Posts Tagged ‘ecology’

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.


Interview with Pablo Georgieff from Coloco @ Venice Biennale

We live in an epoque in which the end of the resources and the rise of global population force us to choose between war or conviviality.
As declared partisans of the latter option, we need to learn how to economize all that it is not renewable, and to recycle everything as much as we can.
Time will be an essential component of our work, as we have to deal with life. Today, we are called to think at the reversibility of our manufacts, without capturing resources and creating constrains which will narrow the future choices.

Coloco is a Paris-based collective of “explorers of urban diversity”. Rather than a conventional architects, people at Coloco think themselves more as

Active gardeners, we don’t recognize ourselves into the corporative borders of our discipline. On the contrary, we became a symbiotic structure aggregating knowledge and skills we need for every different project. A living structure evolving in response to the environment.

We had the chance to meet Pablo Georgieff at the Venice Biennale. Here’s a report of our talk.

Would you like to explain to us the theme of your installation here at the Biennale?

Our presentation here at the Biennale is just a mosaic of some projects that we have been working on in the last eight or nine years. It’s kind of a genealogic tree connecting projects with one another, sort of families of projects: our works on abandoned buildings, on spontaneous gardens in the cities, landscape works from very small individual gardens to the green belt we are now working on in Tripoli, Libia. It’s a cross-scale project with some topics that we are interested in, that we think important for our practice and that we call Urbanodiversity.

Can you explain the idea behind this term?

Urbanodiversity is the idea that the city’s richness depends on variety of activities, situations, living beings that can be hosted in it, and it is the opposite of the generic, monotonous, functionalist city.
We believe that very different interesting situations can occur in accidents, in small places, in what we call ‘turbulences’ of the flux of people, materials and information of the city, where creative behavior, new experiences, new solutions can be born.

You use the metaphor of fluid dynamics in the city…

We see urbanism as an ‘aerodynamic’ discipline, based on movement, fluxes and energy, and no more based on dead matter and materials, as it was in the past.
We think that it is necessary now to work seriously on the living, human material of the city. The city is not just a collection of bricks, or more or less sophisticated materials in more or less fancy shapes, but it’s also a set for relationships, for stories, for love and hate. This is something we would like to use as material for our projects. We don’t mean to quantify human parameters in the way social disciplines do, but to engage individuals into action.

You also present a different insight on nature, different from the idea we are used to

We always want to remind that there’s nothing ‘behind’ nature. Nature is not opposite to anything, because everything is part of nature. There are just different environments, different equilibriums. We have been consulted last year by the municipality of Paris asking us where the new nature spaces in Paris would be. We answered that there would be no new nature spaces, for nature is already everywhere. We proposed to call this project ‘Welcoming Diversity’. It’s about creating the living conditions for life forms and the relationships between them.

That’s not really a common task for architects. For example, in the Arsenale you can’t even touch objects that are supposed to be furniture. Weird situation. Our job is supposed to be about hosting life… Of course there are also positive examples: now this interview is taking place at the Biennale in a semi-underground space with lots of cushions on the floor, outside it is raining very heavy and this has become a very interesting place: everybody is talking with one another, meeting. In this Biennale places to exchange ideas are very rare, and this space is a real success just because we can use it and it is welcoming.

What are the tools you developed to achieve, or to deal with, this Urbanodiversity?

We are trying to work on tools that help us to integrate time in our projects. It is not a thing completely out of the blue, or completely new, or never seen, but we are trying to introduce chronograms as information-exchange and project-driving tools with the clients. We were thinking about how to improve participation, working together, operational sequences to give also the possibility to have spontaneous collaborations, to have optimizations, to have inventions. To do that, you always have to know what is going on, in what sequences, what is necessary to do first, what you have to prepare in order to make things happen, etc.
For example, next year we will have this project in Brazil for the French cultural season. After some proposals and negotiations we have been given a 20-storey building from the Sixties in the center of the city which is now empty. We have suggested activating it as a cultural laboratory during the eight months of the season. Also, it will serve as a negotiation platform to decide what to do with this building, to see if an entity emerges out of this experience that can make this building function with a mix of dwellings, cultural workshops, communication, etc.
In this experience we really don’t know what is going to happen: our aim is to set up the tools by which all people involved can share ideas, and finally act together. This is what we call ‘process architecture’, which is not about the final form, but how we can work with one another, how you can find places where you can discuss, making the project evolve and in the end to create the possibility to really invent something together.

