It’s a sunny day as I step into the offices of the Future Cities Lab, and the Bay is visible from the windows. For Nataly Gattengo, co-founder of the experimental design and research office, it’s an appropriate view. A native of the seaside city of Athens, Greece, the relationship between land and water has fascinated her for years.
Since starting Future Cities Lab in 2004, Gattegno and her partner Jason Kelly Johnson have explored that relationship through architecture, digital technology and public art. Installations like the Aurora Project – a series of interactive sculptures depicting changes in the Artic ice field over time – invite viewers to question conventional representation of the icy northern region by engaging them through sight, touch, and sound.
With honors like the 2011 Architectural League Prize for young architects under their belts, Gattegno and Johnson’s ideas are making increasing large waves in the industry. On a break from her position as teacher at the California Academy of Art, Ms. Gattegno took the time to talk robotics, the barriers between land and water, and activating public space.
Natural factors play a big role in your work. How do you define nature?
I think, and Jason would agree, that nature is highly artificial. It’s a manufactured concept. Microclimates and ecologies are products of construction, which means that nature can be transformed. And humans have been transforming it for a long time.
Some of your projects deal with relatively intangible, difficult to capture events – I’m thinking of works like the Aurora Project. How do you deal with the tension of representing phenomena that are in many respects un-representable?
For the Aurora Project, we initially wanted the sculpture to reflect real-time data from the Artic. In the end, though, the technology required to do that was overly sophisticated, so we scaled the installation down into a three-part series, one of which was the map area, the second of which was the real-time ice melting piece, and third of which was the historic data set sculpture. It was about making sure that the wealth of data we’d sourced was visceral and present to the viewers.
What about your most recent project, Thermospheres?
It’s a new idea — the concept is less than two months old. The basic format is comprised of two open canopies, one that provides shade and another inside that serves as a cover for three climatic zones. Each zone centers around a pool of a different temperature so that users who enter the space engage with a variety of thermal experiences. The canopy structures themselves are designed to respond to changes in weather. Other pools extend beyond the canopies so the pavilion is embedded in the landscape, rather than just sitting atop the ground. For now, it’s in the modeling stage.
It’s intended for installation along a waterfront, so it could operate as an absorbent of tidal flux, etc. It could serve as something akin to a reservoir; its pools could hold water and incoming tides, providing an on-the-ground response to sea level rise and climate change.
The motivating idea behind Thermospheres was to come up with a different kind of site activator for areas along the water. All over the world, there are vast tracts of land on the edges of cities taken up by ports and other industrial activities; they’ve essentially become wastelands.
We wanted to come up with an alternative method to re-define these landscapes other than turning them into parks or installing some kind of static sculpture. The idea of Thermospheres was to build some changeable and dynamic that can attract people over time. It’s a versatile and varied urban activator catalyst.
Do you make a distinction between public art and art in public space?
Our work is not so much artwork as it is public or urban activators. Although we’ve shown in galleries, the scale we work on is a little too big to be art. Our work is activated by public interaction so it needs the public in order to be meaningful.
The most important thing for us in doing these projects is about the unexpected conditions, the unexpected interactions, that come from people using a space. That’s where the power of design comes in – it’s about the experience of being in the space rather than the designer teaching the user something.
Both craft and digital technology play active roles in your works. Do you intentionally employ both or is their confluence happenstance?
For us, there’s no divide between the two. On the Aurora project, for example, both played a large role. All of our models, the finals ones as well, were these complex amalgamations of form and digital technology that were notched and sewn together. Doing that — sewing and notching — served as a way to think through the structures themselves.
Your talks and projects emphasize the need for increased diversity in built and non-built environments. Given that context, how do you define diversity?
It’s something akin to ecological diversity, a diversity of micro-climates that enable a variety of activities to take place. The diversity we’re aiming for is a diversity of programming, but programming that’s not necessarily pre-meditated.
We’re interested in creating spaces that attract other things, people, events, etc. to that space, so that they become places where a multiplicity of interactions can occur. So diversity for us relates to different sets of events, whether they’re cultural, social, political or ecological. It’s the potential for alternative occupations that is really critical. Providing different ecologies is something that allows for diversity of activities. So we aim for creating zones of mixing that create a blending of microclimates. When you create those, a wealth of interactions and events can occur that are far beyond what an architect can script out.
As climate change and sea level rise grow in scale and impact, coastal cities will be increasingly affected. Are those issues that Future Cities Lab is interested in deal with?
Yes, definitely. We’ve been dealing with water elements more and more – the Aurora project, for instance, was very much about climate change and its impacts.
It’s a topic that’s been with me for a long time. I grew up in Athens, Greece, and I’ve always been fascinated with the boundaries between land and water. I now teach a class called Hydrocities and there’s one Keller Easterling quote I like to tell my students. I can’t say it verbatim but it’s about coastal areas being the regions in which the democracy of the sea meets the democracy of the land.
In this sense, democracy of the sea is a wild, broad system where anything and everything is welcome. Land democracy, on the other hand, is more of a controlled system of roads, zoning codes, etc. In modern times, thanks to the proliferation of port cities, the two most often meet along strait coastlines, rather than along buffer zones like wetlands. In this way, ports have become the ultimate negotiation site between water and land.