(Prof. Claudia Pasquero and Dr. Marco Poletto)

Designing the Urban Microbiome

It is timely in the Anthropocene, and even more so in the age of a global pandemic, to search for a non-anthropocentric mode of reasoning, and consequently also of designing. The Photosynthetica Consortium, established in 2018 and including London-based design innovation practice ecoLogicStudio, the Urban Morphogenesis Lab (Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London (UCL)) and the Synthetic Landscape Lab (University of Innsbruck, Austria), has therefore been pursuing architecture as a research-based practice, exploring the interdependence of human and biological intelligence in design by working directly with non-human living organisms.

Fig. 1
ecoLogicStudio, HORTUS XL Astaxanthin.g, Interior Detail. Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2019. ©NAARO.

Fig. 2 
ecoLogicStudio, HORTUS XL Astaxanthin.g, cyber-Gardening. Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2019. ©NAARO.


  1. dark ecology1Timothy Morton, Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence, Columbia University Press (New York), 2016, and Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics, Harvard University Press (Boston, MA), 2007.


The current rush of many cities to develop blue-green plans dealing with future threats of climate change is a testament to the obsession of searching for ‘true’ answers within a problem-solving framework. The experience in practice illustrated in this article highlights the urgent need for a new design method capable of engaging the systemic nature of urban landscapes and their architecture.

Architects and planners often rely on a ‘sanitised’ and therefore highly aestheticized vision of the world’s ecosystems exemplified by the very notion of blue-green planning and its focus on re-greening cities. This notion may be one of the most enduring aspects we have inherited from modernity.

And if bacteriological control was at the origin of its sanitation efforts, modern architecture and urban design turned it into a style; in other words, modernity embedded sanitation into an aesthetic value system. The contemporary paradigms of green cities and smart cities are the direct consequence of the evolution of that value system.

However, urban systems today are non-linear and composed of billions of interlocking feedback loops forming what the authors call the Urbansphere2See the Urbansphere, doctoral thesis by Marco Poletto Waste production, pollution emission, and ecosystems’ contamination are some of the most intense processes within the Urbansphere and critical parts of its contemporary metabolism; these processes often constitute the dark side of urban ecology, a side that is often invisible to the human eye and confined to restricted zones of our cities or exported to poorer regions of the world.

And, most significantly, it is erased from the consciousness of most urban dwellers of the developed world.


  1. microbiological landscapes


Reassessing the dark side of urban ecology implies bringing to focus a new aesthetic of nature and, as a consequence, of the urban landscape. This new aesthetic of nature projects the design practice into the realm of micro-organisms such as virus, bacteria and fungi. These creatures induce fear because their tactics often elude our comprehension; however, their intelligence endowed them with exceptional properties. For example, they are capable of turning what we consider waste and pollution into nutrients and raw material.

From this perspective, ecoLogicStudio’s bio-digital architectures promote a new urban aesthetic centred on a novel appreciation for the micro-scale of bacteria as well as other forms of non-human intelligence. Within ecoLogicStudio’s body of work the cultivation of these organisms becomes an act of ‘culturalisation’3Claudia Pasquero, Marco Poletto, Culturalizing the Microbiota, Routledge 2019, thus entering the realm of architecture.

Fig. 3 
ecoLogicStudio, HORTUS XL Astaxanthin.g, Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, 2019. © Kioku Keizo

A notable example is ecoLogicStudio’s ongoing ‘H.O.R.T.U.S.’ series started in 2012. H.O.R.T.U.S., the Latin term for garden, here operates as an acronym for Hydro Organism Responsive To Urban Stimuli. It refers to a series of photosynthetic sculptures and urban structures that create artificial habitats for cyanobacteria integrated in the built environment. Within H.O.R.T.U.S., cyanobacteria are deployed not only as photosynthetic machines but also as organisms able to absorb emissions from building systems. They constitute a new active layer part of both urban and natural metabolic cycles, thus reconnecting the so-called green and dark sides of urban ecology. H.O.R.T.U.S. is a new kind of architectural symbiosis.


