7 Innovative Architectural Ideas With World-Changing Potential

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iStock.com/traumschoen

Our ancient relatives, Homo heidelbergensis, were constructing shelters at least 400,000 years ago, and architectural innovation has been a defining feature of societies since then, changing to suit the needs and desires of the builders and occupants as they evolved. From energy-efficient designs to community-based spaces, these seven designs could help shape the future.

1. Silver Architecture

Senior man smiling and speaking with caregiver
iStock.com/Dean Mitchell

As the population ages, society is faced with a challenge: How to help people who require special care. The current way that many buildings are designed—and even the way hospitals are set up—makes it difficult for older people to get around and be independent. This is a big problem, because older people are a huge part of the population. As of 2015, there were nearly 50 million people in the United States over the age of 65. By 2030, the Census projects that 20 percent of Americans will be older than 65. “By 2035, there will be 78.0 million people 65 years and older compared to 76.7 million ... under the age of 18," Jonathan Vespa, a demographer with the U.S. Census Bureau, stated in a 2018 press release.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over a quarter of people aged 65 or older fall every year. In fact, falling is the leading cause of injuries classified as critical or fatal, which is one of the reasons people who would otherwise live independently are forced into care-based facilities.

Silver architecture aims to change this with building designs that are sustainable, modern, and most importantly—accommodating. Specialized design keeps age-related impairments from becoming debilitating disabilities. The best silver architecture integrates space planning, clear directional layouts, stress-reducing lighting, acoustical innovations to reduce ambient noise, comfortable and accessible furniture, safe flooring, colors that aid psychological well-being, and interactive, health focused interior design (such as plants and artwork) that stimulate and engage residents.

In a 2014 opinion piece for The New York Times, geriatrician Dr. Louise Aronson wrote that "These and other strategies are already in use in many long-term care facilities and in specialized areas of hospitals, such as geriatric emergency departments or acute care of the elderly units. But they aren’t nearly as prevalent as they should be." She proposed "prizes for excellence in silver design, just as there are awards for green buildings," adding, "silver architecture and design aren’t about indulging a special interest group. They’re about maximizing quality of life and independence for a life stage most of us will reach. Green architecture is good for the environment; silver architecture is good for humans. The best new buildings will be both."

2. Wounded Warrior Homes

According to the United States Army, 92 percent of soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan survive, compared to a rate of 75 percent in Vietnam.

Navigating even a typical accessible home can be a challenge for soldiers who return from war zones after suffering debilitating injuries. The architects behind The Wounded Warrior Home Project took on some of those challenges in two homes built at Virginia's Fort Belvoir, and unveiled in 2011. The residences, designed by and with input from veterans (as well as their loved ones), have a universal focus on accommodation to cater to the diverse needs of injured soldiers. Wide doors and adjustable stovetops are just some of the ways the homes are adapted for physical disabilities. To help with trauma recovery, the houses are designed with large windows and dedicated therapy rooms to help alleviate symptoms.

The homes are geared toward helping soldiers return to duty. "The thing I see now, as I talk to the wounded warriors on this project, they want to know, 'When can I get back to my unit?'" David Haygood, a Vietnam War vet and a partner in one of the design firms behind the homes, told NPR in 2012. Fort Belvoir's then-battalion operations officer, Major John Votovich, told NPR, "We have more of a wounded population today that probably wouldn't have survived in earlier generations. They're still productive members of the military. And they will continue to be so."

3. Dementia Village

According to the World Health Organization, around 50 million people worldwide suffer from dementia, and that number is projected to increase: WHO projects that by 2030, 82 million people will have dementia (and 152 million by 2050). There are 10 million new cases each year, making it "one of the major causes of disability and dependency among older people worldwide." But dementia doesn't just affect the people who suffer from it; as WHO notes, it's also overwhelming for the families and loved ones of people with dementia: "There is often a lack of awareness and understanding of dementia, resulting in stigmatization and barriers to diagnosis and care. The impact of dementia on careers, family, and societies can be physical, psychological, social, and economic."

