So putting trees on balconies wins you a €50.000 skyscraper award these days…

So putting trees on balconies wins you a €50.000 skyscraper award these days…

The Internationale Hochhaus Preis (International Highrise Award) is one of many skyscraper awards. This one stands out by being a biennial event, and especially by throwing in a €50.000 check for the winner. From a longlist of 800 tall orders, the jury singled out Milan’s Bosco Verticale as their winner. Great! Now let’s find out what it is we’re getting for that fifty grand.

The trees on the generously designed balconies are undoubtedly the most visually striking feature of Bosco Verticale. As you already knew, or guessed, Bosco Verticale means Vertical Forest in Italian. Each of the 113 apartments of the two-tower project has at least one balcony which presents itself as as a small garden terrace. This looks absolutely attractive, but I have to say that when I first saw this design, I wondered why someone would live high up in a skyscraper so you can enjoy great views, and yet add a tree in front of that view.

Adding trees to buildings isn’t a revolutionary idea. Donald Trump added them on this namesake skyscraper in New York back in 1983 and veteran architects Emilio Ambasz and Ken Yeang have practically made a career out of doing so.

In fact the idea of adding trees to buildings had gotten so old that a March 2013 article on the architecture blog ArchDaily with the catchy headline Can We Please Stop Drawing Trees on Top of Skyscrapers was one of the most liked and shared articles. Never mind that the main argument, that trees don’t do well in higher climates, doesn’t really fly. Skyscrapers may grow taller as we go, but not that tall.

Architect Stefano Boeri represents the other side of the argument. Within the first minute of this video, he can be heard saying:

Trees work like a filter, in order to create a micro climate. Trees are absorbing urban dust and trees are producing oxygen.

…which is technically correct, but even though the project boasts ‘several hundred trees’, it requires a little bit more than that to have any, and I mean, any noticeable impact. This is besides the valid point that a tree in a public park can be enjoyed by everyone, and not just by the owner of the balcony.

Really, the only reason to put trees on skyscrapers is just because it looks pleasant. People indeed feel at home in a natural environment. Vancouver is full of examples of trees on buildings, which adds to it’s already green and pleasant image. It has the same psychological effect as a painting or a view your feel attracted to.

More than just a design fad, trees represent the sustainable strategies that are currently sweeping the skyscraper design world. If you have something to say, a skyscraper a great way to express it because everyone can see it.

balcony rendering. source:

I have not visited Bosco Verticale, which is really the only way to properly judge a building. Doing some online research allows you to safely conclude that unless finding ways to spend large sums of money on a luxury apartment in Milan is your problem, Bosco Verticale doesn’t address any urgent housing issues. The floor plans on the project Web site suggest these apartments are large by majority. Here is a Web site advertising a 60 m2 apartment with a 3.3 m2 terrace for €720.000. A 5th floor apartment of 137 m2 sets you back over a million euro. Other than the sales site expressing lots of luxury, I haven’t spotted any innovative qualities.

floor plans. source:

I was sure to find some of these award winning qualities in the press release of the award ceremony. Next to recognizing the ‘green’ features on which you can safely call bullshit, such as:

The plants ensure a natural climate in the apartments and provide outstanding residential conditions.

… I found some praise for the entrance as well:

The lobbies offer inhabitants not only an entrance zone complete with shared uses, but the future park blends visually with them, interfacing directly with them, and is the continuation of the vertical greenery.

In an attempt to visualize these qualities, I’m not really being aided by the rendering of this lobby, which looks like a typical high end lobby to me.

lobby rendering. source:

Like any proper press release, this one got quotes. The jury praises Bosco Vertical for being…

… an innovative revitalization… The idea of greening highrises and creating gardens on every balcony is pioneering. (Dr. Matthias Danne)

Bosco Verticale offers protection and space in an honest vein, also including nature, light and air, and thus balancing our basic human needs without being more complex than necessary. A courageous and radical idea for the cities of tomorrow. (Peter Cachola Schmal)

And that’s that. Yep. That was it. 

You can celebrate a skyscraper for what it does or tries to solve, for its achievements in the field of structural or architectural design, the way it addresses social issues and creates communities, how it encourages a sustainable lifestyle, how it claims its position in the urban landscape or just for adding something nice to the skyline. Yet out of 800 skyscrapers, the award was given to a 1%-project sprinckled with trees and calling itself sustainable. 

Let me get this straight. Bosco Verticale is a great looking set of towers, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with a project boasting a fancy address, luxury design, a 7-figure price tag, and balconies designed as terraces which are sold as health enhancing spaces which address Milan’s pollution problems while at it.

But if that wins you the award for ‘the world’s most innovative high rise’ which is ‘to be considered a sustainable prototype for the cities of tomorrow’, then something is very wrong with today’s world.

Either that, or there is something quite embarrassing about the unanimous decision by the jury who probably was informed this award was about the best window dressing.

Most likely the latter.

Jan Klerks is the director of the Dutch Council on Tall Buildings and owner of

featured image credit: Marco Capitanio at Flickr

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