This Mexico City Building Eats Smog for Lunch

A new exterior tile helps neutralize the chemicals present in pollution.

Torre de Especialidades, proSolve370e
This beautiful building will tame the beast known as pollution. (Courtesy Elegant Embellishments)
A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

There are plenty of architects these days who are doing their best to design buildings that are energy efficient and utilize green technology. And then there’s Allison Dring and Daniel Schwaag of the Berlin-based firm Elegant Embellishments.

For Torre de Especialidades, a hospital with a new tower currently under construction in Mexico City, the duo has developed a tile called proSolve370e, which will cover the façade of the building. The tile’s shape and chemical coating will help neutralize the chemicals present in the city’s smog.

Yes, that’s right, this building will literally eat pollution.

Dring tells TakePart that Elegant Embellishments was formed in 2006 as a kind of architectural start-up to self-initiate projects that incorporate new and often invisible technologies. “Although both Daniel and I come from the traditional practice of architecture,” says Dring, “our method is to investigate and develop new materials and methods for the modification of existing buildings and spaces. These modifications are used to ‘tune’ buildings, converting previously inert surfaces into active surfaces that can meet new challenges.”

She adds that, “A common thread in our work is the visual articulation of technologies that have the potential to alleviate the ecological impact of cities but often require a reexamination of current practices. We initiate forms for technologies that occur on a molecular level, yet are significant enough to transform spaces.”

As you might expect, there was a bit of trial and error involved in the development of proSolve370e, including three prototypes that Dring says corresponded with the gradual development of the product context from studio, to small exhibition and trade-fair stands, to larger exhibition and ultimately to building size.

“One step enabled the next in gathering a minimum of financial support, acquiring a trained eye for the shapes and technical production feasibility,” says Dring. “Where we started was as architects of the straightforward façade-design kind. We finished the project as quasi-manufacturers with expertise in plastics production, material testing, contracts, and exporting.”

“Centralizing the design, manufacture, and export meant we didn't risk losing too much in the translation of the design, but involved us thinking like a factory—streamlining processes, ensuring materials would perform, personally managing the loading of eight shipping containers, and providing piles of customs documents that would not necessarily preclude any mishaps on the precarious road between the port of Veracruz and Mexico City.”

What’s even more cool about Dring and Schwaag’s tile is that it’s actually quite beautiful. Dring explains that the shapes are derived from corals or sponges in the spirit of surface enlargement and reception of light. “There are lines in the pattern that travel through each tile called ‘walks.’ They loop through patches of tiles and essentially allow the eye to travel and find shapes in an otherwise highly visually-complex surface.”

“Shapes in products are commonly tuned to invisible forces, such as radiators distributing heat, surfboards meticulously shaped to perform on waves, and airplane wings responding to aerodynamics,” says Dring. “Their shapes reveal the forces that act on them. No formal expression existed that expressed the conditions of urban air pollution.”

“We found highly decorative, fractal shapes created more surface area and more exposure to the ambient light needed for the reaction in places with higher concentrations of pollution,” she adds. “Appropriating the pollution-absorbing coating onto a complex surface could enhance the technology’s performance, as well as become a decorative and identifiable architectural device.”

While Torre de Especialidades is the first permanent exterior installation of their system, Dring is hopefully that others will follow Mexico City’s lead. “Other cities with pollution problems including Santiago, Beijing, Los Angeles, Beirut, Astana—or those with tightening regulations as is the current case in Germany—are ideal environments for proSolve370e.”

Could your city use a building, or a dozen, covered in proSolve370e?

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