Featured Architect and Bio-Inspired Designer: Ilaria Mazzoleni

Hometown/ Current town: Sottochiesa, Taleggio Valley, Northern Italy and Los Angeles, CA.

Ilaria Mazzoleni is an architect, biomimicist, and the founder of IM Studio Milano/ Los Angeles. She lives and works between Italy and California. Her conceptual work in the fields of sustainable architecture and biomimicry has been published internationally. Her research focus is biomimicry, where innovation in architecture and design is inspired by the processes and functions of nature. Collaborating with biologists and other scientists from top research institutions, her projects explore the connections between biotic and abiotic elements within eco-systems in order to develop sustainable urban planning strategies and address solutions to global climate change. The conceptual implications arising from biomimetics and design have led to a body of work that investigates innovative material processes, forms, geometries and structural patterns. Her book, Architecture Follows Nature – Biomimetic Principles for Innovative Design, was published by CRC Press. 

Projects: The Nature, Art & Habitat residency (NAHR) is an eco-laboratory in Italy. Started in 2015, it’s still a young program. It’s a multi-disciplinary, collaborative project, with many people working together and sharing resources. It’s open to any professional or student in training who is interested in studying nature and their work’s relationship with nature.

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This June we are hosting a workshop, “Rock and Stone,” which is open to fellows and to people who want to join for a week: http://cargocollective.com/nahr/NAHWorkshop. The workshop will enable people to tap into local knowledge and speak with geologists about the region of the Alps. We will discuss contemporary and traditional architecture, and will visit a quarry. There will be a Q&A session about the landscape and natural resources, and we will discuss design. We will be working on projects with people who work with stone.

This July we are hosting a multi-disciplinary family camp for children and their parents focusing on movement in nature: (http://cargocollective.com/nahr/NAHFamily). We will be taking short exploratory walks, and using our bodies, not just our minds. We will also be cooking with insects.

Select links:

www.imstudio.us

www.nahr.it

What are you currently working on? I’m working on a project developed for a competition focusing on architecture, environmental design, biomimicry and research. I regularly participate in competitions and give lectures on these topics.
I have been asked to work on a 2nd edition of our book published in 2013 by CRC, “Architecture Follows Nature – Biomimetic Principles for Innovative Design.” For the book I am collaborating with geneticist and evolutionary biologist Shauna Price.

Recently I started working on two projects with Lola Dompé, a microbiologist. One focuses on bio-materials; we are experimenting with growing materials, such as mycelium of fungi. We made spectacles to wear from the material. We feel different when wearing bio-materials, which sends a message regarding materiality. We have worked with other bio-composites in the lab as well. Some vary based on whether they are dry or wet. We are experimenting, reading and studying materiality, life cycle, where materials come from, where they go, and their environmental impact.

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I am collaborating with Lola Dompé and Richard Molina on the Microbi(h)ome project. The Microbi(h)ome hosts a model family over the course of a 24 hour living cycle. Each hour/ moment highlights an everyday routine involving an aspect of the home with the addition of a microbial component. The project emphasizes helpful characteristics of the microorganisms observed, including abilities to harness energy and process waste, and how these properties contribute to an overall REACTive system. The sequence of internal spaces, connected to the outdoors is crucial in sustaining a thriving microbial community and, in turn, healthier inhabitants. The home network connects all spatial elements designed to exchange energy, water and food, resulting in a renewable system fed by humans and fueled by microbial work. With this setup the Microbi(h)ome demonstrates the positive effect that microbes have on the evolutionary success of our RESILIENT ecosystem.

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We often use competitions to explore the next stage of studies, such as their work with bacteria studies, which is very exciting. Some of this work focuses on the problem of over-sterilization. In certain environments, such as hospitals, sterilization may be necessary but it’s problematic on many levels, killing positive bacteria and altering the microbiome cloud that surrounds us and makes us who we are. Lola and Richard have been working in the lab with different bacterias to facilitate the design of environments that strengthen our immune systems, and the well being of our brains.

Other projects have focused on materials that move and allow air changes; these materials would be used to manufacture improved windows. Other projects focus on fluorescents and illumination. New materials are becoming actualized in our domestic lives which can inform and enhance our lifestyles.

