Małgorzata Kuciewicz, Simone De Iacobis, Aleksandra Kędziorek, Aquatic recipe – How to make your own hydrobotanic pot, in: All Residents Atlas [Atlas Wszystkich Mieszkańców], Fundacja Puszka, Warsaw 2022 (in Polish only)
Aquatic recipe–How to make your own hydrobotanic pot is a manual for making Aquatic plant pot [in Polish only]. Published in All Residents Atlas publication that was developed as part of the Urban wilding [Miastozdziczenie] initative by Fundacja Puszka.
Trying to Find an Alphabet.
CENTRALA in conversation with Tomasz Świetlik about microclimates and a new understanding of architecture, as part of the Urban wilding [Miastozdziczenie] initative.
In the series of works under the Amplifying Architecture banner you concentrate on doing away with the dichotomy of architecture versus nature and global natural processes. You seek to describe architecture in relation to gravity, light, water and air circulation.
Małgorzata Kuciewicz: The most important thing for us is to no longer think about ourselves as separate from nature, and about architecture as a shell meant to isolate humans from it. We are part of nature, just like architecture is part of nature, and – as our curator, Ania Ptak, points out – analysing architecture allows us to decipher what the universe tells us. This may sound abstract, but if we look, for example, at the materiality of architecture, that is the geological and natural processes that generated building materials, we may see our creations on a longer, planetary timescale. The most important thing today is to create architecture that would not only make use of these resources, but also consciously restore these elements to natural circulation.
Simone De Iacobis: Architecture is usually seen from a reductionist perspective as something that is supposed to respond to a certain set of user’s demands. In Amplifying Nature we want to show that architecture is not only used by humans, but also by other organisms: plants, animals and fungi, and therefore it should also satisfy their needs. Under capitalism, those other users have no agency, money or political voice, even though they form part of our common environment and have an impact on it. We therefore suggest rethinking architecture anew and turning it into a basis of reflection on the needs of users who were not previously taken into consideration. Their lives and ours are inextricably linked – architecture should strengthen and consolidate this bond.
Is it a purely conceptual turn? How do these ideas translate into designing?
M.K.: We seek to redefine the thinking about architecture. On the one hand, it surely does not have to be affixed to the ground, on the other hand – it doesn’t have to be objectual, but can be processual. We see an architectural structure as something that results from a moment of freezing – both on geographical and geological, temporal scales. It may last a thousand years because, for example, a given structure works well, but it may just as well last only one season. Various temporalities exist and some of them correspond to our experience of time, whereas others should be related to the experience of time by other forms of life or existence. These are equally important for us – a stone is as much of a subject as a water lily.
A major aspect of this research is to complicate the understanding, but also the practice of inhabiting space. We discern considerable potential in thinking about drifting architecture and absorptive city because our settlements were always connected with water. This, in turn, entails the necessity for humans to open up to discomfort. We even talk about designing discomfort, which at the same time increases the comfort of other non-human fellow inhabitants. For example, by opening the roof of our house we open up not only to the weather, but also to the inhabitants of the air – aeronauts. Putting up with the presence of insects in the room is the first test of our friendliness to animals. Entomophobia is a litmus test of our contact with nature.
Rooting the idea of discomfort in the architectural discourse is a major challenge.
M.K.: The root of the problem is our classic architectural training, but also the lack of protocols for dealing with such proposals in the realm of the market. We don’t know how to work with such ideas and finance them. What helps us is education and collaboration with various cultural institutions. After all, opening up to new perspectives is not only about theorising with a book, but mainly about field research. We conduct it, for example, in the form of walks with the inhabitants of Warsaw. Such explorations allow us to notice previously overlooked things.
You postulate a radical change in thinking about architecture. How have you developed this approach?
M.K.: We have always worked with biographies of places, which mainly resulted from our interest in Modernist structures. Today, we can say that our concept of conscious coupling of architecture with natural processes results from our research into historical designs: the Warszawianka sports complex in Warsaw and the house of Oskar and Zofia Hansen in Szumin. Of great importance for us is also the biography of the Muranów housing estate in Warsaw as a place that speaks volumes about the city’s metabolism. We managed to decipher the majority of designs by Alina Scholtz, the pioneer of landscape architecture in Poland, during our field trips with Natalia Budnik, Klara Czerniewska-Andryszczyk and Ewa Perlińska-Kobierzyńska, and not by analysing documents, since these simply don’t exist.