  1. the photosynthetica venture.


This symbiotic relationship has been explored in a recent project unveiled in Tokyo in November 2019, at the Mori Art Museum.

Suspended on the 53rd floor of the Mori Tower against the backdrop of Tokyo’s urban sprawl, the sculpture materialises its urban dimension as a new prototype of living architecture: the PhotoSynthetica Tower. Explored through a series of associated speculative images, the project explores the architectural implications of H.O.R.T.U.S. as the embodiment of Tokyo’s evolution into a future powerhouse of bio-digital culture and technology.

At the city scale it appears as a complex synthetic organism in which bacteria, autonomous farming machines and other forms of animal intelligence become, alongside humans, bio-citizens contributing to the formation and transformation of Tokyo’s own synthetic urban landscape.

Fig. 4 
ecoLogicStudio, PhotoSynthetica Tower, Façade detail.
2019. Image © Vyonix.

Fig. 5
ecoLogicStudio, PhotoSynthetica Tower, Inner lobby. 2019. Image © Vyonix.

The biomass that grows in all the active areas of the tower is made available to the occupants, suppling a plethora of emerging activities and industries that will define the programmatic mix of the building itself and its occupational patterns, both in the case of human and non-human inhabitants.

Bio-digital research units, gardening centres, wildlife observation terraces, self-sufficient dwelling and a potentially infinite variety of other programmatic combinations will be supported by the continuous catalytic action of the tower that will constantly re-metabolise anthropic pollution (such as emissions from man-made urban infrastructures ) as well as biotic contamination (such as in processes of phytodepuration and bio-digestion where pathogens are neutralised by benign bacteria cultures)  into local circular economies of raw materials, data and energy. 

In order to promote the evolution of this concept the authors have recently launched the PhotoSynthetica Venture, a transdisciplinary design-innovation project. The first PhotoSynthetica demonstrator was unveiled in November 2018 in Dublin, Ireland. 32 metres long and 7 metres high, it took the form of an “urban curtain” and was commissioned by the Climate-KIC, the European Union’s most prominent climate innovation initiative.

Fig. 6
ecoLogicStudio, PhotoSynthetica, Dublin.
Front view. 2018. ©NAARO.

Fig. 7
ecoLogicStudio, PhotoSynthetica, Dublin.
Inoculation detail. 2018. ©NAARO.

The photosynthetic building membrane captured CO2 from the atmosphere and stored it in real-time at a rate of approximately one kilo of CO2 per day, equivalent to that of 20 large trees. The innovative building technology achieves this through the integration of three layers of functionality4 :

• Wetware: the selection and management of the living microalgae cultures.

• Software: the digital management system. It uses sensors to optimise performance in real time. It also provides long-term projections and predictions of the system’s carbon capturing and air cleaning abilities.

• Hardware: the artificial habitat for cultivation of living cultures, or photo-bioreactor. The project combines digital design and fabrication technologies to optimise aesthetic qualities, environmental performances and architectural integration.

Fig. 8
ecoLogicStudio, PhotoSynthetica, Helsinki, 2019.
©Tuomas Uusheimo.

Once scaled up, PhotoSynthetica hopes to actualise significant economic, social, environmental and health benefits. The project embodies the multi-generational long-term benefits of adopting a carbon absorbing technology now, as it is 10 times more efficient at carbon sequestration than any other nature based green technology.

Fig. 9
ecoLogicStudio, Bio.Tech Hut, Astana.
Living Hut featuring HORTUS Astana. 2017. ©NAARO.

Fig. 10
ecoLogicStudio, Bio.Tech Hut, Astana.
Garden Hut. 2017. ©NAARO.

The pandemic that is currently engulfing the world is a direct manifestation of the imbalances within the Urbansphere. While chronic exposure to air pollution affects our lungs and weakens our immune systems, unsustainable food supply chains and practices are and will continue to vector increasing numbers of pathogens within our bodies.

Fig. 11
ecoLogicStudio, Bio.Tech Hut, Astana.
Garden Hut. 2017. ©NAARO.


