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BioDigital Loire: BioCities / architecture / cyber-Gardens / urban design / waterOctober 13, 2017

The Loire valley is a ‘cultural landscape’ which synthesises knowledge belonging to different disciplinary domains: architecture, landscape design, agriculture, hydrology ,geology, social sciences, economy and so on. The importance of such definition is reinforced by the recognition it has received form UNESCO, which underlines the branding and economical value that the Loire topographic region embodies. So interestingly while France, as a national state, is losing relevance in the contemporary global order, and Orleans, as a small city,  does not appear on the global map of emerging metropolises, the Loire Valley posses the character and diversity to be a recognisable attractor. It is therefore sensible for the city of Orleans to frame its new Metropolitan status in relationship to the Loire as a topographic region.

However a key factor in the current definition of the Loire valley as a 'cultural landscape' is the preservation of the Loire as a ‘wild river’,  which implies avoiding urban infrastructures to fundamentally alter its course and deplete its biodiversity. It may seem therefore contradictory to seek to establish a stronger urban dimension for a domain whose value is measured in terms of its wilderness. We would argue however that engaging such contradiction may offer an opportunity  for both the Loire valley as a whole and the city of Orleans to propose a new model of urbanity, one that exists outside the ideological struggle of natural conservation vs urban development .

Friction city vs. river.

One of the most problematic aspects in the relationship between a 'wild river' and a substantial urban development today is the aspect of risk management. 'Wild rivers', and the Loire is no exception, have a nonlinear behaviour that can become highly unpredictable and fluctuates dramatically from season to season and from year to year. Cities like Orleans demand high levels of control over unpredictable and potentially destructive 'natural' phenomena like flooding.

In the past the management of this elastic relationship implied not only the building of defensive structures but most of all a practice of constant monitoring and intervention; such monitoring was a direct function of multiple activities that were taking place in and on the river, such as commercial navigation, and that did involve a large section of the population and the local institutions. Today the river as become more of a background to urban activity than a medium to facilitate its development. Urban life is only indirectly affected by the river and its course and as such both local institutions and the community at large have happily delegated its management to specific organisms.

These management protocols have therefore become obscure to the point that very few individuals have any knowledge of them. As such their general understanding has become ideological: everyone expects risk managers to simply minimize or erase risk, the how to is little known.


One of the key potentials offered by the status of the Loire as 'wild river' is that no permanent canalization or dam has been built along its lower course; in the city of Orleans in particular the river is bound by soft flood barrier that still leave plenty of room for the river to expand and contract.  Only a longitudinal dam has been built within the river bed with the function of clearing a navigable edge towards the old city.

As such the river still manifests its nonlinearity which can be observed in the turbulent patterns of flow as well as in the sedimentation of islands of various forms and dimensions; such geomorphodynamic formations are rather accelerated. An early satellite analysis shows the movement is seasonal and the river bed morphology is redefined in only a matter of months.

This positive feedback is contrasted and regulated by a series of other emergent biotic and abiotic processes, some also highly influenced by human action, albeit involuntarily. A critical one is the spontaneous growth of vegetation on river islands. As rural areas proliferate along the valley with cultures such as grape becoming a prominent symbol of the cultural landscape of the Loire, the soil of the river bed has saturated of fertilizing substances that rain washes into the river itself. As a consequence the Loire is today rich in phosphates and nitrates that contribute to the rapid growth of small and large vegetation in the river bed and on the sedimented islands. This process has the effect of consolidating the river bed and adding biomass. The balance between erosion and sedimentation is highly unstable and can rapidly escalate.

Interestingly, and somewhat paradoxically, this emergent anthropic landscape of sedimentary gardens is collectively conceptualized as a testament of wilderness, triggering conservationist instincts which have the effect of tipping the balance of forces towards a greener river bed. However it is important to notice that the notion of self-regulation in dynamical systems like wild rivers does not imply an ideal and balanced state of greening;  on the contrary episodes of wild reorganization and even destruction of sedimentary landscapes are critical to the ability of the river to self-regulate.

