• 01.24.14

Watch This Empty Room Turn Into A Mini-Forest

A windowless concrete space is now full of glowing paper trees, thanks to these programmers who created an algorithm that mimics the design of veins in a leaf.

Watch This Empty Room Turn Into A Mini-Forest

Using custom software designed to mimic the way plants grow, architects from Orproject transformed a windowless concrete room into a miniature forest of glowing paper trees.


The project, originally created as part of the India Design Forum in New Delhi and now up permanently in the exhibition space, is one of six designs that the architects have created using their plant-based algorithm. The software itself was created by analyzing how veins grow in leaves.

Why leaves? The surface of a leaf, it turns out, can inspire designs that would never be possible with traditional engineering techniques. In part, that’s because the membrane of a leaf–which the architects say acts like the skin of a plant–is a natural multitasker.

“What’s fascinating about the membrane is that the geometry is the structure, but also works for many other functions,” says Rajat Sodhi, who leads the firm’s New Delhi practice. “In leaves, the venation not only allows the geometry to support the leaf, but also grow in a way as to maximize light and create food. It creates both a circulatory logic as well as a structural logic, which becomes interesting architecturally because then you’re able to create things that are very efficient both structurally and formally.”

In this design, called Vana, the leaf-inspired algorithm helped the architects create a unique shape: The structure is tensile, like a tent or a suspension bridge, but the form is completely organic. “In nature you have all these tensile membranes that exist, but they’re not necessarily perfectly geometric,” Sodhi says. “We learn from that and apply that.”

Vana hangs from the ceiling, attached to a grid with two dozen cable ties. But the architects say the design could also be reversed to become columns. “For us, Vana is a prototype,” Sodhi explains. “The beauty of a purely tensile structure is that if you reverse it, and make it into a purely compressive structure, then it would stand up.” If the same design is made in steel, it could become a system of hollow but strong beams and columns.

The architects have used the same algorithm to make six different variations over time. “We had very simple designs in the beginning, but now we’re able to generate highly complex geometries,” Sodhi says. “Because the algorithms are more advanced, it allows us to do variations that are drastically different.” One of the latest is Bubbles, a design for a giant lightweight canopy to enclose an indoor park.


Each design uses light differently. Vana is filled with white LED lights that appear blue. “Because bleach is used in the production of paper, when it’s backlit you get this super-nice bluish glow,” says Sodhi. “When it opened, we got comments that it felt magical or like something out of a childhood dream. People were fascinated with the color and the appearance like a forest.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.