Maria Aiolova speaks with inter·punct about ecologically-driven design in cities through a unique interdisciplinary lab format.
For additional information and to view Maria’s full lecture, visit the CMU School of Architecture website.
From my understanding, central to your approach is the idea that the form of the city is not dictated by one single figure and probably shouldn’t be, but is instead the result of a dialogue between designers and a diverse group of professionals, including civil engineers, urban engineers, sanitation workers, etc. How do you see this impacting the position of the architect in practice? Does it empower or rather, marginalize the role of the architect? How does the idea of the architect taking on a larger urban role reconfigure their agency?
Maria Aiolova: I don’t know if you are familiar with the concept of the new profession that we launched, the “urbaneer.” My personal belief is that you cannot be just an architect anymore—I truly believe in a multidisciplinary way of teaching and practicing. Because the urban realm has become so complex, it requires a set of versatile skills and knowledge in order to operate within it. In our pedagogy in the school that we’ve started, ONE Lab, we practice an approach that requires navigating many different fields at once. Almost any combination of skills is good as long as it addresses the changing dimensions of urbanity. I think it is through working in interdisciplinary teams—and even going beyond that by assuming other roles—that real discovery can happen. So we ask, why can’t a car designer design a park or a landscape architect design a car? When you bring in diverse types of knowledge, you can not only better inform the design process but also introduce new ways of thinking.
How does the lab format inform this approach? As you said, the idea of developing conversations with those in contingent fields that are outside of architecture is very important to you. Does the lab format contribute to this emphasis on experimentation, in contrast to the idea of a studio, whose direction is usually under the control of one master?
MA: Yes, absolutely. What we introduced in the laboratories is a more horizontal structure, where everybody is a designer. You’re required to master the basic level of necessary skills to operate in that environment, but then from that point on, you’re an equal contributor. In order to participate, you have to be willing to practice a hands-on approach—if you propose an idea, you have to be able to build it or design an experiment that demonstrates your thinking. It can be very simple or very sophisticated, but you have to be able to collaborate with scientists and engineers, learning enough from them to have a creative conversation.
I think a major benefit to setting up these experiments is in the two different approaches that we constantly go back and forth between. We work from the more speculative research—asking the big questions and setting up the polemics—all the way to more empirical research, where we design an experiment and follow it through to derive sets of answers. What is really informative about working with scientists is that, while as architects, we tend to use very variable methodologies, in science, there is an established scientific method that is followed around the world. Our approach is to merge these two and have the two methodologies—or lack thereof—cross over to really determine what it means to research in the fields of design.
Would it be safe to say that your methodology is not linear—more like an exploratory feedback loop between yourself as an urbaneer and the people that you’re bringing to the table, such as the scientists? Is that a fair assessment?
MA: Well, our basic methodology is a research process where we start by asking questions without a predetermined answer. By asking the question openly, we hope that it will lead us in a very different direction from the point of origination. Research work is thus very different from project work. Working within a project, you have set of parameters—you are told to design a building and are expected that your final result will be a building. In research, you start by asking questions without knowing what the final results may be. You might spend the entire time just formulating questions and that has value in of itself. It’s not necessarily a loop system.
I’m interested in this difference between project-based work and research-based work. In your research-based work, you said it’s often about finding the right questions to ask. Is there an agenda behind the questions you ask, or put another way, what motivates the subjects that you choose to research?
MA: We obviously have a mission and a vision that we follow. We started off by thinking of the ecological future of cities, but with the goal of taking a very different approach from that of the architect or urban designer by bringing ecologists into the equation. More recently, our focus has narrowed down towards examining how biology can inform design. We’ve been working with what is perhaps a new paradigm, where we went from form follows function, to jokingly, that form follows finance, to where we are today, that form can follow anything, really.
As such, we don’t have a specific working paradigm. What we’re trying to get at is the idea that form can follow biology, which is very different from the current paradigm which is more about biomimicry. We want to understand the actual processes of living biology, which started early on in our research with the In-Vitro Habitat, or what everybody’s calling the “meat house.” We’ve taken that idea all the way to now looking at applying biologic processes to parametric design. Today, the formal expression of these algorithms is so seductive that more often than not it just remains at that level, but for us, it’s important to understand that these algorithms were actually extracted from nature, but now exist in an idealized form. We’re trying to actually go back and use living matter to set up algorithms and build a parametric design using living organisms.
To summarize, it seems you’re interested in differentiating the biological paradigms of design from those of parametric design. Do you see the self-generative—or as Patrick Schumacher described, the autopoietic—as the paradigm for future explorations in the field? What’s your opinion of theorists like Patrick Schumacher that have tried to coin parametricism as a style or aesthetic in of itself?
MA: Well, I will differentiate our focus and work from Mr. Schumacher. I have a lot of respect for him, but our focus is really on as I said actually growing materials and using biology to change the paradigm of making. I believe that in the future we will be able to grow materials and buildings starting from a few naturally-occurring microorganisms—grow furniture, grow a whole building. However, I believe that the actual form of expression, while it will be based on biology and biological expression, will still be about basic design principles—space, light and air for example. Therefore, being able to exercise judgment in design is going to continue to be important. It’s not just going to be up to the living system to create form. They will be guided by the judgment of these new professionals we’re educating.
In a sense, many of your projects project alternative visions of the future and a sense of utopian vision. How do you view the role of utopia in shaping your work at Terreform ONE?
