Could a Russian architect’s skyscraper clean the air?

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Alexei Umarov

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Architect Alexei Umarov’s HyperFilter

A Russian architect hopes to realise his dream of a skyscraper that can filter dirty air – but is it just a pipe dream?

“When I read the news about people selling oxygen in canisters in Chinese cities… I think sometime as early as 2025-2030 my project will be realised, maybe partially,” says Russian architect Alexei Umarov, 31, the man behind the idea of a skyscraper which he says could clean the polluted air surrounding it.

Alexei lives in the Russian city of Khabarovsk on the border with China. He says that his project, the HyperFilter skyscraper, looks something like a giant tree, which he claims can suck in and purify the city’s polluted air.

He is not the only visionary to be seduced by the desire to construct smog-eating buildings.

Many architects have been attracted to the idea of using materials and devices which could play a part in removing impurities to improve the air we breathe.

One of the most high-profile is the Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde, who has envisioned towers in cities like Beijing which were originally billed as filtering impurities in the air.

The fact that no serious evidence exists that such constructions can significantly make a dent in pollution levels has not stopped architects from taking out their pens and getting down to the design board.

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Alexei Umarov

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HyperFilter’s components, and how it might look in New York

When Alexei started to contemplate his project for an international architectural contest, he knew what he wanted to focus on.

“Having assessed the situation in the world, having read some statistics, I chose air pollution, because I think it’s really important,” explained Alexei.

“Every big city in the world suffers under this problem – and it’s getting worse – excessive heat, polluted air, metals in the air, excessive levels of carbon dioxide. So I tried to solve the problem my way, the architectural way and to some extent in a technological way.”

The HyperFilter consists of a skeleton, a porous shell and long pipes with filters inside. The designer’s vision is for air to be be sucked in through the pipes, cleaned and cooled, while harmful substances are separated and accumulated on the lower levels of the building for further recycling.

Back in 2014, Alexei Umarov sent his project to an international architectural contest organized by a magazine. He did not make it to the final three, but the jury remarked that his idea was an interesting one.

Other skyscraper projects in the contest looked fascinating, futuristic, but they all had a traditional interior: offices, apartments, shops. Alexei’s design was the only one without flats or offices – only a giant air filter.

Despite the lack of evidence, Alexei is convinced that his skyscraper is the future.

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Alexei Umarov

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Alexei Umarov believes somebody could take up his idea within a decade

“I know it looks rather futuristic, but technically, my project can be partially realized even now. Since I composed it in 2014, the technologies have developed, there are 3D printing, drones and robots used in the construction, and it seems to me that my project is gradually becoming more and more important – and more and more plausible,” says Alexei.

The architect acknowledges it would be rather difficult and costly to assemble all the pipes without the help of drones.

Alexei Umarov is still hoping that a big international company will eventually develop his project and start to build the HyperFilters in cities like Mexico, Delhi, Beijing or Moscow.

At the very least, such designs and other so-called smog-eating towers can help raise awareness of air pollution, even if they do little to reduce it.

Alexander Karpov, PhD in Biological Sciences, an expert with the ECOM Centre

I see the only way of using these skyscrapers – when your city is in a valley surrounded by factories, there is no green belt and nothing you can do about it. Then you might need to install these giant filters.

However, it is much cheaper to put air filters at the factories.

Air pollution should be stopped at the source. It doesn’t matter if it is a car or a desert with its dusty winds. You have to fight it at the source because when it is in the air you cannot stop it.

Then comes the cost. City space is very expensive. You can plant a forest within 100 kilometres from the city and it will work just as good.

If you count the cost of the project you might factor in a service provided by the trees which actually come charge free, if we don’t cut them down.

So I Can Breathe

A week of coverage by BBC News looking at ways to cut air pollution.

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