Carlo Ratti (Credits Brendan Zhang)

Carlo Ratti (Credits Brendan Zhang)

Infrastructure  |  Interview

Carlo Ratti: a look at the progress in innovation

The Italian architect and engineer ramps up international collaboration, never skimping on his ability to elaborate optimistic visions of the future, where technology and sustainability will profoundly change the way we live

Among the Italian architects who have achieved the greatest visibility on the international scene, Carlo Ratti’s name has taken on a special resonance. An architect and engineer, Ratti founded the CRA studio, with offices in Turin and New York, and also manages the Senseable City Lab at MIT in Boston. But it is certainly not just these dual professional and academic roles – the latter of which is undoubtedly highly acclaimed – that lie behind his popularity and makes him stand out from his peers. Unlike his Italian colleagues, who often wave the banner of "Made in Italy" style and identity, Ratti has turned analytical research and unrestrained technological advancement into an opportunity to unite planning with the ability to predict the scenarios of the future.

In short, you can look at Ratti not only from the perspective of the things he designs but also his innate ability to anticipate the things to come, as if they were already here, taking us into a state of experimentation, through both research and evocative, immersive environments. This is the case with many of his pioneering projects, from the Digital Water Pavilion designed for the 2008 Saragozza Expo, to the latest Italian Pavillion (created in collaboration with the Italo Rota Building Office) at Expo 2020 Dubai. Although the latter was criticised for its kitsch veneer, which was most likely adopted to satisfy current expectations and tastes in the Gulf, this takes nothing away from the radical range of the concept, which focuses on the design opportunities offered by circular sustainability. 

As well as these projects, Ratti’s portfolio also includes urban renewal plans (the latest being Porta Romana, in Milan, a tender won together with OUTCOMIST, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, PLP Architecture and Arup); interactive furniture; exhibition and museum displays; architectural projects (including the recent MEET Digital Culture Center and the UNIMI Science Campus), and open-source systems. All projects that emphasise the ease with which he can switch scale and his confident and pragmatic approach – in this case, more Anglo-Saxon than Italian –, where the potential of innovation is used as a lever for efficient and poetic problem solving. This month, we interviewed him to talk about innovation and his latest projects.

New ideas and projects that rethink manufactured objects, interfaces, spaces, organisational and development processes, seem to be increasingly numerous and widespread. And yet there is nothing that seems to offer a tangible solution to our vulnerabilities, especially in terms of global warming. Which direction do you think innovation should take to maximise impact?

"I believe that innovation needs to be applied 360 degrees, also because the solutions to the problems we often have to face tend to emerge unexpectedly, depending on the various different setting where they are applied. However, we often place too much focus on urban hardware, or rather the ‘form’ of the city, but the climate challenge will also be won using software, i.e. the way in which we live the city. We have seen this over the past year, with the consequences that the pandemic has had on our lives, which has accelerated the transformation that was already in act, especially in terms of reduced travel and increased sustainability. Here, I think keeping some of these changes in place over the long-term could be a good starting point."

You recently unveiled the Italian Pavillion at the 2020 Dubai Expo, a project based on the circular economy that responds to the themes explored in this year’s event, “Connecting minds, creating the future”. Could you tell us how this idea was born? Did you also see it as a way to rethink the dynamics and proposals of this big event?

"A common issue with all big events, from the Expo to the Olympics, is how to stop everything ending up in landfill when the event comes to an end. It is precisely for this reason that, together with Italo Rota Building Office, matteogatto&associati and F&M Ingegneria, we decided to focus on circularity. This can be seen not only in the choice of materials (for example, the facades are made from two million recycled plastic bottles), but also in the architectural concept, which was composed of three hulls of a ship. On arrival in Dubai the hulls become the roof of the pavilion and when the Expo is over they will be ready to set sail for other destinations and uses."

The city has always been at the heart of your research. One of the most recent is the new masterplan for Brasília, based around the theme of the domestication of nature. What will this actually mean for the new inhabitants of the city?

