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Culture

Natural architecture: green visions for inner-city spaces

Buildings with grass growing on the rooftops, little brooks running through pedestrian zones, homes built from tree roots - it may sound utopian, but a Belgian architect says it's all possible.

Illuminated tree-like designs by Luc Schuiten

The Woven City by Luc Schuiten - many designs resemble trees

"I'm an architect and a utopist," said Luc Schuiten. The architect lives and works in Brussels and believes that the city, like so many others, has no future if something does not change soon.

"You cannot feel good in light of all the environmental pollution and the grim perspectives for the future," said the 65-year-old visionary. "So, I try to envision alternatives."

For the first time ever, drafts and designs by the relatively unknown architect are on display in a large show in Brussels.

The entrance to the "Vegetal City" installation is composed of an archway made of branches adorned with little yellow lights that blink to the sound of a heartbeat pulsing from speakers.

Beyond the entrance, visitors will find architectural models and drawings of balanced, colorful, almost fairy tale-like cities and people who have managed to live in harmony with nature. Round, flowing shapes that weave into one another are Schuiten's trademark.

Leaves inspire design

Schuiten's vertical gardens

Schuiten's Vertical Gardens

"The 'Vertical Gardens' are a project that would help to heal the city's wounds," Schuiten said, his eyes sparkling. He would like to create green areas that span over walkways and platforms and up the sides of buildings.

"The idea is that the vegetation here can be used as herbal or plant sculptures that exude a sense of poetry," he mused. "They are a space to withdraw to, a peaceful place where we can discover what we are missing - nature."

None of Schuiten's visions have yet been turned into reality, even though many of them could be realized if someone had the courage to do so, he said.

The architect has, however, been designing and building private energy-efficient homes made from environmental materials since the 1970s. Nature is his inspiration.

"Nature is the only thing that is sustainable, and when we use living materials to build our homes, we are automatically developing things further by employing that same sustainability," the architect said. He calls it "archiborescence" - this connection between architecture and arborescence, or "tree structure."

On the road

Luc Schuiten seated in his electric-powered car

The man and his car-bike - advertising his show in Brussels

To advertise his visions to a larger public, the architect began driving an electric-powered three-wheeler around the city of Brussels. The two-seater vehicle with the exhibition logo on the side looks like a combination of recumbent bicycle and car, and is steered using two joysticks.

"No noise, no pollution," the designer said as he eased the vehicle from the sidewalk into the street, catching the glances of curious pedestrians and car drivers along the way.

"When I travel more than 100 kilometers (62 miles), I have to pedal," he explains. "But I love pedaling - it keeps me in shape. I can also conserve energy as I travel, and can have fun all at the same time."

Left up to the architect, people in the future would only drive small, electric cars that access their power from tracks along the street. Trucks would have special power trailers attached to them.

Living his dream

Black and white portrait of Luc Schuiten

Luc Schuiten calls himself a utopist

Arriving at his home in Brussels' suburbs, Schuiten parks his vehicle in the garage. The elegant facade of the old townhouse masks a wood-dominated interior designed in Schuiten's flowing style. A window stretching over two stories looks out into the lush garden.

Schuiten sits down to work in his studio attached to the townhouse. Among all the carefully marked drawers and binders are his sketchbooks that stand at the ready beside hundreds of other books lined up on shelves.

Ideas spring to mind quickly, he said. In a matter of seconds, one tiny sketch can lead to a vast vision for an entire city.

Author: Nina Plonka (als)

Editor: Kate Bowen

The "Vegetal City" exhibition at the Musee du Cinquantenaire in Brussels runs through August 30, 2009.

A building that looks like a treehouse by Luc Schuiten

Buildings like treehouses are just one design by Luc Schuiten

A brook running through a pedestrian zone

The vision includes brooks running through a city

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