If you're in London you might want to swing by the Architectural Association School and check out H.O.R.T.U.S. (which stands for Hydro Organism Responsive to Urban Stimuli.) To be honest i'm not sure what to think about this one but it's been a slow week art-wise for me so i'll throw the information in this post in the hope that it will help me make up my mind about the project.
With HORTUS, the architects from ecoLogicStudio are inviting the public to become cyber-gardeners and "invent new protocols of urban biogardening."
There's a bright green carpet on the floor and hundreds of intravenous-style bags are suspended above our heads. The bags are in fact photo-bioreactors and they form a 'greenhouse' that hosts nine different species of algae, from chlorella to algae found in London's canals. Visitors can blow into flexible plastic tubes, fostering the growth of the algae with their carbon dioxide and activating the oxygen production.
The plastic bags carry a QR code. You hold up your smartphone, scan the code and are directed to a page of information about the algae you've just 'fed' with your breath. Large containers are distributed between the algae bags, they host bioluminescent bacteria that automatically fed through a pump with air from the oxygen released.
The greenhouse cohabits with a virtual garden that feeds on visitors' scans and tweets about the exhibition. Their 'interaction' with the algae shape a garden rendered in real time on a screen.
I wasn't much impressed with the QR codes and the virtual garden created by tweets but it turns out that the project is much more than just another demonstration of how 'nature meets buildings meet the virtual.' H.O.R.T.U.S. is one of the manifestations of ecoLogicStudio's exploration into the role that algae might play in our future life: to produce nonpolluting hydrogen-based energy, to filter water or take a more important role in our alimentation.
The architects recently had the opportunity to try and test their idea on a larger scale in Simrishamn in Sweden. The Swedish Municipality is in need of new urban ideas to help boost its economy: the fishing industry is declining and young people are leaving the area.
ecoLogicStudio came up with an Regional Algae Farm plan that involves a series of algae-related urban activities and architectural prototypes.
H.O.R.T.U.S. enables the public to engage directly and simply with ideas and systems that might form a larger part of our life in years to come.
MCD#65 The culture of green tech is a bilingual (french/english) magazine. Each edition brings the spotlight on one particular theme. Previous issues of MCD focused on the Internet of Things, Media Labs in Europe, Gaming, Digital Festivals.
Here's how the green tech issue is introduced: The inventors of digital and "post-digital" creation are raising issues about production and energy under a new light: they are already testing solar-powered 3D printers in the desert, using sand as raw material. Soon buildings will swap peer-to peer energy through photovoltaic systems, you will make an open source box to know the number of available public bicycles down in your street, you will no longer run after a bus, it will come to you. Some web artists are even providing us "the first in a promising line of tireless, unstoppable, robotic class warriors"!
In this issue, you will discover how technological creativity is here to help saving the planet, and how each one of us is a potentially actor regarding these ideas meant to make the world more sustainable.
As you can guess from the excerpt above, MCD is aimed at a broad audience. You don't need to be an art&tech aficionado to enjoy the essays and interviews. Content, style and design are everything but intimidating (well, the cover is a bit daunting.) And if you're already pretty versed in digital culture, you might still learn -or rediscover- a thing or two. A few French initiatives on the topic of green tech for example, such as artists, associations and designers' eco-experiments in Nantes, European green capital of 2013. Or Bureau d'études's ideas for a Parliament which brings humans, animals and plants closer together. There's also a conversation between Jean-Baptiste Labrune and artist David Guez and an interview with Art Orienté Objet about their appeal to list Lake Clifton as a World Heritage Site. The French duo hope that the move will save the thrombolites, rock-like structures built by micro-organisms and often regarded as the earliest geographical features of primitive life on Earth (sign the petition over here.) There's also a fascinating interview with Hugo Sossah. Founder of Ashelvea, a French company that claims to manufacture 'the cleanest computers in the world' (or rather, as Sossah concedes "the less polluting ones"), he is struggling to convince French banks to help his business grow as much the high demand for his 80% recyclable computers would require.
Plenty of usual suspects on the international front: Critical Art Ensemble, HeHe, FoAM, Joshua Allen Harris, etc.
And a couple of names i wasn't familiar with.
