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Practical Utopia vs. Global Pessimism: An Interview with Valentino Gareri

As we move into spring, the month of April brings a reminder promising rebirth with Easter, survival of a plague with Passover and respect for the environment with Earth Day. To say the least, we are experiencing a deeply pivotal moment in time that is forcing us to reconsider how we work, our lifestyles and our impact on the environment.

 I am deeply inspired to have had the opportunity to chat with Valentino Gareri, founder of Valentino Gareri Architectural Atelier & Senior Designer at BIG, during Build Expo NYC 2020. It was one of the last events I was able to attend before New York City shut down under Covid-19 quarantine mandates. The young and talented Valentino Gareri is Italian born and a new resident of New York City, his perspective is poignantly relevant and timely.

We talked about the future of urban design, what’s happening in Italy, biotechnology and and the architect’s role in designing a better future. I am excited to present to you 5 questions for Valentino Gareri.

Credit: Valentino Gareri Architectural Atelier

Garrott Designs: At Build Expo, you spoke about how good architecture doesn’t have to be expensive, that it must solve a problem, contribute to the community it serves and respect the culture and environment in which it exists. Given the effect Covid-19 has had on your homeland of Italy, matched with your perspective as a new resident of New York City, how can architecture contribute to the public health and well-being of our future cities?

Valentino Gareri: I believe that Art has the duty to inspire people to hope for a better world, especially in a moment of global pessimism and warning like this. 

Architecture is the discipline which, more than the other arts, has the power to shape our world and our future. The primary role of architects is to respond and give solutions to specific needs through the shape and geometry of their design. The projects I presented at the New York Build Expo, are very different from each other but have in common this generational purpose and are all answers to natural calamities or emergencies.

Credit: Valentino Gareri Architectural Atelier Notre Dame, New Roof proposal, Paris, France
Credit: Valentino Gareri Architectural Atelier Notre Dame, New Roof proposal, Paris, France

The current pandemic is going to deeply change the society and the entire world; and it is going to radically affect Architecture and the way cities will be designed in the future.

Scientific studies highlighted a direct relationship between the speed of diffusion of the Covid-19 and the level of pollution of the areas most affected by the pandemic. Apparently, the particles pollution became vectors that carried the virus spreading it faster and wider.

This should, again, remind us how sustainability is fundamental for the future of our planet. However, it is not enough to discuss sustainability anymore, we should rather start talking about the ability-to sustain and support the fragile relationship between ecosystems, humans and mother nature. Not only by designing energy-efficient buildings, but rather by adding improvements to the built world, both at environmental and social levels.

In order to improve the environmental sustainability we have built dense and high cities. This pandemic is showing that we might have to re-think the model of urban physical densification, and rather move towards a digital and technological intensification.

Credit: Huawei

More software, less hardware. For example, in ‘smart cities’ like Shenzhen or Songdo, big data analysis largely anticipated where new viral transmission clusters could emerge and have strongly reduced the spread of the virus. Urban non-places (abandoned and not developed city areas) can become new social and vital hearts in this digital revolution.

For these reasons, Future cities will need small, gentle injections within the existing urban grain, rather than big surgery sessions.

Garrott Designs: You presented an exciting modular concept for a community in Africa. A brilliant solution for developing communities. How do you see modularity playing a role in a modern city like New York toward a sustainable future?

Valentino Gareri:: The diffusion on a large scale of modular design in the future can drastically reduce the costs of construction: repetitive and prefabricated components are fast, easy to produce and mount: it is the way they are assembled and combined together that brings, at the end, something extraordinary.

Credit: Valentino Gareri Architectural Atelier

In the case of the prototype of modular school for Africa, the module is the result of the combination between a local need (the rain water collection) and the vernacular architecture and local art. A common element of everyday life is turned into Architecture.

Credit: Valentino Gareri Architectural Atelier

At the Expo I talked about  ‘UTOP-TICAL ARCHITECTURE’, an architecture where the utopia and the practical are merged together.

 In a high and dense city like New York, the adoption of modular and light components can be used in the future either as addition to existing buildings, or as a way to reduce the buildings cost by adopting repetitive modules for new developments, in particular in the residential industry and social housing.

Credit: Valentino Gareri Architectural Atelier

Garrott Designs: Biotechnology in the built environment is emerging into mainstream consciousness with exhibitions like Nari Oxman’s Material Ecology at the MoMA. What developments in biotechnologically fabricated materials are you most excited about? What would you build if you had access to that material right now?

Valentino Gareri: The emerging and fast development of biotechnology, together with the wider and accessible application of the 3D-printing technology, is something exciting and that can bring to a new era of architectural design.

Bio-technology highlights an interesting dichotomy between nature-inspired design and design-inspired nature. The word itself ‘BIO-TECHNOLOGY’ puts together worlds which are at opposite latitudes: BIOLOGY and TECHNOLOGY.

Likewise, Architecture fluctuates in the constant and delicate balance between art and science, poetry and physics, nature and urbanism. The equilibrium between these opposite faces is at the basis of the history of Architecture, since the time Man designed and built the first shelter.

Bio-technology could allow, one day, to design buildings where the façade behaves exactly as the skin of the human body, regenerating itself during its life and reducing the aging effects of time and weather. They can be made of natural and recyclable elements, replacing the polluting production of materials like plastic, steel and aluminum.

Neri Oxman ecological building materials

And again, bio-technology can create buildings envelopes which can absorb environmental pollution and produce clean energy, as nature does through the photosynthesis process.

Butterfly Sanctuary Concept Design by TerreformONE- an example of bio-envelope exterior

Garrott Designs: What are the essential values that inspire your work? How are you bringing those elements to your projects?

Valentino Gareri: In a society where, for the first time, new generations are starting to doubt that their future will be better from their parent’s, Architecture, as all the other forms of art,  should inspire people to dream. That’s why I like to think that ‘DREAMING IS MORE’. Society is changing, and much faster than the past.

Credit: Valentino Gareri Architectural Atelier
Credit: Valentino Gareri Architectural Atelier

‘Dreaming is more’ is not a disrespectful reaction to the Masters of the past, but rather an awareness that Architecture can’t speak anymore to the new generations with a language of 3 generations ago. Moreover, ’dreaming is more’ doesn’t mean designing unfeasible and expensive buildings.

Credit: Valentino Gareri Architectural Atelier

Good architecture is priceless, not price-full. Architects should be driven by the desire of creating out-of-ordinary buildings, but at the same time being cost and environmentally respectful. Architects have the responsibility to give a big contribution to make today and our planet a better place where we can live, and tomorrow the best home for new generations. This is the most important value that drives my work, that rather than a job, I see as a mission.

Credit: Valentino Gareri Architectural Atelier

Valentino Gareri

Founder of Valentino Gareri Architectural Atelier & Senior Designer at BIG