Guided by the belief that circularity is a must in contemporary design, Italian design firm Carlo Ratti Associati (CRA) explores the intersection between the natural and artificial worlds in order to design more sustainable living environments. Founded in 2004 by Italian architect Carlo Ratti, the firm’s projects draw on his research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Senseable Lab, where he and his team analyze how we live, interact and design within the built environment. In learning more about the spaces we inhabit, Ratti maintains that we can facilitate a more conscious and circular design process. We spoke to CRA about two of their circular-focused projects, The Circular Garden and Feel the Peel to learn more about what it means to work with nature-based materials and the future of the circular economy in design.

While both projects are united by their engagement with circular design principles, they tackle different spaces within the design sector. Feel the Peel addresses the intimate relationship between product and consumer, while The Circular Garden seeks to make the artificial world of design installations and exhibits less wasteful and more responsive. The thousands of design weeks, expositions, installations and fairs held globally every year generate an obscene amount of waste. Entire pavilions constructed of non-recyclable materials are often tossed after only a few short weeks on display – only to end up in landfills. Now, more than ever, designers bear a responsibility to consider the entire life cycle of their creations, and to work to incorporate more nature-based materials into their work to deliver more sustainable design solutions.

The Circular Garden was produced in partnership with global energy company, Eni, who asked CRA to design an installation on circularity for Milan Design Week. It was during a walk through the proposed site, the Orto Botanico, a historical botanical garden in the center of Milan, that the design team noticed many species of mushrooms growing between the walls. Mycelium – the fibrous root of mushrooms – was subsequently chosen as the building material for The Circular Garden. The installation involved a series of four-meter-high mycelium arches that were scattered throughout the Orto Botanico for just under a month before they were then completely composted back into the soil. In using nature-based materials like mycelium, nature enters the artificial world, allowing for more regenerative, circular design.

The inspiration for Feel the Peel was an attempt to address the copious amount of citrus waste produced by Italy’s fruit juice industry – over 700,000 tonnes per year. In collaboration again with Eni, CRA worked to develop a design concept that would address this issue, while combining circularity and accessibility. The final prototype was a juice bar that squeezes fresh oranges and processes the leftover peels to develop a filament, which is then fed through a 3D printer to produce a cup out of which you can drink the freshly-squeezed juice. After touring Italy for the latter part of 2019, CRA is now looking into what the next iterations of Feel the Peel could look like, as well as exploring possible future installations.

The principles of the circular economy continue to inspire CRA’s upcoming projects. Recently, they have been exploring circularity in the framework of temporary, event-orientated architecture for the Italian Pavilion at the Dubai Expo 2020, now rescheduled for October 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Part of the structure will be built using recycled materials – orange peels, coffee grounds, mycelium and ocean plastic waste, while the roof will be made of used ships. Clearly, it is the principles of circularity that has enabled CRA to reclaim and reimagine waste-based materials to produce original, world-renowned designs.

CRA, which, since it began 16 years ago, now employs over 300 people in Turin, New York and London, recognizes that in order to reshape our urban future for the better, it is crucial to stimulate a collective discussion on the foundations of circularity and sustainability in design. They argue that these principles should be applied holistically and recursively at every stage and scale throughout the design process. In doing so, designers of all disciplines can work to innovate in creative new ways that act alongside the natural world, not against it. As Carlo Ratti notes, “it is not just about our life as humans – it is about the life of our planet.”

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