“Beauty? It is not a branded bag, it is clean air”. An interview with Daan Roosegaarde

A conversation with the Dutch artist, a “techno-poet”, who feeds on architecture and imagines a future led by curiosity. What he proposes is not a utopia, but rather a “pro-topia”, moving step by step towards the right answers.

Daan Roosegaarde

“If I hadn’t been born Dutch, I would be Japanese”, Daan Roosegaarde tells me. An artist, architect, designer, inventor and smart creative mind, Roosegaarde studied Fine Arts and then Architecture at the Berlage Institute in Rotterdam. He founded his firm in 2007 and, despite the fact that his sights are permanently set on the future, technology is not his priority, but is rather seen as a tool with which to bring forth poetry. The success of his designs – such as a tower that eats smog, a cycle route that glows in the dark and recharges with daylight, a kite that creates clean energy – seem to prove him right. At the tender age of 40 (he will be celebrating his birthday on 24 July), Roosegaarde is among the innovators of our time according to Forbesand Wired, one of the global leaders of the World Economic Forum, and a member of the NASA Innovation Team. We met on the eve of his first, ambitious exhibition “Presence”, held at the Groniger Museum, and he told us his vision of tomorrow’s world.

What is your model of the city of the future?
It is a combination of various cities. I love the relationship between architecture and nature that exists in Singapore. For example, the new airport by Moshe Safdie, a terminal full of gardens and water, a really powerful public space. At the same time, what is missing in Singapore is the madness of Shenzhen, with those absurd lanes where you can but an iPhone with three SIMs and all the various mutant product copies. In Europe, my clients usually ask me: “Are you sure it has already been done?”, as they are mostly worried about risk management. But when I carry out projects in the Middle East, or in China, they ask me: “Are you sure it’s the first time?” I love Dubai, where they are thinking of genetically modifying trees in order to grow buildings instead of constructing them. These countries invite creative minds like me to design, make mistakes, learn and grow. It is a little like what the Groninger Museum has done. It is something that in Europe is becoming ever more scarce. 

What is the most important matter for an architect nowadays?
To take on global environmental challenges; the raising of the sea level, air pollution and light pollution are things that we have created. It is strange that when we discuss global challenges, architects are never involved in discussions. There are no architects at the United Nations, for example. It almost seems as though they lack any curiosity for the future, or as though they are unable to find new solutions. I think that clean water, air and energy are values for the future. Everything that we design – whether it be a car or a dress – should be founded on these values. Why can’t we build skyscrapers that produce clean air? Our smart kite (Windvogel, ed) produces clean energy for 200 domestic appliances. We are ready, why don’t they ask us about it? I think that we are gambling with the planet. My work is to speed up the process of diffusion of these types of design. It is not just a case of having an idea and designing it, but also of making sure it is accepted. One of my favourite projects is Gates of Light (on the Afsluitdijk, the dam that separates the Netherlands from the North Sea, ed), where the headlights of passing cars are used to illuminate the bridge. Why do we have to have lights on all night if no-one passes by? Why not use the energy that is already present – the headlights – to create beautiful landscapes? For me, this is the new standard for urban lighting. No light pollution. Beauty helps people to accept change. 

You have done a lot of work on an urban level, and you have a master’s degree in architecture, but you never define yourself as an architect...
I am more interested in exploring than in defining myself. “Artist” is a term that allows more freedom. But undoubtedly, the projects that we have worked on, and that we will work on in the future, concern architecture and the landscape. I am sure that in 5- or 10-years’ time, we will be designing entire cities. Designing new connections, pushing boundaries further and changing the way things are seen is what I do. In any case, I love architecture, it nourishes and relaxes me. I take my laptop, a drawing pad, and go to places such as, for example, the TWA terminal by Saarinen in New York, which has recently been renovated. In an airport as anonymous as JFK, it is like taking a journey back in time to the 1960s. 

It is strange that when we discuss global challenges, architects are never involved in discussions. It almost seems as though they lack any curiosity for the future.

As a designer, what is at the top of your bucket list?
Cities and landscapes of the future. All of my projects are prototypes. We make one, then increase the scale!

You need the right kind of client for a change in scale...
Mayors, for example, also need to realise that creating pollution cannot come without a cost. Beauty is not a branded bag, rather it is clean air. We live in a world where polluting costs nothing. If there were a tax on pollution when you buy a car, a plane ticket, when you eat a hamburger, then prices would be very different.

Are you suggesting there should be?
Of course, and sooner or later there will be. We need to accept this and push forward to a new world. 

Yours is a type of behaviour typical of a maker.
Absolutely. We don’t wait for permission to do something. We have a studio with highly talented engineers and designers. There are 32 of us full-time (and up to 100-150 for certain projects), and we do an enormous amount of research. I don’t want a bigger firm, or more projects to manage at the same time, because this would call for a lot of designing, a lot of repetitive activity. Instead, I want to concentrate on creating new things.

Daan Roosegaarde, Sync, 2019
Daan Roosegaarde, Sync, 2019

How many projects do you work on at the same time?
About 20. For example, we are working on a Holocaust memorial made of light (Levenslicht, ed) that will be inaugurated in January 2020, on a project with BMW (Sync, ed) that was recently presented at Art Basel and that imagines the interior of a self-driving car. We have a very architectural method: design, prototype, clients, production, tests... My designs do not have an excessively technological content but are more characterised by imagination and curiosity for the future.

