Fall in New York is my favorite season for one reason—it means it’s time once again for Architectural Record’s Innovation Conference (Oct. 6-7), where we get to hear reports from the outer—and most-interesting—intellectual reaches of the design community.

One highlight of the first day of the symposium, now in its eighth year: a presentation by two Spanish designers of a structure so massive—plans call for it to be 1.228-meters high, or ¾ of a mile—that its creators argue it’s too qualitatively different from other buildings to be categorized as a mere skyscraper. Rather, it more rightly needs to be considered as a city unto itself.

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A rendering of Be-Bionic City Tower

Javier Pioz, co-principal of the International Workshop on Bionic & Architecture (who, appropriately, looks a little like a middle-aged Einstein), and his partner and co-principal, M. Rosa Cervera, have been investigating for more than 20 years what nature can teach architects to help them create buildings that are more flexible, adaptable and efficient—with the ultimate goal of “more rational structures.”

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Javier Pioz

And it was to nature that they looked for inspiration for what is by far their practice’s most ambitious project, the “pinnacle of its research”: Be-Bionic City Tower, a two-million-square-meter monster whose height would dwarf the Burj Khalifa—and which would house up to 100,000 inhabitants, living, working, playing (and farming) inside.

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Be-Bionic is on the left; on the right, a cactus-inspired project from the firm

(Shanghai is closest to beginning the still-theoretical structure, said Pioz (“the Chinese love skyscrapers”), but he hinted that another city, probably in India, might start work on it first. He’s absolutely convinced, however, that it will be built, and sooner rather than later.)

With a structure “so beyond the scale” of measly, 500-meter skyscrapers and their traditional single, center cores, Pioz knew he needed an entirely new design and construction model. So he turned to trees, which do a pretty good job, he pointed out, of growing very tall and very narrow—and being very hard to push over.

One key to a tree’s strength is its root system which stretches under ground far beyond the diameter of the central trunk. And Be-Bionic Tower would have a similarly wide foundation, attaching itself at ground level to an outer ring one kilometer in diameter (still a much smaller area than the 4-kilometer ring 100,000 people would need in a traditional urban plan, he said).

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A tree's root system inspires the structure's approach to its foundation

Trees also served as a point of reference for the structure’s vertical conduits. The “veins” through which a tree’s fluids flow are arranged in a circle around its rings; as Be-Bionic’s organization is envisioned, three separate cores, or rings, would have 92 hollow columns made of high-strength concrete which would serve as the vertical city’s streets, which would transport people, water, wiring, etc. (And those three cores would be housed within an external skin, a “container of containers” similar to a cell membrane.)  

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Examples of the tree-inspired approach to Be-Bionics internal columns and organization

And it’s not just flora which is a key inspiration; Pioz looks to fauna as well, specifically bird bones, which have a large ratio of air to osseous material that makes them strong, flexible and light; and to spider webs (nature’s “most logical creations”), which achieve tremendous strength with their intensively interconnected elements (and looking upwards from the bottom of the structure to see its innumerable, filament-like connective components would, in fact, be highly evocative of spider web, a rendering showed).

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The complex, internal supports of Be-Bionic will resemble a spider web

Indeed, one of the elements of Pioz’s presentation that I found most fascinating was his embrace, his championing, of what he characterized as the dynamic complexity of natural “building” systems. In his view, if we’re to surpass the 500-meter limit of (all-but-one of*) today’s super-skyscrapers, an entirely new conceptual approach will need to be adopted: many (millions/billions of) light, flexible elements working together, as opposed to the simple, heavy, rigid systems of conventional construction methods, i.e. the column, the beam, the pipe.

The structure will also be self-sustaining, an “energy factory,” said Cervera.

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M. Rosa Cervera

One strategy in the quest for net-zero is to take advantage of the significant temperature differential between the structure’s ground level and its top portion (for every 100-meter rise in altitude, the outside temperature falls by about 1-degree Fahrenheit). Heated air flowing with a forceful upward thrust will power a turbine, generating 20 megawatts of power.

In fact, the entire top of the structure will be dedicated to energy production, with windmills and photovoltaic cells. The base, too, will contribute with an artificial body of water where seaweed will be harvested for biofuel.

But will anyone really want to live here? Pioz had an interesting answer. The intense urbanification that has occurred in China over the past two decades means its city dwellers are “evolving like you can’t imagine,” he argued—and are likely to be the earliest adapters of our species to a life in the sky.

And in Cervera’s view, this sort of vertical lifestyle is inevitable as populations soar and energy resources dwindle: “We can’t pave the planet and continue to grow horizontally at the cost of nature.”

* The Burj Dubai is 828-meters tall, but the nine next tallest buildings range from 412 meters to 508; and the top 350 meters of the Burj, which includes a 200-meter spire, have very limited usable space.

** At its widest point in the middle of the tower, the enclosed area is an ellipse of 260 meters by 160 meters, with 50 percent of that space allocated to structural support, Cervera told me. And the other 50 percent wouldn’t be all usable space—there would be a lot of empty/air-filled area.

*** Be-Bionic also mimics nature in its approach to growth. It’s not meant “to be built in one go,” Pioz says. Just as trees (and humans) grow over time and as resources allow, Be-Bionic is planned to grow as a series of 80-meter tall neighborhoods, separated by 15-meter safety zones. One neighborhood can be fully occupied as construction occurs on another.