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January 2021

Producing mutations — Prof. Carlo Ratti

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Laka: What is the city of your dreams like?

Carlo Ratti: I do not think that the ideal city exists. I would like to imagine it more like a collage of many cities. We could take inspiration from Georges Perec’s ideal home—split across all the arrondissements of Paris. So, I would say that my ideal city has the climate of Naples, the topography of Cape Town, the fusion cooking of Sydney, the architecture of Manhattan, the frenzy of Hong Kong and… why not? The exuberant nightlife of Rio de Janeiro!

Your practices implement a wide spectrum of various innovations, but they are always set in the specific social, natural, or built context, and they always respond to a specific need. What is the methodology behind the work of Carlo Ratti Associati and MIT Senseable City Lab?

In terms of focus and methodology, I would like to refer to what we call “futurecraft,” as we discuss in our latest book. This is something that is rooted in Herbert Simon’s definition of design, which he put forward in his classic ‘The Sciences of the Artificial’: “The natural sciences are concerned with how things are.… Design, on the other hand, is concerned with how things ought to be.” I like to see our work as something that contributes to the production of mutations, accelerating the transformation of the present into how it “ought to be.” I think design can be used as a systematic germination of possible futures, intervening at the interface between people, technologies, and the city.

Which emerging technologies of smart cities seem particularly interesting to you?

As you keep on using the word “smart city,” I would like to point out that I do not particularly like it. However, it is nothing else than the outcome of a broad technological phenomenon that has been unfolding over the last two decades and is now undergoing a dramatic acceleration. The Internet is entering physical space, becoming an Internet of Things (IoT)—and ushering in a series of unprecedented possibilities in terms of how we can understand, design, and live in a city. Applications are manifold: from mobility to energy, from water to waste.

For instance, let’s look at mobility. We know that mobility will radically change thanks to the advent of self-driving. Over the next decade, self-driving vehicles promise to have a dramatic impact on urban life. This is not mainly because you do not need to keep your hands on the steering wheel but because they will blur the distinction between private and public modes of transportation. “Your” car could give you a lift to work in the morning and then, rather than sitting idle in a parking lot, give a lift to someone else in your family—or, for that matter, to anyone else in your neighborhood or social-media community.

The advent of self-driving cars will change part of the urban infrastructure. Something that will probably change is parking. Today, our cars are parked on average a staggering 95% of the time. As a result, the parking infrastructure is so pervasive that for every car in the United States, there are approximately three non-residential spots—amounting to 5,000 square miles, an area larger than Puerto Rico. Autonomous cars can keep on being used in the system and hence could free up some of today’s parking areas.

‘Roboat’ is an autonomous on-demand infrastructure that can transform into bridges for pedestrians or be used as individual transportation through the city’s canal system. Photo (c) MIT and AMS Institute.

Prof. Carlo Ratti is a director of the MIT Senseable City Lab and a founding partner of the international design and innovation office Carlo Ratti Associati. Images © Carlo Ratti Associati.

Banner image (c) Carlo Ratti Associati. Paris Navigating Gym’: a project by Carlo Ratti Associati in collaboration with Technogym, Terreform One, and URBEM. It is a 20-meter-long boat that cruises along the Seine thanks to passengers’ workouts; Image “” (c) MIT and AMS Institute

This is an excerpt from the Laka Perspectives book vol. 02, published by Laka Foundation (non-profit, Poland) with the support of Solarlux Follow Perspectives on Instagram:

In the name of nature — Dr. Silvia Titotto

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Dr. Silvia Titotto is the principal investigator of the ‘4D Printing and Biomimetics’ interdisciplinary research group. She is currently an assistant professor of the Engineering, Modeling and Applied Social Sciences Center and at the Post Graduate Program in Engineering and Management of Innovation, both at the Federal University of ABC (UFABC). She holds a PhD from Politecnico di Torino (Italy) in the field of Technological Innovation for the Built Environment and a PhD the from University of São Paulo (USP, Brazil) in the field of Architecture and Design. Silvia’s selected research interests are biomimetics/biomimicry, biological systems, prototyping, 3D and 4D printing, reactive sensors, and machine learning.