The work of photojournalist Stanley Greene appears in a series of essays about the human cost of our addiction to electronics. One of the essays offers a list of artistic works that engage with the war waged to control coltan. Another text from this group of essays explores Greene's E-Waste Trail, a photo documentary series "that tracks the afterlife of our electronic trash, as corporations and governments make irresponsible, yet lucrative, deals, at enormous injury to the world's most vulnerable citizens."
Other notable articles include Eric Kluitenberg's look into the way we inhabit our current 'technological ecologies' and celebration of the Whole Earth Catalog, an American counterculture catalog first published in 1968 and dedicated to the alliance of technology and ecology.
MCD#65 The culture of green tech is a timely publication. 2009 saw plethora of festivals, exhibitions and conferences dedicated to sustainability, 'greener planet' and ecology. I attended so many of them i ended up turning into a cynical eco-phobic. The following year, culture moved to other issues (financial crisis, anyone?) but the relevance of an artistic reflection on green living and green tech is as high as ever. MCD#65 proposes an intelligent, critical view that goes beyond the monolithic 'green is beautiful' moto and looks into the dilemma and contradictions of green tech.
The opening article illustrates the point by putting into graphics and numbers the carbon footprint of our digital lifestyle. Switching to digital involves less paper, less DVDs, less transports but it also energy-devouring data centers. France's 38 million web users produce over 376 000 tons of CO2 per year. That's the equivalent of a European city inhabited by 45 000 people.
A few pages are also dedicated to the 'eco-festivals', techno music festivals that offer sawdust toilets, solar panels, reusable cups, etc. The author of the article asks whether they are a valuable attempt to limit the pollution that any festival create or little more than an exercise in eco-marketing.
MCD#65 comes with lucidity thus, but also with enthusiasm and energy. I'm looking forward to see what their upcoming issues will be about.
I do need to say something about the translation though. I started reading the version in french and as usual, i was baffled by the French's fear of adopting english words. So you get words like le pair à pair instead of peer-to-peer. There were a few more gems but that one kept me laughing for hours. Anyway, halfway through the mag, i decided to skip to the english version of the text and all i can say is "Guys, get a professional translator!" If I, who makes Maurice Chevalier sound like Henry Higgins , finds errors of english in almost each paragraph then you'd better hire a proof-reader or a translator whose mother language is english.
Image on the homepage; HeHe, Toy emissions (My friends all drive Porsches), New York, 2007.
If ice skating's not your thing, check out Somerset House's ongoing exhibition about London's Forgotten Spaces and the way to reclaim them. The projects can be found in some of Somerset House's own forgotten spaces: damp lightwells, coalholes as well as hidden passages known as the Deadhouse. The whole itinerary is so labyrinthic and dusky, it sometimes feels like a treasure hunt.
Forgotten Spaces shows 28 projects shortlisted for a competition launched in Spring by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA.) The call invited architects, engineers, students and designers to submit proposals that reclaim overlooked spaces across Greater London. Inspired by success stories such as New York's High Line or Rotterdam's De Hofbogen, the competition aims to demonstrate how alternative way of thinking about urban space can inject new life and energy into some of London's most neglected corners.
The selected entries range from underground climbing tunnels to Atlantic salmons in the Thames, firepits in Crystal Palace, bee keeping, rooftops of tower blocks turned into social hubs and artist studios nested inside church spires.
During the Summer, Wayward Plants put the Urban Physic Garden into practice, transforming a derelict site on Union Street SE1.
Half way between street art intervention and community service, Denizen Works's proposal would give members of the public a set of simple instructions that they could follow to install accommodation for the declining bee population. The little bee houses would nest in unused gaps of land between buildings and boundary walls in central London.
Studiodare's Bee Project is more ambitious. The architects propose to combine urban park, 'agroforest' and bee-keeping aviary to highlight our dependency on bees and the delicate nature of our ecosystem.
Bee Project can be enjoyed as a park for recreational purposes, an educational facility for school children and the unemployed, an activity for pensioners or a business for community organisations. Furthermore, the project offers the potential to create an economic market for the exchange of fruits, jams or honey on a 'farmers' market.
The winning entry, (IN)SPires by Alex Scott-Whitby from Studio AR, proposes to strike a deal with the Diocese of London to turn 38 of the 51 of the disused belfry's of the City of London's church spires into low-cost studios for creative people. The architect is apparently already residing at the top of the Church of St Mary Woolnoth above Bank station.
