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Interview Green tech

The moving robotic garden


Words by Kristina Foster

Photos by Interactive Architecture Lab

Meet the Hortum machina, B, half machine, half garden. Although plants lack a nervous system, they can still move via electrochemical stimulation, which is exactly how this cybernetic lifeform travels through the city. Created by Danilo Sampaio and William Victor Camilleri at the Interactive Architecture Lab at UCL’s Bartlett School of Architecture, this green creature is essentially a garden inside a geodesic sphere that moves according to the needs of the plants. Their prototype opens up a host of new possibilities. Buildings in the future could essentially become ‘alive’ as plants become integral parts of our architecture. Another scenario is that you could go visit a public park one day, only for it to have moved to another location the next. We spoke to Danilo to see if this could be the future of green urban space.

Tell me about yours and William Victor’s background?

I’m a Brazilian architect and have been working in this field since I started my Bachelor’s degree in 2005. I decided to attend the Bartlett Institute in London for my Master’s in 2014 because it’s one of the best architectural universities in the world. My partner, William Victor, is a Maltese architect with a similar background; he’s also an amazing designer, filmmaker and photographer.

What is the reEarth project?

The reEarth project is an ongoing architectural project. It’s been a really long process. When we started it, we knew that we wanted to do something that combined architecture with ecology, specifically domestic ecology. We also knew that we wanted to create something artistic so we began by doing a lot of experiments with geometric shapes. The initial idea for the Hortum machina, B came to us when we designed a dodecahedron structure covered in plants and placed a source of light inside of it. In order for people to turn on the light inside, they had to touch and interact with the shape. For us, this plant-covered structure represented the Earth and the need for humans to interact with nature in order to access its source of power. People were interested by the plants and told us that we needed to take this a step further.

Photo via interactivearchitecture.org

How did you do that?

We started researching scientists who were experimenting with plant electrophysiology. They were collecting data from plants and, in a sense, trying to find out what they were feeling. Many were making plants respond to human interaction, drive cars and even sing, by using information collected from stimuli. Once we figured out how we could collect this data, we started to think about how we could make architecture respond, in real time, to what the plants needed.

How does the Hortum machina, B work, simply?

The machine collects data from plants through an electrophysiological stimulus. We place different plants in different positions inside a geodesic sphere, so at one time some plants are going to be at the bottom and some plants are going to be on top. Our technology promotes a kind of conversation between all the plants in the sphere. It gathers information about what they need and creates a balance between all these different needs. The sphere then shifts its centre of gravity and rolls, repositioning itself to where the plants are more comfortable. This will happen when, for example, a plant at the top is getting too much sun, and the plant at the bottom is getting none at all. Our technology collects data which tells us this and makes the sphere reposition itself where both plants will be happier.

Photo via interactivearchitecture.org

Did you have to think about what specific plants to put inside the sphere?

We did. We decided to use plants native to the city of London. We knew that these would be able to survive the weather and tough city conditions. This means that if we wanted to take the sphere to another country, we would have to exchange those plants for others more suitable to a different kind of environment.

What were people’s reactions to seeing the sphere moving around London?

That for me was the most interesting thing about the project. People were really excited about the sphere, children wanted to climb it – they thought it was a kind of playground. You could see that everyone was so curious and they were asking us questions about it. I was just happy that no one was scared by it because it’s a huge structure (three metres tall) but we saw people on buses taking pictures and cars slowing down just to have a look at it. It was a very positive reaction.

What inspired your design?

The geodesic sphere was popularised by the architect Buckminster Fuller. The system that he used to build his structure was such a big innovation 50 years ago. He took advantage of the purest geometric shape, the sphere, and we in turn wanted to take advantage of what he did by taking his design to another level. The way we decided to do this was to give it life and make it move. It’s such a perfect structure for our machine because it gives our plants a protective exoskeleton. It gives them a body but it allows rain to enter. The first time we finished assembling it with all the plants inside, I was impressed, it looked so similar to what we had envisioned.

Photo via interactivearchitecture.org

How much were you thinking about London and your urban surroundings during this project?

A lot. One of the reasons we decided to choose native plants was because we realised that these species were being threatened by the popularity of invasive, non-native plants. We designed the sphere so that when it rolled, it could spread seeds around the city. We therefore see the sphere as an extension of a public park. You can take native plants from say, Kew Gardens, place them inside the Hortum machina, B and spread them around London.

Perhaps by showing people a plant which has a body that takes up space, people will learn to be more respectful to plants.

What do you think about the current relationship of cities and green spaces at the moment, in London and more generally?

London is unique in that it has a lot of parks. I’m from Rio de Janeiro and we certainly don’t have as many, but we do have a rainforest in the middle of the city! I do think that all cities need more initiatives like the one we’re doing. London is trying to promote a lot of green urban projects such as the Garden Bridge, which hopes to be a giant plant-covered overpass across the River Thames. But that doesn’t solve the problem of poor air quality in other parts of London. We were thinking about this issue during the reEarth project because the other idea we had was to make lots of small versions of the Hortum machina, B and release them into the city. These mobile microclimates could be beneficial in areas with high pollution levels.