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How Beijing's Red Alert Pollution is Damaging its Skyscrapers

As photos of Beijing's gray skies provide a stark counterpoint to the optimism of current climate talks, the images of the fast-growing metropolis coping with a pollution "red alert," and a shroud of smog, also provide a stark metaphor. A city and country that has spent the last few decades racing to erect an ambitious and towering skyline now may not be able to clearly see these symbols of its economic might due to air pollution. And, over time, they may be faced with difficult renovation challenges, as particulates in the air degrade and destroy building facades. Blaine Brownell, director of studies at the University of Minnesota School of Architecture, understands the challenges of working in this area firsthand. His graduate seminar Heavy Air asks students to spend time in China and create buildings that respond to local conditions including compromised air quality. Curbed spoke to Brownell about the challenges of designing buildings in a polluted environment.

According to Brownell, there can be a disconnect between the standard expectation of a high-rise tower (renderings showing a gleaming glass building set against a blue sky) versus the reality (a drab gray background and muddy, streaked curtain walls). Technology exists that can help maintain a clean facade, beyond regular maintenance and cleaning, such as self-cleaning glass and concrete, but they're still fairly cutting edge and expensive solutions, and more difficult to retrofit. And, as pollution red alerts become more common, iconic pieces of architecture, such as the CCTV headquarters designed by Rem Koolhaas and OMA, are often obscured by smog, with particulate matters leading to splotchy windows as well as deterioration and cracks in crevices and expansion joints. Constant pollution can also cause staining and caustic acid rain. Rem Koolhass even said he designed the building, with its dark glass facade, to account for the prevalence of gray skies. Frequent cleanings may not do enough.

"Local architects are considering the idea of designing for pollution a lot more, because they live with it," he says.

Brownell has seen his students, who work alongside local architects, adapt to the environment in different ways during the Heavy Air Seminar, with many grafting green walls and advanced ventilation systems onto their buildings. Others have set up photocatalytic systems that react to chemicals in the air, or mounted lights that can be seen through the haze. Adapting to local conditions should be a part of any new project, and without any immediate solution to the pollution issues on the horizon, it's the responsibility of architects to adapt.

"We tend to talk about the pollution in terms of damage, but short-term deterioration can be cleaned up," he says. "Maybe we need to look through the lens of aesthetics, instead."

Plenty of futuristic ideas for improving air quality have been suggested, from domes to smog-eating towers. But part of the challenge may be designing to allow people and the buildings they inhabit to thrive. Brownell points to Chinese Pritzker winner Wang Shu as an example of a designer whose style works within a shroud of pollution. Composed of masonry, rusted metals and earthy materials and colors, it's stunning work that also doesn't look out of place within the "apocalyptic haze."

Peer Inside OMA's CCTV Headquarters in Beijing [Curbed]
Tiny Living Ideas Bloom in Beijing's Historic Courtyard Housing [Curbed]