Laka: What made you decide to dedicate your professional life to the application of biomimetics and robotics in architecture? What was your career path?

Silvia: I took up engineering in 1999, but I soon missed the lack of real examples of kinetics during firstyear classes, so I later decided to take new college entrance examinations for architecture and urban planning, as I thought I would have more freedom to develop moving things sooner. In a highly interdisciplinary-oriented environment, I was really happy making all those models and creating possibilities beyond reality. I excelled in structural engineering subjects, so I was invited to work as a junior researcher of lightweight structures at the Computational Mechanics Lab. At this point, I could not avoid being very influenced by the studies of the German architect and structural engineer Frei Otto about bionics and biomimetics, and I became an architect focused on technological innovation via biomimetics. I relied upon installation artworks as a mean of testing and validating concepts and proposals in a smaller scale that was not dependent on the huge sums of investment that are common in architecture. This approach made a greater number of projects feasible also, due to the reduction in consumption time.

During my time as a doctoral candidate at the University of São Paulo, my focus was on patterns of nature based on fractals and chaos theory, and during my PhD at Politecnico di Torino, my focus shifted to morphogenesis and its responsive prototyping via kinetic sensing. Later, I worked on a nuclear submarine project as an officer of the Brazilian Navy, so I also somehow related to challenging engineering that could be approached via biomimicry, and I started to get closer to the newest additive manufacturing tools in order to update more traditional platforms of physical models. After that, I spent some time as a postdoc doing research on bioinspired deployable structures for aerospace engineering at Federal University of ABC and working on the relationships between robotic fabrication for architectural purposes and social insects’ construction skills as a visiting professor at the University of Bologna, Silesian University of Technology, and Riga Technical University. You see, throughout my career I have been supporting nature-inspired design as a premise for the conception of function, form, and efficiency as a whole. Nowadays, as I am an assistant professor of the post-graduate program in engineering and management of innovation and as a principal investigator of the research group ‘4D printing and biomimetics’ at Federal University of ABC, this necessarily imposes on me the need of a transdisciplinary approach with a group of very tuned collaborators from different backgrounds. In my research group, there are designers, biologists, structural/robotics/aerospace engineers, and materials/computer scientists, just to name a few.

Fig. 01 ‘Wings of Desire’: a kinetic artwork designed by Silvia Titotto and presented during an exhibition at the Slaviero Art Gallery in São Paulo, Brazil, in 2008. Photo © Eduardo Fragata.

Fig. 01 ‘Wings of Desire’: a kinetic artwork designed by Silvia Titotto and presented during an exhibition at the Slaviero Art Gallery in São Paulo, Brazil, in 2008.

In what way has your environment inspired you to research biomimetics? What was the first impulse?

I was brought up in a low-profile environment in the suburbs of the São Paulo metropolis. Throughout my childhood, I was very much encouraged to create and build my own toys — for instance, inverting or bending the geometry of some species of flowers so that those shape alterations could lead to the making of little dresses to be worn by the plant itself. Another example was mango seeds whose long lints I used to comb as ‘autogenous hair,’ and whose lump I used to paint carefully as a doll. My dad was a dermatologist, so on the weekends, my sister and I used to ask him to take us to his private clinic so that we could play with his microscope. What great fun it was to check the patterns of fungus from old cheese or the structures of leaves! But I guess I got my first real impulse to research biomimetics as a career when I touched the mimosas from our garden.

Some living organisms have tissue and microstructural compositions whose dynamic morphologies can change shape in response to changes in their environments. Very recently, one of the cutting-edge research trends is to mimic, via composites or multimaterials printed in 4D and/or incorporating microactuators, a variety of dynamic alterations in response to changes in humidity or temperature, such as those performed by tendrils (Macfadyena), retracting leaves (Mimosa pudica L.), loss of pigmentation in skeletal flowers (Diphylleia grayi), plus many other examples. You see, those examples played a very important part in my first childhood ludic experiences in the garden. I still feel like my childhood was a magical time when I could devote long hours to the study of nature: it was almost everywhere around me!