S.D.I.: For me, a model example is our project about the idea of the zoo and multi-species urban planning. It all began with a place – Gosia was initially examining the Modernist architecture on the premises of the zoological garden in Warsaw. We began to think about how this place, whose founding idea is obviously very dated, would change if we radically reversed the thinking about relations between humans and animals in the city. The Warsaw Zoo occupies an enormous area, it’s essentially a separate district. What would happen if we gave all of it to free-living animals and how could such “animal district” look like and function? We organised a series of open walks around the zoo; we also invited scientists to talk about the complex nature of human-animal relations.
We noticed the interesting and strategic location of this place in relation to the wildlife corridor along the Vistula – the zoo was created as a “pocket” of this multi-layered ecosystem. Understanding the way it works opens up a plethora of possibilities of speculating about future scenarios. On such occasions, we often borrow inspiration from the work of our fellow futurologists from studio monnik in the Netherlands – after all, we also like to think about the future.
M.K.: We also seek to keep in contact with aquatic plants, for example. The point is not only to passively observe them, but to act for their sake – to cultivate a water flower bed. And if it hadn’t been for our relation with that flower bed, which lasted three seasons, we wouldn’t know 90% of the things we know about aquatic plants today. This urban gardening experience is an enormous resource, which is why we want to hold more attentive and intensive talks with garden allotments owners and explore the microcosms of their gardens. The questions waiting to be asked are right here in front of our nose – for example, why can’t you buy soil without peat in Warsaw and how much peat does urban gardening consume? I started thinking about it while cultivating my own flowerpot.
S.D.I.: We work on two scales in our practice. The first one is very physical – we discover places, stay in them, analyse how nature behaves, touch it, plunge our hands into mud. This is our method of gaining knowledge. The other one is a macro scale, and this pertains both to space and time. We develop utopian visions, such as the Millennium Hydrotrail model, which serves to consider various scenarios for this site in fifty or two hundred years, taking into account possible transformations and adaptations of the Vistula riverbed. Our activities stay ahead of current possibilities, as it were, but this is exactly the point: we want to show that the borders of what is possible are further than they appear. This opens up a space of negotiation. Nowadays, more and more discussions are held about planned rewilding of the city, about the protection of such areas as Zakole Wawerskie in Warsaw. Perhaps the snowball effect will take us further than we think.
Challenging current discourse and stimulating the imagination often requires new tools. Your projects are very interesting in this respect, both in linguistic and visual terms.
M.K.: An enormous difficulty in our activities is the lack of a codified language of representation of natural processes in architecture. We often don’t know how to demonstrate certain things, such as various types of rain or the directions of convection currents in the circadian cycle. What helps us a lot is our collaboration with artists who translate various elements of our findings into the visual language of art. This always involves their subjective choices and certain diagrammatic abridgement because the topic is incredibly complex. That’s why we’re always in the process, and gaining understanding of certain aspects conditions the slow development of the language of presenting them. We approach it as one of our most significant tasks. If we’re now working on microclimates, we need to develop some form of presentation for them.
S.D.I.: It’s tempting to say that if we can visualise something, it means we can achieve it! I think this is the key: formulating a vision of how we can influence a local climate.
M.K.: We’re trying to find an alphabet.
Your practice sits on the border of what is recognised as architecture, or even goes beyond that border. This can even be seen in the titles of your projects: Air Is Architecture and Hydrobotany as Architecture. Is it only architects who want their profession to devour the whole world? Have you experienced the appropriation of the field of architecture by other disciplines on the occasion of your numerous collaborations?
M.K.: We’ve been sucked in by the field of art. I get the impression that we used to be more of artists’ service providers in the sense that, for example, we helped them produce objects. This has recently changed, and therefore our definition of art has become less strict. We now show more boldness in formulating statements, not only answers.
S.D.I.: Architecture is obviously very absorbent in terms of including new disciplines in its field. For us, this mainly concerns biology, but this process may involve other disciplines as well.
M.K.: An example from the field of biology is our collaboration with the Wetlands Conservation Centre (Centrum Ochrony Mokradeł). Its specialists mostly work with marshes and wetlands on a larger scale; they concentrate on strategic wetland areas, so the topic of urban marshes was less important for them. In turn, we wanted to investigate the entire spectrum of habitats of the future Mud City. We were wandering together around wetlands and inquiring about the defining features of broads, magical wetlands, peat bogs, sedge meadows, mudflats, marshes, marshlands, wetlands, ponds, quagmires and sodden soils. We’re glad that marshes gained a presence in the urban debate. Those activities gave us a new perspective because biologists use the term “wetscape”, which is now very important also for us.
