In the name of nature — Dr. Silvia Titotto

By January 10, 2021interviews, volume 01

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):


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