Portrait of Daan Roosegaarde. Photo by Willem de Kam.
A month from now, Daan Roosegaarde will join a meeting at the United Nations to declare a new human right—the right for schoonheid. “Schoonheid is a very typical Dutch word and it has two meanings,” Roosegaarde tells me as we connect over Skype. “One is beauty—that you look at a painting and you get a creative spark, like when you look at a Rothko or a Turrell,” he muses. “But schoonheid also means clean—like clean energy, clean water, clean air.” At the helm of Studio Roosegaarde, a team of over 20 engineers, designers, and other creatives based in a Rotterdam studio he calls the Dream Factory, Roosegaarde is working to make this environmentally pure and aesthetically pleasing state an everyday reality.
By now, you’ve likely heard of the studio’s internationally acclaimed Smog Free project, for which they’ve created the world’s largest vacuum tower to convert smog into clear air in Beijing. What’s more, they’re using the carbon-rich smog to make jewelry. “We live in a world where we’re feeding our dreams and hopes into a virtual cloud—be it WeChat, Weibo, Twitter, Facebook—but the physical world is sort of crashing around us, and almost nobody cares about it,” says Roosegaarde. To counter, the 37-year-old multihyphenate—his many hats include artist, designer, architect, inventor, and entrepreneur—has found a new niche, or “a new playground,” at the intersection of environmental concerns and creativity.
Photo of the Smog Free Tower by Derrick Wang, courtesy of Studio Roosegaarde.
Thus far, the Smog Free Project has been the most promising result of his experimentation, in its practical impact. After culling €113,153 in funding from a Kickstarter campaign, his team built their first tower, essentially a giant air purifier, in Rotterdam in 2015. The project sparked a commission from the Chinese government to place one such tower in Beijing’s 798 Arts District. Since being installed in September, the tower has successfully made air in the vicinity 55% cleaner.
It all began some three years ago when, during a trip to Beijing, Roosegaarde was disturbed by the smoggy view from his hotel room window. “I thought, we have to use creative thinking to improve life, and not wait for government and industry to wake up. It’s the role of the artist to come up with new proposals,” he explains. From there, he sought to “build the largest smog vacuum cleaner in the world, which sucks up polluted air from the sky, cleans it, and then releases clean air.”
As toxic air pollutants threaten urban populations across the world, Roosegaarde has hopes that the towers will help pave the way for a future, some 10 to 15 years from now, where cities will be environmentally stable enough to not need such solutions anymore. For the time being, though, the Smog Free Project is going strong. The Beijing tower will soon tour through four or five Chinese cities, and the firm recently met with government officials in India to discuss installing the towers there. “The Chinese people call it the ‘clean air temple,’ they really appreciate it,” he says. He adds that in Beijing the project inspired an offshoot collaboration with Tsinghua University to develop a Smog Free Bicycle, which will similarly purify air.
Photo of a Smog Free Tower diamond, courtesy of Studio Roosegaarde.
What’s garnered the project the most headlines, though, is what the studio is doing with the smog that’s being collected in the towers. “We were capturing the particles from the air and had buckets of this stuff standing in our studio, and after a while we thought, ‘We should do something with this—waste should not exist,’” he explains. Knowing that the smog is 42% carbon, and that carbon can be pressurized into diamonds, they developed a way to turn the smog into sleek cubes that adorn rings and cufflinks. By purchasing a ring (some of which have been used as wedding bands), the buyer donates 1,000 cubic meters of clean air to the city where the tower is located.
In recent years, Studio Roosegaarde has created Van Gogh Path, a solar-powered bike path that lights up in glowing swirls designed to mimic Starry Night, thus eliminating the necessity of street lamps; and Waterlicht, an LED light installation that virtually emulates a flood, in efforts to bring awareness to rising water levels. At present, the Dream Factory is consumed with a new energy neutral project for the Afsluitdijk dike, a 32-kilometer dam that shields the Netherlands from flooding but which, due to rising sea levels, is in need of repair. The minister of infrastructure has commissioned Studio Roosegaarde to update the dam not just functionally, but, Roosegaarde says, to “apply a layer of light and interactivity on top of it as a large-scale landscape.”
Photo of Van Gogh Path, courtesy of Studio Roosegaarde.
Roosegaarde’s success thus far has earned him a place among the Young Global Leaders who are invited to the World Economic Forum in Davos each year. “Of course when you think ‘economic’ you think of hard capital—money, investors—but I think we live in a world where soft capital—new ideas, new dreams—are as important,” he tells me, just days after attending the event for the second year.
As for the future, he’s thinking big. “I want to do something with space waste—the smog of the universe,” he says, “which is also created by human activity, and it’s becoming a really big problem.”
For now though, Roosegaarde optimistically works towards earthbound targets, namely cities. “The way our cities look, we should not just leave that to politics and policy makers, we should make proposals for how we want the world to look, and use our creative thinking to improve the world around us,” he enthuses. “In a way, the stuff that we’ve been making up until now are great artworks, but they’re also just prototypes of the city or the landscape of tomorrow.”