Technology has progressed in every field as much as in architecture, stimulating the importance of moving ahead with the times and easing processes with the help of automation and faster and accurate responsiveness. Not only can technology help us save energy but can also help us to use it to the optimum and build ecologically and environmentally friendly designs.
Carlo Ratti Associati, a digitally innovative architecture and design firm headed by Carlo Ratti, were given the opportunity to re-design a 20th Century building in Torino, Italy, laying before them the question, ‘What methods can one use to minimise destruction, maximise the use of the old structure and provide the best solution and use for the new space and its future inhabitants?”
We discuss with Carlo Ratti about the client’s brief, design intent and the processes that led to the final outcome.
Meghna Mehta (MM): What was the client’s brief given to the team?
Carlo Ratti Associati (CRA): When we were called in to renovate the Agnelli Foundation’s headquarters, the beautiful, early 20th century building was somewhat in disuse, its large spaces a bit empty. Our task was to understand how to transform it once again into a living building, how to give it a use. We had to imagine not only a formal, architectural intervention, but a way to give purpose to the space, involving different actors in the process. As a part of this project, in fact, we also invited the co-working company Talent Garden (Tag) to create a shared office space within the building.
MM: What was the design approach?
CRA: Especially at the beginning, our design approach was all about openness, trying to open the building to its neighbourhood (San Salvario) and the city at large. Our approach here was two-pronged. First, as a part of our physical design strategy, we added a protruding glass body to the front of the building, transparently opening its facade to the street. Secondly, we infused the villa’s historical staircase with light by opening a skylight over it and putting in a kaleidoscopic installation by Olafur Eliasson. We also invited Louis Benech, the French landscape architect who reshaped the Tuileries gardens in Paris, to design an orchard and garden around the building, allowing its occupants to eat and work outside.
Our strategy was also to open the building in less tangible terms, for which we included a cafe in the glass body we added to the facade, and a variety of activities for the interior of the building, like co-working spaces for some of the city’s companies and start-ups and conferences areas.
MM: Did the design philosophy evolve or change over time?
CRA: Yes, it did, in particular, once we included Tag’s co-working space as an essential element to our design solution, we started rethinking our intervention. Our design would no longer be solely about opening the building to the city, but about experimenting with the workplace of the future, about designing an Office 3.0 that could show some of the possibilities of integrating digital technologies.
MM: How would you describe the planning and zoning of the spaces?
CRA: On all four floors, there are certain spaces that are run by Tag and dedicated to co-working, with different typologies of wall partitions allowing for differently sized companies. On the ground floor, there is the cafe, while on the first floor there is the auditorium. On the second and third floors, there are leisure areas with giant, tensile structures, like nets, for people to jump on, walk through or rest on, and on the third floor there is also a fablab-like space for robotics.
MM: What are some of the most significant features of this project that differentiate it from others?
CRA: The feature that most distinguishes this project is perhaps the way in which its integration of digital technologies allows for its office space to adapt in real time to its users’ needs. Along with technology company Siemens Italy, we equipped the edifice with hundreds of sensors that monitor different sets of data, including the location of the building’s occupants, temperature, CO2 concentration and the availability of meeting rooms. By interacting with the Building Management System (BMS), each person can customise his or her workspace experience in a streamlined fashion. A smartphone app makes it possible for occupants to check in, interact with co-workers, book meeting rooms and regulate environmental settings with an unprecedented degree of personalisation.
For instance, once a building occupant sets her preferred temperature and illumination settings, the BMS responds accordingly, adjusting the levels of lighting, heating and cooling. As the fan coil units situated in the false ceilings are activated by human presence, the system can potentially follow occupants as they move around the building, just like an ’environmental bubble’. When an occupant leaves, the room returns to ‘standby mode’ and conserves energy – as a computer would do with a screen saver.
MM: Apart from the ones already mentioned, what were the unique materials and methodologies employed here?
CRA: I think what was unique about our construction methodology was that we were able to do innovation at an affordable cost. Our budget was not unlimited, and so we had to find elements and materials that were not too expensive, but we were still able to experiment with an Office 3.0. Our innovation was not concentrated on the materials used, as should not necessarily be the case.
MM: If you could alter or revise any one aspect of the project, what would that be?
CRA: We are fairly pleased with the project, but perhaps in the future, after the experience matured on this occasion, we could optimise our construction times and technical implementation phases.
The project stands as a trailer for what lies ahead for us in the future of architecture. An ‘environmental bubble’ in this project, a ‘robot desk’, or a ‘mobile printing machine’ next? Nonetheless, the project emulates utmost respect to its users, the building it houses within and the needs of the day, while managing and aiding controlled energy consumption. The architects have expressed sensitivity to the past, while bringing in new elements and nodding to what the future unfolds for us.
Project DetailsName of project: Fondazione Agnelli
Location: Torino, Italy
Client: Agnelli Foundation
Time taken from conception to construction: 2 years
Time taken for construction: 10 months
Architect: CRA-Carlo Ratti Associati
Technical development: Siemens Italia –Building Technologies Division
Landscape: Louis Benech
Café design: Natalia Bianchi Studio
Structural and executive project: Studio Ferraresi
Mechanical, microclimatic and BEMS design: Paolo Lazzerini (Studio Lazzerini)
Illuminating engineering: Roberto Pomè
Historical consultancy: Michele Bonino
Co-working space:Talent Garden