  1. tallinn – the city unfinished.


This scenario calls for a broader systemic approach to urban development as well as for long-termism in its design approach. An example of this method can be found in the project Anthropocene Island for the city of Tallinn.

In 2017 ecoLogicStudio curated the Estonian Biennale of Architecture titled BioTallinn. As part of the main curated exhibition the practice developed an urban proposal for the future of Tallinn with a specific focus on the Paljassaare Peninsula, currently at the outskirts of the city.

Fig. 12
ecoLogicStudio, BioTallinn, Museum of Estonian Architecture, Tallinn. View of the main curated exhibition. 2017. ©NAARO.

This envisioned a new urban centre emerging from the processing of the city’s waste, a symbiotic anti-city, which would co-evolve with present day Tallinn and redefine its urban metabolism. This proposal is now subject of further development and will be included in a future exhibition at the Museum of Estonian Architecture in Tallinn, due to open in January 2021.

Currently the Paljassaare Peninsula is understood according to two different and conflicting ideologies: environmentalism on the one hand (the Peninsula is included in the Natura2000 network of protected areas), which strives to maintain the site in a state of illusory wilderness, and commercial development on the other, which envisions the peninsula’s urbanisation into an idealised green city. While seemingly at odds in their aims, both narratives in fact share an ideological conservatism in their reading and understanding of the site’s true nature.

ecoLogicStudio’s proposal challenges conservative sentiments with a masterplan intended to promote a new urban morphogenesis, whereby Tallinn’s actual urban wastewater infrastructure is made to affect the biotic substratum of the peninsula. The resulting “contamination” becomes a morphogenetic force (a creative impulse to re-shape the city ), inducing an artificial hyper-articulation of the landscape and its living systems which evolve into an urban digestive apparatus. Pathogens are re-metabolised, diluted or captured by augmented ecosystems; infrastructural networks thicken into filtering surfaces, which in turn fold into a convoluted epidermis populated by a large amount of inhabitable bio-reactor cells: the Anthropocene Islands of Paljassaare.

The ground protocol for Paljassaare Peninsula proposes the morphological hyper-articulation of the existing landscape and its living systems. Constantly monitored via satellite, this synthetic urban landscape feedbacks to Tallinn’s wastewater network in real-time. Each molecular transaction has its spatial location, morphological effect, informational address and ecosystemic value.

Fig. 13
ecoLogicStudio, Anthropocene Island, Tallinn.
Plan of the synthetic landscape of Paljassaare. 2017.

The process starts with the ESA (European Space Agency) supplying Level1 data from the Sentinella Satellite at resolutions of 10×10 metre for an area of 3x3km framing the peninsula. Each pixel represents a degree of biochemical activity defined as “wetness” and computed with the Normalised Difference Water Index algorithm.  The resulting gradient filed is indexed at specific locations along its ISO lines (lines of constant level of wetness) at a resolution of 2m. In each location tendency lines are computed; longest lines appear in areas of highest difference in wetness or biological activity. Such locations possess maximum potential for thickening and articulating into biochemical reactors.

These prototypical bundles are critical as they host the re-metabolisation processes, wastewater purification and sludge bio-digestion, where waste and pollutants are transformed into raw material and energy. The bioreactors are equipped with active biotechnological units; the system is monitored in real-time sending information about the status of its internal metabolism and receiving updates from the wastewater treatment network. Its operations are constantly altered and adjusted by distributed sensing /digging robots, which act as cyber-worms.

The articulation of the existing landscape determines directions of flow and purification; in areas where the concentration of active bio-digesters is high and their emissions of heat and nutritious soil reaches a critical mass, new microclimates and related habitats are formed. Growing plants, insects and birds are attracted and become active agents of urban transformation. The Air protocol is ready to begin.

Fig. 14
ecoLogicStudio, Anthropocene Island, Tallinn.
Top view of the ground-scraper. 2017.

