BioTallinn. The Tallinn Architectural Biennale 2017

"The convergence of biology and computation in architecture is one of the most promising future disciplinary developments. In this Biennale, I want it to embody a quest to expand the scope of our rational understanding of the impending global environmental crisis. I believe architecture can be deployed to unpack complex issues by reframing
the problematic field thus enlarging the space for solutions".

says Claudia Pasquero, TAB17 Head Curator.

TAB17 Website

Prof. Claudia Pasquero, Head Curator of the Tallinn Architecture Biennale 2017.

Tallinn Architecture Biennale (TAB) took place for the 4th time in Tallinn, Estonia, from Sept 13 to Oct 27 2017 and was the largest architecture event in the region, tackling topical architectural issue and looking at the future of the field of architecture.
The programme of the Biennale, headed on this occasion by curator Prof. Claudia Pasquero, consisted of three main events and satellite programmes under the theme of bio.Tallinn: the Curatorial Exhibition , the Symposium and the Tallinn Vision Competition . The key TAB 2017 satellite programmes included the Installation Programme competition exhibition and the TAB Schools Exhibition, bio.School.

TAB 2017, entitled bio.Tallinn , explored cityscapes as self-organising systems. Claudia Pasquero took a non-human-centred position towards urban space focusing on the emerging role of biotechnology in architecture and urban planning. The two-day TAB Symposium ‘‘Polycephalum City‘‘ (Sept 14 and 15) on contemporary architectural theory and practice, was a forum where people within the field discussed and reflected upon the background to the research-based work created specifically for TAB. An impressive group of internationally renowned architects and researchers, experimenting at the intersection of architecture, biology and computation headlined the TAB Symposium, including Mitchell Joachim , Bart Lootsma , Marcos Cruz, Rachel Armstrong, Marco Poletto and many more.

View of the main curated exhibition from the entrance at the Architecture Centre in Tallinn.

“ The Symposium speculation has been focused on the possibility to mobilize several perspectives that are going below, above
and sideways of our customary human (Anthropos) view, looking for design strategies to critically question the geo-ecological period that scientists call the Anthropocene. We addressed issues of urban morphogenesis and urban metabolisms through a multi-spectral viewpoint that we named Polycephalum City.” says Claudia Pasquero.

The Curatorial Exhibition for TAB 2017, titled ‘‘ Anthropocene Island‘‘, was designed and produced by ecoLogicStudio and featured new works by a line-up of internationally renowned architects and researchers, including Rachel Armstrong , Noumena , The Urban Morphogenesis Lab, The Institute of Advanced Architecture of Catalonia (IAAC) , Alisa Andrasek and Marcos Cruz (BiotA Lab) , Edouard Cabay (Appareil) ,Maj Plemenitas , Heather Barnett and Studio Unseen.

Anthropocene Island: a conversation on community of practices

What follows is the transcription of the conversation between Claudia Pasquero, head curator for the Tallinn Biennale of Architecture 2017 and Marco Poletto, during the presentation of the main curatorial exhibition Anthropocene Island. The conversation unfolds as a kind of virtual tour of the exhibition, highlighting relevant details of the works on show as well as the curatorial strategy and the motives behind its main theme. It also describes emerging relationships between the practitioners who have contributed to it with their work as well as to some that could not be present but who have influenced it. Since ecoLogicStudio curated and designed the exhibition we consider this as a testament of our community of practices, and this conversation is an attempt to summarise its importance to the work of our practice.

Hello I am Claudia Pasquero the head curator of this year’s Tallinn Biennale, titled Bio.Tallinn. We are about to embark in a virtual tour of the main curated exhibition together with ecoLogicStudio’s director Marco Poletto. Bio.tallinn challenges the relationship between science and design in the age of the Anthropocene and in particular the curated exhibition, titled Anthropocene Island deals with the peninsula of Paljassaare in Tallinn, discussing the relationship between industry and ecology, landscape and architecture. The design of the exhibition was developed by ecoLogicStudio and includes the work of 11 teams of artists, architects and scientists.