All of the work is interconnected; as we conduct more research, and learn more, new projects emerge. Sometimes we draw connections to previous work; it’s like a puzzle. Teamwork is very important; beyond working with other architects and designers, I also work regularly with scientists, and learn from nature.

What materials do you work with?
We like to experiment with bio-materials and materials that are alive, that feed, grow, change, evolve and adapt and eventually decompose.
This is why we are experimenting and hoping to be able to include these materials in the design of our next domestic space; at least some of them!

What kind of creative patterns, routines or rituals do you have?
I like to think that I am free of rituals and routines, but as we all do, I have mine. I like to start working immediately when I get up, just after having had a coffee. Mornings are the most productive times. In the afternoon I have a slowing down of my creativity that picks up again in the evenings. No matter the time of the day, I like to work in a warm environment full of stimuli, which is probably why LA is the place where my creativity “expands.” This said, the long walks I take during the summers in the woods of my Valley (Taleggio) are critical to the seeding of some of the most important decisions I have been making over time. New rituals are developing as NAHR is growing and I have the opportunity to share my walks with the fellows. Talking and observing is becoming the real center of our daily NAHR routines.

What’s your art background?
I studied architecture, both in Milano and in L.A. I have no training as an artist and I would hardly consider myself one. But I take any opportunity to immerse myself in an artistic environment, whether it’s a museum, an art gallery or hanging out with my friends, art curators and artists. I continuously have to learn from them all!

Are there any artists in your family?
We do have one artist, Franco Normanni, in our family. And some other very creative people that might or might not call themselves artists. I met Franco only one time when he was alive; he was my father’s cousin and we all knew about him, but he was not so interested in connecting with us all. He was interested in being in his studio and working! After he died in 2007 I started working on his studio to archive his work. Through his work I learned a lot; his talent and dedication were so tangible within the spaces of his studio that I decided to work on a monograph and a show in his memory. In 2011, with the help of many people, we opened SPAZI COMPOSTI DI FRANCO NORMANNI in Bergamo.

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What’s been happening in your life?
Since we (Anna Santi, Alec Balasescu and I) started NAHR in 2015 many things have been happening. I have spent more time in Italy and reconnected with several old classmates and friends. NAHR is attracting people from all over the world, making my work more international, yet, because it takes place in a specific location, which is rural and quite unique, it has a transformative grounding effect upon me.

What’s next for you?
Continuing with NAHR; we have 6 programs this summer. One includes a three day immersive multidisciplinary workshop looking into questions such as: Will the West eat insects? How will our landscape change? How will our dinner tables change?

Another is 00 Residency, in collaboration with CS, CSC and TTB (three non-profit associations in Bergamo). We are hosting an actor, a dancer and an actress for a week at NAHR. At the end of the week they’ll present their thoughts and work that emerged from their stay in Taleggio. My main engagement this summer will be to observe and learn from all the fellows, and what they take away from having been in our Alpine environment.

Years ago we designed a mud and bamboo house in Ghana, West Africa. Soon we will start working on phase 2 of this property. This is very exciting to me!

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Describe your current state of mind.
In constant search and research.

What’s inspiring you?
Life, in all its forms.

Do you have any other exhibits coming up/ past exhibits you’d like to mention?
A show at the Reggia di Caserta is opening. It is a collective of 20 architects showing their interpretations of the master poem of Dante Alighieri – La Divina Commedia. We have prepared one drawing, entitled Divine Bestiary and we are now very excited to see how it will sit among the many other interpretations!

Is any of your work political?
Our work is not political by definition, but I feel a very important social and civic responsibility as an individual, and as a professional. Each action I take, I consider within such parameters.

What are you trying to communicate with your art?
A sense of environmental engagement that is light, beautiful, propositive and forward thinking. I’m an architect; the work I’m most interested and proud of is the work that relates to the environment and that communicates best research in design, building and context. As designers of things that insert themselves into the environment, we are not conservationists, we do not preserve the state of the environment as is. I seek to create work that is not harmful to the environment. I seek to create work where there is no harsh division between the artificial and the natural.

What is one of the biggest challenges you face as an architect?
The ability to explain the intention of our work in a “simple” way (simple as a positive). To show why our work matters. Though we strive to be clear in explaining our points of view, our communications can at times be obscure, (as is the case with architecture, but also with other disciplines as well). Being simple is very difficult actually. Communication can be a challenge.

