How can we save our cities in the era of polluted air, climate change, and general urban chaos? What does the city of the future look like? Who is responsible for it? Maria Aiolova—co-founder of Terreform ONE, educator, mentor, architect and urban designer, and ecological design specialist—speaks about the most pressing problems currently facing urban societies and problem-solving possibilities.
Maria Aiolova is the co-founder of Terreform ONE, an educator, architect, and urban designer in New York City. Her work focuses on the theory, science, and application of ecological design. In 2013, Maria was appointed Academic Director of Global Architecture and Design of CIEE (Council on International Educational Exchange). Currently, Maria chairs the ONE Lab NY School for Design and Science and the One Prize Design and Science Award. She is an institutional adviser to New Lab at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. She won the 2013 AIA NY Award for Urban Design. Maria is also an inventor who holds 18 technology patents. www.aiolova.com www.terreform.org
Laka: I was intrigued by your TED Talk, in which you raised the topic of a zero-waste society. For the last few years, I’ve been observing small-scale zero-waste movements—people who have chosen to go zero-waste and change their household habits to support the planet and be healthier. You believe that it is possible to achieve a waste-free world through construction. Could you tell me more about how this could be done?
Maria Aiolova: We started from the idea of the city, looking at the amount of waste a city produces. Today, over 36 thousand tons of waste per day are produced here in New York City, and we don’t have anywhere to put it anymore. It used to go to Fresh Kills landfill, which was the last place we could deposit waste, and that was closed in 2001. It was only reopened for a few months after September 11 to place the debris from the Towers. Currently, New York has to pay a lot of money to other states: waste goes as far as Ohio and North Carolina. It’s shipped by trucks, trains, and barges, which, in addition to being very costly, also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. This is a very unfortunate situation. We worked with different waste streams to see how waste is being separated and how we can use it to produce building blocks. We’ve done the research and found out that we can start with aluminum cans and organic waste digested by mycelium to produce a building block that has the same strength as a brick. We have illustrated it in what we have called ‘The 24-Hour Tower.’ This model has traveled around the world, and the idea is that by utilizing this technology with New York City’s waste, we can build a 54-story tower every 24 hours.
The technology can be integrated into the construction process. You can have waste brought directly to the construction site, in which case the production happens on site. It is hard to imagine that we will ever employ this technology in building high-rises. However, it applies to places in the developing world, where construction materials are scarce and expensive. We have worked on a grant application for a technology transfer working with a favela [a low-income urban area] in São Paulo, Brazil. We’ve calculated that you can set up a small shop to manufacture these building blocks. In that part of the world, it would cost roughly 500 US dollars. You need a small hydraulic press and a greenhouse-type incubator to grow the mycelium and digest the organic waste.
Fig. 01 ‘Rapid Re(f)use: Waste to Resource City 2120’: a project that remakes New York City by utilizing trash at Fresh Kills. It underlines the idea of a future city that makes no distinction between waste and supply.
Has anyone done any research on the impact of the construction material on people? What sort of impact does mycelium have on the inhabitants, and what are its other properties?
Mycelium is basically the root structure of mushrooms. It’s a material that’s virtually free—it’s a naturally occurring microorganism. You can use it to digest waste or agricultural byproducts. In seven days, you can grow a biopolymer which has very good properties in terms of strength, good sound-proofing, and water resistance ability. It also has a significant R value [a measure of thermal resistance]. You can then use it in combination with other materials to achieve a full construction system. Another advantage is that it’s obviously a method of utilizing waste. At the end of its life cycle, you can basically crumble this material and put it in the garden so it can feed other microorganisms.
Fig. 02 ‘Mycelium Blocks: Mycelia Amalgamation Methods for Urban Growth’: a project that aims to establish a smart and self-sufficient construction technology by combining fungal mycelia with varying types of organic substrates to create a structure that grows from strains of fungi into a 3D fabricated geometry.
Since your area of expertise is also ecological urban design and the cities of the future, I would like to ask your advice on a very recent problem. In Poland, but also in many other areas of the world, we’ve seen a reduction in air quality. It is shocking for us, as we used to consider Poland a very green country of pure nature, and now we’re often being told we should stay at home. In Warsaw, it is believed to be caused by the fact that areas which were planned to be aeration zones to ensure good air circulation in the center are now used as new residential areas, completely built-up. Do you think there are ways of reversing this phenomenon by applying new ecological planning solutions to the existing urban structure?