Second Prize went to Steve McCoy's Urban Climbing Wall that would turn the tunnels and vertical shafts of a disused air raid shelter situated under Clapham High Street into climbing, abseiling and potholing centre for children and thrill seekers.
Area Landscape Architects's proposal suggests to reintroduce the Atlantic Salmon in the Wandle. At the mouth of this river sits a largely unknown wasteland. A sweeping fish ladder spanning the mouth of the Wandle will provide the Salmon access from the Thames to the breeding grounds in the upper reaches. A salmon hatchery will be set in a mosaic of riparian habitats, including marsh and wet woodland - a parkland reclaimed from adjacent post-industrial wasteground.
Aurelie Pot had a simple and charming idea: hosting a Brunel's Café on the platforms underneath the South pillar of the Hungerford and Golden Jubilee Bridges.
More images from the exhibition:
Summer is back in London and dozens of bees have now settled in the middle of Spitalfields. Real bees passersby don't try to wave away. They are dead and hang on fishing lines as if they were caught in mid flight inside a giant glass case, surrounded on all sides by office blocks.
The work is called BEE BOX and was created by artist Anne Brodie to remind us of the overlooked disappearance of the pollinators. Bees, like us, form communities of workers capable of generating intelligent social interactions.
"There is also a very strong and perhaps more obvious analogy between both human and bee society's, particularly in the heart of the working city," the artist told me. "Both are fragile systems capable of working harmoniously and productively, but what happens when the balance becomes unstable? It seemed particularly poignant the week before beebox was installed, London had to deal with some of the worst riots in recent history."
BEE BOX was curated by Howard Boland and Laura Cinti of C-LAB with the support of the European Public Art Centre, a collaboration between European organisations to exhibit in public space works that explore relations between art, science and society art-science artworks. The work will remain on view on the square until November 1 and will be recreated in Helsinki in October, using Finnish bees.
More images in the flickr set: European Public Art Centre: in London with C-LAB and Spitalfields - Anne Brodie's Bee Box 2011.
The European Union defines "Invasive Alien Species" as those that thrive outside their natural distribution area and threaten biological diversity. One of the most dramatic examples of it is the one of the descendants of an original cargo of 24 rabbits that were shipped from Europe to Australia in 1859 for the pleasure of a man missing the joys of rabbit hunting. Within ten years of their introduction, they had become so prevalent that two million of them could be shot or trapped each year without any effect on the population being noticed. European rabbits have no natural predators in Australia and their impact on the ecology is devastating. The hunting prey quickly became nothing more than pest that has to be eradicated by all means. The poor creatures are vilified to the point that the Easter bunny has been replaced by the Easter Bilby.
Theatre maker and visual artist Kris Verdonck selected terrestrial plants, crustraceans, insects, fish, amphibians, birds and other organisms in the list of IAS that live in Belgium. Then he put them all together in one big luminous garden on the first floor of the contemporary art space Z33 in Hasselt, Belgium.
The result is an artificial jungle of bamboo, parrots, bullfrogs, Japanese knot weeds, parrots and little trees carrying blue berries. Before entering, however, you are invited to wear white rubber boots, a pair of gloves, and a lab coat. As if you were about to enter a contaminated space? Or maybe it's the space that shouldn't be contaminated by you? After all, men are ultimately, the ones responsible for any ecological damage caused by non native species. They are the ones who introduced them into the new habitat, intentionally or by accident (when exiting Z33 with seeds that would further invade the local fauna for example.) What is sure is that the pristine antechamber in all its whiteness and sanitariness offers a striking contrast to the garden, all messy and multicolored. No one could have orchestrated the effect better than a theater maker like Verdonck.
Once you're inside, it's easy to forget that these are 'invasive alien species.' Take the green parakeets. In 1975, they were only roughly 50 of them when the manager of an amusement park decided to release them in the wild. Thousands of them can now be found in Brussels parks and suburbs. They are seen as a threat to native species because they have the potential to outcompete them for nest sites as they begin nesting several weeks before most species. American bullfrogs --carriers of infectious disease and predators of native of molluscs, fishes and young water birds-- are seen as such a threat to biological diversity that their eradication was strongly recommended by the Council of Europe.
Verdonck's garden opened in May and looked like a little piece of Eden. All lush flowers, green parrots, colourful plants, cheerful amphibians and mysterious moustachioed fish. When i visited the show a week ago, the place was still jaw-dropping but in a rather post-apocalyptic way. It felt a bit desolate. Good care was taken of the fauna and flora but the flowers were perishing, the parakeets had to be taken away because they were wolfing on any flower or fruit they could get their beaks on, tadpoles were vanishing, etc.
