at all. Okay maybe it takes less ground space but, please, realize that you will build a huge tower with cantilevers everywhere instead of just throwing seeds on the ground! Is that what you call ecology?

    After checking his (ugly) website, I feel that VC is trying to make himself look like THE ecological architecture expert. But please, all what you are doing is saying: “In the future, we will manage to have autonomous ecological towers, I don’t know how yet. But look, I tried to design it, it could look like a butterfly.”

    But if you are really interested in ecological stuff, try to make it work in an actual real building. I’m sure that this guy wouldn’t even be able to do it.

    Ecology in architecture is not about designing green-painted buildings with the shape of a butterfly. It’s about technical solutions.

    It’s not just useless it also totally stupid. Dezeen shouldn’t publish it. Science fiction magazines for kids will anyway.

    • fssd

      You really should read and try to understand before criticising. The building is supposed to be in a huge city in order to produce food at a place instead of transporting it hundreds kilometres from country. In a city you can’t have regular farms and there is huge need for food.

      • TMNL

        One should also realize that an average western city needs a land surface of about 40 or 50 times its own size alone for its food supply.

        Even if we can optimize efficiency beyond current possibilities, an urban farm would cover the entire city and be about 20 storeys high to make a city self-sustaining.

      • MZK

        Okay, but I’m still not sure that it’s more ecological than farms outside the city.

        First you need to build it (and after decades, destroy it and build it again). Where are the materials coming from? It will cost you energy to build it, clean it, use it. Will it be less energy than to bring the food from outside?

        Maybe it is, but my point is that with this design, we don’t have any diagrams explaining how. And if you are really about ecology, and economizing energy, I don’t understand how you can design such huge cantilevers, glass panels and so on.

        The point of this building is to be perfectly ecological (it costs money and the only point why we would spend this money building it is because it is ecological). But this design is not about solutions to make this ecology possible. It’s even using un-ecological systems (cantilevers – how much steel will you spend for that?) just to make it look nice!

        So I just think that when you bring a design arguing that it’s about ecology, you should try to find solution to make it work. Not just say “in the future we will find how to do it, so I just focused on design”, especially when the design is totally un-ecological.

        Can you really believe that this particular project could be built like that and be perfectly ecological?

  • Jeff Pronst

    I really, really love the design, but with relatively few residential units per building, I wonder if it’s actually eco-worthy.

    China has the will, money and pride to build this. Hopefully the pebbles will not drop due to poor construction quality.

    • Cynthia

      And what about the residents, has anybody thought about this? Is this eco-building for the elite or the common urban dwellers in China?

  • Jara

    This project is nonsense. Consider the ratio of glass and steel in the structure comapred with the amount of greenery and the amount of extra glass needed to create the pebble shapes as opposed to a simpler structural shape.

    Having all that glass curved greatly increases the cost of the manufacturing process. Also, since every panel has a different curvature this will greatly complicate the tooling and capital cost. Then, consider the practicality of maintenance/cleaning all those underhangs. The little army of window cleaners wiill need specialist training for this one!

    Think of the amount of energy needed to lift cars all the way up the structure for no particular benefit other than it being cool to live in a skyscraper with your car parked next door. And so on, for a hundred more design considerations.

    There is nothing green about this beyond some of the pixels in the images. I think this designer needs to mess around in his own vegetable garden for some years before attempting to create such solutions.

  • bogdan

    Wow! There are people who actually sell this as architecture? The stupidity of the design is overwhelming, just to be kind! The arguments about green building and bio-mimetics seem so puerile in this context. There is though something impressive about this is, which is how did they manage to find the courage to present this stupidity to every architect in the world with an internet connection?

  • Why is everyone blasting this man’s edgy creativity? It’s saddening to see how easily so many refuse the future while he is daring to engage with it. Calling it stupid borders on bullying. His is just another vision, whether it will be built or not isn’t the issue – only time and money will tell. And with the amount of the latter in China it may be more possible than not?

    In the 50s they designed self driving cars, and people may have laughed and qualified it as children’s book cartoon content. Look at Google now. This man is not my friend, I only know of him and am very interested as I have an architectural partner in Belgium (where I studied interior design) who has engaged in novel concepts for decades and I admire his daring concepts.

    We all know what starts as a concept will get amended and redesigned but it starts with something like his work. And work it is! This is no three day scribble. I’d like to see real “quality concept rendering” uploaded by all those who hammered this man’s work. What is laughed and dismantled by the many above comments can easily be the future. What will be built only hangs in the eye of the beholder, who has the money and trust. Especially in China, and I lived and worked thirty years in Hong Kong so I do not need lessons in understanding how the Chinese ego works.

    Vertical gardening is nothing new and yes the trees are somewhat tall considering the distance in the rendering. But still, since 1987 for decades on top of an English bay penthouse here in Vancouver, a 37-foot-high pine oak sprouting from the building’s roof, more than 200 feet from the ground. As I said it takes a vision and money not only critics.….

    If a pine or any other solid tree can grow at 2000 metres, it can grown on a maybe 1000 metre highrise, as long as it’s well protected from wind and has enough soil. Nuff said. I guess I will be blasted here for speaking up in favour of pure creativity. It fills all my life as ex design director of Conran Design London/Pacific amongst just one of my career marks. And yes, I enjoy designing 3D skyscrapers with rather smaller trees also and have designed million dollar mansions and do not have an architect diploma and love architectural design. Now go and admire my mentor’s work

  • Why is everyone blasting this man’s edgy creativity? It’s saddening to see how easy so many refuse the future while he is daring to engage it. Calling it stupid borders bullying.

    His is just another vision, whether it will be built or not isn’t the issue, only time and money will tell. And with amount of the latter in China it may be more possible than not?

  • Jacqui

    It’s crazy-mad-radical but I love the thinking behind it – and we HAVE to do something crazy-mad-radical if we are to slow down our human suffocation of this beautiful green planet. China’s population explosion and rapid urbanisation is only getting worse so we sorely need people who think the unthinkable and put new thinking and ideas out there.

  • Chris Foss

    I love it! Every city, town and community needs one!

  • SergeyAlexeev

    It seems that this concept is from the last century? The most recent article written on the topic – Eco Architecture of the ХХI Century: Large-Span Translucent Buildings.

    You can easy to translate the Russian text with the support of Google translate. Sorry for the minor inconvenience to read article.

  • cynthia

    Cool introduction to this artist and architect!

  • Cynthia

    Well as a Chinese person, I feel kind of weird reading about that a Chinese private sponsor supported this construction plan. It feels like we Chinese people are hanging around for some “stupidly” innovative ideas about urban design with pockets full of spare money – actually we are not.

    Personally I’m both glad to see this creativity generated by the architect and suspicious how it will turn out being functional – all that stuff about residents (thinking about poor Chinese urbaners), policies and all other maintenance work they gonna face after the construction is done. Maybe we should discuss this again several years later. Anyway, only practice will tell the truth and the practice is not far away at all regarding the speed we adopt when building edifices!

  • kuala

    Looks fantastic. Wish it’ll come true.

  • Maruu_chan

    Love this!