The core section of the main curated exhibition.

hi, I am Marco Poletto and I’m partner in ecologicstudio and I have directed the exhibition design of Anthropocene Island. The concept of the exhibition is to consider the space as a laboratory, it is a design laboratory of course, an experimental space that deals with a specific site, the peninsula of Paljassaare, and experiments with the site at various scales; so as we go through the exhibition we will also move through different scales or better different resolutions from the large scale of the Baltic Sea all the way down to the microscopic dimensions of bacteria. At the same time we will also deal with different technologies from digital simulations to robotic machines and at the mezzanine level with biological or microbial experiments.

We start with the work of my Maj Plemenitas and Alisa Andrasek that deals with flow and materiality. The large digital print of Maj, which is the first one, is a static simulation of the Baltic Sea that starts from data and looks at how particles of microplastics coalesce in the sea to explore new forms of materiality; this is related to a work we will see later on the upper floor, which is from the IAAC and looks at the possibility of harvesting the microplastics from the sea to transform it into useful
raw material for new products. In the work of Maj (Linkscale) I find this striking ability to capture trans-scalarity in a way that resonates with the conception of the whole exhibition. Scales are no longer typological and segregated as in traditional architectural representations but are nested one into each other and emerge as progressively finer orders of material organisation.

It was Ciro Najle at the AA in the ‘00s when he was directing the new Landscape Urbanism program that started this kind of conversation around trans-scalarity and the material approach to the large scale. The influence of that work certainly resonates here also with the project of Biothing. We can immerse ourselves in the flow of the work of Alisa Andrasek. This work engages digital simulation in a way that is comparable to the work of Linkscale but of course it is rendered through an animation, a dynamic simulation, so it is time based and is projected on the floor. As we can see each of these particles is like an agent, a digital entity that is somehow related to the other neighbouring ones in the simulation only by very simple rules. What is fascinating here is that this very complex behaviour is not designed directly by the designer but is an emergent property of the system. This idea of emergency or emerging collective intelligence is something that appears across the exhibition in different forms. Here at the scale of the Landscape but we can find it elsewhere at multiple scales all the way down to the microbiological experiments we will see upstairs.

ecoLogicStudio's Anthropocene Island model.

We now more forward to reach the work of Appareil, at the city scale, which correlates to the work of ecoLogicStudio at the Peninsula scale. The piece of Appareil is operating across robotics and the programming of microprocessors as well as
analogue intelligence; what is really interesting about this work is what happens at the intersection between the digital and the analogue. As we move around the work on this side we see the actual electronic components, this is the microprocessor that
controls these fans. And these represent the effects of the wind and the dissipating forces that we can find in nature.

On the other side of the piece there is an interactive platform that you can manipulate. From here visitors are encouraged to become part of the experiment and to pull the handles thus activating or releasing micro quantities of ink, which here represents contaminants in the landscape. You can see the particles being released in the air and as you can see when the ink is released it is dragged in a turbulent motion by the combined force of the fans; and this combined action changes all the time creating ever-changing vortices which scatter the particles of ink around the drawing in an unpredictable manner.
This emergent drawing represents contemporary Tallinn and it is a representation that is not based on the morphology or geometry of the city, like in classical figure ground depictions, but rather through a complex interaction between pollutants or
substances the city releases, for instance through its wastewater system, or in the air and how these are distributed by wind, rain water and other natural phenomena around the territory. So the drawing or the big map that is appearing is in fact the map
of Tallinn as an Anthropocene landscape. It is centred in the middle of the peninsula of Paljassaare, our project site, where the waste water treatment plant is located, and the patterns that you see appearing are the rendition of the city as a cloud of particles; these represent the pollutants that contaminates the landscape affecting its ecosystems.

Appareil's analogue computing machine.

It is a very elegant expression of the machinic paradigm in architecture as well as this view of architecture as a temporary accumulation of particulate matter, existing across regimes and disciplinary definitions. The work of Cloud9 and Enric Ruiz Geli
is significant in this sense, very visible for instance in the facade of their MediaTIC building in Barcelona or their new project for El Bulli Foundation in Cap the Creus. If we keep zooming in we reach the peninsula of Paljassaare and we can see from this
perspective the corrugation of the landscape of the proposal of ecoLogicStudio, while from above, at the mezzanine level, you can capture the whole model. This is a model of a future landscape where the wastewater processing is embedded in the landscape itself so there is no segregation between the wastewater treatment and ecological park but the two are interwoven. This discusses how design aesthetic can have a new agency in the current bio-political debate shifting the attention from problem solving to a new kind of interaction with large scale processes. The point is shifting the attention from trying to solve problems to try to create interfaces that allow a new kind of interaction with the problematic sphere. So we are not of trying to solve the question of pollution here. We realise it is a problem that is not possible to just solve. But through design and aesthetic experimentation we can create an enhanced interaction between multiple systems both human and in-human agents.

ecoLogicStudio's model from above.