Here's a photo i took, that should give you an idea:
The sad outcome of the experiment was not planned but it certainly provides us with a lesson. This indoor garden explores alienation, men's relentless interference with nature. However, as the catalogue of the exhibition states, "EXOTE's aim is not to position itself within the scientific debate on biological invasions, but to be a metaphor to reflect on our interaction with the environment in which we live."
The project explores the possibility to build a 90-meter, zero-emission, airship that will never need to land to get its fuel, creating hydrogen from the elements it encounters and briefly anchoring when it needs to replenish its energy in a renewable way. Aeromodeller2 might not be the most efficient nor the fastest airship but it certainly leaves more space to imagination, dream and aspiration than anything Boeing or NASA can come up with.
A thousand airbuses jumping back and forth over the ocean twenty-four-seven. Fly, land, replace crew and passengers and take off again.
One thousand hyperactive passenger jets, and one airship that needs to rest when its energy level is low.
The most surprising part of the project is that Lieven, just like its airship, works at his own pace. It might take him one year, ten or even more to complete his project. That's not really the point for him. What matters is the experimental process, the constant testings, the unhurried journey made of improvements, adjustments and exploration.
The text that describes Aeromodeller2 explains that "The project was born as a manifesto for a designer-driven innovation, as opposed to one driven by a marketing department." What are the advantages of a designer-driven over a marketing-led approach?
The school where I studied industrial design was at that time very much pushing its students towards industry. If you wanted to design a good backpack, you did focus group studies and market research and asked the people what they wanted. This is a perfectly valid thing to do, and a fittingly humble approach to design. I never liked it. My background was in architecture. My heroes were, and still are, people like Le Corbusier and Buckminster. I like the arrogant, aristocratic designers who say: "I've studied this problem. This is the right solution and we should build this."
There are fields, like ergonomics, where user feedback is invaluable, but if you're asking a hundred people if solar panels are better than wind power, it is an illusion to think the average answer will be better than that of one expert who studied the issue. If you base your designs on the amount of people that will buy it and their opinions, you will always follow. I value visionary designers who lead. Designers who say: "I'm not making what you want, I'm making what you need. Take it".
My government, like most, is trying to promote innovation. They're doing this by financing R&D-projects, but those are all evaluated on the basis of their business plans. Explain how long it will take to make, who you will sell it to and to how many at what price, and you'll get considered for funding. This approach gives you a lot of small, sensible innovations. It leads to new Tupperware. It won't give you moon rockets. It won't give you iPods, only a lot of iPod add-ons. It won't give you high-speed reclining bikes, jet packs or stair-climbing wheelchairs. You need a different kind of inventor for that, you need the stubborn idiots tinkering away a shed somewhere. You need people that are passionate about what they do and don't give a rats what anyone else thinks. The Wright brothers never did a market study on the economical potential of non-stop transatlantic flights. They just thought flying would be the best thing ever. And it's that passion that made them persevere when others gave up.
For me the Wright brothers were artists. They were at the cutting edge of their field and followed their hearts, put their soul into what they made. To me, asking what they did is engineering or art, is like asking if Bach's church music is art or a functional piece of music.
Also i note that you mention 'design' but could you replace the word in the sentence with art as in "art-driven innovation"? Would it impact what you try to convey with your work?
I wouldn't use the word 'art-driven', it makes me think of bringing an artist into a foreign field or industry, to apply his/her ideas and visions as an innovation consultant or an added layer to this industry, This has been tried, and I don't think it's a very useful idea.
Artists are much more comfortable with showing experiments and failure than engineers are. Art has this culture of presenting a process, a work-in-progress. "It isn't as good as I want it yet, but this is what I'm trying to do..." A painter, labouring for 20 years towards his perfect work. The idea also that your drawing takes shape as you work on it, as opposed to executing a finalized design. The idea of starting something you don't know you'll be able to finish, being ok with uncertainty. I think there is a lot of strength in those ways of working, if what you want is perseverance rather than a deadline.
Surely this must influence the way you draw up the budget necessary for the development of the project?