The small community of Hogewey, 10 miles outside of Amsterdam, aims to raise the quality of life for those suffering from dementia and ease the burden for their families. All the residents at Hogeway—also known as Dementia Village—have severe dementia or Alzheimer’s disease and they go about their lives within the confines of this thoughtfully designed town. Nurses and other caretakers act as fellow townsfolk, there to keep the patients healthy and safe. As of 2014, monthly rent was never more than $3600 and often lower because of its sliding scale.

Traditional clinical settings foster isolation and reinforce medicalization of these memory-related illnesses. Hogewey’s approach to dementia de-stigmatizes the condition and creates an environment that people can live in where they require less medication and less medical intervention. According to Yvonne van Amerongen—who had the idea for Hogewey after her father suddenly passed away—"We have Dutch design, Dutch cultures, Dutch lifestyles, but the concept is to value the person, the individual ... to support them to live their life as usual, and you can do that anywhere."

4. Zootopia

Zoos serve important research and conservation purposes, but unfortunately, sometimes their design leaves a lot to be desired: The cages and concrete enclosures don't even come close to mimicking the resident animals' natural habitats, which raises several ethical concerns.

Enter Zootopia. (It's not just a Disney film; the name was first trademarked by Denmark's Givskud Zoo in 2010.) Slated to open in 2020, this zoo’s design is a reimagining of the caged zoo and a departure from safari parks. Instead of caging in the animals, it's the visitors who will be in enclosed areas. These viewing locations will be disguised to minimize human interaction with the animals. Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), the architectural firm behind the plans, says one of their main goals is to hide humans from the animals to provide as natural of an environment as possible for the zoo’s residents. For the animals, everything from their feeding stations to their shelters have been designed to look and feel as natural as possible.

"It is our dream—with Givskud—to create the best possible and freest possible environment for the animals’ lives and relationships with each other and visitors," BIG said in a press release. "We are pleased to embark on an exciting journey of discovery with the Givskud staff and population of animals—and hope that we could both enhance the quality of life for the animals as well as the keepers and guests."

5. Eco-Friendly Concrete

Worker levels a floor cement mortar
iStock.com/Anatoliy Sizov

Concrete is the most common material used by humankind, and from 1992 to 2012, the demand for cement (the key ingredient in concrete) more than tripled worldwide. As the demand and use of concrete rises, so does its environmental impact: In 2018, the International Energy Agency said that "The cement sector is the third-largest industrial energy consumer in the world, responsible for 7 percent of industrial energy use, and the second industrial emitter of carbon dioxide, with about 7 percent of global emissions."

Which is perhaps why many are turning their attention to developing better concrete. Rutgers University materials science and engineering professor Richard E. Riman developed a technology to make concrete that stores CO2. Riman then founded Solidia Technologies Inc. in 2008; according to Phys.org, "Solidia Concrete products ... combined with Solidia Cement, can reduce the carbon footprint of cement and concrete by up to 70 percent and can save as much as 528.3 billion gallons a year."

In 2014, Peter Trimble, then a student at the University of Edinburgh, developed what he calls "biostone," which combines sand, bacteria, and urine; he built a machine to create a seat with the material. In 2013, the Structural Technology Group of Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya – BarcelonaTech developed "biological concrete" that grows vertical gardens. According to ArchDaily, "The system’s advantages are numerous. The plants capture CO2 from the air and release oxygen. The layer also acts as insulation as a thermal mass. It helps regulate temperatures within the building by absorbing heat and preventing it from entering the building in hot weather or escaping the building in cold weather."

6. Reclaiming Vacant Lots for Gardens

By 2050, two-thirds of the world's population is expected to live in urban areas. Urbanization has its positives—according to National Geographic, people are concentrated in a small space in cities, which makes schools and stores more easily accessed than in rural areas, and also "allows the government and others to provide services such as water, electricity, and transportation to a larger number of people." But it also has its negatives, including crime and pollution, and some studies have indicated that living in a city can affect a person's mental health.