This model was designed and produced by ecologicStudio and is made of 4000 individual sections, made of card and cut by laser. They are glued together into 16 tiles which are then supported by this CNC milled structure. The model describes
the translation of data, the world of Simulation, into matter and morphology, that is the spatial dimension of urbanism. If you look at the model from the front you will see that each section is really just a chart, is pure data. But then when you zoom out
and the sections fuse together, especially when you look at the overall model from above, a kind of digital materiality emerges. This is the moment when the model tries to suggest how we may begin to imagine future cities and their urban massing not in a deterministic way but really as emerging morphologies, that are part virtual or simulated and part of course made of real stuff, material processes. Here the main suggestion is to imagine a landscape that is capable of processing the wastewater that comes from the existing city of Tallinn, the city of today, and is re-metabolising its waste into usable nutrients, into precious raw materials to grow and build up a new city from the bottom up. So the whole morphology you see here emerges from this intention of processing waste in the landscape; the articulations is extremely fine as it is a filtering surface. In certain areas we can see the nuclei of new urbanisation emerging; these are the locations where a critical mass is reached, where the amount of nutrients and energy that is produced by the landscape is enough to sustain life or sustained urbanisation. So the digestion or re-metabolisation of waste becomes the founding act of the new city, the process which synthesises the new city.
And how this process may be happening is what we explore while zooming into finer resolutions.

As we move to the architectural scale we explore the project from a young collective called Numena. In particular this piece relates the landscape proposal of ecoLogicStudio to the video project from bio-artist Heather Barnett. This large sand pit from Numena can be considered as one of the tiles in the urban landscape model of ecoLogicStudio. Here is presented as a dynamic system where a set of robots interact with the landscape and its composition. It is rethinking the notion of construction machine; it is no longer a device that goes on site, transforms it, constructs it and then leaves but it becomes part of the site it
inhabits, just like the wind or birds or other eco-systemic forces that regularly shape the landscape. So rather than thinking of a single machine a large and powerful ground machine, Numena imagines a set of small machines that are able to sense
the site. You can actually see what the robots feel projected as a dynamic datascape. The machines are aware of the site through these reading and they are able to act upon what they feel so areas of more movement result in more intense transformation. These are alternating with moments of less transformation when the machines are just going to keep scanning and reading the landscape with little effect upon it.

Noumena's robotic garden.

What is occurring in the work of Numena, and their little robots, resonate very strongly with the video you see here. The video is the work of bio-artist Heather Barnett, and shows a time-lapse animation of a slime mould or Physarum Polycephalum, which means multiple heads in Latin. The slime mould is considered by many the next biological computer. This is because the slime mold despite being a very simple organism, an unicellular organism, is composed of million of nuclei and these nuclei are able to optimise the distribution of resources in the transformation of the territory. The way they do so is through collective intelligence, something that Marco mentioned before. So rather than thinking about urban infrastructures through top down engineering the idea is to conceive master-planning from the bottom up, through the relationship between multiple simple units and therefore through collective intelligence and distribute spatial memory. What you see here in the video therefore is not simply a speculation of slime mould but it is effectively a real simulation of how each nucleus of slime mold could be equivalent of each robot and could in time become an agent of transformation and decontamination of the site.

The main curated exhibition from the mezzanine level.

In this project the machinic component is embedded in the architecture and informs its becoming. Construction never ends and a forms of circularity or symbiosis is established whereas the secretions of the robots become architecture’s new brick and mortar while the waste emitted from the city feeds the machines with their row materials. Here we have a digital simulation, we have a living organism and we have a piece of robotic engineering exchanging with one another in real-time. So what we are thinking now is that these three entities are not separate, they are no longer belonging to three different domains but in fact they are 3 phases of the same process, describing three levels of a stack in constant communication. So that’s why we are thinking about robotic not through complex centralized machines, but we see multiple bio-inspired swarm robots that can communicate with each other and behave like these little nuclei inside the slime mould’s unicellular walls of pectine. And at the
same time we are looking at a digital simulation of suspended microplastics in the sea not as a depiction of their complex morphologies but we are thinking of the emergent patterns, the emergent behaviours. This transforms the way we think of our technologies.