This field of science is called urban ecology. Traditionally, ecologists studied the environment outside cities. Therefore, we simply don’t have the data to make informed decisions about cities. If you consider urban ecology, you cannot just look into living systems—you have to look into buildings and infrastructure. We have to collect data. With forestry studies, we could look into the watershed, but in the city, we have to look into the sewage shed. We have to investigate the sewage flow to see how it impacts the environment. Similarly, thinking about the air quality, you have to consider how buildings affect air circulation. Fortunately, we now have very sophisticated equipment and technologies, and sensors are getting cheaper. However, we still need the agreement that this has to be addressed and funded so we can gain more understanding.
We have this concept called productive green space. Think of parks and even trees in the cities. They are not just for recreation—they are productive, and they absorb carbon dioxide, producing oxygen at the same time. Productive green spaces also have the ability to absorb stormwater, because they offer a porous surface. However, it is important to understand the production of every single tree in the city. In fact, several years ago, we worked closely with Bloomberg’s administration on one of the projects he implemented here in the city called ‘The Million Trees Project.’ It was a part of the 2030 plan for New York City. The projection was that there will be another million residents moving into the city by 2030, so let’s plant another million trees. The Parks Department plan was to do this project as an experiment. To learn what it means to plant a million more trees, you must structure it so that you can have repetition, and you can collect data.
I have been reading about Poland in the New York Times. My deep personal belief is that now we have the knowledge and the technologies to solve these problems. It’s about coming to agreement and using citizen engagement. I think if you have enough citizens participating in a campaign, you can succeed. There was a program right after the disaster in Fukushima in Japan. Joi Ito, who had just become the Head of MIT Media Lab, organized a campaign where regular citizens could have Geiger counters and collect radiation data. I think it’s about data and knowledge, but also, it’s about being a citizen. Being active is a way to address these problems.
Fig. 03 ‘Bio City Map of 11 Billion: World Population in 2110’: an experimental approach to researching a possible development of population density in cities using a living population of bacterial cells (E. coli).
The common efforts of not only citizens but also interdisciplinary scientists are necessary to solve these issues. What will the city of the future look like? What is urbaneering?
Urbaneering is a discipline that combines architecture, urbanism, ecology, media arts, and community building. It strives to reinvent the multifarious elements that comprise a city. Its practitioners are not planners, urban designers, or architects, but urbaneers. And their task will be to facilitate the globe’s next metropolises. Urbaneering undertakes a diverse range of projects as a prescription for maximal design. It practices totalized schemes that rethink all scales of involvement, from the doorknob to democracy. Its projects range from materials to transportation systems, open spaces, buildings, cities, and surrounding regions. Currently, a few urbaneers have shaped phytoremediation ponds, fungi mycelium blocks, in vitro meat habitats, living woody plant structures, rooftop farms, soft cars, blimp buses, e-waste bots, urban junkspace, and city-wide action plans. To inspire interdisciplinary innovation and creativity, urbaneers encourage people to switch roles: architects must design cars, automotive engineers must devise eco-systems, and ecologists must draw up buildings. Bridging the realm of experimentation and everyday life, urbaneers seek to envision the complexity that encompasses formative metropolitan regions. At its core is a variety of utopian agitation that dispels the defunct myths of modernism with equitable objectives. An urbaneer replaces implausible rules and master planning with suggestive memes and polemical models. It is hard to argue with amorphous memes like ‘city beautiful,’ ‘garden city,’ or ‘smart growth.’ The public can rally themselves around these open-ended symbolic gestures and phrases. Since the meme is not fully explicit, the concept leaves room for broad cultural interpretations. It’s almost exactly what communities yearn for: freedom to define their own urban spaces.
Everyone should feel responsible. But who are urbaneers?
They are multidisciplinary professionals, and their role is to regenerate, pioneer, and sustain the future of the urban realm. It’s not just up to the architects, planners, designers, and developers, but everybody should participate in this process. Chefs, firemen, teachers, they all play a role in the future city, but that requires a new type of education that is truly interdisciplinary. You still have your own craft and your own expertise, but you are working in a multidisciplinary team, and you have the ability to collaborate and learn new things.
That’s a really innovative way of thinking about a city and a district. For me personally, it was a big surprise to learn that it is possible to transform a city (or a district, in the case of Brooklyn) that uses about 6% renewable energy to one using over 90%. And I’ve been wondering, how much time does such a transformation take to first educate and then incorporate all the solutions?