Fig. 02 ‘Poetics of At[traction]’: an artwork presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art at the University of São Paulo (Brazil) in 2008. Photo © Eliza Ramos.

Fig. 02 ‘Poetics of At[traction]’: an artwork presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art at the University of São Paulo (Brazil) in 2008.

What possible factors can we now regulate in architecture based on observations made from nature? How do you see the possibilities of development in the field?

There are many factors that can be improved, optimized, and regulated in the built environment from nature observations: of course, thermoregulation inspired by termite mounds is a classic example, but bioinspired self-assembly promises to enable advances in many applications beyond architecture, such as in biology, medicine, materials science, software, robotics, manufacturing, transportation, infrastructure, construction, and aerospace, as well as in new categories of artworks. It is a great honor for architects to work as conductors of this kind of orchestra that can impact such a wide range of fields.

Self-assembly is a process commonly encountered in nature, in that the disordered parts build an ordered structure via local interaction. This phenomenon is independent of scale and can be used for self-constructing and manufacturing systems, from a simple set of responsive building blocks, energy, and interactions that can be designed in a wide range of materials and machining processes, both in the case of rapid prototyping via 4D printing, in which programmable materials respond precisely to environmental changes in temperature or humidity, as well as more vernacular techniques such as agitation of particles, whose results are generated randomly. I perform research at the intersections of parametric modeling, digital fabrication, material science, biological systems, and complex geometries.

They are from nano-sized to macro-sized projects, as I know it is important to keep an eye on the different scales related to all kinds of existing architectures. My design approach encourages the use of multidisciplinary skills to provide high degrees of customization and versatility in products and services, aiming to establish new forms of representing and prototyping kinetic solutions that react to environmental stimuli via passive energy (for example, 4D printing). I guess my ultimate intent is to mediate interactions between objects, humans, biological systems, and built environments, instigating the proposition of new parameters for the redefinition of naturalness and artificiality in the 21st century and beyond. I see these aspects as some of the greatest possibilities of development in the architecture field for some time.

Fig. 03 ‘Coral Reef’: an installation by Silvia Titotto at the Robotics Lab at the University of São Paulo (Brazil) in 2012. Photo © Silvia Titotto.

Fig. 03 ‘Coral Reef’: an installation by Silvia Titotto at the Robotics Lab at the University of São Paulo (Brazil) in 2012.

Could you reveal any of the secrets of the most challenging projects you have worked on? What made them memorable?

I reckon I have some fun stories from different meanings of the word ‘challenging.’ For example, concerning physical challenge, in 2008, I got nicknamed ‘Spiderwoman’ because I gathered a team of 20 people who had shifts during the day and night to help me build an extremely delicate installation artwork in a contemporary art museum that was destroyed in about half an hour with the presence of spectators that were not aware of what was really going on there. Concerning scientific challenges, during my Italian doctorate in 2010, I was driven by the idea of ‘metabolic living architecture.’ Some works by the Canadian architect Philip Beesley[04] help visualize these ideas through immersive installations that react, learn, and evolve from the movements of people passing through them, powered by protocells. Back then, my aim was to produce metabolic architectures based on machine learning, so that artificial structures were no longer seen as inanimate, fixed objects, but as living and breathing entities capable of regeneration and growth. This ambition led me to a spiral of high demands for learning things from different backgrounds. As a consequence, a deep revision of the concepts of naturalism and artificiality ended up urging those researches in bioinspired design: that was my hardest philosophical questioning.

What advice would you give to young architects starting out on their career paths whose heads are still fresh and full of ideas for the future?

I am such a big fan of Buckminster Fuller that it would be quite obvious to quote him and present my students with some of his thoughts. My trio of favorites are: “Dare to be naïve,” “There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it is going to be a butterfly,” and “When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty… but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.” In nature, form, function, and efficiency are concepts that come along together and cannot be taken apart. We’re not meant to solve an engineering challenge thinking mostly about aesthetics, but I encourage them to think from an innovative point of view, with a sense of fairness, of ethics towards the society, community, and partners, and of course, of greatness in itself. As some sort of artists inspired by nature’s laws, the best solution will always be the best one solved altogether in different aspects.

