Carlo Ratti: Utopia or oblivion

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Carlo Ratti: Utopia or oblivion

Regarding the Internet of Things, architects could stimulate (without imposing) the developmental lines along which our environment evolves.

Domusweb: There is much talk today about Industry 4.0, based on the Internet of Things and Big Data. What new ways of living in and designing urban environments do these aspects of technology bring with them?

Carlo Ratti: The Internet of Things is a natural evolution of Internet and perhaps the most important technological revolution at present. The prologue to the revolution was the entrance of the smartphone into our lives, but now it is bringing us to an actual network of persons and things, all connected in real time. Applications such as Uber, Airbnb, Tinder and Grindr would not be possible without the Internet of Things, nor would the Nest thermostat, the Car2Go car-sharing system or Google’s self-driving cars. The consequences for architecture are important. I like to think that we will have a foot in both camps of two seemingly opposite dimensions: on one side the idea of architecture as a third skin, a dynamic and living one, in addition to our natural skin and our clothes. And on the other side, a contemporary reinterpretation of Le Corbusier’s old idea of the machine-à-habiter. We will become cyborgs: living beings enhanced by technology that is increasingly symbiotic with our body. The Innovation Issue we edited for Domus is a snapshot of a few of these changes, following a line that we could call the method of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. From the avant-garde perspective of Cambridge, Massachusetts, we attempted to capture the first signals of how design, interaction, manufacturing and materials are changing in profound ways.

Domusweb: What role do architects have in this digital revolution? What tools and competencies do they need to possess in order to partake?

Carlo Ratti: Architects are now faced with a fundamental choice. As the great American designer and inventor Richard Buckminster Fuller described it: utopia or oblivion. Oblivion if architects are not able to rise to the challenge of the changes underway. Utopia if they succeed in becoming the creators of transformation in the “artificial world”, starting with our cities. Regarding the Internet of Things, architects could stimulate (without imposing) the developmental lines along which our environment evolves. They could help build in a dialectic manner the shared space of tomorrow, in which all of us can participate. This is not an easy shift, seeing that new competencies are needed. Precisely for this reason, we asked Hashim Sarkis, the dean of the MIT School of Architecture, how he imagines architectural training in the future.

Domusweb: Are universities able to train such new professionals? What are the indispensable requisites to educate architects and engineers able to meld traditional manufacturing with the latest technology (Industry 4.0)?

Carlo Ratti: I think much experimentation is needed. My impression is that many curricula today are outdated and too similar to those of the Écoles des Beaux-Arts at the beginning of the 19th century. The professionals of tomorrow need to understand the many levels of intersection between architecture and other sectors – not just engineering, but also economy and sociology, besides of course such obvious disciplines such as interaction design and programming. Students will need to work in a transdisciplinary way. As generalists, they will be able to become harmonisers.

Domusweb: Besides the MIT in Boston, which international institutes do you consider at the vanguard of training?

Carlo Ratti: I much appreciate institutes that experiment and stick their necks out by risking in the first person. In the United States, Princeton and Cooper Union are bringing about great changes. In Europe, that goes for the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and the Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design in Moscow. Other schools of great tradition are imprisoned in their own past. Ah, l’Académie!

Domusweb: What schools in Italy do you consider at the vanguard?

Carlo Ratti: It seems to me that the Polytechnics of Milan and Turin are maintaining a high profile. Many people who work with us in Turin, Boston and Singapore are from these schools. But there are others scattered here and there around the country. In addition, there are great differences from one department to the next (at the same school).

Domusweb: You are an exemplary case of Italy’s brain drain. You have an academic career abroad, although you do have an office in Turin. Do the conditions that made you emigrate still persist? What professional perspectives can a young Italian architect or engineer count on finding?

Carlo Ratti: Our office in Turin opened in 2004, right when I was starting to spend time at MIT. The two branches grew in tandem, with continuous exchange between the Senseable City Lab and Carlo Ratti Associati. Today we work with about 150 people in different cities, mainly Turin, Boston and Singapore. They comprise Italian architects and engineers with international experience, and local foreign colleagues. So I don’t think I am part of the brain drain. Italy has never been excluded from my plans.

