Codingcity talks with Claudia Pasquero and Marco Poletto, co-founders of ecoLogicStudio, about their urban research and teaching activities at Bartlett School of Architecture, Architectural Association and IAAC.
Marco Poletto: Hello guys. Before we start, I would like to know a little bit more about your activities. I saw that you are online with this blog [codingcity.org] where one can find some threads of your research.
Davide Mariani: That’s correct. Codingcity is a newborn project that’s forming from the collaboration of three people: Enrico and I, we had the same education – engineering and architecture; Andrea is a tech writer with a strong interest in both art and technology. Our expression form lies in the article, the interview and other participative activities still in development such as workshops, installations, events – a general approach with a distinct multi-disciplinarity.
MP: Does it all have a physical headquarter or it just lives online? How do you interface with the world?
Enrico Tognoni: This activity, as Davide said, was born a couple of months ago with the Web as its starting point. Some of the ideas we intend to develop will certainly have a physical base that we’re still working to define. The online publication of our interventions, within what you may call a blog, gave us the ability to start with these early collaborations.
MP: What is the language of your activities, Italian or English?
ET: For now, we prefer to use Italian to achieve a better control of our contents. Switching to English will be a due and subsequent step, and it’s already on our roadmap.
MP: Reading you interventions, I was favorably impressed by the quality of content curation and the attention to sources.
On the Web, you often see a never-ending posting of random images that “bounce” from one site to another, missing any precise reference and associated to shallow contents.
I believe one needs to look at digital design with a structure, in the historical, technological, and artistic contextualization of the term.
I also find your research focus very interesting, because it’s based on the urban, and it’s in line with the work we’re doing at Bartlett, both as directors of the Research Cluster Bio-Urban Design, and in the case of Claudia, as a leader of the new March Post-Graduate Programme “Urban Morphogenesis”.
That’s a path that leaves us free of joining new collaborations, calling in guests, set up lectures with philosophers, architects, urbanists. But let’s get started with the interview…
DM: Claudia, the title of the new MArch at the Bartlett School of Architecture you are leading is “Urban Morphogenesis”. I know it’s a non-conventional study about the city, because it’s not simply about a urban system, it’s about the connections between two deeply different systems: “Global Megacities” and “Resource Driven Boom Towns”. Can you explain to us this relationship and its importance in urban development?
CP: The idea of Urban Morphogenesis is to inspect the city not from a morphological point of view, but a systemic one. What we’re trying to achieve is the application of a scientific approach that is related to the analysis of the city with computational and algorithmic methods.
These systems were often used at an analytical level, but what we’re interested in is to see how they get turned into design tools and, therefore, how they have an influence on urban processes and on the morphogenesis of settlement systems.
MP: The idea of morphogenesis is obviously tied to the theory of complex systems and to the concept of form compression as the result of both a self-organization process and a group of energy and matter fluxes that influence the system and its dynamics.
CP: The relationship between Megacities and Resource Driven Boom Towns is central to our work.
They should not be interpreted as two different paradigms: when you start to conceive the city as a system, you have to think about the relationships of the city with the elements that, somehow, are influencing and generating the city itself.
On a recent lecture at the IAAC in Barcelona, I talked about the fact that in cities like Cairo the morphogenesis of the city was deeply related to the presence of the river Nile and its ability to be a source of supplies; because of that, the river is deeply integrated in both the morphogenetic process of the city and its inner dynamics.
In contemporary megapolises, the infrastructures for extraction, transportation, or treatment of resources (mineral, oil-related or any other kind) are often decontextualized: they’re “in the middle of nowhere”, far from the city and located in places that lack any relevance in terms of planning and morphology.
These places often become actual urban nuclei, since their population may range from 50,000 to 3 million.
MP: It was important, to us, to be able to include in the definition of city and within the pertinence of Urban Design, those sites or territories that aren’t usually considered as urban, but that are actually part of the “ecological footprint” of contemporary cities.
Extraction sites, mines, open-pit mines, informal urbanization processes, usually elude the “traditional criteria” of our discipline, even though they occupy bigger and bigger portions of territory and they’re a non-negligible aspect of big metropolises, considering that they’re part of the network of the metropolis itself.
Apart from the ecological processes that are always included in our researches, there’s also this will to broaden the horizons of the urban discipline: according to us, if it rules out some elements, the discipline cannot come up with sustainable solutions for the future.
DM: A chapter of your book “Systemic Architecture: Operating Manual for the Self-Organizing City” is named “Urban Algoritmh”. What’s the role of code, simulation, and other digital tools in your design process?
MP: If we consider a wider framework, we could say that coding and computation play a fundamental role in our conceptual design: in facts, they allow to create systems of relations and to test the feedback-loop effect that those relationships set in motion in a process of transformation.
In this way a dynamic system takes shape, a fundamental concept for the feedback-loop on which the living systems are born and evolve. Through code, it is possible to represent those dynamic systems, and consequently, considering how the work of architects and city planners is based on the representation, it allows us to develop theories, make decisions and think of new morphologies.
It’s very important to emphasize that the use of these techniques goes beyond the simple exploration of new morphologies, although, of course, this remains a part of the process.
We can go beyond that, thanks to to the current ability to pick from territory mapping systems, GIS systems, real time data, etc … you can think of using a feedback based approach not only in the design phase, but also in later stages: the concept of “urban algorithm”, as it was presented in the book, tries to imagine how the code is not only operating in the phase of design or concept, but can rather be seen as
a kind of “rule for the production and urban living”, as if the project and the city were interacting and symbiotic parts of the same system. The idea of computation goes beyond the design stage, and wants to be seen as a “live component” of the urban system.