A traditional industrial R&D-process has a budget up front and a deadline looming at the end. You work behind closed doors and are supposed to present the finished result within time and budget. In this structure a lot of projects fail, not because you can't make them work, but because you can't make them work on time. Or they don't even get started as you can't find all the financing up front.
If I finance a project like mine against a deadline, I'm setting myself up for failure. My most precious resource is my time, as it is very hard to predict how much time we'll need to solve unexpected problems. What I'm trying to do, by showing my experiments, by talking about a work-in-progress and explaining what I'm testing, is to put together a methodology that is less dependent on a deadline and more on slower, more sturdy growth.
I believe that if you're prepared to fail in public, to show your dumb mistakes and what you've learned from them, you can grow stronger from this, and at the same time tell a more realistic, less macho, more honest story of invention.
The reason i wanted to bring art on the table is that, unsurprisingly, i immediately thought Panamarenko when i saw your work and read its name. You also referred to Gaudi's old models and Frei Otto's soap bubble experiments in our previous email exchange so i guess your influences must reach much further than i expected. Can you tell us something about them and, more generally, what brought you to this ambitious project?
If you stop drawing by hand, and only use a computer, you stand to lose something. A pencil is a particular interface, you think with a pencil. You don't think up a drawing up front, it gets created in an interplay between your hand and your head. I think most people would agree that there are aspects to a simple pencil in a well-trained hand that a computer can't replace. I think the same holds true in building and testing stuff, in the physical experiment. Gaudi made the highest church in the world not using reinforced concrete. And he did this by building his upside-down models, using ropes under tension so find the correct shapes for the stone arcs under compression.
Frei Otto is the architect who designed the 1972 Munich Olympic stadium, using light-weight tent structures. At that scale, your tents are not simple canvas sheets. The sails have to be cut to follow the curve of the main cables so they don't flop. These sails are a particular double-curved surface. He researched those by building small wire-frame models of his cables and poles, and dipping these in a soap solution. You then get these fragile, beautiful models with soap surfaces where the textile should go. It turns out the shape the soap surfaces assume is the minimum surface you want for that tent. You can measure those shapes and reproduce them for your large tent structures. There's a picture in his 'Seifenblasen' book showing he experimented with instantly freezing those soap bubbles, it looks absolutely amazing.
Today you can do all that with computer simulations, and evaluating a structure will be faster and more flexible. But what interests me is the use of these physical simulations as a design tool. As with that pencil, I think something gets lost when engineers stop tinkering about. I would be the last to deny computers have created fantastic new possibilities, I've worked with them professionally for years. But for me, to develop a feeling for how a tensegrity structure will deform, nothing works as well as a hot-glued sticks-and-rope model, a physical model I can touch and push against.
For the airship I wanted to study how you could create shapes by partially filling balloons, instead of using pressurized cigar shapes. The shape would be generated by the lift force of the gas, wanting to go up, as opposed to the pressure in a spheroid balloon, pushing the walls out. Now, it's quite hard to do this with gas in a table-top-sized model. In small volumes the forces become too tiny to be practical. So what I did was, I turned my airship model upside-down, and filled it with water. The weight of the water acts as a simulant for the buoyancy of the lift gas. This gave me shapes to play with. It allowed me to test how different balloons could interact and slide over each other. I could try out different cut-patterns for the containing bags, see how they can fold open and contract, how their shapes change as they're filled to a different degree.
I believe building physical models keep you solidly grounded in reality. It's too easy to draw stuff on a computer that simply can't be built. And in doing experiments, you can try out stuff that you don't understand. You can be surprised by a result, and afterwards discuss it and learn what was going on. A computer can't replace that. You can do a wind tunnel simulation on a desktop pc, only you need to understand all the variables you put into the computer. Otherwise what comes out will be garbage. But anyone can put his hand out of the window of a driving car and feel the wind pushing on it.
That's where I want to link back to Panamarenko. What he did in a unique way, what I love in his work, is the way he showed experiments, condensed to a single idea. The essence of experimenting is curiosity, 'Let's try this and see what it does' and this is what he captured in his best works. Experiments are about failing and learning from these failures, and that is a story engineers are remarkable bad at communicating. The essence of technology is in research, is the experiment, is the process, not the final waxed car.
Has Panamarenko ever seen and reacted to your work?
