Q&A: An Eco-centric Approach to Architecture

Ilaria Mazzoleni is an architect, biomimicist, founder of IM Studio Milano/Los Angeles and faculty member at CalArts who lives and works between Italy and California. Prior to joining CalArts, Ilaria was a Design and Applied Studies faculty member at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) in Los Angeles for more than 12 years. In 2015, Ilaria founded Nature, Art and Habitat, a multidisciplinary residency summer program in Val Taleggio, BG, Italy. Her book “Architecture Follows Nature — Biomimetic Principles for Innovative Design” was published by CRC Press. She holds a Bachelor of Architecture from the School of Architecture at the Polytechnic of Milan, Italy, and a Master of Building Science from the University of Southern California’s School of Architecture.

IAM Lab: Why biology and architecture, and why animals in particular? How did you come to this work?

IM: I have always tried to marry my training as an architect with a focus on sustainable environmental building systems in the classroom. But architecture students are drawn to aesthetics and beauty, so I needed to come up with a way to make these concepts more interesting and seductive for them. I read the book “Body Heat: Temperature and Life on Earth” by Mark Blumberg, and it put it all together for me. I was fascinated by thermoregulation and the capacity of human and animal bodies to protect themselves from the outside. This was the same time that I learned about biomimicry. I knew plants and vegetation had been studied with regard to architecture in terms of looking at their structural properties, for example, but I didn’t think animals had. I grew up in nature in Sottochiesa, Val Taleggio, a small village in the Italian Alps, and I always loved the living organisms and the role they play in our lives. I thought, why not merge my two passions and try to engage students in a new way?

IAM Lab: Much of your work focuses on biomimetics or biomimicry. Can you talk about how your work goes beyond incorporating the morphological aspects of biology to the functional? Why is this important?

IM: Adaptability is essential to evolution. Yet contemporary architecture is often so formal and complex. Our work looks how we can learn from nature and incorporate the idea of adaptability to the functional, going beyond what the organism looks like to merge the formal complexity with the functionality. For example, you could design the façade of a building to both engage with the sun to produce energy as well as protect from it and collect water from the roof while filtering the pollution in the air. It could reconfigure in different times of the day as living organisms adapt to the changing environment around them. That would enhance the functionality of the building while enriching the formal expression of the facade. The push and pull is fascinating and important, and biology offers that. It’s a very holistic and not necessarily human-centered way of designing buildings that allows all elements of an ecosystem to co-exist.

IAM Lab: What is an example of a built space that represents biomimetic principles?

IM: As in many fields on the frontier of research, it’s difficult to speak to a real-world example at this point. That said, there are a lot of buildings that are beginning to appropriate the ideas of biomimetics, and most of them are about sustainable design. In the Eden project in the U.K., for example, Grimshaw architects have built massive biomes that reference both Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes and Frei Otto’s research on soap bubbles. The biomes, like soap bubbles, adapt to whatever surface they land on, which in this case, is a former clay mine. They are mimicking shapes, structure and weight found in nature while using renewable energy and materials. That tradition comes from looking at nature from a structural perspective and mimicking functions of thermoregulation and water management. There is less built out there that really mimics biological functions, but we’re prototyping and researching.

IAM Lab: What about LEED certified buildings? How do they fit into the picture of biomimetics?

IM: LEED certification is sustainable design, the foundation of biomimetics, but LEED is mostly about applying technology to a building; biology is not intrinsic to the bones of the building or how it’s designed. I’m hoping we can go beyond that macro level to the micro level of biology to see a new scale of possibilities. If you think of the structure of color- how iridescence is formed- it’s scales at a micro level. We can start to think about developing colors in buildings that are different — they’re not painted — with new materiality and effect. Innovation is step wise. Sustainable design has become more common, and now we’re designing the next big thing.

IAM Lab: How does the current politicized environment around climate change affect your ability to bring awareness to issues such as endangered species? What is working in sustainability?

IM: I used to be more pessimistic about these things, but today I’m more positive because I’ve seen the impact of both individual and collective will. A good example is what has happened with the wolves in Yellowstone National Park. The short version is that by re-introducing wolves after 70 years and thereby indirectly reducing the deer population, an amazing chain reaction of benefits to the ecosystem resulted, including rapid growth in vegetation and trees that in turn provided habitats and re-shaped the river to enable a myriad of diverse wildlife populations to thrive in the park. One action can have a cascading effect, even if it is not planned for or known in advance. Keeping this in mind, we should design knowing that emerging properties, whether positive or negative, are something we should more closely consider. The impact of bottom-up action from the individual is much greater than we can see. I also think we’ve reached a tipping point in terms of the corporations at the top of the chain. There was a very smart approach to making renewable energy work for businesses beginning about 15 years ago, and now they have invested and they see the benefits and they aren’t turning back, regardless of whether the regulations are loosened or not. It’s very interesting to see.

IAM Lab: IAM Lab is designed to promote interdisciplinary research, and you have really maximized this approach in your work. How have your interdisciplinary partnerships influenced your work?

IM: I couldn’t do the work I’m doing today without the others. It’s really a reflection of contemporary conditions, of our very complex and interconnected world. Architecture is very collaborative by default, but I think collaborating with biologists in particular has been eye opening for me. For example, I look at a piece of wood to make a shelf. Instead of just seeing color and strength, now I see the molecules and fibers, the composition, and that pushes me to think differently. When I think of a new project, I never begin without the biologists who collaborate with me. That was true for my book, which I wrote in collaboration with Shauna Price. She is an evolutionary biologist and provided the precision that was necessary to teach the seminar first and then write the book. Her research isn’t applied to mine. It doesn’t come after. It’s born together.

IAM Lab: What are you most excited or passionate about right now in your work?

IM: One example of my own “bottom-up” work is the Nature, Art and Habitat Residency (NAHR) I created at my mother’s home in the Italian Alps in 2015 with Anna Santi and Alexandru Balasescu. It’s an eco-laboratory for multidisciplinary practices, a place for idea exchange inspired by the cultural and natural ecosystem in which the fellows are immersed, which is a rural setting. I wanted to provide a place where independent thinkers and makers could find inspiration for their work. It’s eco-centric, not ego-centric.

I entered a competition about six months ago with my colleagues Molina and Dompe’ to design a home that takes inspiration from the crucial role microorganisms play in our daily lives. The project designed certain domestic elements with the use of beneficial bacteria. For example, we used certain bacteria to create films to screen windows and protect swimming pools from evaporation. We also used bioluminescent bacteria to create light and bacteria for compost. We’re still working on the microbio(h)ome, but the possibilities are exciting.

I’m also really interested to bring architecture and neuroscience together through an exploration of how we experience courtyards, which combine architectural elements with nature in a contained environment. E.O. Wilson said “we are called to nature because we are nature,” and my fundamental question remains, what is nature? How can we co-exist with nature? Climate change is prompting us to shift toward a resolution. Perhaps collaboration between neuroscience and architecture can provide some answers.

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