Turning vacant lots into gardens in urban areas brings much needed greenery to cities. Studies have shown that greenery is good for cardiovascular health, boosting concentration, and lower stress levels. A 2018 study found that the greening of vacant land significantly decreased self-reported feelings of depression. Urban gardens can also be a source of locally-sourced, fresh foods.

To see the potential of the urban garden, look no further than Cuba. When Havana's residents found themselves isolated and facing food scarcity following the collapse of the Soviet Union and embargoes against them, they began growing gardens of all sizes on balconies, in windowsills, and on roofs. To assist, the government launched new agriculture initiatives that included organic farming and urban gardening development. Instead of vacant lots going to waste, they became the sites of community agriculture.

7. Turning Shipping Containers Into Urban Farms

Blue shipping container
iStock.com/Jorn-Pilon-Photography

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, as much as "70 percent of all the world's freshwater withdrawals go towards irrigation uses." Critics say many irrigation techniques are incredibly wasteful. But there might be a way to farm that uses much less water: Creating gardens in shipping containers.

Founded in 2013, Local Roots Farms creates what it calls "the world’s most productive indoor modular farming solutions," and their model has been hailed as "the farm of the future." Co-founder Daniel Kuenzi told Smithsonian in 2014 that each farm is capable of growing "the equivalent yield of five acres of conventional outdoor farming each year." Each uses hydroponics to cut water use by 80 percent or more, and the controlled environment also means the vegetables produced are pest- and pesticide-free. In addition, because the farms are inside, weather and climate aren't an issue; food can be grown year-round. "Whether it’s snowing, raining or 100 degrees outside, the 'weather' inside is just right for growing healthy plants," Kuenzi said. The contained farms can bring fresh, local food to "urban food deserts."

In addition, the farms are built in readily-available shipping containers (there are 700,000 unused containers languishing in the United States at any given time). "Shipping containers are durable, easy to modify, stackable and can be shipped anywhere," Kuenzi told Smithsonian. "Additionally, there is an abundant surplus of unused shipping containers in the United States that can be recycled and refurbished at low cost. This allows us the flexibility to have a farm on the ground and growing for our customers within weeks, rather than the months or even years required for traditional greenhouse construction."

7 of the World’s Most Fascinating and Beautiful Catacombs

A cross stands in the Roman catacombs
A cross stands in the Roman catacombs
Franco Origlia/Getty Images

Jerusalem is a coveted burial spot, but the ancient city is running out of space to bury the dead. In 2015, the Jerusalem Jewish Community Burial Society teamed up with a construction group to bore beneath a mountain in the city’s largest cemetery, Har Hamenuchot, and create a massive underground necropolis that will house 22,000 crypts. The plan is to create burial spaces arranged floor-to-ceiling in a network of intersecting tunnels—a little like the ones that first graced the Middle East thousands of years ago. The first section of the modernized catacombs is set to open in October 2019.

Here are seven of the most beautiful and historically fascinating catacombs from elsewhere in the world.

1. Rome Catacombs

Catacombs originated in the Middle East about 6000 years ago and spread to Rome with Jewish migration. Early Christians modeled their burial practices on Jewish customs, although they were forced by Roman rules to bury outside the city limits. Since land was expensive, they went underground, digging an estimated 375 miles of tunnels through Rome's soft volcanic tuff, and building networks of rooms lined with rectangular niches called loculi. Later, more complex tombs included cubical (small rooms that served as a family tomb) and arcosolia (large niches with an arch over the opening, also used for families). Both were often decorated with religious frescos, gold medallions, statues, and other art. The beauty wasn’t just for the dead but for the living, who congregated there to share funeral meals and mark death anniversaries. (The idea that persecuted Christians secretly worshipped there, however, is a Romantic-era legend.)