I sent Panamarenko an invitation to my first exhibition, where I published the work. The expo was in Antwerp, his home town, and I was showing a houseboat airship in an arts centre. I never got a reply, but I suppose he has better things to do. He had already retired then. He was the elephant in the room anyway. I felt I had to deal with that up front, and called the expo 'aeromodeller2'. As you know 'aeromodeller' was the name he gave to his airship. It was a bit a provocation, but mainly I wanted to affirm my love for his old work. I knew I didn't want to get the headline 'Antwerp architect designs airship that DOES work' I didn't create my project as a critique on his work and I didn't want it interpreted that way. If you baptise your boat the 'Kontiki 2', everyone knows you like Thor Heyerdahl. Panamarenko's hands-on prototyping was an inspiration, in a context where hundreds of crazy airship concepts never got off the paper.
In science, when you create something new, you mention your sources, you mention the people whose work you're building on. Not doing so is dishonest and this is what felt right to me. After the expo, the name stuck to the project, so I kept it. And here's an interesting thing: if I talk to scientists and engineers about this, everyone agrees it makes sense and it's a good name. If artists ask me about it, almost every single one of them tells me I should never mention Panamarenko, dump the name altogether and 'stand on my own two feet'.
I'm a bit a stranger here myself, I'm not an artist by training, I'm not sure where I belong, but there is definitely a cultural difference between science and art in referencing your sources. There are days I wished I had chosen a different label, and I've been called 'Panamarenko rip-off' on several occasions, but never by anyone who took more than 2 minutes to look at my work. If I hadn't had the solid confidence that my work stands on its own, I would never have dared give it this name.
Now i think i'd need more details about the technology behind Aeromodeller2. The vehicle 'regenerates its fuel, creating hydrogen from wind power and the rain on its skin." Why isn't it powered by the sun like so many flying prototype i read about then?
In order to answer that I have to tell you about hydrogen gas first. We've stopped using it in airships over 70 years ago. It is lighter than air, but also flammable. Today though, a number of people are reconsidering this, as we're using the same gas as a clean fuel in cars. It's harder to use than batteries, and less efficient, but the cars exist and we can use them safely.
The reason people keep trying to make it work, is because the principle behind it is very beautiful. You start off with water, you put an electric current through it and you will split the H20 into H2 and 02. O2 is oxygen, you let that part go, H2 is hydrogen. Hydrogen is a flammable gas with the unique property that when you burn it, it turns back into water. If you use it as a fuel, what comes out of the exhaust is clean water.
Now I'm arguing the problem with those hydrogen cars is that you're misusing this principle. The cars only consume the hydrogen. This means they need hydrogen refueling stations, which don't exist. It also means that they miss the essence of this idea, namely that it is a reversible, cyclic system. If you put hydrogen in a car, you're saying to the world that hydrogen is a clean fuel, it is a replacement for gasoline. And it is not. You have to make it first. If the electricity for creating the hydrogen is generated by a coal-firing plant, it is not clean energy at all! Hydrogen is not a fuel; it's a fantastic, light-weight battery. It is not an energy source, it is an energy carrier.
What I'm proposing is a vehicle that can generate its own hydrogen, store it and later use it as fuel for propulsion. That would result in an airship that is both a lot more autonomous, wouldn't need refueling stations, and could fully demonstrate the beauty of this water-to-hydrogen-to-water reaction. You would have a true zero-emission zeppelin, with the autonomy of a sailing ship.
The basic principle is that I equip my airship with 2 large propellers. It can fly with those, using hydrogen as fuel. When it runs low on hydrogen, it does not land to refuel. Instead it anchors at a cable, like a kite. The propellers now start working as wind generators. They create electricity. You get water from captured rain or a lake. Electricity and water gives you hydrogen. You have the ship recharging for one or two days, and then you lift anchor and fly on.
Now, you could implement the same idea using light-weight, high-efficiency solar panels and have a continuous system. You wouldn't need to stop. This kind of design does exist as concept drawings from several companies, but they're extremely expensive to build and won't get realized, not with the present state-of-the-art. They only exist as computer renderings, not as prototypes. The largest solar-powered airship is a French student project that's just big enough to carry one man. I wasn't interested in making pretty design drawings. I wanted to take this elegant idea of a hydrogen-based energy cycle, and implement it in a design at a scale and cost level that it could actually be built. I wanted to take this blue-sky, radical concept and develop it in the most down-to-earth, practical way possible. Because of this, the shape of my airship is designed to be built from smaller parts on ground level, like a tent structure, and the wind rotors originally were put on there because, unlike solar panels, they're perfectly affordable and much more low-tech.