This study was done eight years ago, so hopefully this number has changed! I think we already have the technologies. We have done quick calculations that if you install photovoltaic panels on the roofs of existing buildings, you can produce enough energy to power a whole city. Our primary assertion for the next city is that all necessities are provided inside its accessible physical borders. In this intensified version, all vital needs are supplied for its population. In this city, food, water, air, energy, waste, mobility, air-quality, and shelter are radically restructured to support life in every form. Infrastructure is celebrated as the new center. The strategy includes the replacement of dilapidated structures with vertical agriculture and housing merged with road networks. Former streets become snaking arteries of livable spaces embedded with renewable energy sources, soft cushion-based vehicles for moving, and productive green rooms. The plan uses the former street grid as the foundation for up-to-the-minute networks. By reengineering the obsolete streets, we can install radically robust and ecologically active smart pathways. These operations are not just about a comprehensive model of tomorrow’s city, but an initial platform for discourse. Urbaneers expect the future will necessitate marvelous dwellings coupled with a massive cyclical resource net. The future will happen; how it’s achieved is dependent upon our planned preparation and egalitarian feedback. We aim to respond to the variety of forces that influence critical thought about design and construction within contemporary local and global conditions. We approach each project with an almost unlimited perspective. Our aim is to counter the confounding and destructive effects of globalization. We hold that globalization’s very nature defies the simple categorization of projects by size or locality. Our design processes and decisions engage with forces that link the smallest elements of construction to the most massive urban sites. We have investigated breakthroughs, from hydrogen power to cellular cultures, and speculated on their future potential in cities. As humans, we aspire to generate an ideal lifestyle. Investigations described through Urbaneering are centered on the comprehension of socio-ecological spheres of living. They seek to produce fresh reifications of the utopian city. This may be best accomplished by further understanding architecture and urban design as instrumental in the development of societal-based innovations. In order to verify this vision in a socio-ecological realm, the aim is to structure an investigation of mutable urban conditions as they pertain to global crises and phenomena. The emphasis is placed on the role of urban designers as key actors in the formation of our environment.
Fig. 04 ‘Cricket Shelter: Modular Edible Insect Farm’: a design that combines a shelter and a modular insect farm into one structure
Fig. 05 ‘Cricket Shelter’: according to Terreform ONE, harvesting insects for food takes three hundred times less water for the same amount of protein.
Basically, the cities of tomorrow are being born today.
You are very innovative in all of your endeavors, activities, and interests. What is important to provide in order to allow the occurrence of innovative design?
I believe that today innovation doesn’t happen in isolation. You need a kind of charged space. I believe that if you are surrounded by smart, creative, and innovative people, it makes you more creative and more innovative. The world we live in today is so complex that we cannot do things alone. It requires collaboration.
What are your thoughts on the role of competitions such as the Laka Competition in the pursuit of innovation?
I think competitions are very important because they offer a platform for young professionals. You can test your ideas, learn from each other—it keeps them active. Often, your career paths take you in a different direction, and it’s hard especially for young professionals to test ideas very quickly. I think competitions such as Laka are important because they offer the forum of ideas exchange. I ran competitions myself, and I know the amount of work and commitment that it takes, so kudos to you! Continue doing it, and especially in a part of the world where it is needed.
I am also bringing up the topic of innovation because of the workshops you organize through Terreform ONE. What is your design philosophy within the group?
ONE Lab was founded as an urban non-profit group concerned with research and education in the synthesis of design and science. We began as an extraordinary think-and-do-tank of architects, engineers, artists, biologists, designers, urban ecologists, physicists, and planners seeking alternatives to traditional forms of teaching and professional practice. Through this interaction, we discovered the need for an interdisciplinary pedagogical-free zone, where students and practitioners can generously discuss and conduct experiments that have a positive effect on the global community. ONE Lab is dedicated to cultivating change. The laboratory advances professionals towards an intellectual scheme that recalibrates the meaning of ‘city.’ ONE Lab promotes the investigation and erudition needed for the first generation of urbaneers. Each urbaneer is an individual with a different set of versatile abilities that merge previously disparate occupations.
They range from ecological architects and engineers to action-based urban planners and developers. Almost any recombined professional activities can work, so long as they meet the constantly changing needs of urbanization. Ultimately, the job of city creation belongs to everyone—including a new force of highly trained specialists. A few of the projects developed in Terreform ONE were implemented. What are some of your favorites? The very first workshop was focused on urban agriculture. This was a new movement at the time, especially in cities where there is not much land. One of the students was a landscape architect from Chicago who led a team that designed mobile farms. It was a planter box that’s big enough to have a small garden with a sub-irrigation system to keep good moisture and nutrient levels. You can move the farm to track the sun. After the summer workshop, she went back to Chicago and started her own non-profit to teach people how to build mobile farms themselves.