Detail of the robotic gardener.

What I like in this robot, not sure if it is visible in the dark, is particularly the way it was engineered by the team at Numena. On the one side it is obviously made of elements that we recognise as mechanical, like these caterpillar tracks. But the top is very much developed as a kind of organic shell; especially you can see the tip of it that is able to secrete fluid substances. It is containing them here in the tank, actually living and biologically active material. So we can think of it as a robotic organism that operates as an agent of transformation of the landscape, of decontamination of the landscape in this case; we will see on the mezzanine level what this artificial living substratum may be made of.

So the connection between the lower ground and the upper ground is created by the overall proposal that is presented here in the form of a model and in a set of drawings that present a new concept for the wastewater treatment ecosystem starting from the city scale that you can see here and that gets redistributed at the architectural scale.

These drawings that were developed by ecoLogicStudio, are trying to depict urban infrastructures, such as wastewater, as a distributed system. So again we’re talking about wastewater treatment not as something that is concentrated in one point into
a big plant, into a big water treatment plant for example, but in a distributed system exactly like in this slime mold or in the digital swarms that we saw at the entrance. It’s really about these patterns, in which different functions in different moments in the process of urbanisation are exchanging and are very tightly connected or hybridized we should say. It tries to describe an instance of an urban morphogenesis.

IAAC's microplastic filtering machine.

In the upper floor we can see some of these prototypes of material transformation. At the bacterial scale pollutants can be transformed into a resource as they enter a new metabolic cycle. Generically we talk about pollutants or pollution as a closed
category. But here we can read what these pollutants actually are and we can start to think about how to use them and transform them into something else. If we are more specific about what a pollutant is we can understand that something that is a pollutant for human species can be a resources for an non-human one.

Let’s make the example of the microalgae. Microalgae are pollutants for the sea but they can become a resource in terms of food or energy, so we need to be much more specific in the way we read what we consider a pollutant so we can understand how we become more opportunistic with these elements. And surely digital technologies such as algorithmic simulations and data mapping are helping this transition.

As we are moving now to the upper level of the exhibition it is interesting to notice how we have tried to curate a central arena that we imagine as the space where the experimentation happens and that is visible from above as well. Around we have this
perimeter, with little screens, where you can find more detailed information about each artist and about each project and that we understand as a kind of observation deck. So where we are right now, outside the main experimental arena, we are observing what is happening, and we are learning more about each artist and each project. Now you can follow us upstairs to the next level.

Bioplastic prototype by the Urban Morphogenesis Lab.
Biosilk prototype by the Urban Morphogenesis Lab.

The upper level as we were mentioning before is really where we dive into the microscopic scale; so this is the world of bacteria, of particles, of the microscopic and this is where things get really interesting because at this scale processes that we are used to observe in architecture appear very different. The first projects that we should see is from a group of researchers from the IAAC, from the Institute of Advanced Architecture of Catalonia, and they have imagined this little creature that in fact is a bio-drone, for the recycling of the microparticles of plastic found in the Baltic Sea.

So the idea in this case is to look at possible micro-drones with biological appearance which will interact with the population of Tallinn. And what they have presented here is not only a biological research on how we can detect the micro plastic in the sea water and how we can transform it into plastic. There are some sample produced during the exhibition. But also how spatial is this transformation and how it can be articulated through an apparatus that is able to process the sea water in real time.

Main curated exhibition - Ground floor plan.

This kind of eco-machine is a really mixture of crafted elements like this beautiful glass containers, of custom designed components, and mechanical parts. What this apparatus really does is articulating in space this process of filtering and transforming micro-plastics. You can see different moments here, from the heating up of the water collected from the sea, to this part where the water goes through the gasses and evaporates. All the way down here where the plastic is filtered out and then it is mixed with new substances which enable the particles to fuse together or melt together into a new and extendible mixture. So this really is about turning something which now is a huge problem of waste in the sea, turning it into something useful, a reusable raw material.