By the early 5th century, barbarians had invaded Rome and began ransacking the tombs, so the remains of interred saints and martyrs were moved to more secure locations in churches around the city. The catacombs were forgotten for centuries, until miners accidentally rediscovered one under the Via Salaria in 1578. That set off a rush for relics (often of dubious provenance). Today, Rome’s 40-odd catacombs have been stripped of bodies, but the ancient frescoes and winding passageways make them well worth a visit.

2. Paris Catacombs

Inside the Paris catacombs
Inside the Paris catacombs
Michelle Reynolds/iStock via Getty Images

They weren't the first, but the Paris catacombs might be the most famous in the world, and little can compete with them for sheer macabre glamor. Created by the Romans as limestone quarries to build the city above, their current use dates from the late 18th century, when overcrowded cemeteries around the city sparked public health concerns. (One of the worst offenders was Saints-Innocents, in use for almost a millennium and overflowing with corpses, which wasn’t so great considering its proximity to the popular Les Halles market). Starting in the late 18th century, officials took charge of the situation by relocating the bones—from an estimated six to seven million people—to the former quarries, which were specially blessed and consecrated for that purpose.

The catacombs were opened as a public curiosity in the 19th century, and today visitors can see the bones piled into artful arrangements. (One design is shaped like a keg, another like a heart.) Other attractions include an underground spring, a sepulchral lamp, sculptures created by a quarryman, and special exhibits. Only part of the roughly 200 feet of tunnels is open to the public, although that hasn't stopped intrepid urban explorers, artists, and thieves from journeying to the off-limits sections. In 2004, Parisian police discovered a secret cinema set up inside one area, complete with a bar.

3. Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa

A series of tombs tunneled into the bedrock beneath Alexandria starting in the second century, the catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa ("Mound of Shards") were forgotten until 1900, when a donkey fell into an access shaft. Today the three levels of catacombs are open for visits, and include several giant stone coffins as well as carvings, statues, and other archeological details melding Roman, Greek, and Egyptian styles. On the second level is the Hall of Caracalla, said to contain the remains of young Christian men (and at least one horse) massacred by Caracalla in AD 215.

4. Palermo Capuchin Catacombs

Mummies in the Catacombs of the Capuchins in Palermo
Mummies in the Catacombs of the Capuchins in Palermo
n e o g e j o, Flickr (1) and (2) // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In the 16th century, the Capuchin church in Palermo, Sicily, began outgrowing its cemetery and the monks got the idea of embalming their dead brethren and putting them on show in the catacombs instead. At first only friars got this special treatment, but the practice caught on and local notables began asking for the honor in their wills. Roughly 12,000 people have since been embalmed and arranged for display according to demographic—the categories include Men, Women, Virgins, Children, Priests, Monks, and Professionals. Burials didn't stop until the 1920s, and one of the most famous inhabitants is also among the last—the beautiful Rosalie Lombardo.

5. Rabat Catacombs, Malta

The St. Paul's catacombs in Malta
The St. Paul's catacombs in Malta

Beneath the modern city of Rabat, Malta (once the ancient Roman town of Melite) lies an extensive system of rock-hewn underground tombs dating from the fourth to the ninth century AD. Unlike most other catacombs throughout the Mediterranean—and indeed the world—the tunnels were used to bury Jews, Christians, and pagans, without noticeable divisions among the groups.

Features include large tables used for ceremonial meals commemorating the dead and canopied burial chambers, some of which have been inscribed with illustrations and messages (archeologists are still working to interpret the site). Major catacomb complexes in Rabat include those of St. Paul, St. Agatha and Tad-Dejr.

6. St. Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna

A winged skull at the entrance to the St. Stephen’s Cathedral crypt
A winged skull at the entrance to the St. Stephen’s Cathedral crypt
Douglas Sprott, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The mother church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vienna, St. Stephen's Cathedral is one of the most important buildings in the city, known for its gorgeous multi-colored tile roof (and for being the site of Vivaldi's funeral). But fewer tourists visit the crypt, where the remains of more than 11,000 people lie.