Domusweb: What shape is research in, in Italy? Which application fields are its strong suit?

Carlo Ratti: We were talking about architecture and the Internet of Things. What I see is that some of the most interesting phenomena right now are direct consequences of experiences such as the Interaction Design Institute in Ivrea. I’m thinking of Arduino and the development of the Processing software for visualisation. But there are also companies such as Experientia, Dotdotdot, ToDo and more. At Carlo Ratti Associati we often benefit from this ecosystem. Studios like the ones I mentioned have collaborated with us on such projects as the “Open Oven” exhibition for Indesit; the Future Food District for Coop at the 2015 World Expo in Milan; and more recently, our pavilion for FICO Eataly World now under construction. Over 15 years have past since the school in Ivrea was founded, and the ideas of Gillian Crampton Smith (who is on our board of advisors) are still alive and kicking. For me, an important lesson was seeing how a change in approach allowed Italy to offer a great deal. In this case, research was made more agile and meritocratic.

Carlo Ratti Associati, Fondazione Agnelli, 2016

Domusweb: The term “smart” is being used generously of late to describe objects, buildings and cities. What characteristics do a building and a city need to possess in order to be truly intelligent or sensible, as you prefer to define it? Can you give us some exceptional examples?

Carlo Ratti: As you mention, I am not very keen on the word smart. It makes me think of projects where technology is an end unto itself. I prefer the adjective sensible because it places an accent on a very human capability: the experience of the space. It refers to feeling the world in variables that are not always quantifiable in an objective way, such as the beauty of a building or the sense of freedom one feels when walking through the streets of an unfamiliar city. I mentioned earlier the idea of architecture as a third skin. Well, thanks to digital technology, we can finally build an interior that is not only able to feel, but also to respond, adapting itself in real time to our needs. In a few weeks, our restoration of the Fondazione Agnelli in Turin will be completed. The project integrates different elements on which we have conducted research in recent years, from the maximum personalisation of climate control in the rooms, to the management of shared workspace. The final aim is to shape an interior that incentivises creative processes and exchanges of opinion, which are the real reason we still enjoy going to the office despite having the possibility of working from home.

Domusweb: Which are the new protagonists of the mobility revolution? Where do you see the most pioneering projects?

Carlo Ratti: Le Corbusier writes in Vers une Architecture (1923) that “the motor-car has completely overturned all our old ideas of town planning.” Like the automobile gave shape to the 20th-century city, the new mobility systems could redefine the use of urban space in the coming century. Self-driving cars will have a very strong impact on our way of interacting with the city. Almost certainly, they will bring a new distinction between public and private transport, but we do not yet know what the exact consequence of this will be. The most positive hypothesis might be that all of us could circulate in the city with only a fraction of the vehicles in use today, by freeing parking lots and other spaces to be repurposed. Or a more sombre scenario could be that wheeled transport becomes so inexpensive that it rivals mass transport, turning our cities into one giant traffic jam. As often is the case, much depends on the political decisions we take.

Finally, among the most talked-about projects in recent months, there is one that I admit to having more than a few doubts about: Hyperloop, the high-speed transport system proposed by Elon Musk. Beyond the technological challenges, which I believe can be overcome, I wonder whether we really need a similar system that calls for long travels toward complex suburban stations and short trips in tubes that do not interact with the outside air. The experience is equal to that of the airplane, with a much higher installation cost and much lower usage cost. On the other hand, if tomorrow our cities are populated by self-driving cars, the vehicles themselves can become extensions of our offices and homes. I think that’s a more interesting approach.

Domusweb: Which innovations are going to most influence the way we work and live in the next five years?

Carlo Ratti: I’d rather not make any predictions. It’s only a question of time before the Internet of Things, perhaps combined with a few dynamics of sharing, profoundly changes our way of devising inhabitable space. Many of the projects that we included in the Domus Innovation Issue will lead us in that direction, by offering a mirror in which we can imagine ourselves in the near future.

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Last modified: 8 June 2017