MA: I think a quote from Kevin Pratt’s presentation at a conference at Cornell describing our work summarizes our viewpoint well. He said, “If you want to get anywhere in life, you have to imagine it first, and that’s what Terreform ONE does.” So we see our role exactly as that. I know our work has been described as utopian, and I would agree to some extent. On the other hand, everything we do is really rooted into the science and technology that exists today. We take that base and assume how it might develop, or I should say, we project that into the future. Historically, if we didn’t speculate—if Jules Verne didn’t write about getting to the moon—maybe humankind would never have gotten there. I don’t want to compare ourselves to Jules Verne, but I think it’s important to have that kind of vision. It’s also about inspiring people to think about what is possible—there are already so many doomsday scenarios produced by Hollywood. Our goal is to say that there exists a potential for a really fabulous future and that these technologies can deal with the grave issues that we are battling with today, all the way from hunger, to wars, to terrorism. There is no question in my mind we will be able to overcome the problem of clean energy if we develop the technology in a certain way. Of course, it’s based on political will, and that’s not something I can predict.
I wanted to talk a bit about a specific project that Terreform ONE undertook, the Homeway project, as a potentially operatively critical take on the societal problem of suburban living patterns. How does that project function within the larger critical agenda of Terreform ONE?
MA: Homeway was conceived after a very specific event, after President Obama announced the stimulus package. We looked at it in a critical manner and asked ourselves, wait a second, we are going to rebuild all this infrastructure that follows suburban sprawl, throwing good money after bad? We wanted to rethink infrastructure in general, so we did basic research into the different systems that existed traditionally in the US, and that brought us to the highway system. Currently, the highway system is the predominant system that shapes American settlement, so we said, well, what if we reinforce that system by coupling it now with rapid transit and renewable energy productions? That led to the idea of trying to consolidate the suburbs around the highway.
At the same time, that was the polemic part—Americans are really married to their suburban homes, but they also desire the mobility to move around. Our polemic was, if you wanted to save your house, we’ll provide a mobility device, so you can move your house in a dedicated lane, creating a kind of linear urbanism. What was interesting, though, was that when the project was first published, one of my former professors from Harvard, Margaret Crawford, wrote to me, telling me that the Russians had similar ideas fifty years ago, looking at moving and assigning a house to every citizen. It was a worry about nuclear warfare that was a concern for very urban Moscow, so we weren’t the first to think about it.
This is perhaps a different topic, but I was interested in Terreform ONE as a model of practice. How does Terreform ONE operate as an office, for lack of a better word?
MA: We are a non-profit group, co-founded with the idea of performing research. At the time, the practice of design research was really almost nonexistent and you could really only do research in either an academic institution or in a corporation. Our idea was to set up a lab and invite other collaborators to perform research with us. We are not a firm because we don’t have a client per se. We work around certain issues and certain questions so we have the ability to expand and contract. Very quickly it became apparent that teaching and education would be a big part of what we do, and it all evolved very quickly from that idea of the laboratory. People engage us with on many different levels—there are collaborators that will work on projects with us, students who just want to come and spend some time with us, and others who might need more structure, which is where the school comes in, modeled on a more traditional curriculum.
How does Terreform ONE bring people into the fold and try to interface with entities outside of itself? For example, you’re situated in New York City; how do you bring your work into the focus and attention of City Planning and other similar groups?
MA: First of all, we have been working since almost the beginning as a collective centered around design technology and making. In practicing this interdisciplinary approach, we invite people to join us with the idea that we can all work together on projects, just bouncing around ideas. I talked about it before—the idea of serendipitous interactions bringing new ideas about. We’re starting to bring that to an even higher level. We recently moved in 2013 to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where we are building this new project called New Lab. We are renovating an old shipbuilding factory, taking that same collaborative approach on a bigger scale—86,000 square feet and 80-foot ceilings.
But to go back to your question about our interactions with the city, our project at the Brooklyn Navy Yard is owned and funded by the city, so through the whole process we have worked with the Mayor’s office and the Speaker of the City Council, all the way to the Governor’s office. It took a while to be recognized, but now I feel like we are at the table and are invited to participate in committees. We are very fortunate to be living and practicing in a very progressive city under a progressive administration. We participated in the development of new building codes and numerous other initiatives. In addition to some of our programs, such as competitions and awards, we invite politicians, leaders of NGOs, and even developers to be on juries, which facilitates a discussion between people who may never otherwise sit at the same table. It’s actually really important, as it’s pretty unusual in competitions to see that—typically, jurors are only within certain fields of practice.
So in a sense, while Terreform ONE’s interest lies in educating practitioners or tech designers in general, it’s also trying to reach outside the boundaries of the discipline and engage public fields?
MA: Yes, absolutely. We facilitate interactions through many of the things that we do, all the way from starting a collective to simply bringing politicians to sit with designers, which doesn’t often happen—not all the time, anyway.
You spoke about the horizontal, or as I took it, the democratic, organization of Terreform ONE. How does that contrast with your experiences teaching in institutions or your own educational experience, and how have the outcomes possibly been impacted by those differences?
MA: Well, typically you obviously have the leader or somebody you’re there to learn from. On the graduate level, though that changes very quickly. For example, when I was at the GSD as a post-professional student, I learned as much from my fellow students as from faculty members. And that was by design—that was encouraged there. I’ve seen in my personal education path that is something that has changed.
What we introduced in Terreform ONE is that we don’t instruct so much. We see ourselves more as arbiters—we let people get lost and wander. It’s not for everybody. Some people don’t thrive in that environment and they need much more structure. It’s in practicing that we bring people in, and pile on information and knowledge. It is a different methodology that we’ve developed, and it is focused on the intersection of design and science, so it requires rigorous pursuit of certain scientific methods. On the other hand, it also gives a lot of freedom.
To conclude, this is perhaps a naïve question, but if you can take it seriously, do you think that architecture can save the urban world?
MA: Yes, absolutely! Ultimately, that’s why we do what we do.