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AliveETH: BioCities / MetaFollies / algae / architecture / books / responsive systems / urban designSeptember 1, 2014

Claudia Pasquero and Marco Poletto were invited by colleagues at the ETH in the  department for advanced computational design to discuss the future of adaptive or responsive architecture. The discussion group included many among the most exciting architects and researchers of our time. This book is the result of such discussion group and we are very proud to be part of it. Below is the full text of our contribution authored my Claudia and Marco.


Ecology Beyond Nature


Preamble

So we shall start with a cow.

Like one of the many we can see from the window seat of our train to Zurich, on our way to ETH. Swiss cows are undoubtedly part of a landscape that has become a symbol of greenness and ecology; and beyond Switzerland we can argue grazing cows are indeed associated with a form of picturesque landscape of preindustrial farming and life in symbiosis with nature and so on.

This dominant image associated with the cow however, contrasts enormously with the reality of cow breeding and the industry dedicated to the production of milk and meat; this observation became apparent in Milan during a research project we conducted on the Milanese metropolitan network of urban farms dedicated to the production of milk derivates.

The life and the death of the cow appears streamlined and optimized towards production; the metabolism of the animal accelerated to its limits, in order to achieve a max ratio of production versus occupation of the land. Insemination, delivery, milking, feeding, resting, slathering define the daily rhythm, accordingly to exact and rigid schedules in the form of an assembly line.

However one of the discoveries we made was that in order to further increase production some farmers were adopting new technological solutions; among them the recent acquisition of robots enabling the milking processes, triggered our curiosity.

The cow is equipped with a micro-chip and communicates in real time with the milking robot as well as a computer; the computer monitors the cows metabolism and the robot responds to the cows desire to be milked; during milking the computer analyzes the composition of the milk determining the pressure that the robot must exercise on the cows' mammal at any given moment in time thus preventing excessive stress on the organs. Also the general health of the cow is monitored preventing infections and other health related problems. The cow can visit the robot when it wants and for as long as it feels like. It turns out that this form of cybernetic milking is more productive than the traditional manual or the more recent mechanical technique; but we can also imagine that the cybernetic framework involving robot, computer, environment, farmer and cow could lead the co-evolution of production patterns that optimize the system by making it more robust, resilient and economically effective. Optimization becomes more of a non-linear dynamical process leading to multiple states of equilibrium that may switch depending on season, climate, surrounding landscape and so on.

 

ecology beyond nature

With this preamble we wish to exemplify a new significance for the term ecology that may find more relevant application to our contemporary digital, interconnected, real-time and rapidly urbanizing society. This significance extends beyond the realm of the natural and the biologic, to encompass the mechanical, the digital and the bio-technological.

From this perspective Mother Nature disappears, it exists no longer; any so called natural or biologic organism, any system and landscape is indeed contaminated, influenced as it is by some kind of dynamic relationship with a human, a technological or a biotechnological entity. It is a matter of fact that even the most remote ecosystems of the biosphere are today indirectly influenced by some kind of human induced or man-made system.  Even a sand dune that was never reached in the middle of the largest desert on heart is contaminated by atmospheric particles containing traces of civilization as well as been regularly observed and scanned by hi-definition satellite sensing devices where the act of measuring in itself constitute an altering factor for the measured or observed system. This influence is such that both the nature of the observed then the one of the observing system are transformed and altered in their course by this relationship.

Within this conceptual framework common definitions such as ecological urbanism and sustainable architecture may as a consequence be reframed to encompass all those technological systems as well as material and immaterial infrastructures that define contemporary urbanity. By refusing to accept the illusionary and anachronistically picturesque image of the green city or the architecture camouflaged in nature, we open for ourselves the possibility to radicalize the idea of an adaptive, evolving bio-city where it is impossible to distinguish the biologic from the bio-technologic, the natural from the synthetic. We can then focus on a more evolved participatory framework for architecture and urbanism, one where biologic, mechanical , electronic, chemical, human and digital system communicate and co-evolve; where material life and optimized behaviours emerge out of this interaction and conversations.