Swarms of stigmergic building drones (capable of spontaneous coordination, just like swarms of ants) respond to these atmospheric gradients and begin the erection of new superstructures by lifting in place modular units of different sizes and forms, each of them hosting an inhabitable bio-reactor cell. Each cell is living unit, which evolves a certain degree of self-sufficiency as new symbiotic relationships are established among its human and non-human dwellers.

These flight-assembled ground-scrapers grow into assemblages of many thousands of units, themselves symbiotic to the building blocks in present day Tallinn. They will be fed by the city’s waste water and in turn feedback natural gas, food and fertile soil.

Fig. 15
ecoLogicStudio, Anthropocene Island, Tallinn. Bird eye view of the ground-scraper in winter. 2017.


  1. conclusions.


To conclude, the future of Architecture emerging from the landscapes of the post-Anthropocene is wet, soft and behavioural; it is endowed with an intelligence that is distributed and embodied. Cities are evolving into intelligent super-organisms and shall become capable of searching for opportunities of co-evolution within the Urbansphere. Green cities must be able to find untapped resources while minimising the expenditure of energy required to accomplish the task.

These will be cities hosting both human and non-human citizens. New forms of evolving non-human intelligence will conceive them. Within these post-anthropocentric cities, the impact of artificial systems on the natural Biosphere will indeed be global, but their agency will no longer be entirely human. New bio-computational design workflows will eventually evolve, pairing what is algorithmically drawn to what is biologically grown in new urban microbiomes.

About the Author

ecoLogicStudio, is an architectural and urban design practice dedicated to bio-digital design for the definition of a new “ecology” of space and behaviour. Founded in London in 2005 by Claudia Pasquero and Marco Poletto, the office has earned an international reputation for its innovative work on “systemic” design – a method defined by the combination and integration of systemic thinking, computational design, biotechnology and prototyping. This “broadened” approach to design – from the micro to the macro – is embedded in an experimental practice, where projects and installations become interactive laboratories; in the past 10 years ecoLogicStudio has designed and built several living installations and architectures, demonstrating how microorganisms such as algae can become part of the bio- city of the future. These photosynthetic architectures include the BioTechHut Pavilion for Expo Astana 2017, HORTUS Astana 2017, Urban Algae Folly Aarhus 2017, PhotoSynthEtica Dublin 2019, HORTUS XL 2020 for the Center Pompidou in Paris, PhotosSynthEtica Helsinki 2020, among others.

Claudia Pasquero is an architect, curator, author and educator; her work and research operates at the intersection of biology, computation and design. In addition to being the founding co-director of ecoLogicStudio in London, Claudia is Lecturer and director of the Urban Morphogenesis Lab at the Bartlett UCL, Professor of Landscape Architecture and founder of the Synthetic Landscape Lab at Innsbruck University. Claudia was Head Curator of the Tallinn Architectural Biennale 2017, and nominated in the WIRED smart list in the same year. Her work has been published and exhibited internationally: at the FRAC Centre in Orléans, the Venice Architectural Biennale, ZKM Karlsruhe and the MilanoExpo2015 among others.

Marco Poletto is an architect, educator and innovator based in London. In addition to being a founding co-director of the architectural practice ecoLogicStudio, Marco is also Director of the design innovation venture PhotoSynthetica, focused on developing architectural solutions to fighting climate change. Marco holds a PhD Degree from RMIT University, Melbourne. His thesis on the “Urbansphere” argues that the increased spatial integration of non-human systems within architecture is crucial to evolve higher forms of urban ecological intelligence. Marco has been Unit Master at the Architectural Association in London, Visiting critic at Cornell University and Research Cluster leader at The Bartlett, UCL. He currently Lectures at the University of Innsbruck and the IAAC in Barcelona. Marco’s work has been exhibited internationally, most recently in Paris (Centre Pompidou, 2019), Tokyo (Mori Gallery, 2019), Vienna (MAK, 2019), Karlsruhe (ZKM, 2019) and Astana (EXPO 2017).

Claudia and Marco are co-authors of “Systemic Architecture – Operating manual for the self-organizing city” published by Routledge in 2012.