S.D.I.: We can also see more and more good moves in the other direction, which means an interest in architecture demonstrated by other disciplines. A good example is our collaboration with dancers and performers from the Centre in Motion (Centrum w Ruchu), who became particularly interested in our walks and in our recent microclimatic guided walk during the “Konteksty” Postartistic Congress in Sokołowsko. They associated them with the technique known as iLANDing, developed by Jennifer Monson in the 1970s and 1980s. This came to us as a surprise as we weren’t aware that our walks had any performative dimension! The theories they referred to seemed particularly interesting to me because of their interdisciplinarity and connection with the ecological movement. They tap into movement, dance and mindfulness as tools to research nature and urban ecology. It’s interesting how architects could contribute to the field of thus understood performatics. This opens up a new field for future collaboration. It also seems to me that we found an understanding with the artworld in the field of activism…
M.K.: Or more precisely, artivism.
S.D.I.: We share the same concerns in a certain sense.
Does this shifting of borders also entail any problems?
M.K.: Marcin Wicha has recently stated in a conversation with Dorota Leśniak-Rychlak that our designs do not serve the needs of regulating or controlling space, but understanding it. He inspired us, but also confounded us, because he pointed out that introducing certain topics in the current discourse makes them problematic afterwards; they cease to be ordinary, they become commodified. Sometimes the resource we’re exploring should not be fetishised. This pertains to some urban animals. Something like a Bambi syndrome may occur – when a certain animal is recognised too much, such as the capybara, it gains a different status from other animals. Wicha warns us against the fetishisation of wetlands and encourages us to “nettle swim” consciously, because you can do “nettle swimming” just as you can do winter swimming [laughter]. Because for us attracting media interest, promoting a topic, is a certain working method. The goal is to extract – through our intuition – a certain topic from the recesses of memory or to build interest around it and include it in the public debate.
Our first walk around a protected natural area attracted thirty people, and the subsequent ones – three hundred people. It’s already a scale on which you begin to realise that you’re causing damage to that place. A question arises how to limit our activities and, above all, how to maintain consistency with the needs of those places. Because what are we going to do if three thousand participants arrive this year? So we’re afraid of popularising topics for the sake of sheer consumption of nature. This is the more so dangerous that many people understand so-called contact with nature – perceived as something beyond me, something I’m not part of – as an act of “visiting” it and adopting the stance of an intruder. When you start analysing the concept of nature, it turns out that the most classic approach consists in the very act of consuming it with one’s eyes, enjoying its view from the belvedere (bello – beautiful, vedere – see), assisted by man-made architecture, which becomes a frame for that frequently faked naturalness. This approach is the worst.
And which one is the best?
M.K.: The best one is based on reciprocity. People help each other in social life. In family therapy this is called circular causality – people amplify each other’s behaviour and it becomes hard to determine what was the cause and what was the effect. The same should be the case with architecture embedded in nature. We should foster the understanding of co-dependence and circular health instead of merely landscaping from a superior position or allowing animals to live in the city.
And what if our future collaborations within the already disenchanted nature-culture, done using new tools for research, but also for creating microclimates (which you speak about, for example, in the work Air Is Architecture), bring us into conflict with one of these non-human actors? How to choose between different versions of diversity?
M.K.: There are so many types of habitats that we may consider extremely varied subtleties even in the circadian cycle! Beavers are active at night, and we only see earthworms after rain. What’s more, animals adapt to the city, so their gradient in the city can be regulated. And I think this does not require making tough decisions – everything can be reconciled. We don’t have to choose between a marten walking on the street and a richer aquatic flora. The city should be a mosaic of microclimates because this is when it can ensure diverse habitats, more or less friendly towards different species. We may offer our roofs to nature. As elevated places, they represent good enclaves.
An example of a conflict I can imagine may occur between anemochorous and anemophilous plants and people suffering from allergies. But we should cure and alleviate the symptoms of such allergies rather than exterminate plants.
S.D.I.: We can completely reformulate architecture and think about it as a generator of microclimates. This doesn’t have to be technocratic in any way. Such architecture is connected with the place in which it exists, aware of its own impact on the surroundings, and its task is not to isolate us from weather phenomena and negate them. Unfortunately, architecture as we know it is mostly detached from climate. Our mission is not to define specific solutions. We believe this is a task for others – to use their imagination and make this vision a reality.
M.K.: We’re not pragmatic, we do not pursue engineering precision. We rather activate a certain kind of visions. And we strive to cultivate affirmativeness in order to rejoice at everything we incorporate in our designs and research. This is probably also because we’re afraid of apathy in the debate about the Anthropocene. We do not have precise formulas, which means mathematical calculations or balances of costs incurred to generate profit in nature-related services for the city – this is the task of municipal agencies.
We sometimes make evaluations for urban planners, mainly from the perspective of animals, but these little activities of ours mainly boil down to challenging things that seem obvious. Our task is to show that microclimates are an architectural topic. The point is to work on the imagination.