This relates to the first installation downstairs, and it shows how each of the digital particles of the simulation downstairs at the scale of the Baltic sea could be imagined as a node of transformation of micro-plastic. The project of the micro plastic is like
an instance of one of the accumulations of the project we found downstairs from Maj Plemenitas that looks at this flow of micro materials and how they influence the morphology of the sea itself. We move then from the bacterial scale to the macro-material scale and we could see here a sort of scale model or sample of the photo-bioreactor that we see in the proposal of ecoLogicStudio, and in particular these are from Studio Unseen, in Tallinn, with Rachel Armstrong and Newcastle University in the UK. This project looks at printing clay from local material sourced in Paljassaare.

So technically what is really beautiful here is that a material like clay that is such a traditional material is articulated through robotic printing. So through the use of robot is possible to create artefacts that are so accurately articulated that they enable natural elements or biological elements to settle because of the little gaps, because of the little articulations. So these artefacts become wet systems, that really bring elements that normally are inert, the blocks or the bricks of architecture, to host life or living systems.

Main curated exhibition - Mezzanine floor plan.

The next work shows how biological elements can grow through the articulation of some of these bricks. They have been inoculated with different species. They have been working with a landscape architect from the University of Tallinn, so all the bricks have been inoculated with different species from fungi to macroscopic plans and they have been observed to see how these could facilitate growth. Growth is not only important as the clay acts as a substratum but also because these become tiles that are able, as we will see in the next installation, to become producers of energy. Electrons get dispersed in the soil and allow the creation what is called a bio-catalytic cell.

What is really beautiful about these elements is not just nature being contained within a cavity but, you can see this one perhaps it is really clear, it is about a complete interpenetration of the living and the inert elements. I think this is possible only when the artefacts that we make, at any scale, achieve that level of articulation and that high resolution, that sort of facilitates emergent complexity and enable these emergent process to talk place. This is really about articulating architecture at a scale and with a resolution that blurs the boundaries with the natural realm, enables living biological systems to take over, or to colonize, or to become symbiotic and co-evolutionary in that sense. This is the vision that we are trying to propose here, from the scale of the Baltic Sea all the way down to the scale of the building component.

So while we walk along the works of Rachel Armstrong and the Newcastle University, Unseen and all their collaborators, we can see a set of different catalytic cells that have been produced, from the most technical one which is related to a grant that the Living Architecture consortium has recently received in the UK, to the most speculative one related to the Peninsula of Paljassaare.

Main curated exhibition - Section.

This part of the exhibition brings cutting edge science and design and art really one next to the other. I think that is the real ambition of this part. A lot of the experiments that you see here from Dr Rachel Armstrong are cutting edge science; they come from European founded science projects but at the same time there’s really an attempt to visualize them or to materialise them in a way that influences the built environment; and this is an example of one of these living bricks where actually you can see
within the bricks these cores, that are the cathodes, and the liquid, which is basically wastewater that works as a sort of metabolic energy generator. So weak currents are generated in each cathodes, and are connected in series, and generate a significant amount of energy.

The notion of catalytic cells is also explored here from Biota Lab in UCL, directed by architect Marcos Cruz. The work of Biota is probably more focused on the morphological aspects and how 3D printed morphology of concrete can influence the inoculation of microalgae and therefore the generation of energy. It is worth mentioning here the influence of the work of architect Marjan Colletti, former partner of Marcos, and now conducting pioneering work in robotic 3D printing at the University of Innsbruck with projects like the Coralloid Cocoones for Ars Electronica. This brings us to the next step which is about active materials becoming the matter of architecture itself without even a substratum intended in the way we understood it before. So in this case Biota Lab has printed micro-algae that are directly growing into bio-gel and become tiles. So with this type of projects we can foresee the notion of bio-printing reflected within the materiality of a new, self-remediating architecture.

Prof. Claudia Pasquero illustrating the Mezzanine level exhibit.

We were discussing before this idea of digital materiality, and I think here we almost came all the way around the exhibition and you can begin to see how these different elements in fact relate to each other. These kind of digital forms of materiality that we have explored at the landscape or urban scales and that we have experienced again with the printing drones or printing rovers of Numena, actualise here as living 3D printed terrains. So now perhaps we can imagine how these three layers can begin to
interact and form a new vision of an active, self-repairing landscape.