But in placing those wind generators on the concept, it grew into something else. I now had a machine that had to rest in order to regenerate. I had designed a zero-emission machine that, in order to renew its consumed energy, had to go to sleep. It grew into this biomimicry model, of a machine dealing with energy in the same way as a living being, a machine that at the end of the day has to pay the price for the energy it used up. I think that's a very powerful idea, telling a story about energy as a finite resource instead of an unlimited supply, and I think this version is better than the solar-powered one.
How long have you been working on the model and how much work is left before you think that you've achieved what you were dreaming of?
I never finished those studies in industrial design, as I left to start a company with two friends. So I never did a thesis project as a designer. In the years that followed this airship idea slowly took shape. It got under my skin and I kept going back to it. It established itself as something I saw as my master thesis, as something I could use to take a position on what I kind of designer I wanted to be, and I worked on the concept verification in my free time. It's hard to point at a specific origin, as it isn't as much one concept, but a puzzle of ideas that over time fit together into something that was more than the sum of its parts. In 2007 I did a series of combustion tests on 10m³ hydrogen balloons to see if you could develop a balloon system to use hydrogen safely. I realized nobody had actually done those kind of experiments in a serious way, as the idea was completely marginalized by the old Hindenburg disaster. In 2009 I got to the point where I believed I could convincingly argue this concept was feasible, so I published it in a solo exhibition in order to do so. This led to the opportunity to show the work in other exhibitions, and to build the remote-controlled 9-meter-model at the Verbeke Foundation, and the project has been my main focus since.
People keep asking me how long it will take me to build the full-scale airship. I have a couple of timelines written out, including one where I have all the funding I could wish for. So I used to give an answer, with a definite timing and budget, then tried to explain that it's more complicated than that. That the whole point was deciding what you do when you don't have all the money you wish for and you need to manage your resources. Be small. Cut the big project in little pieces and realize one piece at a time, but get it off the paper somehow. That when you want to build something radically new, any deadline is a guesstimate and your time is your most precious resource and you should protect it by developing methodologies that focus on endurance instead of on a deadline. Show your work-in-progress, instead of building behind closed doors. Show an R&D-process instead of an end result and grow slowly...
I recently realized I can give a simple, one-sentence answer. And it is: "As long as it takes..." Like a painting, it will be finished when it's darn well good enough. I'm chasing an idea I'm passionate about and think is worthwhile working on. If it takes 10 years to get it done, then it takes 10 years. That's how it is.
Finally, i was interested in the scenario behind Aeromodeller2. Would people live on it, use it as a refuge in case of natural or man-caused disasters or would it be rather a vehicle for travels? Or would it simply be a passing blimp?
Now you're asking me the industrial-engineering question; where is it good for? What's the application? Who will you sell it to? But what if I'm not building the fastest, the most efficient or even the cheapest solution? What if I'm building the most elegant, most beautiful solution to a problem?
What if I'm building a working airship, not for any particular use, but to tell a story? A machine that needs to sleep, that deals with energy like a living being. A story about a more responsible, more organic way of using energy. A story about an old, clean technology that's too slow to actually be used in transport, just like sailing ships are ancient and outdated.
If I want to do that, where does it belong? Where do I belong?
I don't want to define an application for it, because then I'm trapped again in this industrial-engineering logic of developing a product against a business plan deadline.
Let's build it, not for a specific market, but because it's beautiful.
Let's build it because it has the right story to tell.
I'm not interested in wild utopian visions where hundreds of these nomad ships are wandering over the globe, I'm interested in a pragmatic approach to get the first one built. An experimental ship will be limited in where it is allowed to fly. It won't be super big, but large enough to carry a thousand kilos of supplies, a warm coat and a bed (yes, in the end I'm still an architect, this would be the ultimate tree house). Like an experimental airplane, it won't be allowed to fly over any densely populated areas. And if you want to come on board for dinner, I'll have to make you sign a waiver. But even if I'm only allowed to travel over international waters, there are a whole lot of interesting places we could visit...
This Summer the 9-meter-model of Aeromodeller2 is participating to the exhibition Machines improbables, on view at the Musée Ianchelevici. The show is part of the ARTour Biennale in La Louvière, Belgium and runs through August 28, 2011.