We are convinced that this non-anthropocentric point of view reflects much more realistically our contemporary world than the traditional idea of nature as the ethical plane of reference from which we come and to where we must return to evaluate our future actions. Let's face it; we are in the Antropocene, a new and uncharted territory where Mother Nature exists not longer.

As a consequence the intellectual framework of bio-mimicry and in the specific of bio-mimetic design can be revisited as bio-cybernetic or bio-hacking. That is to say; yes nature has evolved beautiful design solutions to solve critical problems and we shall look at those as inspiration; however it is not about us-human copying them to design a new breed of manmade technologies but rather us-human understanding the dynamical mechanisms underpinning such problem solving machines of "nature" to hack them, to connect directly to them in order to establish direct relationships between observed natural system and observing manmade ones or vice versa.

 

the METAfolly for the metropolitan landscape.

One of ecoLogicStudio most courageous excursion in this conceptual realm is the project titled METAfolly, a pod like pavilion produced for the FRAC collection, based in Orleans and first exhibited to the public for the 9th Archilab exhibition in September 2013.

‘[…] mere purposive rationality unaided by such phenomena as art, religion, dream, and the like, is necessarily pathogenic and destructive of life; […]’

G. Bateson

STEPS TOWARDS AN ECOLOGY OF MIND p.146

The METAfolly is a sonic architecture, a spatial mechanism which aims at es­tablishing a playful dialogue with the visitor based on a real-time meta-conversation.

The project was first conceived as a response to Slavoj Zizek's call for the synthesis of a "new terrifying form of abstract materialism", confronting the artificiality of the contemporary urban landscape with the production of a new form of hyper-artificiality; it later became apparent that the project main ambition is offering refuge and consolation to the crowd of post-ecologists who, like us, have stopped searching for a new Arcadia and are determined to develop a shanty version of it in the "city".

Within this paradigm aesthetic codes are redefined; the idealizations of classical ecologists are substituted by the abstractions of digital post-ecologists; in the METAfolly algorithmic protocols define the assemblage of new hybrid material systems composed of post-consumer recycled plastic, cheap Chinese piezoelectric disks and bio inspired chameleonic nano-flakes. Such an improbable assemblage is pushed to the limit and engineered to reveal a new Eden, a new aesthetic, spatial and behavioural milieu, a new urban eco-language.

This concept is reflected in the manufacturing method of the METAfolly.  Since trashing is a necessary condition of our society, one that far exceeds the conventional notion of wasting, urban trash now encompass a multi layered assemblage of prod­ucts, landscapes, media content, attitudes and lifestyles. We should begin to accept this condition; perhaps we shall take trash seriously, with mathematical rigour, digital precision and crafting care. This ambition drove the prototyping of the meta-Folly. Its manufacturing is a meticulous process of manipulation of multiple forms of trash: from the machining of recycled plastic panels, to the hacking of cheap Chinese gadgets and the systematic deployment of "mathematics prêt a porter".

In terms of fabrication and material technologies, such at­titude leads to a process that can be defined a form of 'SLOW-PROTOTYPING'; in fact on the one hand we custom-prototype few specific components of the project while on the other we re-use, re-cycle and hack existing trash technologies (like Chinese Greeting cards kits) to become integral part of our new prototype. Rather than investing into the manufacturing of "new" components, we did work on the development of a dedicated "know how", a proto­col for the gathering of recycled bits and the detailing of their assemblage; by defining a system of transformations of found objects and manufacturing connections between re-cycled parts we finally “knit” together the pavilion.

 

What a ‘folie’, some might say! In fact the pavilion engages the tradition of the architectural folly with the same playful attitude, where architecture becomes a device to establish a new relationship with the Natural. Think of Grottos for instance with their artificial stalactites and rocks typically sited in manmade parks and accessed by boats floating within artificial lakes. Real lights and sound reflections were playing a crucial role in amplifying the intimacy of the visitors and stimulating the perception of a new nature.

A sonic swarm animates the METAfolly; a field of digitally materialized sensitivity agitates a proliferation of 300 piezo-buzzers analogically modulated in 4 different tones; programmed to operate like a swarm of crickets they react to the speed of visitors' movements around the folly, developing ripples of sound that bounce back and forth until dissolution, synchronisation or complete interference; the convolutedness of the geometry produces the emergence of unique sonic niches to be decoded by the human ears inside the folly.