Although most of the current cathedral dates to the 14th century, the crypt originated after an outbreak of the bubonic plague in the 1730s, when cemeteries around Vienna were emptied in an effort to stem the tide of the disease. Many of the skeletons were piled into neat rows, skulls on top, although visitors to some areas will also see disorganized piles of bones. In one section, the ducal crypt, the organs of princes, queens, and emperors are stored—including Hapsburg Queen Maria Teresa's stomach.

7. Brno Ossuary

A routine archeological dig as part of a construction project in 2001 led to an unexpected discovery in Brno, the Czech Republic—a long-forgotten underground charnel house crammed with skeletons. An estimated 50,000 sets of remains had been stuffed beneath St. Jacob's Square during the 17th and 18th centuries, originally stacked in neat rows but later jumbled by water and mud. The site opened for public viewing in June 2012, and today it’s the second-largest (known) ossuary in Europe, after the Paris catacombs.

This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019.

The Stories Behind 11 Iconic Skyscrapers

iStock
iStock

You may have snaked through a long line of fellow tourists to trek to the observation deck for a breathtaking view from the top of the city, but do you know the stories behind many of the world's most iconic skyscrapers? In honor of Skyscraper Day, we've stacked up some of the details.

1. Willis Tower // Chicago

A picture the Willis Tower in Chicago from the view of a local neighborhood.
ParlierPhotography/iStock via Getty Images

In 1969 the world’s largest retailer, Sears Roebuck and Company, decided they needed an office space for their roughly 350,000 employees. Four years, 2000 workers, and enough concrete to build an eight-lane, five-mile highway later, the 110-story Sears Tower was complete. (In 1988, Sears moved out of the building; 21 years later it was renamed the Willis Tower after global insurance broker Willis Group Holdings.) As a memorable finishing touch, 12,000 construction workers, Chicagoans, and Sears employees signed the building’s final beam.

2. Bank of China Tower // Hong Kong

Low-angle view of Bank of China Tower
shansekala/iStock via Getty Images

When famed Chinese architect I.M. Pei was tasked with designing this 70-story structure, he was dealt a number of challenges. He needed to craft a tall building (it stands at 1209 feet) in a typhoon zone and create a design that was pleasing to local residents. His masterpiece—opened in 1990 after a five-year construction—is supported by five steel columns meant to resist high-velocity winds, and is inspired by bamboo shoots, which symbolize strength and prosperity.

3. Chrysler Building // New York City

New York City's Chrysler Building
iStock

A mere 11 months after it gained the title of tallest building in the world in 1930—thanks to the last minute addition of a 186-foot spire—this art deco wonder surrendered its title to the Empire State Building. But it has long been known as one of the world’s prettiest structures. When automobile tycoon Walter P. Chrysler took over financing, he strove to add glamour to New York’s East Side. The design already featured a multi-story section of glass corners and a stainless steel crown, but he requested the addition of eagle-esque gargoyles designed like the hood ornaments on his cars.

4. The Gherkin // London

London's The Gherkin, 30 St. Mary Axe
YolaW/iStock via Getty Images

Known informally as "The Gherkin" for its pickle-esque shape, 30 St. Mary Axe was dreamed up after a 1992 explosion in London’s financial district destroyed the Baltic Exchange building. Plans for the original design—the much taller Millennium Tower—were scrapped for fear it could affect air traffic into the Heathrow Airport and the sightlines of St. Paul’s Dome. It turns out that the pickled inspiration was a winner; when the cylindrical building opened in 2004, it gained quick notoriety, and was soon used as a symbol for London on bid posters for the 2012 Olympic Games.

