In recent years, and in an accelerating way, Carlo Ratti and Italo Rota have activated parallel paths of research concentrated on how to rethink the construction process in relation to greater integration of nature and environment, opening up reflections on the major themes of architecture and the city. They have worked together on the installation in the Orto Botanico di Brera in Milan, during the recent Fuorisalone, to focus on the vital role of greenery for the wellbeing of the planet, demonstrating the contribution made by trees to reduce CO₂ emissions in the atmosphere. They have also collaborated on the experimental Italian Pavilion at Expo Dubai 2020, pointing to the great potential of reuse in architecture. We asked them to explain how.
In the installation at the Orto Botanico, how were you able to materialize an impalpable process like the production of CO₂ by man and its relative capture on the part of trees, also revealing the connections?
CR: We chose the language of data, communicating the importance of plants that can absorb and store carbon dioxide across their life cycle. Hence the idea of creating a visualization of data to be physically walked through, with the creative direction of Italo Rota.
A sphere at the entrance represented the quantity of CO₂ produced by an average person, while inside every species of the garden was analyzed, corresponding to a sphere of variable diameter, based on the quantity of CO₂ absorbed and stored by each type of plant.
What material did you use? And what was the creative process?
CR: The spheres are in recyclable plastic, which will be inserted in new production cycles. The creative process began with the context of the Orto Botanico di Brera itself, where the spheres could ideally float in space and make their value for the wellbeing of the city more perceptible.
You worked in close contact with ENI and the team of Prof. Alessio Fini of the Department of Agrarian and Environmental Sciences of the Università degli Studi of Milan, for evaluation of eco-systemic services. How did they help you to transmit the value of protection and conservation of forests?
CR: Since this was an installation based on data visualization, the contribution of Prof. Fini was fundamental. Thirty-seven species cultivated inside the botanical garden were analyzed and classified to estimate the quantity of CO₂ captured and stored as wooden biomass, and accumulated by each plant over time. Every bubble has a different diameter, based on the quantity of CO₂ captured and conserved by each plant in one year.
The theme of reuse is the pivot for the development of the Italian Pavilion at Expo Dubai 2020. Why do you call it an “experiment of reconfigurable architecture and circular design”?
IR: This definition covers the experiments we have enacted for various aspects of the Italian Pavilion designed by CRA-Carlo Ratti Associati and Italo Rota Building Office, with matteogatto&associati and F&M Ingegneria. The building’s multimedia façade has been made by using 2 million recycled plastic bottles. The project also involves innovative construction materials – from algae to coffee grounds, orange peel to sand – and the use of an advanced system of climate control, featuring natural devices based on bioclimate technologies. The structure of the building explores the theme of reuse, and the entire pavilion represents a sort of ‘architectural banking’: a catalogue from which to choose elements of future works of architecture, again with an eye on the circular economy
The collaborating companies have offered remarkable support. In what ways?
IR: The synergy with different companies has permitted us to use materials and innovations in line with the principles of the circular economy, developed in collaboration with outstanding Italian firms that work with these principles, with whom we have worked to develop the materials, such as those based on coffee grounds and orange peels, which are salvaged, left to dry and reduced into powder, after which they can be used to clad pathways and footbridges. The pavilion stands on a dune with a height of 5 meters, finished with locally sourced sand.
Inside, there is a true cultivation of spirulina algae, partially utilized for the natural finishing powders of various paints. The internal path is enhanced by over 160 plant species, developed in collaboration with the National Council of Research (CNR) and the botanist Flavio Pollano.
This natural landscape is a tribute to biodiversity and to the beauty of the biotypes of the territories of Italy and the Mediterranean; it contributes to improve internal climate, by living inside the building. Special measures have been applied, including irrigation that involves special technologies that filter air humidity and release it in the form of water for irrigation.
Getting back to the decisive role of trees, how have you designed the Belvedere inside the pavilion?
IR: The Belvedere is the high point of an itinerary seen as an experience of crossing and observation for visitors who enter the pavilion. Guests reach the internal pathway by means of an escalator that leads to a height of 11 meters above the ground, directly below the nave of the first hull.
From this panoramic vantage point, it is possible to observe the entire pavilion, and then to walk on a footbridge above the exhibitions and installations. Here the Belvedere can be seen: a circular architecture in stone, built with the traditional art of dry masonry typical of Italian agricultural regions, an art that is now listed as immaterial heritage by UNESCO. The roof is topped by a dome covered with wild Mediterranean plants, which contribute to create this landscape.
The long-term collaboration with ENI explores new paradigms of circular economics and sustainability. In Dubai, together you have made the installation “Braiding the Future,” which demonstrates the technology of intensive biofixation of CO2. Can you tell us more about this?
CR: The installation addresses the theme of biofixation of CO₂. We have created a cultivation system for micro-algae, using a cascade of vines with a height of 20 meters. Inside each of the luminescent vines there are micro-algae: the visible circuit becomes an interpretation of the technology of cultivation of these single-celled organisms, which through the natural process of photosynthesis produce composts of great value. For us, this is a new chapter in our research on the theme of convergence between Natural and Artificial.
Is there a difference between architecture and design on the road to sustainability?
CR: In English the term design is used in a much wider way, covering everything that can be a project, taken from the Latin root of pro-iectum, to cast forward. In this sense, the work of designers is by nature oriented towards the future. We see fertile ground in this tension, on which to think about new ways to make natural and artificial things converge – in a product, a work of architecture or an urban space.
Natural Capital, Milan – Photo © Marco Beck Peccoz
Padiglione Italia, Expo Dubai 2020 – Photo © Michele Nastasi