The last work on show is from the Urban Morphogenesis Lab in the UCL, directed by myself with Filippo Nassetti. We look at biomaterial from microbial cellulose, to bioplastic that use organic waste or sludge from Paljassaare as row ingredient.
In particular these samples of bio-plastic change appearance in response to their context, biochemistry and performance. This works resonate with the research conducted at MIT by Neri Oxman, also a former AA graduate, who is redefining
the boundaries of bio-digital architecture and actualizing the notion of embedded intelligence in design.

As we explore the marco-material scale you would expect this to be the most pragmatic part of the exhibition. And on the one side it is because it’s talking about what are the buildings of the future going to be made of. But what we see is that these materials because they are alive, because they are dynamic, because they are biological, they actually exhibit the same patterns and the same behaviours that we observed right at the beginning in some of the digital agent-based simulations. Or in
the behaviour of the slime mould. So there is a speculative element embedded in what some call post-digital architecture, that is the current turn towards hybrid materiality. I think in this moment we really can navigate fluidly across scales, going back to the very large. And somehow it is beautiful to find these same patterns into the very small. I think that this is the essence of the trans-scalar approach; scales are not segregated they communicate, and certain patterns in behaviour can be found at multiple scales, there is self-similarity at multiple scales.

Claudia Pasquero and Marco Poletto at the opening ceremony.

It is evident in these two projects, the second price for the Vision Competition from students of the UM Lab in UCL as well as this project that deals with silkworms. They look on how to create a new type of silk farm that inhabits the port-Soviet buildings
of Tallinn in cooperation with the behaviour of the silkworms. While producing silk and proteins, at the same time they are able to imagine a new kind of fabric of architecture. A cooperation between human and non-human agents where structures are not constructed but grown, and are able to deal with structural and material properties organically.

This part of the exhibition also shows original research documentation; this is a portfolio from the Urban Morphogenesis Lab for instance. I think what is really fascinating here is that you can see that today, and I believe it is going to be more
and more the case in the future, academic research, design, practice are going to be more and more interconnected; this exhibition really is an exhibition that talks about research and talks about design in practice or multiple practices. And it talks about how these 3 moments actually operate in a seamless way. I believe that integration is essential to generate future visions of urbanism.

So essentially Bio.Tallinn and the Anthropocene Island exhibition by re-describing the relationship between scales of design proposes a new vision in which we construct a collaborative project between scientists, artists and architects. Together they can propose new interfaces for design.

Visitors immersed in the Biothing video installation.

In this sense the exhibition is in a way project-based but is also a collective effort by a multiplicity of institutions; some are companies some are research institutions some are collective of artists and scientists, robotic engineers. I think the beauty of these is about the blurring of disciplinary boundaries; which doesn’t mean that disciplines don’t count anymore but it means that the way of collaborating across disciplines is radically transformed and I believe this transformation is enabled by new technologies that we have of digital design, of biological experimentation, of prototyping, that are now entering the realm of architecture.

And these technologies become techniques, appropriated by each artist, by each designer and by each scientist and are no longer simply disciplinary tools. This is my vision of trans-disciplinarity and the power of creating such multi-disciplinary
communities of practices. I hope you enjoyed this virtual tour with us!

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Related press and projects

Head Curator
Claudia Pasquero
Design Team
Marco Poletto, Claudia Pasquero, Matteo Pendenza, Terezia Greskova
Invited Architects, Artists and Scientists
Alisa Andrasek, Maj Plemenitas - Linkscale, Edouard Cabay - Appareil, Heather Barnett, Claudia Pasquero and Marco Poletto - ecoLogicStudio, Noumena, Studio Unseen, Urban Morphogenesis Lab - The Bartlett UCL, Rachel Armstrong - Newcastle University, BiotA Lab, IAAC
Organized by
Estonian Centre of Architecture (MTÜ Eesti Arhitektuurikeskus)
TAB 2017 Production Team
Maria Kristiin Peterson, Eve Arpo
TAB 2017 Catalogue and Webzine Editor
Lucy Bullivant
NAARO, Tõnu Tunnel