An interview with
Carlo Ratti
"The street is collaboration" declares Carlo Ratti, the architect and engineer in charge of the studio CRA, in Turin and New York, and the Senseable City Lab at MIT, describing the figure of the architect as an orchestral conductor, able to talk with experts in data, ethics and biology and then harmonise the different voices in order to integrate the natural world with the artificial one.

After this period of lockdown, unfortunately still in progress, has your perception of architecture and space changed?

- In some ways, yes. The virtualisation of our lives caused by the pandemic has made us understand the fundamental importance of physical space. We all want to return to the streets and reunite in restaurants or cinemas. This complex period has convinced me that the most urgent role that architecture must play today is that of creating spaces that allow diverse people to meet - physical places where it is not possible to "filter out the undesirable", as we habitually do on the web, which is dominated by predictive algorithms.

Do you think it will change the face of cities? 

- Our cities have seen it all. They have survived calamities and pandemics more devastating than the current one, and they have always bounced back. In the middle of the fourteenth century, the plague killed 60% of the population of Venice. In the following centuries, we didn't stop living in its beautiful streets or crowding its theatres because of this. I believe that in a not-too-distant future we will be back at the Fenice, crammed together.
Basically, I believe that the legacy this pandemic will leave us with is not so much a change in the physical aspect of our cities, but a change in our ways of experiencing and inhabiting the same spaces. In other words, it won't so much change the hardware, but the software.

Do you believe that the structures created to be centres of social exchange (town squares come to mind, but also malls or conference centres) will change?

- I believe that offices and conference centres will continue to have an important role in the exchange of ideas, interpersonal relationships and the transmission of company culture. And I'll go further - I believe that our offices will become more and more like spaces of this type. If I have to work alone with my laptop, I can stay at home or go to the mountains. If, instead, I go into the office, I want to maximise my opportunities to meet with others. With this in mind, at the design studio, CRA - Carlo Ratti Associates - we are working on the new headquarters of the Sella Group in Turin. 

In your opinion, has this period made people more aware of environmental topics?

- I think so. In the last few months, we have seen how health requirements are inextricably linked to ecological ones. As the research by my colleague at Harvard, Francesca Dominici, shows, the mortality rates of Covid-19 are at their highest in polluted urban environments. I hope that this awareness will stay with us in the long term, and will help us in the process of transforming our cities post-pandemic.

How do you see mobility in the years to come? Will the way we move around large cities change?

- I see an interesting future for micro-mobility - like electric bikes and scooters. In fact, these can play an important role within a metropolitan transport system: they make public transport more competitive, resolving the age-old problem of the final mile. In other words: I can jump off a bus and jump onto a scooter to reach my final destination. Micro-mobility also has numerous advantages in the short term, too: it allows for social distancing without all the inconveniences (emissions, road use, etc.) of cars.

Are we moving towards a type of design that will start to restore balance with nature?

- We are in an age in which the natural and the artificial have started a great process of convergence. We ourselves have assimilated mobile phones, computers, tablets and wrist devices almost as if they were appendages of our bodies. In the same way, cities and buildings are about to complete a similar transformation, but in the opposite direction, where the artificial moves towards the natural. On one hand, the evolution of digital technology, with sensors and actuators and artificial intelligence, allows buildings to become responsive, adapting in real time to the conditions around them as if they were living organisms. On the other, the design experiments that incorporate nature into our buildings and our cities are becoming ever more numerous. Two different paths towards natural-artificial convergence.

Today, the outskirts of cities are a central focus of architectural projects. In your opinion, will they become more important than the cities themselves?

- I don't believe this is about importance, but instead about the relationship between parts, like in a biological organism. With CRA, for example, we have recently presented the project for the new Science campus for the University of Milan, in the ex-Expo 2015 area, which works in synergy with its other campus in the heart of Milan.

Will you tell us about the project for the Italy Pavilion at the 2021 Dubai Expo?

- Three boats - one white, one red and one green - will arrive in Dubai and become the roof of the Pavilion. At the end of the Expo, the Pavilion will be dismantled and they will go back to sailing the seas. We pursued the idea of architecture that was reconfigurable, both in the long term - thanks to the re-use of its components, the boats that return to sailing - and in the short term - thanks to digital technology. The common theme is circularity: nothing is wasted; on the contrary, everything is re-used.

A particularly meaningful project, where nature, recycling, sustainability and the digital world coexist in perfect harmony. 

The three boats, designed by CRA - Carlo Ratti Associati, Italo Rota Building Office, matteogatto&associati and F&M Engineering, will metaphorically dock in Dubai and become the backbone of the Pavilion, as an exploration of re-use, circularity and reconfigurable architecture. The design is based on a circular approach to architecture: the vessels will be converted into the roof of the exhibition space for the duration of the event, and then be returned to the sea at the end of the World Exhibition. In the same way, the project aims to integrate sustainable materials - such as orange peel, coffee grounds, mushrooms and recycled plastic extracted from the ocean - which are used as construction elements, combining them with materials that reflect the local geography of Dubai. For example, the exhibition will extend over a real sand dune, while an elevated walkway will be coated with innovative materials obtained from orange peel and coffee grounds. 

Finally, the Pavilion is open to the elements, using natural strategies for climate control. The space is delimited by an adaptable facade made from LED curtains and nautical ropes. This system will create a flexible digital layer, able to transmit multimedia content. 


The need to equip ourselves, creating new structures to people care has led you to create the project CURA. Can you tell us about it?

- Like everyone this last year, we felt the need to use our skills to respond to the emergency, which affected us as professionals and as citizens. CURA is an open source initiative that converts transport containers into intensive care units with bio-containment. In a few weeks we had built the first unit, and the model is now being replicated in different countries around the world. The goal: finding new design tools, based on sharing and the open source system, to propose a fast, easily transportable and re-usable alternative to field hospitals and fixed hospital facilities. The method? Working openly, sharing everything, as is done in the world of open source software.
The ever more complex needs of a society that today also speaks through technology opens up new visions of architecture.


What is your vision of the city of the future?

- An open city, where everyone can find his own voice.


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Great leaps, ideas, dreams.
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