An architecture that operates like a swarm, or in the swarm; able to convert a multitude of simple instructions into an emergent meta-language of forms, movements and effects. An architecture that's alive.

 

HORTUS: cyber-gardening the biosphere.

If we look at the earth as a territory devoted to life, it would appear as an enclosed space, delimited by the boundaries of living systems (the biosphere). In other words, it would appear as a garden (the etymology of the word garden comes from the German garten, the etymological root for which is enclosed or bounded space).

Gilles Clement, Il giardiniere planetario,

Clement's definition of biosphere as a garden reinforces our conception of the biosphere has no longer natural to us but a system that has co-evolved with a multitude of man-made and other bio-technological systems.

At the same time we are making as step in radicalizing our understanding of the notion of garden outside of its picturesque image {see urban parks and gardens}.

Moreover since there is not garden without gardening, i.e. reality is contained within experience, the practice of gardening claims a pivotal role in the development of sustainable practices of co-evolution of our civilization with the biosphere.

The practice of gardening here has acquired a whole new meaning outside the boundaries of the craft of tending gardens; it is a more abstract meaning, a new definition that embraces the architect and any human being involved in the project of architecture and urbanism. We become all gardeners tending our "biosphere".

As Gilles Clement points out in his beautiful description of the “moving garden”, the gardener operates through a process of intensification of difference; his only chance to reconcile his desire for beautification and the natural expressivity of living processes resides in movement, intended in its biological and physical sense. The formalization of the garden becomes for Clement a process of formalized transmission of biological messages or, in our terms, of algorithmic coding; algorithms are for the gardener machines for breeding biodiversity.

Differences in slope, insulation, soil moisture and so on are registered and then exploited by the "gardening algorithm" to promote the growth of different arboreal species; also the growth, being itself a variable and partially unpredictable process, needs to be read, assessed and then considered in the formulation of future actions, or in the future lines of the gardening code. The garden grows and beautification progresses in loops; each step generating more difference and local complexity that can be in turn recognized and bred; the management of this generative process is what makes the garden a potentially beautiful and healthy organism.

Form this conceptual framework emerges the notion of cyber-gardening that for us represent a radical rereading of the notion of sustainability in the field of architectural and urban design.

In the HORTUS project, one of ecoLogicStudio cyber-gardens, created for the Architectural Association's public program and installed in the Front Members room in January 2012, and then further developed for Alive exhibition in Paris in the form of HORTUS.Paris, the notion of urban self-sufficiency is challenged through a new gardening prototype designed to stimulate the emergence of novel material practices and related spatial narratives; the proto-garden hosts micro and macro-algal organisms and it is fitted with ambient light, sensing technologies and a custom designed virtual interface.

HORTUS proposes an experimental and hands on engagements with the notion of self-sufficiency, questioning its applicability to the planning of large landscapes and the retro-fitting of rural as well as post-industrial territories [as exemplified in the regional Algae Farm project developed by ecoLogicStudio for the Swedish region of Osterlen].

Flows of Energy [light radiation], Matter[biomass, CO2] and Information [images, tweets, stats] are triggered during the 4 weeks long growing loop, inducing multiple mechanisms of self-regulation and evolving novel forms of self-organization. Visitors are invited to engage daily with HORTUS imagining new protocols of cyber-gardening to breed the urban biologic diversity found in the lakes and ponds of London or Paris; as algal organisms require CO2 to grow visitors are invited to contribute by activating an air pumping system inside the photo-bioreactors as well as adjust their nutrients’ content; oxygen is released as a result, feeding the algae growth until percolation onto a filtering surface, HORTUS's harvesting terrain.

Data flow daily through HORTUS feeding its emergent virtual garden, accessible via smart phones; its virtual plots are nurtured by the flow of tweets posted by each visitor, locally and remotely; a form of collective intelligence may evolve, enriching the direct material experience of the visitor turned urban “cyber-gardener”.

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