Fig. 04 ‘Construction’: an artwork presented at MuBE (Brazilian Museum of Sculpture, São Paulo) in 2007. Photo © Heidi Fijiwara.

Fig. 04 ‘Construction’: an artwork presented at MuBE (Brazilian Museum of Sculpture, São Paulo) in 2007.

This is an excerpt from the Laka Perspectives book vol. 01, published by Laka Foundation (non-profit, Poland) in 2018 with the support of Solarlux GmbH (Germany):

Architecture is an expression of society — Amandus Samsøe Sattler

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(c) Allmann Sattler Wappner Architekten; photo by Brigida Gonzales

Amandus Samsøe Sattler is a German architect and a photographer with a wide range of art photography documents. In 1987, he cofounded (with Markus Allmann and Ludwig Wappner) the Munich-based architecture company Allmann Sattler Wappner Architekten. He lectures at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, the École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture in Nancy, and the Institute of Architectural Design at the University of Applied Sciences in Cologne. His works focus on the future of urban planning and the coexistence of architecture and society.

Laka: The methods behind your office’s works are described as “context-aware design” and a “dialectical approach.” Can you elaborate more on those methodologies?

Amandus: Architecture is an expression of society. This is why we find it relevant to look at the context of society when designing architecture. Architecture has the possibility to support and influence societal processes. Context frames the task in a very literal way—the city, the investor, the inhabitant all have issues stemming from society—and we want to solve these issues with a strong design idea. We are a design-driven architectural company, and our ideas for design arise from the context and not from a form-driven idea of a certain design or shape. Context-aware design and a dialectical approach are the signature features of our project development process. The dialectical approach allows us to conceive the opposite during the design process—to question our expectations and formulate our conversations.

In the design of Deichmanske Library for Oslo, you proposed an approach which you compared to the structure of a tree—without a particular orientation, and “deeply rooted in the ground, nurtured vertically and branching out on the horizontal plane.” What constitutes a decision on the approach to the context in specific locations?

Exactly this decision—how we interpret the context with a design answer—is the reason one wins or loses a competition.… Do you meet the expectations of the people involved? Can you surprise them with another view? Your interpretation of the context has to attract interest and gain recognition. At our office, the decision is made by the design director involved in each project from the very beginning, and later also by consulting in the execution phase. A design decision is often constituted if the design is comprehensive. In the Oslo Library for instance, the idea was to show the social exchange and hierarchies of the inner structure in the façade.

What are the main organizational challenges when leading a design office with employees from such a number and variety of backgrounds?

It changes all the time. I have enjoyed the last couple of years, when we, the three founding partners, have found a good way to involve the newer generations in our company: sharing experiences and responsibility with younger colleagues—and also being open and allowing new ideas and approaches ourselves. One specific challenge is to explicitly communicate and represent the DNA of the company to the new generations. Our DNA is to have strong conceptual ideas and to have the courage, skills, and power to detail strong ideas and turn them into built architecture.

Fig. 01 ‘Residential towers Friends at Hirschgarten’: the building connects residential and communal spaces inside. The living space is arranged around a centrally located hub with the bathroom, kitchen, and laundry room.

Allmann Sattler Wappner

Referring to your works in the field of branding, the scale of the exemplary Audi Corporate Architecture is just impressive! More than 750 Audi Terminals have been implemented according to the feasibility studies and design guidelines researched by your company. What are the essential phases of research on such a scale?

The most important thing in the international competition for the global Audi Corporate Architecture for their showrooms and stores was to find a special element, which refers to the brand values of the company and affects the clients in an emotional way, which can be understood worldwide. Our special element is the curve—it is a symbol for the dynamic of the automobile and brings the distinctive shape of the windows in the façade. The sharp cut of the windows makes the metal mesh of the façade even more blurry and focuses your eyes on the cars in the windows. That is an interesting contrast. Decisive for worldwide success is the modular concept of the building, which allows it to react to any urban situation and any demand of the dealer about the size and elements.

