Vertical Farming Comes Down to Earth

Dr. Dickson Despommier’s ten-year-old vision of vertical farm facilities for urban areas received a shot in the arm last week. When the architectural firm Weber Thompson presented their design for the Newark Vertical Farm to city officials and local businessmen from Newark, New Jersey, the response was generally positive. This is probably because, unlike previous vertical-farm designs, Weber Thompson’s sane, grey, industrial-style facility looks like it can actually be built.


With their irresistible blend of modernism and green, Despommier’s ideas have fired the imaginations of architects everywhere, feeding some of the most fantastic concept architecture around. Despommier’s own 2009 Pyramid Farm design (above), developed in collaboration with Eric Ellingson, was a weird conceptual inversion of the great pyramid of Giza—revealing instead of concealing, and housing living plants instead of dead kings. Others have taken his ideas and fashioned them into cylinders, spiraling biomorphic towers, and seawater-fed pods. My personal favorite (for sheer outrageousness) has to be Vincent Callebaut Architects’ butterfly/dragonfly wing (below), perched at the tip of New York’s Roosevelt Island. Needless to say, nothing even close to these fantasies has been realized. No one has actually built a full-fledged vertical farm, yet.


Weber Thompson states that its ultimate goal is “a commercially viable building type,” so the Newark Vertical Farm (NVF) is a decidedly more practical solution. Based on the architects’ earlier Eco-Laboratory design, the NVF will be both a public demonstration project, and an agricultural laboratory for vertical-farm ideas. The main building will house a multi-story greenhouse and research facilities, separated by a full-height atrium that will bring light and ventilation into the structure. A separate demonstration greenhouse will allow the general public to see what’s going on in the facility.


Despommier’s concept has had its detractors, who argue that stacking farms up vertically is an inherently illogical idea, because of the simple fact that plants need sunlight. If city officials give the nod to Weber Thompson’s design, not only will the good folk of Newark be able feast on locally grown tomatoes, but the architectural community will also finally be able to examine the efficacy of the concept for themselves. And with them will be ex–pop star Sting—he has purchased the rights to make a film about the world’s first vertical farm.

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