Nature doesn’t exist, and it’s a product of our thought. Or, our thought is shaped by nature, as we are embedded in it. In each case, ecology is not anymore an ecology of nature, but it is an ecology of everything: environment, mind, society.

Human activities can be described with ecological models, and human activities have ecological consequences.
If there is no “nature”, no original “equilibrium” to be restored then GMOs, nuclear power, Geo Engineering, etc, are not intrinsically wrong. Paradoxically, they’re also functional to lowering CO2 emissions.

The wrong fact is that GMOs, nuclear power, Geo Engineering, etc, are a product of a not ecological vision of the world. The laws of Market are inherently anti-ecological

  1. the only lasting connection between things is the cash nexus
  2. it doesn’t matter where something goes as long as it doesn’t enter the circuit of capital
  3. the self-regulating market knows best
  4. nature’s bounty is a free gift to the property owner

So, we should be able to design our actions – or inactions – coping with the laws of ecology

  1. Everything is connected to everything else
  2. Everything must go somewhere – no matter what you do, and no matter what you use, it has
    to go somewhere
  3. Nature knows best
  4. There is no such thing as a free lunch

There is lots of literature of the 60s and 70s on utopian design

Books like Progress As If Survival Mattered, Small Is Beautiful, Muddling Toward Frugality, The Integral Urban House, Design for the Real World, A Pattern Language, and so on. I had a whole shelf of those books. Their tech is now mostly obsolete, superceded by more sophisticated tech, but the ideas behind them, and the idea of appropriate technology and alternative design: that needs to come back big time. And I think it is

The term ‘permaculture‘ in a broad sense can describe well this approach. A practical, process-based design strategy on the use of proper technologies to engineer our ecologies.

Volume 16 was about Engineering Society. “Instead of reviving old school high modernist social engineering or claiming the need for an intellectual junta, we solicit new forms of social engineering”. Can we also imagine bottom-up, practice based activities of ecological engineering, going beyond frankenstein technologies and apocaliptic geo-engineering?

The debate on sustainability in architecture was in the past years dominated by energy saving and renewable energy production, transportation management, urban densification and other technical solutions.
While these solutions address important contemporary issues, they don’t provide a vision on what we mean with a ‘sustainable’ society and what is the future that we expect, or fear.

But some installations at the Italian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale are opening the debate in other directions. Some architects are starting to propose different visions of nature, and of human relationships with the environment.

While the progressive hybridation of human activities with natural ecosystems has made outdated the traditional nature preservation instruments,  Ecologic Studio proposes ecoMachines, adaptable mechanisms meant to support a comprehensive urban ecological practice. An ecoMachine, is an adaptable mechanism to manage, transform and assess human actions in their ecosystems. As the Architects claim, this could be a very operative way of being ecologists.

French office Coloco sees the possibility to reuse each piece of neglected land, in order to bring life in them. They propose the term ‘Urbanodiversity’, to describe how urban life dynamics itself evolve, react to external stimuli, and produce unexpected consequences. As they suggest, “nature is not an ideal state, but a relentless force of renewal which operates at any scale”.

Avatar Architettura, through an attractive collage-style installation, envision the edible edifice, a total urban structure providing shelter, food and leisure made free from money and economic exchange.

Ecosistema Urbano doesn’t want to envision utopian futures. On the contrary, they start from practical and empirical facts. In their installation “10 things we learned from the city” they propose adaptive and democratic practices based on processes and participatory techniques, extending the scope of ecological thinking to social, financial, political and cultural domains.

  • This blog functions as a platform for thinking out loud on the evasive concept of 'sustainability’. Volume and Abitare both draw from their own experience and visions in an attempt to reassess what is at stake.
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