Daan Roosegaarde Wants to Make Cities More Livable—and Playful

Hans van Brakel

Enter Roosegaarde's smog-sucking bikes, algae-powered lights, and energy-harvesting kites.

"Come,” said Daan Roosegaarde, stepping into a dark, temperature-controlled locker in his studio in Rotterdam, Netherlands. “They just woke up.” The 38-year-old padded around on the locker’s gel-paneled floor, and in the darkness “they” responded—millions of microscopic algae, flaring into vivid blue-and-purple patterns wherever Roosegaarde placed his ample feet. The algae reacted with the twitchy immediacy of something fiercely high-tech, “but this is millions-of-years-old technology,” he said, grinning with infectious little-boy enthusiasm, all wide eyes and irregular teeth.

The algae form part of a new project, Icoon Afsluitdijk, that Roosegaarde and his team were weeks away from launching when I visited in mid-October. Half municipal refurbishment, half conversation starter, Icoon Afsluitdijk consists of three parts along 20 miles of highway on an old dike in northern Holland. The algae would move shortly to a bunker along the dike, in an exhibit to show off their conceivable future as an alternative light source. For the second part, huge floodgates nearby have been reconfigured so that they brighten, Tron-like, when headlights illuminate them. Roosegaarde was still perfecting the last element of Icoon Afsluitdijk, what he referred to as “the energy-harvesting kites,” designed to draw power from coastal winds and emit light. (The project will be up until January 21, 2018.)

Roosegaarde has been described as an architect, an artist, a designer. In conversation he favors the term maker, though perhaps he would best be described as a professional thought-provoker. The inventions and installations he dreams up tend to toy with notions of sustainability and environmental responsibility so that these potentially dull topics become playful, druggily visual, interactive. Scrawled on a window in his airy studio, for example, were plans relating to his Smog Free Bicycle, equipped with a one-person air purifier so that the cyclist might have a better time riding around a polluted city. The prototype is a joint effort between his studio and a Chinese company, Ofo, which has a stake in Beijing’s new bike-sharing program.

The traveling prototype of Roosegaarde’s Smog Free Tower in Beijing last year. Derrick Wang

Roosegaarde has long been fascinated by China—“its hunger for the future, the sense of urgency there”—and has maintained an office in Shanghai for some years. It was a trip to the country in 2013 that inspired a forebear to the Smog Free Bicycle: the Smog Free Tower. The 23-foot-high structure, which resembles a dehumidifier crossed with a Chinese pagoda, sucks in city air, separates out up to three-quarters of whatever smog particles are present, and puffs out the purified results. When they first built the prototype in the studio garden, an assistant recalled, wild rabbits took to hanging out around it. To date, only one Smog Free Tower exists; until recently it was being toured through China, more in the manner of a unique piece of art than as a plausible end solution to global pollution. “A proposal instead of an opinion,” Roosegaarde said, quoting his own catchphrase. He meant that it was tangible, not hot air.

A lifelong city dweller, he’s always had a distaste for the compromises asked of metropolitans. A growing sense that “the city has become a machine that wants to kill you” led to his Smog Free schemes. Before that, Roosegaarde had conjured other alternative-energy inventions into existence, none more inspired than his first: a nightclub dance floor, built in 2008, that drew power from the movement of dancers on top of it. “The more you danced,” Roosegaarde remembered, “the more the DJ had the power to play. It was win-win-win.” (Three wins! Roosegaarde is not bashful. His studio is decorated with not one but two gigantic portraits of his own face.)

Inquiries about Smog Free Towers have come in from India, Mexico, Colombia, and Poland. Now a TED Talk alum, Roosegaarde delivers popular speeches around the world and flies about, otherwise, to network with those in local governments who might commission and fund his next works. “Mayors are really interesting for me,” he said. “They have a nice economical and social scale.” His wild ideas, he pointed out, are undertaken not only with wider social benefits in mind: “I make them for myself, to make my world less brutal, my world more understandable.” Back inside the studio, there was a neat, scaled-down model of a city, a Roosegaarde-esque utopia with a hydro plant, a wind turbine, and a “smart highway.” He might even use cooperative algae to brighten it at night. A piece of scrap paper by the highway suggested a name for the city, “Schoonheid Stad.” The Dutch phrase renders very roughly in English as “Fair and Beautiful City.” You imagine, if such a place got built, there would be only one serious candidate for mayor.