In what ways should city centers develop to meet such increasing demands? What are other areas and aspects of cities’ development on which similar efforts should be focused?

In general, in Germany, we are pursuing the goal of densifying our cities, and at the same time also strengthening the rural areas to make it attractive to go back to abandoned villages. I believe the general answer is not to build more new but to use what we already have. It is true that the world population is growing—but we could put this up for debate. We should consider if the earth can withstand the consumption of another billion people in the future.

Fig.03 ‘Annette-Allee’: an office building situated in Münster, Germany. The building consists of a top-floor recess and distinctive cut-outs in its overall form.

Allmann Sattler Wappner

It seems that besides the general development of the ideas of architecture, the technologies and materials dedicated to façades are becoming increasingly important as well. Can you tell us how your company incorporated those opportunities in the Inselparkhalle in Hamburg?

Yes, that is true, we are interested in the development of the façade, and each building of ours has a special theme related to the façade. This is where we explore and research the possibilities of existing, as well as new materials. The Inselparkhalle is an example of a project where we took the theme one step further. We gave each of the four sides of the sports hall and swimming pool each a different concept for the façade. We had already tried this idea out successfully in another sports hall in Tübingen—it works well for both large and simple sports buildings to conceive four different sides. Thereby, you break down the large dimensions.

Fig. 04 ‘Dornier’s Aviation and Aerospace Museum’ links the history of aviation to modern-day air traffic thanks to its location next to Friedrichshafen Airport.

Allmann Sattler Wappner

On the one hand, there is a contextual value of the design: the connections of the building with its surroundings are solved via four different façades. And on the other, it takes full advantage of the spatial possibilities that such solutions provide. That is the whole wall, which “disappears” on demand…

In Hamburg, each façade react to its physical context: We made a wooden façade oriented to the neighboring ‘House of the Woods.’ Many people sit outside here, and the scale is minimized and has a certain warmth and quality that encourages you to stay. At the front side towards the water, the façade is constructed of different layers of metal, allowing the situation of the signage, vertical greenery, and the entrance. Towards the southeast is the polycarbonate heating collector, and finally, the fourth façade towards the meadow is made of steel and glass and is completely openable. It opens in the summer, connecting the indoor swimming pool with the outside and turning it into an open-air bath. That is great for a public bath built on a tight budget.

What are some other technological solutions that seem particularly interesting to you when it comes to innovative spatial and functional ideas?

We become interested in a technical solution when it serves design and the environment. Right now, we are exploring low-tech and natural techniques—again!—such as brick and wood. Saving resources and consumption also means buildings with good design and long livability.

Fig. 05 ‘Construction depot’ consists of two buildings. One includes workshops, communal spaces, and administrative offices, and the other, a vehicle depot, a repair shop, and a vehicle wash facility.

Allmann Sattler Wappner

What decides the success of designs such as high-rise buildings in the new Europacity district in Berlin and ‘Am Münchner Tor’ in Munich? Is it possible to outline the general list of “good practices” for designs that are to function as landmarks and “gateways” to districts or even whole cities?

Both projects are high-rises with high visibility. We are interested in the differentiation in the detail, meaning how a building can offer beauty and make sense not only from a distance but also when walking close by or using it inside. A high-rise office building with a small footprint has a built-in restriction that limits the flexibility and influences the special qualities of the workingspaces and the flow between floors and areas. This has to be overcome in a well-done floor plan. To us, a high rise is also a brick in city plaster—much more than a unique, iconic building.

Picture credits: pp. 199, 200, 203 figs. 01-05: Allmann Sattler Wappner; pp. 199, 200, 203 figs. 01, 02, 04: photo by Brigida Gonzales; p. 200 fig. 03: photo by Günther Wett/FRENER & REIFER Metallbau; p. 203 fig. 05: photo by Florian Holzherr.

This is an excerpt from the Laka Perspectives book vol. 02, published by Laka Foundation (non-profit, Poland) in 2019 with the support of Solarlux GmbH (Germany): www.lakaperspectives.com