How has the meaning of your work changed over time?
It is enriched by new knowledge, awareness and understanding. This is due to having access to a more complex and articulated set of experiences. There is always something new, some new food for thought.

What do you dislike about your work?
Having to deal with superficial people. People who “have no time” for listening, pondering, questioning and discovering. Superficiality, and the inability and/ or unwillingness to take things seriously…I don’t really like to be around that mindset…not to say everything has to be complex…but sometimes I need to be around people who are like-minded. We have the challenge of always finding new clients. There is a lot of marketing associated. This can be one of the main challenges associated with this work.

Which creative medium would you love to pursue but haven’t yet?
I’d like to be able to build more prototypes. For this, one needs space and resources which are not always accessible. This is why we’ll do more in the future, or so I hope!

What is your dream project?
I’d love to build our “Keep it warm” house, inspired by polar bear skin.

Are you involved with any organizations?
For many years I was involved with the AIA LA Committee on the Environment.
I have been quite active (a co-founder with Olivia Samad) in InHabitLA – a group of people in LA who are trying to build co-housing.

Beyond that, now NAHR is the main organization I am involved with.

Do you regularly collaborate with others?
I always collaborate with biologists. For my designs, I look at nature, so I need to work with them. In particular, I work with Shauna Price and Lola Dompé and I’m working with them right now. I also regularly collaborate with Richard Molina who was a student of mine. Now he has moved on, but we still regularly collaborate. There are a number of professionals who come together when we have a project we want to share. Anna Santi and Alec Balasescu are working with me on the NAHR in Italy. The people I have mentioned, we are constantly in touch, though we live in different places, with different offices.

ilaria mazzoleni book

What are a few favorite spots in your area?
I enjoy walking on the beach and around the Hollywood reservoir, going to dinner to Musso & Franks, and swimming at the West Hollywood public pool.

Who are some of your favorite artists, and people in your field whom you most admire:
I admire many people, as I always admire people who are dedicated and passionate about what they do, no matter the field. I’d like to mention someone I have recently met again in LA, Don Chadwick. He is the designer of the very famous Aeron Chair – in LA. I admire him, his dedication, precision and passion for what he designs. He is inspirational.

LA is full of very talented people, and in Italy, Alessandro Mendini always has bright ideas…the weather is often grey and foggy in Milan and he really makes the atmosphere brighter and more fun. His ideas brighten up any Milanese foggy day!

Last summer I went to Christo’s latest installation in Lake Iseo. I do love that type of experiential art, something one engages and mediates with her full body.

Matthew Barney has always fascinated me. I am not sure he is definable as a favorite, yet he is one of the most provocative artists I can think of.

What are you reading?
The invention of Nature – Alexander Von Humboldt’s new world by Andrea Wulf and The Divine Comedy, though not front to back….I am just in search of animals in it…

Favorite authors, fiction:
Dante Alighieri (a rediscovery after school days), and Italo Calvino (a classic).

Favorite authors, nonfiction:
I enjoy most books by Steven Johnson, as they nurture my curiosity about our world. Also Oliver Sacks, Fritjof Capra and Reyner Banham.

Favorite comic strips/ comic books/ graphic novels?
I am fascinated by mangas! And I am looking forward to the publication of “The Dialogues – Conversations about the Nature of the Universe,” a graphic novel by my friend Doctor Clifford V. Johnson (MIT Press).

What are you listening to these days?
NPR, always. And Björk, when I want to be inspired to think more freely. She is such an amazing artist; her influence to me goes far beyond her music!

What was the last show you attended?
Lorenzo Jovanotti at San Siro Stadium in Milano.

What was the last exhibit you attended?
In LA, I went to the 14th factory and to the Hammer (Jimmie Durham) recently. They are very different from each other, yet both were super stimulating experiences.

What was the first piece of artwork you bought? Do you buy a lot of artwork?
I grew up in a house full of art. My father liked to buy it. I am managing the Franco Normanni archive. For these reasons I don’t buy more art….but things might change as I’d love to surround myself with more contemporary artists’ work.

Your websites:
www.imstudio.us
www.nahr.it

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