Daan Roosegaarde


By: Jessica Merkens

Photo: Studio Roosegaarde

How designer Daan Roosegaarde uses nature in his work

Daan Roosegaarde (1979), the Dutch designer known for his smog-filtering bicycles and towers, is inspired by nature. Roosegaarde triggers people to think about their environment with his radical designs. He currently experiments with light-emitting algae that could be street lighting of the future.


I’m just trying to help give the world an upgrade

Biomimicry and architecture

“The essence of biomimicry is to translate concepts from nature into our built environment. For instance, how can we build smart cities with the help and knowledge of ants?

Scientists filled a deserted ant colony with concrete. When they dug out the colony they found a massive network of roads and nodes. The scientists discovered a perfect geometrical pattern of the tunnels that enabled the ants to be perfectly logistically efficient. These ants weren’t troubled by traffic jams. Some tubes vented out polluted air, while others circulated clean air. Somehow those bloody ants discovered some sort of symbiosis. We can learn a lot from them when looking at transport, waste disposal, pollution, food and energy in our cities. That is truly fascinating. Of course, we are humans, not ants. But at the same time, they live with principles that we could copy-morph.

Taking elements from nature and translating it into our world is one of the driving forces behind my work. To make life better, smarter and more beautiful.

Let’s not glorify it, of course, nature is not perfect. There’s a reason you and I don’t live in forest huts. But there’s still plenty to learn from nature. For instance, we looked at trees that filter out carbon dioxide from the air and got inspired. How can we scale this principle and create something that functions in a built environment? This is how we designed the Smog Free Tower. Our environment continually changes. I’m just trying to help give the world an upgrade.”

'Gates of Light' Photo: Studio Roosegaarde


I’m baffled by the fact that the world of architecture is not curious enough about the future

'Icoon Afsluitdijk' Photo: Studio Roosegaarde

Light pollution

“I’m appalled by offices and streetlights that are lit throughout the night. With all the energy waste as a consequence. Light pollution annoys me, it’s a shame. I think there’s a whole world to discover when looking at lighting from both a practical and poetic view.

In many of our works, we use light for interaction and communication between people and the landscape. Gates of Light on the Dutch Afsluitdijk is an excellent example. Architect Dirk Roosenburg, Rem Koolhaas’s grandfather, was the designer of the Lorentz- and Stevin floodgates on the legendary Dutch dyke. Twenty-four gates on one side, thirty-six on the other. We repaired the parts that were affected by concrete degradation and covered the gates with a layer of reflecting prisms. The headlights of cars passing by light up the reflecting strips. In this way, when there are no cars, the area turns dark again, respecting the environment of local plants and animals. With this project, we wanted to connect the architecture of the past with the present.”

Light emitting algae in the public space

“For our project ‘Icoon Afsluitdijk’ we developed light emitting algae. Algae are one of the oldest micro-organisms in the world, and they also emit light. While the light intensity coming from algae is not enough for tasks like reading, it could be used for way-finding. Maybe algae could light up public spaces in the future?

At the Afsluitdijk we filled the old bunkers with a layer of bioluminescent algae in a custom polymer shell. When you walk around your steps are lit up by the surrounding algae.


It’s all about combining nature and technology

The algae are practically self-sustainable. There are a lot of nutrients in the salty sea water, and they multiply exponentially. We are still working on optimising the life expectancy of the algae by experimenting with a secret recipe. In this way, they can live for months. You can even drink the water, although you might experience some stomach problems. We’d like to see how designs of Glowing Nature can become organic street lighting of the future. It’s all about combining nature and technology.”

Architecture of the future

“Archigram and metabolism architects made statements about the future. I miss it in today’s architecture. While many challenges we face, such as clean air and water, are architectonic challenges. I’m baffled by the fact that the world of architecture is not curious enough about the future. Strange, since curiosity creates freedom in your work, also in collaboration with clients.

Why is it like this? I don’t know, haha. You’d have to ask the architects. Maybe because there’s not enough demand from the market. But never mind market demands, you should create the demands yourself. There are definitely exceptions. Paul de Ruiter makes bold statements in his own way, I think he is a good example of building and promoting sustainable architecture. Come on, the Dutch built the Afsluitdijk, we live under sea level. Who does that? I think we possess talents that we can rediscover. But it takes guts. I encountered this too with Smog Free Project. First, all I heard was ‘you can’t, you may not’. Now that the Smog Free Tower is a success in Beijing and the Technical University of Eindhoven has proven its effectiveness, we’re launching Smog Free Towers in countries around the world.

But I also love the world of architecture. Architects are hard working people who spend a lot of their free time, money and energy on projects. It’s a fascinating world.

Do I have any practical tips? You’re asking about the key, but there is no door. You just have to start creating and learn along the way. Find your own personal fascination, maybe take some socially relevant issues and let it inspire and annoy you. Then, ask yourself: ‘can this be done in a better or smarter way?’. Start with writing a proposal, build a prototype. Show this prototype to as many people as possible and share your story! Maybe you’ll meet a possible client. Then, gather a team of designers and engineers around you to make your prototype reality.”

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