Fig. 06 ‘Plug-in Ecology: Urban Farm Pod with Agronomy’: a cabin that can be adapted to different habitation requirements, locations, and lighting conditions. The design aims to grow and provide daily vegetable needs for its inhabitants.
Fig. 07 ‘Urbaneering Brooklyn 2110: City of the Future’: a future concept of Brooklyn that supplies all vital needs for its population through vertical agriculture, housing merged with infrastructure, renewable energy sources, and a new approach for mobility.
Fig. 08 ‘Post Carbon City-State: Rezoned Circular Economy’: a design that aims to answer New York City’s projected sea level rise by the 2050s by introducing the East and Hudson River in parts of Manhattan.
It’s beautiful to see visible results! Are there other challenges that you would like to take up in the future in Terreform ONE or ONE Lab?
ONE Lab, in partnership with the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE), the world leader in international educational exchange, has developed a new interdisciplinary global platform focused on investigating the imaginative uses of technology in architecture and design. The Global Architecture and Design (Global AD) programs will offer a uniform curriculum by assembling a faculty of innovators and thought leaders from around the world. After five years of teaching in New York City, in Spring 2014, Global AD will be offered to advanced architecture and design students in Barcelona, Berlin, and Prague. Using each city as a laboratory, the program rethinks what is essential about the city, in both its forms and its life. The investigations will be based on one illuminating hypothesis: in the future, cities will grow to be self-sufficient in their critical necessities through massive public works and infrastructural support. The Global AD program explores the effects of technological interventions that can have profound impacts on the planet as a whole. Digital fabrication, 3D printing, and synthetic biology have given designers new means of production whereby complexity becomes attainable and virtually free. By overcoming the restrictions imposed by the old manufacturing methods and processes, their technologies will open a broad field of research and experimentation in design. In this new context, the Global AD programs will incorporate some of these technologies as part of its academic agenda and work environment. The Global AD program will create a new platform for disseminated knowledge and collaborative action. Students will connect with their peers, faculty, and researchers in other Global AD cities. Through an online platform, the students will share knowledge, collaborate on projects, and debate common questions. At the same time, they will be in constant dialog with the students on the home campus through online blogs and chat-rooms, which will enable them to maintain connections and the sense of community.
Interview by Laka Perspectives www.lakaperspectives.com – Katarzyna Burzyńska
fig. 01 ‘Rapid Re(f)use: Waste to Resource City 2120’ © Terreform ONE. Credits: Maria Aiolova, Mitchell Joachim, Melanie Fessel, Emily Johnson, Ian Slover, Philip Weller, Zachary Aders, Webb Allen, Niloufar Karimzadegan, Lauren Sarafan.
fig. 02 ‘Mycelium Blocks: Mycelia Amalgamation Methods for Urban Growth’ © Terreform ONE. Credits: Team: Maria Aiolova, Mitchell Joachim, Oliver Medvedik, Dylan Butman, Greg Mulholland.
fig. 03 ‘Bio City Map of 11 Billion: World Population in 2110’ © Terreform ONE. Credits: Maria Aiolova, Mitchell Joachim, Nurhan Gokturk, Melanie Fessel, Oliver Medvedik.
figs. 04, 05 ‘Cricket Shelter: Modular Edible Insect Farm’ © Terreform ONE. Credits: Mitchell Joachim (PI), Maria Aiolova, Melanie Fessel, Felipe Molina, Matthew Tarpley, Jiachen Xu, Lissette Olivares, Cheto Castellano, Shandor Hassan, Christian Hamrick, Ivan Fuentealba, Sung Moon, Kamila Varela, Yucel Guven, Chloe Byrne, Miguel Lantigua-Inoa, Alex Colard
fig. 06 ‘Plug-in Ecology: Urban Farm Pod with Agronomy’ © Terreform ONE. Credits: Mitchell Joachim (PI), Maria Aiolova, Melanie Fessel, Christian Hubert, Vivian Kuan, Amanda O’Keefe. Photo by Micaela Rossato.
fig. 07 ‘Urbaneering Brooklyn 2110: City of the Future’ © Terreform ONE. Credits: Maria Aiolova, Mitchell Joachim, Melanie Fessel, Dan O’Connor, Celina Yee, Alpna Gupta, Sishir Varghese, Aaron Lim, Greg Mulholland, Derek Ziemer, Thilani Rajarathna, John Nelson, Natalie DeLuca.
fig. 08 ‘Post Carbon City-State: Rezoned Circular Economy’ © Terreform ONE. Credits: Mitchell Joachim (PI), Maria Aiolova, Melanie Fessel, Nurhan Gokturk, Oliver Medvedik.