I know that you have a “Yes, but” chair in your studio: every client that answers “yes, but” to a proposal gets a little electric shock. And I read that 40% of your work is self-commissioned. Is it difficult to find the right type of client, and what would your ideal client be
You have to create your own client. Take OMA and AMO. You need to start carrying out research, then the clients come.Being my own client is also a healthy situation for me. It is interesting to see things from the client’s point of view, having to deal with budgets and deadlines. Having to understand the difficulties with spending money without being sure of the final outcome. Putting yourself in their shoes, setting new limits and new standards. Five years ago, no-one would have ever called on me to create a smog-free tower, because no-one had ever heard of it. If you want to innovate, you have to ask the questions yourself.In this way you get the best projects, as well as the best people and the best teams. Without the designers, the architects and the project managers, I would just be a talking head. If you stay in the corner waiting to be discovered, it’ll never happen.

You have to create your own client. You need to start carrying out research, then the clients come.

Is the project for the Smog Free Tower moving forward? 
Following on from Poland, the Netherlands and China, we have just received an important commission from Korea. We work on a royalty basis with local clients who build in accordance with our artistic standards. We need to have time to work on new projects. Ideas need to be allowed to grow. Mine is not a utopia, but rather a “pro-topia”, in the sense that I don’t already have the answers, and I know that I need to move step by step.

What living person do you admire the most and why?
I really admire Elon Musk, and I love the creative minds at Pixar. The first thing I do for people who come to work for me is give them a copy of the book Creative Inc.by John Lasseter, which tells their story. Chapter seven teaches the necessity to find a balance between “the hungry beast” (company costs, rent to pay) and “the ugly baby” (an emerging and still-fragile idea). Each needs the other, and it is all about being creative. I really like their method of “Plussing”. If an idea comes in, instead of judging it or rejecting it, they look for a way to improve it. They do this various times a day with a range of people. I would like to see what a city – a real one, not a cartoon – would be like if it were designed by Pixar. In general, I love architects, Herzog & de Meuron, Bjarke Ingels, Oscar Niemeyer and Eero Saarinen among others. I could say that I fall in love with places more than I do with women or people. 

I really admire Elon Musk, and I love the creative minds at Pixar. I would like to see what a real city would be like if it were designed by them. I could say that I fall in love with places more than I do with women or people.

What book has changed your life.
As well as Creative Inc.Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, by Paul Hawken. It looks at design and technology, but also calculates the damage that we are doing, how much it would cost to repair it, and the profit. It is about design, science and money, a kind of art Bible. I also love the “Index. Design to improve life” award in Copenhagen [commonly known as the “Nobel for design”, ed]. I went once... I thought I knew a lot about this sector, but I hadn’t even heard of half of the people who were there. It is a whole community of makers, engineers, programmers and designers who don’t wait for permission to do things, they just go there and do them.

I am optimistic, but at the same time I’m not. Both George Orwell and Leonardo da Vinci lie within each of us.

How do you see the future over the next 30 years? Are you optimistic?
It is our duty to be positive, even though the figures are against us. And we aren’t even slow, we are simply waiting. Perhaps we hope that it will be our children who deal with everything, but in reality, we need to make the first move, and we need to do it now. We need to forget about opinions and numbers and concentrate on imagination. We need to demonstrate the beauty of a new world. The hope is to move faster. I am optimistic, but at the same time I’m not. Both George Orwell and Leonardo da Vinci lie within each of us. Take the coast of Miami, where despite the floods, they continue to build. It is a recipe for disaster, and it is not a question of “if”, but “when”. Perhaps we need to design floating cities. 

And what about going to live on another planet? Is it an option?
It is unlikely. And there is also the risk of destroying that one. With the Space Waste Lab project, developed together with NASA and ESA, we made people aware that there are 8.1 million kg of waste abandoned in space visible. This builds up because no-one is obliged to go and get it. The second stage of the project will focus on how to eliminate it, perhaps by making it burn up like artificial falling stars, a kind of sustainable firework, turning refuse into light. ESA has been working for 15 years on the idea of cleaning up space waste. I just designed the last 2%, but everything could change. For me, it is often about designing the missing link, or activating a new link that allows innovation to become reality. 

My designs do not have an excessively technological content but are more characterised by imagination and curiosity for the future.

What skills do we need to teach our children in order to be able to design the world in the future?
To not be afraid. Every time I design something new, I feel a combination of fear and curiosity. When I start working on a project, I always ask myself: “What if no-one understands? What if it doesn’t work?”. We can be whatever we want – artists, scientists, architects, designers – but we need to be driven by curiosity, not fear, as fear is a really poor counsellor. Be curious! Curiosity is everything.

Opening photo: Daan Roosegaarde at the Van Gogh Path, part of the Smart Highway project.

Latest on Design

Latest on Domus

Read more
China Germany India Mexico, Central America and Caribbean Sri Lanka Korea icon-camera close icon-comments icon-down-sm icon-download icon-facebook icon-heart icon-heart icon-next-sm icon-next icon-pinterest icon-play icon-plus icon-prev-sm icon-prev Search icon-twitter icon-views icon-instagram