"One of the most evident problems with Brasília is that is seems to be designed for a very specific type of human: the motorist. The principal axis of the city, Eixo Monumental, is over 15 kilometres long, but when you cross it you realise that some sections have no sidewalks at all. As a pedestrian, you are overwhelmed by an urban panorama that seems more suited to taking selfies than stretching your legs. Whereas, today, councils across every continent are competing to make streets safer for cyclists and people on foot. The rumble of traffic and the screeching of brakes – a constant feature of life in Brasília – reminds us of how the future of the 1900s was inextricably linked to a life on four wheels. Our project aims to turn this logic around by placing people and their relationship with nature at the centre. In this sense, the pleasant Brazilian climate is a great help. It’s so mild, all you need is a roof to protect yourself from the elements, and this also allows for working outdoors."

How do you think this concept can be realistically applied to our historic cities? How can we combine retrofitting with the inclusion of nature in Italy, for example?

"We are in fact looking at the theme of integration between the natural and artificial in several other places. In Milan, for example, we created a masterplan that won a tender for the requalification of Scalo Porta Romana, which is precisely focused on the integration of natural and manmade elements. One of the objectives of the project, developed in collaboration with Oucomist, Diller Scofidio +Renfro, PLP Architecture and Arup, was to create a new equilibrium between the city and nature. The project proposes the transformation of the former Porta Romana rail hub – a fracture in the heart of Milan for a very long time –  turning it into a new and vibrant, sustainable neighourhood. Nature will not only colonise the railway infrastructure, which will be reinvented as a large green area, crowned by a ‘floating forest’ that winds its way over the railway lines, not only creating panoramic features but also spaces for outdoor activities, habitations, offices and sports and leisure spaces."

Remaining on the theme of the city, in 2019 you presented a proposal for the reimagining of the Périphérique, in Paris. How do you think this intervention on a bottleneck in one of the most densely populated cities in Europe can alleviate the pressures on the livability of this urban space? What about the neighbouring areas?

"Today, mobility is undergoing enormous transformation. Electric vehicles help reduce noise and harmful emissions, whereas self-driving cars promise to dismantle the concept of car ownership, leaving space for new shared models that will make movement more efficient and reduce the number of cars in circulation. These changes will have a huge impact on every city, especially on the infrastructures that serve them, like the Parisian Périphérique. Our project for the latter, which won an international planning tender, develops a long-term vision (Horizon 2050), in which infrastructure integrates with the urban fabric in a better way."

The shock imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic has given life to a big debate on how the way we live and work could evolve and even change our lives. More than a year after the end of our first, all-consuming period of confinement, which predictions do you think have come true, and which visions do you think have clashed with the return to normality? 

"In the first few months of the pandemic many commentators decreed the end of the city as we know it, predicting mass migration towards small towns and villages. Today, I can say that I was one of the first to publicly declare this view as misguided. In over ten-thousand years of history, our cities have witnessed pandemics that were far worse than the one we are facing today, and they have always risen again. Just think back to the Black Death in the 1300s which took the lives of 60% of the population of Venice. This still did not stop us from returning to crowd its beautiful calle over the centuries that followed or cram ourselves into its theatres. And, thanks to the vaccine, this is precisely what is happening today in countries that are starting to come out of the Covid-19 nightmare.
Predictions that have come true? A more flexible professional world, made up of remote and on-site workers. I hope this remains with us for a long time to come, especially given the evident benefits in terms of sustainability."

Your studio’s activities and research are extremely eclectic, sweeping from architecture, urban planning and green technologies, right the way through to furniture and product design. How do manage to synthesise your work across so many different fields? Does this have anything to do with your faith in digital and technology?

"We embrace every challenge. According to the famous Ernesto N. Rogers, design and planning needs to cover a multitude of levels, “from the spoon to the city”, Today, we could say “from the microchip to the planet”. This is why you need an inclusive approach that is capable of bringing together many disciplines, or what we like to call 'design-at-large'."

Finally, are there any technological innovations you would like to see being applied in the next twenty years?

"Undoubtedly CRISPR, which is starting to allow us to apply the principles of planning to the world of biology."

Giulia Zappa - Florence-born and parisian-adopted today, she is into design communication, seamlessly fond of great classics, as of speculative research or scalable projects. She wrote for many publications as Domus, Icon Design and Artribune. Besides journalism, she is engaged with United Nations in developing plans related with creative industry and renewables.

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