Steps to an Ecology of Form

Volume interviews Alberto Iacovoni from Ma0

At the occasion of Ma0’s presentation in Venice in the Italian pavilion, Volume had an interview on what proved to be the hidden theme of this year’s Biennale: sustainability. The Italian office Ma0 (emmeazero, acronym for Media Architecture Office) has for more than 11 years been engaged in research and design with special focus on architecture as medium and the interaction with media.

Usually we don’t regard Ma0 as a ‘sustainable’ architecture office in a strict sense. But you are always looking for new kinds of lifestyles and sociality in liberated public spaces. Perhaps sustainability can be achieved in other ways, maybe not thinking only in terms of carbon emissions and energy savings…

Nowadays architects are dealing with sustainability focusing only on how technology can reduce the emissions, how we can reach a kind of self-sufficient climate balance etc. This is very important of course but this is not the main question about architecture. We can make very efficient buildings without dealing with the idea of the form of the building itself, or how the ‘sustainable city’ could be imagined. In other words, we can find sustainable solutions, from the energy point of view, to be applied to any kind of architectural form and language.
We should on the contrary focus more on how the form itself can contribute to a sustainable environment, not only because – as the studies by Newman and Kenworthy on the compact city were pointing out – a specific form is more or less dissipative, but also because from a true ecological approach, sustainability cannot be reduced to an energy issue, but should concern the social one too.
The word ‘ecology‘ refers to a kind of totality, a holistic vision of the environment.
In our work sustainability is seen from this point of view. I like to say that our research is a research for an ecology of form. Let me explain this.

The contemporary city seems the most unsustainable environment that mankind has ever built, not just as regards the large-scale consumption of energy and environmental resources (generally known as the urban footprint), but also and above all for the forms of occupation and organization of land at every level. Mechanisms increasing the value of areas continually fuel phenomena of expansion, in which the land on which the new city grows is an unspecialized, intensely subdivided space. The expansion of surface car parks, the proliferation of boundaries and barriers between different properties, and diverse areas that are interconnected only by a capillary street network, produce a sprawling, fragmented and dissipative urban structure.
If ecology is according to the Ernst Haeckel definition, the science of relations, to be really ecological we have to rebuild the relations in this fragmented reality. Relations between spaces, people, and environments. Therefore architecture should concentrate more on connections, than on the objects themselves.
That’s why one of the keywords of our research is continuity, that is to say, something that has the capacity to connect things. Of course this thing is public space. For example, our proposal for this Biennale, Footprints, is a further step in this research on continuity that has been ongoing since the founding of ma0. Recently we did an urban study for the city of Almere in the Netherlands, focusing specifically on this theme.

Footprints is simply made of images, visions on how this concept of continuity could work in the city. With Footprints we propose to reverse, to overturn the common point of view on the city. Not to focus on architecture, buildings, but to talk about what is in between buildings, what is connecting buildings, that is to say, public space – traditional public spaces as parks, streets and piazzas, but also more green, natural spaces, woods and spaces for leisure activities. I short: we have to work with voids, with spaces more than buildings.

Another main issue of sustainability is how a built environment can change and adapt to changing conditions. One of the main theoretical assumption of architecture in the 20th century was the power of the project to manage in itself the complexity of the future development of the city. The failure of many of those projects that have been realized shows us that we cannot tell in advance what will really happen…
So, one of the important questions of sustainability today is trying to produce systems that are in some ways weaker than the ones of the 20th century, able to adapt to the changing conditions as living systems, more than as dead concrete bodies.
That’s why another keyword in our architectures is play, which means the research for a performative quality of form, for an architecture that can meet the ever changing needs and desires of people who live in those spaces. An architecture which opens its inertial boundaries to interaction and intervention of the inhabitants.

From this point of view the continuity concept is something necessary to define the playground, the platform for interactions, a loosening of borders in the city to multiply the opportunities of a social play.

Maurizio Giufré in an editorial in the Italian newspaper il manifesto of September 12 pointed out that architects today cannot present real critiques of contemporary society…

That was really hard about the Biennale…

Indeed. You mentioned this idea of playscapes. How do you see this idea in relation to our consumption society? Is it a kind of liberation from the money economy, or are new ideas destined to become valuable marketable goods?

I don’t remember who said this, that every weapon that we use can be turned against ourselves. We operate in a capitalist society. So, if we really want to escape this kind of society we should maybe not start from architecture, but from different things, such as direct political action. I think architecture is a really compromissory activity in itself. It’s in the middle of dynamics which are much stronger than the architect and his/her ideas. But at the same time there still is a little freedom of action, for producing visions, for interfering with these dynamics.

It’s always very dangerous to say ‘ok, I’m really liberating things’. For example, these images that we have produced about this idea of continuous network of empty spaces going through the city at the same time can appear as a system of borders between isolated communities. So, I know that every image we produce can at he same time be looked at as its reversal. If you look at the history of the 20th century, you see that all utopian visions have been realized with the opposite value. The utopia of mass-society with everything mass-produced was an idea of liberation but in the end it became a tool for caging people. So in some ways I think that, as Guy Debord said, theories are made to die during time, so you always have to change your position.

The idea of play in some respects meets the capitalistic needs. For example, new media are now used to make people play in their little bedrooms, sometimes getting them less conscious about their own material conditions, separating people from each other. So, play is a really powerful tool to make people forget what the real problems are.
What is interesting in architecture is that this idea of play can on the contrary be politically very provocative.

Just to make another example: we won a competition in 2003, in one of the Europan sessions in Drancy, in the outskirts of Paris. The motto was ‘Playscape‘. The program asked to make a proposal for the renewal of a low-income housing project in Drancy, and playscape was the idea of a neighborhood that could be really open to the direct intervention of the inhabitants. We got the first prize, just because we had Herman Hertzberger in the jury who was really enthusiastic about our project. But then when we met the representatives of the city, they told us something very simple: ‘the space is not public, it belongs to the Republic. It’s the Republic that really decides what to do and what not to. At this moment, we don’t want people to decide about that space, and we would make any project on it, but not yours…’

If you bring play out of the private space and you put in the public one, you are liberating some real interconnections between people, and also liberating some conflicts, of course. So this becomes a provocative theme which can address some central questions in the present political debate.

Architecture is something related to really material stuff. This because it is strongly linked on how the market goes. Once you try to put this kind of thinking, you are discussing about some really fundamental things of our society. I don’t think we can really overturn this, but I think it’s our duty to try to put – as we say in Italian – some grains in the gears, something which can produce some frictions, to make some slight perturbations in the system that could lead to some unpredictable consequences.

On the other hand, in a moment in which the debate on public space is more and more about safety, about controlling people, the idea of play can be seen as something really inactual. But I think that if we don’t talk about this, then what shall we do? We could also accept more and more gated communities and controlled space, but if we have some kind of free thought, we have in some ways to try to produce some visions that are against this destiny of this gated and controlled contemporary city.


  1. Radoslaw Maj

    Such a great article, answered all my concerns to do with Architecture built environment in conjunction with Ecological issues.
    How the blending of the two can happen …

    Just great, very intriguing approach to thinking of architecture.


    Radoslaw Maj
    MAJ Koncept Group
    Toronto, ON

  2. Okay, I can seriously say Headsweats hats are on my running fave list. I run with one EVERY SINGLE run Woot!

  1. 1 Sustainability in the post-capitalist city. A short impression « Sustainability Reloaded

    […] which might enhance a different kind of sustainability could be brought about by the practice of play, in other words the practice of the homo ludens. A practice of play would most likely challenge […]

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