5. Petronas Twin Towers // Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Petronas Twin Towers the famous landmark of Malaysia
ojogabonitoo/iStock via Getty Images

The world’s tallest twin towers (88 floors each) were completed in 1996 after a three-year build. The steel-and-glass façade was created to reflect elements found in Islamic art, while the sky bridge—between the towers’ 41st and 42nd floors—was crafted with safety in mind. It’s not bolted to the main structure, but rather designed to be able to slide in and out of the buildings to keep it from snapping during high winds.

6. Hotel & Casino Grand Lisboa // Macau, China

Night Macao Skyline, including Casinos such as, The Grand Lisboa and Wynn
fazon1/iStock via Getty Images

When crafting this 58-floor hotel and casino, the Hong Kong architects didn’t take any chances. The $385 million structure, which opened in 2008, was built to resemble a bottleneck—the idea being that it would keep any cash from leaking out, according to feng shui. The outlandish exterior, meanwhile, was intended to look like a combination of crystals, fireworks and the plumes of a Brazilian headdress—all thought to symbolize prosperity.

7. Empire State Building // New York City

Skyline of New York with the Empire State Building
johnkellerman/iStock via Getty Images

For four decades, the famed Manhattan skyscraper held tight to the distinction of being the world’s tallest. (It was eclipsed by the World Trade Center towers in 1972.) But the $41 million structure—featured in movies such as King Kong (1933) and Sleepless in Seattle (1993)—also scored another record: It was built in just one year and 45 days, the quickest for a building of its size. Each week, 3000 workers erected four-and-a-half new floors.

8. Shanghai World Finance Center // Pudong, Shanghai

Jin Mao, Shanghai Tower and Shanghai World Financial Center at Lujiazui
LynnSheng/iStock via Getty Images

This 101-floor behemoth was built to withstand destruction. There are fireproof floors, wind dampeners, and a glass skin to protect against lightning. (It can reportedly survive a magnitude 8 earthquake.) The building has also weathered adversity. Slated for construction in 1997, progress was delayed due to the Asian financial crisis before it was finally completed in 2008. And the initial design, which featured a circular opening at the top rather than the now rectangular one, had to be reconfigured when critics complained it too closely resembled the rising sun on the Japanese flag.

9. Tapei 101 // Tapei, Taiwan

Taipei, Taiwan downtown skyline at the Xinyi Financial District
SeanPavonePhoto/iStock via Getty Images

Fashioned to resemble a growing bamboo stalk—a Chinese sign of everlasting strength—this $1.8 billion building boasts two records. When it was opened in 2004 (construction took five years), it was the first skyscraper to surpass the half-kilometer mark. It also claims the title of fastest passenger elevator. After boarding on the fifth floor, riders reach the 89th floor observation deck in a speedy 37 seconds.

10. CN Tower // Toronto, Canada

Toronto Skyline with the CN Tower apex at sunset
Redfox_Ca/iStock via Getty Images

In a bid to demonstrate the strength of Canadian industry, railway company Canadian National set out to build the tallest tower in the world. For 40 months, 1537 workers toiled 24 hours a day, five days week, reaching completion in April 1975. (A 10-ton helicopter dubbed "Olga" was commissioned to bolt the 44 pieces of the antenna in place.) In 1995, the American Society of Civil Engineers deemed it one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, but 15 years later, its height was surpassed by China’s Canton Tower.

11. Burj Khalifa // Dubai, United Arab Emirates

An aerial view of Dubai's Burj Khalifa
dblight/iStock via Getty Images

At 2716 feet (more than twice the height of the Empire State Building!) and half a million tons, the gleaming desert structure holds a number of records. Among them: tallest building in the world and the tallest freestanding structure. The $1.5 billion, state-of-the-art mega skyscraper was designed by the same firm that dreamt up the Willis Tower and New York’s One World Trade Center, and it opened in 2010 after six years of work. The opening ceremony featured a light and water effects show and some 10,000 fireworks!

This article has been updated for 2019.

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