This is unfortunately charged with fears of superficiality or introducing certain fashions. But this is usually how it works – we contributed to saving the Hansens from oblivion by the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw and a “Hansen craze” ensued, and people were subsequently working out various nuances of this topic. It’s not that we invent new things, but rather bring back the memory of old ones. We merely return to already existing resources. We’re now hoping to see a “Scholtz craze” and a fashion for landforming.
We’re largely surrounded by architecture strongly detached from nature and climatic nuances. But you often discover in old architecture excellent models of symbiotic design, as in your and Ola Kędziorek’s latest project of restoring aquatic plants in the Barcelona Pavilion by Mies van der Rohe. We may get the impression that the practice of design mindful of microclimates did exist, but got lost somewhere on the way or became brutalised. Following the examples of good practices from the past, do you discover something in them that makes them radically different from what you propose yourselves?
M.K.: For example, when we research the output of the Artistic and Research Unit (ZAB) of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw from the 1950s, 60s and 70s – as this unit is the umbrella that connects all the figures we’ve explored so far, including Alina Scholtz – it seems to us that some things were obvious to them. They were the first generation to live with electricity. The greatest difference between us and them is that we have massive deficiencies in understanding natural phenomena around us. We’re completely detached from nature. For example, I only learnt from an old poem for children that one can predict that it’s about to rain by observing water lilies because they close before rain comes. We still have a lot to catch up on.
Is it simply a matter of forgetting or rather a forced lack of continuity in practice? Did the global architectural discourse also go through a similar amnesia?
M.K.: At the turn of the 1990s we lost hydrobotany. It was then that ponds kept in order by water-cleaning plants were replaced by barren reservoirs, often maintained using swimming pool chemicals. The most recent studies devoted to microclimates in the city date back to the 1950s. The later development of mechanised ventilation and air conditioning relegated non-electrical solutions to the realm of secret knowledge. The unique urban design for Białołęka Dworska that relied on the concept of urban ecology, which distinguished ecology from ecology in the city, was drawn up in the 1980s. Nobody has ever made use of the knowledge gathered in that design afterwards, and yet it’s up for grabs, it can be tapped into. It can be found in the archive of the Museum of Architecture in Wrocław, although it has not been processed and exists in the form of incomplete design documentation. The rupture of continuity with the knowledge produced by interdisciplinary state-run architectural practices obviously resulted from the capitalist transformation and their division into small commercial entities that responded to the needs of the market.
You’re now working on a project related to soil. Can you tell us more about this topic?
S.D.I.: A whole underground world exists hidden from our view, which abounds in connections and interdependencies. Soil is a space, not a plane. This topic remains completely unexplored in the context of Warsaw, but it deserves attention because, after all, soil has to do with the urban processes of rotting, decay and composting. Meanwhile, cities concreted over in modernity became aseptic, sterile. To make matters worse, separation from soil by all kinds of paved surfaces put a stop to water infiltration and associated biological processes, which also made life harder for animals. The topic of soil in the city literally disappeared under the pavements, so to speak. It needs to be brought back into daylight.
M.K.: Related to this underground world, which Simone is talking about, is Warsaw’s soil policy, or rather lack thereof. We want to organise round-table talks and postulate that Polish cities abandon gardening based on peat. Peat is a non-renewable resource. When left intact, peat bogs absorb a substantial amount of carbon dioxide, but they release it to the atmosphere when exploited. It’s absurd that while explaining that wetlands are needed in the city we simultaneously see tons of peat laid as a gardening substrate. And the alternative – good soil – requires form three to five years of composting. Urban planning designs lack space for sites for cultivating turf or leaf soil, or sites where felled trees can decay. In Wrocław, an area that can render such ecosystem services is found in the vast infrastructure of irrigation fields, which can once again support the metabolism of local nature. No such places exist in Warsaw, so we simply need to find them. Perhaps on the roofs?
If so, how to begin?
M.K.: For us, everything is a political topic. We believe in a political change and we believe that just as air and water pollution is nowadays a topic of international debates, the same will happen with the question of generating or disturbing microclimates. That it will no longer leave everyone indifferent that the city is heated by huge ventilators which release tons of warm air from shopping malls. That the landscape of microclimates will gain visibility in the city, or perhaps will even become regulated by law and taxed. Large-scale animal migrations will also soon begin due to climate change. We hope that the city won’t see them as an invasion.
I think these topics should become a matter of serious political decisions. Someone wise should state it on TV: “We’re turning off the light. We’re not illuminating buildings just for the sake of decoration. We’re abandoning gardening based on the exploitation of peat bogs. We’re changing the taxation regime for areas inhabited by beavers and pay extra for water retention they perform for us.” Such solutions are aplenty and they should be articulated.
Translated from Polish by Łukasz Mojsak.