So how can we reconcile this need for movement and morphological self-organisation with the imperative of a modern city built on the ideology of balance and stability?

Management protocols.

It is therefore left to risk managers to decide when and how to manipulate some of those formations to minimize the risk of catastrophic events;  the rationale behind such design process that results in the remodelling of sections of the river bed is obscure, in the sense that is not shared. As such it cannot be urban or evolve a new urbanity in co-evolution with the river Loire.

In reality a very large number of processes contribute to the complex dynamics of the Loire and its effect on the city;  for instance its microclimatic effect is evident. As water evaporates, especially next to more turbulent areas, haze, fog, dew and ice form. Such formations vary greatly and in winter for instance we observed the formation of large ice crystals. Ice and crystals affect the sedimentation patterns of the river but also directly index its substratum, revealing the complexity and differentiation of the river bed itself, beyond the simple presence of vegetation.  Microclimatic effects are ephemeral but their observation and affects are critical to the dynamic of the river. With the aid of satellite and other digital monitoring techniques it is today possible to register and index this emerging patterns, visible manifestations of the fundamental geomorphodynamic processes underpinning the life and behaviour of the river Loire as it flows within the urban terrain of Orleans.

Indexical protocols.

Our project argues for the deployment of a computational grid over a specific portion of the river Loire facing the historical centre of Orleans; the grid will operate as a sieve, defining the resolution of the grain of information we extrapolate from the monitoring of that portion of river. We will in other world index the river in space and time and at a certain resolution and render such information visible in a set of 'operational field' drawings; as these drawings become of public domain they will become the basis for the invention of a new collective protocol of management of the river Loire.

The 'operational fields' themselves are purely computational entities but they can be materialized thought the application of specific media; in our case we will deploy analogue media that have a direct material effect on the sedimentation patterns of the river as they directly affect the aggregation of transported rock and soil particles . As such their deployment will not only serve as a materialization tool but also and at the same time it will provide a mean of direct intervention into the river bed. Indexing will become an act of design.

We will deploy techniques of mineral deposition and crystallization, microbial aggregation and bacterial weaving .

The installation - FRAC bio-digital Loire.

The resulting 'cyber-garden' will be produced and installed in the FRAC centre in Orleans; we have made early diagrams to describe how we intend to use the space of the FRAC, including part of the central courtyard to deploy our computational grid.

We propose to re-imagine, for the occasion, the Jakob + MacFarlane grid which formally articulates the metaphor of 'Les Turbulences', into a computational grid that performatively indexes the river Loire as a turbulent dynamical system.

Such shift which symbolically brings the river inside the city and the FRAC Center, also aims to questions the future relevance of digital or parametric design technologies as manifested into the new architecture of the FRAC and its cutting edge collection.

We see the installation connecting the two courtyards of the FRAC, crossing the large glass windows. While the external part will be more diagrammatic, the internal section, corresponding in scale to the portion of river Loire that edges the historical part of Orleans, will grow in tree dimensions and host the analogue models of the indexical gardens, creating a new urban horizon between city and river.


Project Credits:

A project by ecoLogicStudio: Marco Poletto and Claudia Pasquero (London, UK)

Design Team: Marco Poletto, Claudia Pasquero, Konstantinos Alexopoulos, Matteo Pendenza, Mauro Mosca, Apostolos Marios Mouzakopoulos, Gabriela Zarwanitzer

Urban Morphogenesis Lab at the Bartlett UCL [research partner]
Teaching Facullty: Claudia Pasquero, Filippo Nassetti, Tommaso Casucci, Emmanouil Zaroukas
Students: I-Ting Lien, Yadi Kang, Yu Liu

Commissioned for Biennale d’Architecture d’Orléans#1, as part of the permanent collection of FRAC Center
Exhibition Curated by Abdelkader Damani and Luca Galofaro

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