The Urbansphere. Architecture in the age of ubiquitous computing | PhD

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by Marco Poletto, PhD Urbansphere - Architecture in age of ubiquitous computing

The first comprehensive models of the world’s ecosystems were cybernetic models, conceived in the image of man-made machines and rendered through their computational power. This dissertation opens at the legendary Biosphere2 project in Arizona, perhaps the most striking architectural embodiment of this ecotechnic approach. The following chapters are an investigation into the contemporary significance of this quest for a functioning, living and self-regulating artificial ecosystem, a man-made Biosphere.

Today we live in the Anthropocene, when man-made systems have reached global impact and the entire Biosphere is mutating into what I have named, the Urbansphere. This notion is at the core of this dissertation, embodying my architectural design practice’s investigation into the dissolving boundaries between global urban infrastructures and Biosphere’s ecosystems. Since the conception of ecoLogicStudio I’ve been fascinated by architecture’s conceptual and material dependence on nature, and, as a consequence, by the impact that emerging computational paradigms are having on the evolution of such relationship.

My research moves from tested methodologies previously pioneered by cyberneticians Gordon Pask and architect Frei Otto to reach the more recent frontiers of unconventional computing and bio-artificial intelligence. From these pioneers comes the passion for building bespoke architectures, installations and digital design protocols testing human interaction with non-human systems. These “apparatus” have then evolved into tools to simulate architecture’s response to a new and evolving model of nature. This dissertation is a collection of the most significant recent experiments, and a reflection on the design trajectory that brought them into existence. Towards the end it also becomes an account of their contribution to both my practice’s overall mission and to the architectural discourse at large.

Crucially today human technology has affected virtually every ecosystem on Earth. And, conversely, we are in an age of ubiquitous computation where the miniaturisation and distribution of digital systems has reached in-human complexity and unpredictability. Therefore and perhaps paradoxically in the Anthropocene Age we need more than ever a non anthropocentric mode of reasoning. This shift has transformational effects on our conception of both nature and, as a consequence, of architecture. Nature now embodies forms other than its green ideal, pushing architecture away from its classical notions of balance and symmetry; similarly Abstract nature escapes the logics of its early ecotechnic models thus redefining architecture’s modernist credo of efficiency. It no longer makes sense to describe architecture through classical typologies, or through separate scalar and material domains. A new perspective is gifting the discipline of architectural design with a radical expansion of its scope which I have embraced in my practice and brought to international attention.

The Urbansphere is then what we may call the global apparatus of contemporary urbanity, a stack of dense informational, material and energetic networks supporting our society’s increasingly demanding metabolism. In this sense we all inhabit the Urbansphere, which calls for architects to design it and to curate spatial knowledge across its scientific, artistic and technological domains. Architects’ ability to see and think spatially is becoming critical to the articulation of novel forms of intelligence within the Urbansphere and to engender a new urban morphogenesis.

Methodologically this requires a redefinition of programmatic, spatial and material categories that have no meaning in Urbanspheric terms. In my practice as presented here they are substituted by algorithms, digital and biologic, that process information relayed by satellites and other sensing technologies and that can render the surface and deep structure of our cities at increasingly high resolution. A new urban landscape emerges which we design but don’t fully determine, as what we draw, fabricate or grow is mediated by the combined intelligence of our digital and biological machines, all interacting in actual space and real-time.

From this perspective my practice’s body of work has become an instrument to test the evolution of a new architecture of nature, and its related aesthetic value system, beyond the restraining boundaries of “green” ideology. This now encompasses the pleasure and beauty found in the abstract dimension of “Urbanspheric computation” as well as in the most mundane aspects of urban infrastructure. As data, molecules and cells become materials of design, the concept of urban ecological impact is reframed, thus losing its intrinsic negative connotation.

Ultimately this leads to a fundamental reframing of the notion of sustainability in architecture, shifting its focus onto the design of shared strategies of survival and reproduction among all those living organisms and intelligent machines that are inhabiting the Urbansphere. As such this thesis forms an evolving collection of protocols of architectural con putation (collective thinking) and cultivation (growing knowledge) underpinning a new urban morphogenesis.

Final examination November 2018, Barcelona