Architecture meets agriculture in the Jian Mu Tower



AZoBuild speaks with Carlo Ratti of Carlo Ratti Associati about the company’s ambitious plans to build the Jian Mu hydroponic tower in Shenzhen.

What is your background and how did it lead you to building design and innovation?

I started studying civil engineering at the Politecnico di Torino and the Ecole des Ponts in Paris. With my fellow students busy entering the job market after graduation, I decided to continue my architecture and computer science studies at the University of Cambridge and then at MIT on a Fulbright Scholarship. As confused as it might seem at first glance, it enabled me to follow my passion – and in the end, it helped me connect the dots.

Can you tell us a little bit about your business, Carlo Ratti Associati (CRA)?

CRA is a design and innovation studio based in Turin, New York and London. We like a famous adagio from the Bauhaus era – “Design should encompass everything from the spoon to the city” – which today could be translated as “from the microchip to the planet”. To address different intervention scales, our team consists of three departments: Think, Design and Make.

All three business areas have a common denominator: creating an urban environment that better suits people and connects the natural and artificial worlds.

Biophilic design refers to the concept of incorporating nature into architectural planning. How important is biophilic building design to CRA?

According to my Harvard colleague EO Wilson, biophilia is what we long for green spaces in urban settings. Through this concept we came to the direction of connecting the natural and artificial world, which is the bread and butter of our work. This is done through two channels.

Firstly, sensors, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things can make buildings “alive”, i.e. respond to human needs. In addition, natural elements can be woven into architectural designs themselves or used as building materials. Both channels have been extensively investigated in our studio’s projects.

CRA helped design the Jian Mu Tower in Shenzhen, China. Can you please tell us how the tower got its name and how this is reflected in its structure?

“Jian Mu” refers to a sacred tree in ancient Chinese folklore that connects heaven and earth. Jian Mu Tower has a similar claim and further references the traditional Chinese belief that the sky is round and the earth is square – the building has a rectangular base and gradually assumes a tubular shape on the higher levels.

How will the Jian Mu Tower integrate “urban agriculture” into its walls?

WUMART JIAN MU TOWER in Shenzhen: the world’s first farm scraper from CRA-Carlo Ratti Associati (Promo)

Video Credit: Lapis Bureau /

We developed the Vertical Farm with a company called ZERO, which specializes in innovative agricultural solutions. It applies the traditional system of robotic hydroponic farms to a vertical facade, where robotic pods move autonomously to place harvest trays of vegetables. There will also be a virtual agronomist who works with artificial intelligence. It controls the irrigation and assesses the health of the plants. Together these devices form an agricultural unit with high efficiency.

Could you please explain how hydroponic farming works and is self-sustaining? How much food will the vertical hydroponic farm be able to sustainably produce annually?

Hydroponic agriculture cultivates plants without soil. Instead, they absorb minerals and other necessary nutrients through liquid solutions. As mentioned earlier, this task is carried out automatically by robots in the Jian Mu Tower.

The vertical farm is said to produce 270,000 kilograms of grain each year, which is enough to feed 40,000 people.

What are the greatest difficulties or risks when designing and implementing vertical farming?

We have already gained experience with the integration of vegetation in skyscrapers, in particular with the CapitaSpring in Singapore, which we designed together with BIG, which will soon be completed. Agriculture, however, requires closer environmental control.

Image source: CC7 /

One of the more complicated elements in the implementation of the vertical farm was the construction of a large-scale facility that could cope with the ever-changing temperatures, solar radiation and other climatic conditions. However, we have found a solution that will allow humans and plants to end up living comfortably next to each other, which has led to a result that we are very excited about!

Are there other design features in the tower that incorporate nature?

Beyond the facade there are also natural elements through a series of landscape terraces that cultivate water lilies, ferns, lychee and other plants through a sustainable irrigation system. Nature extends into the interior as well. The double high inner gardens offer office workers a place to relax and socialize.

What features of design do you look forward to most when they come to life?

What I am most pleased about is the prospect of substantial urban agriculture. Urban farms aren’t new to cities like Paris, New York, and Singapore, but they are always run on a small scale. We want to use the tall vertical facades to increase food production, which really benefits cities – the largest consumers of food.

About Carlo Ratti

Carlo Ratti is an Italian architect, engineer, inventor, educator and activist. He is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he leads the MIT Senseable City Lab, a research group that studies how new technologies are changing the way we understand, design, and ultimately live cities.

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