CP: When it proposes a project strategy that’s able to fully respond to the context, the algorithm acquires a value that is almost socio-political. That would be impossible for a top-down proposal.
MP: When we think at a larger scale and in relation to time-dependent regimes, there is a stage when the project must be “frozen”. You can not think of a resilient project, if, at some point, it needs to be locked into a specific morphology that defines its quality;
for us, a project must be defined as a code, as a relationship and it must obviously manifest itself in a morphogenetic process through a variety of solutions that evolve depending on the state of the system.
This is one of the points that ecoLogicStudio is exploring in its research, as one can see in our project in Sweden.
DM: A few weeks ago, in a lecture at IAAC in Barcelona and at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London, you mentioned Gilles Clement to introduce the concept of “Gardening.” We can certainly say that “Garden” is one of the keywords for your research and production. What stands out, is that this concept is present in your “macro-scale” proposals, but also in installations that deal with the “micro-scale”. Could you tell us more about this guideline? How are micro and macro linked?
CP: As a matter of fact, as we said in the answer to the first question, we think of the various levels of scale as interconnected, because relations and connections constitute the raison d’etre of the prototypes we use.
As a result, having a systemic approach, we talk about schemes, resolutions, sensitivity and functional hierarchies.
MP: About the idea of “Gardening”, we must mention Gilles Clement, because his concepts are fundamental for our research. Gilles Clement describes the garden, in its traditional definition of “Hortus Conclusus” (i.e. “a space delimited by borders”), as a metaphor able to show the limits of what might seem unlimited, like the biosphere: we tried to start from the biosphere to the garden of H.O.R.T.U.S. at the Architectural Association, in which biological elements are manipulated through digital tools to create new visions of a urban collective ecology.
We can say that this is a trans-scale idea because of that very reason.
On the other side, the idea of Gardening comes from his literal meaning. This is also a controversy over the architect profession, getting used to produce drawings, papers, concepts… but often without any connection with the complexity of life and living systems.
Gilles Clement often opposes the Gardener to the Landscape Architect, claiming that he prefers the first one: the gardener “gets his hands dirty”, and faces his project negotiating the ecologies that compose it.
The garden and its colors and morphologies are created with this dynamic and continuous negotiation.
So we think of the designer of the future as a sort of “Cyber-Gardener”.
DM: I agree with you distancing yourself from the term “sustainability” in the way it is commonly conceived today. Words like “conservation”, “safeguard”, are often used in relation to nature, as if nature was a system totally divorced from the one where humanity lives and interacts.
That happens for the strong anthropocentric view of humanity that doesn’t feel itself like a part of nature, but sees itself at something “else”.
Do you express this king of critique in exhibitions like H.O.R.T.U.S or Alive?
Is your research a sort of message to guide humanity toward a “new ecology”?
MP: I think the problem does not lie within the fact that humanity feels itself like a part of nature or it feels superior to it: the problem is the technology developed by humans that is always seen as something alien from nature itself.
A change in the line of thought is needed, otherwise this opposition between man and nature, along with anthropocentrism as you said, will never be surpassed. Consequently, the development of more complex and sensitive frameworks is very difficult.
People are amazed by how the iPhone looks complex, but that is simply a gadget developed in a system capable of generating profit. I believe, however, that it’s important to assess the possible side effects of these tools.
In our project, we try to be a little like “hackers”, and we want to show the use of technologies in ways that are different from their original purpose.
We try to create design combinations based on technology, biology, and architectural space; in this way, we imagine scenarios where these aspects cooperate in a new framework to overcome the simplistic idea of preservation, and to promote new paradigms.
CP: The answer is absolutely “Yes”. What we try to emphasize is the shift from an anthropocentric view to a systemic vision. I think that’s inevitable to consider a human point of view. What we want to discuss is the consideration of the human system as separate from the natural system. There is often no dialogue between humanity and nature, but an exploitation of nature itself.
Bateson’s theory of language (from where the name “ecoLogicStudio” derives) talks about the relationship that can be created at various scales between the interconnected systems.
That relates to the question that you asked about the relationship between “micro” and “macro” in our production. If you think you should take advantage of a resource, the important point is not to decide if you should exploit it, but how you can create a relationship and an interaction between the resource system and the human system.
The idea is to build relationships at different scales: the individual, communities, cities, they must be in contact with the exchange that occurs between the systems.
This is our concept of “ecology”.
DM: As directors of the Cluster Bio-UD at Bartlett School of Architecture, may you tell us something about your idea of “Bio-Hacking”?
MP: I can say we’ve already answered… but in a simpler way we can say that within the Cluster Bio-UD we work on a more strategic scale, where we try to develop biomimetic models of collective intelligence by studying insects (such as termites or ants) and observing their ability to create structures and solve problems of varying complexity through emergent behaviors.
These principles have been studied for years and have been used in robotics, for example, while in urban planning they have not been examined in depth. That’s why we think they deserve more attention.
Our idea is to extract digital models from which we can get informations and possible analogies with urban models.
Another aspect is the idea of “micro”, the idea of “nano”, the idea of biotechnology: we are working on Bioenergy not to discover new biofuels, but to create instead new metabolisms by integrating the processes of algae, bacteria, etc into larger systems.
We attempt to overcome the concept of “renewable energy” in its common and simplistic meaning, where the solution of the energy problem is based on huge infrastructures (such as wind farms) or solar of photovoltaic systems, which are part of a paradigm we want to leave behind. We want to create new bioactive layers that could work as a urban metabolism in order to replace big energetic infrastructures.
All photos courtesy of ecoLogicStudio.
Andrea Nepori and Enrico Tognoni contributed to the translation of this interview.