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EcoLogicStudio art installation | The Journal | Fritz Hansen

Nature’s Intelligence

When Facetiming with Marco Poletto and Claudia Pasquero, longterm partners and the Italian co-founders of east London-based ecoLogicStudio, one is immediately transported into the experimental, scientific ethos of their practice.
Instead of the usual video-chat backdrop of an artfully curated bookshelf, their home features three giant, glass tubes – photo-bioreactors – bubbling with an array of colourful substances. ‘They are three strains of edible micro-algae that we are cultivating,’ explains Poletto, ‘the porphyridium is wine-red, the chlorella yellow-green and the spirulina the green-blue, so dense it’s almost black.’ These are part of the post-pandemic strategies the studio is developing, exploring how urban populations could grow vegetable proteins. Not only supplying food but absorbing carbon dioxide, while also oxygenating homes more efficiently than house plants. ‘The kids love harvesting it. Last night we made spirulina bread,’ adds Pasquero, ‘spirulina has quite a sharp taste, somewhere between grass and nuts.’

‘Is this architecture?’ you may ask. EcoLogicStudio’s website defines itself as an ‘architectural and urban design practice specialised in environmental design, urban self-sufficiency and building integrated nature’. But, this pioneering firm, which the pair established in 2005, defies categorisation, and that is the whole point. 

‘We don’t like labels as they tend to be reductionist in terms of how they box in disciplinary boundaries,’ says Poletto, who studied engineering alongside Pasquero at Turin Polytechnic, before both attended London’s Architectural Association, later teaching there and at the Bartlett School of Architecture. ‘We’re happy to take on different titles depending on the particular environment,’ says Poletto. ‘However, if we want to reimagine the way technology and nature come together, we need to re-describe these paths.’
Pasquero cites Gregory Bateson’s influential 1972 book, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, which inspired their studio’s name, as central to their ethos. Bateson proposed that world problems stem from the difference between ‘the way nature works and the way people think’. ecoLogicStudio’s projects are tackling that, trying to activate a paradigm shift from the Anthropocene age towards a newer, better interconnected world where humans, non-human species and microorganisms work holistically and effectively together. This is clearly no small task, and ecoLogicStudio collaborates with biologists, engineers, artists, computer scientists and programmers – not to mention algae, funghi, slime mould, spiders and silkworms – to do their work, working between theory and practice. 

An ongoing initiative is the ‘PhotoSynthEtica’ consortium that they set up in 2018, with research done in partnership with the Urban Morphogenesis Lab of The Bartlett and the Synthetic Landscape Lab of the University of Innsbruck where Pasquero currently holds a professorship in landscape architecture. It has produced several architecture interventions, art installations (Pasquero also studied drama and is a keen proponent of the power of art and how it can be used to express ideas), and  an eco-friendly, city master plan in Tallinn, Estonia.
Visualisation is key to opening people’s minds about how future utopian bio-cities might function. To this end the Photo.Synth.Etica ‘biocurtain’, essentially a semi-transparent green living lung full of bacteria that can be draped over the facades of buildings,  is a brilliant showcase. Capable of capturing up to 20 trees worth of carbon dioxide per day, it’s photosynthesis on a grand, performative scale. Unclean urban air enters at the curtain’s base and rises to meet the algae contained within, which removes the pollution, sequestering the carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen. What’s more, by night it glows with the luminescence of the microalgae. The curtain has already been used, most memorably, on Dublin’s Printworks Building in 2018. 

‘Our work is about proposing new elements that can grow a new type of landscape that people can interact with and enter into one-to-one contact with processes,’ explains Paquero. ‘So that there could be more self-organisation across the planet about the resources that we use.’ 

Interest in ecoLogicStudio’s work has grown exponentially in the past two years, as the focus on biomaterials in design and architecture has intensified in response to deepening concerns about climate change. Pasquero shows me an organic leather they’ve ‘grown’ from the same bacteria that is used to make kombucha. 

They were due to participate in Milan’s annual design festival courtesy of fashion brand Cos, which sponsors a headline-grabbing, immersive installation every year. Continuing the photosynthesis theme, ecoLogicStudio’s proposal was based around Leonardo da Vinci’s studies on water turbulence for the city’s canal system. Sadly, like many things, it is currently on hold. But other work continues. The studio is exploring the biological infrastructure of slime mould, the development of a new filter and bioreactor (to be presented at Venice Biennale in late August), and their Deep Green project, funded by the United Nations Development Programme. The later uses artificial and biological intelligence to create new green economies in the city. 

As for the current pandemic, the best-case scenario is that it could fuel the studio’s  cause, as the world recognises that humans can no longer simply extract resources from the natural world without serious consequences and that in turn, factors such as pollution exacerbate Covid-19’s effects. ‘There needs to be a new system in place that is transparent and integrated, that takes an eco-systemic view of our cities, public realm and so on,’ Poletto concludes. Imagine if such thinking could go viral. Surely now is the time to investigate if nature really does know best… before it’s too late. 

 Marco Poletto and Claudia Pasquero from ecoLogicStudio
EcoLogicStudio art installation | The Journal | Fritz Hansen
ecoLogicStudio edible micro-algae
EcoLogicStudio art installation | The Journal | Fritz Hansen
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