Smog Vacuum Cleaner – White Elephant or Solution to Air Pollution?

Dutch Designer Daan Roosegaarde installed a 7-metre high air-purifying tower akin to a smog vacuum cleaner in Rotterdam.

Analysed as an independent space of flows (Caprotti and Romanowicz, 2013), the tower is able to clean 30,000cm3 of air an hour and leaves surrounding air 75% cleaner by:

  1. Sucking in dirty air
  2. Using ion technology filtration
  3. Capturing small pollution particles (PM2.5 and PM10)
  4. Returning clean air through the tower’s vents


It looks like this:

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Screen Shot 2017-11-16 at 12.30.27 PM

As a component of urban flows and circulations (Caprotti and Romanowicz, 2013), this air-purification tower acts as a metabolic vehicle in the array of components governing the circulation and exchange of air and pollution in Rotterdam. It unconventionally alters the direction of circulations of air pollution. Regular ventilation systems provide isolated and static containers, protecting the “inside” of buildings from the polluted atmosphere “outside”. Instead of acting in opposition to the environment (Gissen, 2010), the tower provides a space of flows that interacts and engages with pollution in a radical way, being the site of attraction, absorption and transformation of smog particles, collecting and releasing cleaner air to the surroundings.

On top of that, Roosegaarde applies high pressure to the soot collected to make diamonds. The sale of these diamonds made out of soot (something that is discarded, rejected and regarded as sordid to most people) carry with them powerful messages on air pollution. It enhances the tower as a nodal point of Rotterdam’s urban metabolism, for the confluence of the agency and discourse of actors, from urban-planners to designers.

Screen Shot 2017-11-16 at 12.32.21 PM


Yet, the political and ideological role of eco-city projects in fashioning new urban metabolic relations is founded on asymmetric readings and conceptualisations of sustainability, environmental governance and the city. As processes of metabolic change are hardly socially neutral (Swyngedouw, 2006), I question the penetrability of this eco-tower in sending an engaging message about air pollution to a general population of city dwellers. Or is this message about air pollution restricted to avant-garde millennial consumers? Furthermore, large-scale construction and application of this tower as an actual purification system for Rotterdam is costly and unviable. Will this become a mere white elephant, expensive to build and cumbersome to maintain? With little tangible influence on the air pollution problem, is this yet another exclusive project reproducing “hollow” sustainabilities (Whitehead, 2010)?


If you would like to refer to some of the articles I was inspired by:

Caprotti, F. and Romanowicz, J. (2013) ‘Thermal Eco-cities: Green Building and Urban Thermal Metabolism’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Vol. 37, No. 6, 1949 – 1967.

Gissen, D. (2010) ‘Toxic Territories’, Architectural Design, Vol. 80, No. 3, 54 – 59.

Swyngedouw, E. (2006) ‘Metabolic Urbanisation: The Making of Cyborg Cities’ in N. Heynen, M. Kaika and E. Swyngedouw (eds.) In the Nature of Cities – Urban Political Ecology and the Politics of Urban Metabolism, London, UK: Routledge, 21 – 40.

Whitehead, M. (2010) ‘Hollow Sustainabilities? Perspectives on Sustainable Development in the Post-Socialist World’, Geography Compass, Vol. 4, No. 1, 1618 – 1634.


(462 words)


2 thoughts on “Smog Vacuum Cleaner – White Elephant or Solution to Air Pollution?”

  1. Hi Beatriz! That’s really interesting – how the eco-tower has in a sense completed the cycle where a supposed waste material has been brought back into the circulation of our everyday lives. I wonder if the profits earned from the sale of these diamonds are directed back into ecological projects/ maintenance of the tower though… I think if that’s the case, it might actually contribute to the sustainability of the eco-tower and may even make it a common sight in the future. However, that’s a really optimistic point of view and if such a project is indeed capitalistic in its conception, then it might really just be a case of ‘white elephant’ as you have mentioned ): That would be a shame!


  2. Hey Beatriz!

    (Give me a soot-diamond ring and I’m yours really #ecofriendlylove)

    Was wondering the same thing as Yi Ming! My initial thoughts were that if this technology is marketable and efficient on a large scale, I thought this would really be useful (not to mention cool and totally something to brag about) for our cities (Singapore and KL) to adopt to deal with the yearly smog-affair.

    Your thoughts on whether this could be a white elephant were sobering afterwards. I guess it made me reflect on how my initial reaction to such a ‘cool’ technology blinded me from more critical assessment of its viability and actual impact on environmental sustainability. That was a sobering moment because I realised perhaps that’s why there’s still a strong investment market for green, eco-product innovation. It’s easier to get excited about the slightest potential of technology to address environmental issues in the slightest manner; it’s harder to admit that most green products may actually be the white elephants you described. Thanks for inspiring this moment of reflection.


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