Mexico's smog-eating hospital gets to work

MEXICO CITY -- A public hospital adds a facade that devours smog in a city adding 600 new cars a day.

MEXICO CITY -- The facade on a new wing of a Mexico City hospital is as hard at work as the doctors inside.

Shaped like a honeycomb, chalk-white and set off from the building, the facade sports a technology called "prosolve370e" that breaks down smog, scrubbing the air in a small corner of one of the world's smoggiest cities.

The technology is the brainchild of Allison Dring and Daniel Schwaag of Elegant Embellishments, based in Berlin. But it's a public hospital in Mexico's capital that is the first to employ it.

Described on their website as "a decorative, three-dimensional architectural tile that can be installed quickly to reduce air pollution in urban environments," the facade makes the new surgery building of the Dr. Manuel Gea hospital at the city's southern edge unlike any other in Mexico, or the world. And it's helping create a slightly healthier microclimate for patients and visitors to the hospital's campus.

Dring said the inspiration for the tiles, in development since 2006, came from an interest in "technology that could appropriate architecture" and a desire to use existing spaces "to make environments better at a molecular level." The pair of architects teamed up with scientists; prosolve370e was the result.

The especially nasty components of air pollution are nitrogen oxides, byproducts of the combustion engines in automobiles. The facade’s technology employs titanium dioxide, an ingredient in sunblock and toothpaste which in prosolve370e is a nano, photocatalytic version that responds to UV light and triggers a chemical reaction. The tiles turn nitrogen oxide into nitric acid, which is then neutralized by calcium carbonate in the facade coating. Volatile organic compounds and fine particulate matters are also broken down by prosolve370e.

"My chemistry level is terrible for the kind of work that we do," Dring said, comparing herself to the scientists and specialists they collaborate with. "I'm as mystified as I ever was by it. But it does connect back to architecture in a funny way -- harnessing wind and light and shapes that allow the building to be smarter. That's directly connected to what's happening on a chemical level."

Dring and Schwaag are engaged with the chemistry, enough to explore it in architectural realms.

Home to 6 million automobiles, traffic clogs Mexico City's streets and emissions choke the air. Although the city has expanded public transportation and instituted tough restrictions on when older vehicles can circulate, some 600 new cars join the capital's fleet every day, according to Embarq, a nonprofit working for sustainable transport. That influx challenges the city's long-term goal of more good air days per year.

The prosolve370e facade aims to do its small part on one traffic-jammed corner; the structure is estimated to consume smog equivalent to that produced by about 1,000 cars daily.

Margarita Gonzalez, who sells flowers in front of the new hospital wing, said she hasn't noticed a difference in air quality but the facade does attract a lot of attention.

"People take photos because it's unique," she said.

On the boulevard leading to the hospital, the mountains on the horizon –- where the outline of pines is crisp on a clear day –- look like gray smudges behind a curtain of smog.

Photos: Alejandro Cartegena
Editor's note: This piece was edited June 11 to correct the context of a quote, adding the architects' collaboration with scientists.

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