Shells by Giulia May
Giulia May BY-NC-SA

Urban Ecology: Watch the lecture series

Are you curious to see what Urban Ecology looks like in practice? As a result of the lecture series, the young architects of the Rotterdam Academy of Architecture created building proposals to make urban areas more inclusive, sustainable and diverse. They presented their designs on Saturday January 15.  Please note: this event is Dutch spoken.

Urban areas that were built straight from the drawing board are often experienced as 'dead' and 'dull'. Think of the Bijlmer - the Amsterdam district that originated from a utopian idea and quickly turned into a failure. Can we apply the complexity and unpredictability of natural systems to urban development, in order to make urban areas more vibrant, diverse and inclusive? How can we embrace unexpected interactions, when growing cities instead of designing them? What can we learn from minerals that grow from solutions, and how can shells and coral reefs inspire new architectural approaches? 

Waag's artist-in-residence Esmee Geerken developed the seven-part lecture series 'Urban Ecology: Building as Being' for the Rotterdam Academy of Architecture. In this course, she intertwines ecology and architecture, exploring how we can learn to include unpredictability into building. Experts from various fields were invited to trace back the origins of ‘building’; taking disciplinary deep dives into chemistry, geology, biology, philosophy and neuroscience. In doing so, we return to the proto-Indian-European origin of the word building, meaning ‘growing, existing, being’. All seven lectures are now available online. 


Interactief bouwexperiment met calciet en rode bloedcellen - door Esmee Geerken
Interactive building experiment with calcite and red blood cells - by Esmee Geerken


Why Building as Being?

The way people currently build is far from efficient. Concrete is one of the most widely used materials in the world. The production process of concrete accounts for no less than 8% of global CO2 emissions. Our current ways of building and the materials we use are not sustainable, by which we threaten our very existence.

Can we start making different choices based on ecological awareness, and look for more efficient ways of working with energy flows and material cycles? Can we innovate so that we pollute less, and put less pressure on our ecosystems? Or better yet, build in ways that stimulate the recovery of our ecosystems?

How can we build in collaboration with nature and learn from ecological principles, so that we can develop sustainable and inclusive urban areas for all species? These questions are central to the T-Factor project. With T-Factor, Waag looks at how we can shape urban initiatives in the development area Amsterdam Science Park, taking into account a variety of life forms.

This course hopes to inspire a new generation of architects, as well as a broader audience, to embrace ‘building as being’, and to jointly envision future Urban Ecologies that enhance inclusivity and wellbeing for all species. All seven lectures have been recorded and you can watch them now!

Lectures: Urban Ecology, Building as Being

Part 1. Introduction Urban Ecology: Building as Being
Dr. Esmee Geerken, Art-Science Fellow Uva-Institute of Advances Studies, Research fellow Waag, guest researcher Self-Organizing Matter group AMOLF. Build like a shell: on the evolution of architecture from a geological, biochemical and ecological perspective.
Watch the video

Part 2. Building with Nature
Andrea Balestrini & Stella-Zoë Schmidtler, LAND Research Lab Italia. The dynamic of landscape: designing with nature in times of uncertainty.
Watch the video

Part 3. Urban Ecology: Building as Being Part 2
Esmee Geerken. Future Urban Ecologies: towards building as a way of being; being a particle while being part of the whole.
Watch the video

Part 4. Ecology, Evolution and Architecture
Dr. Lennart de Nooijer (Senior Scientist Ocean Systems department, Royal Netherlands institute for Sea Research). Ecology, evolution and architecture: building as a way to enact with the environment.
Watch the video

Part 5. Self-Organization in Urban Design and Architecture 
Dr. Sharon Wohl, Associate Professor Architecture and Urban Design, Iowa State University, research fellow IAS. Pattern Language: on self-organization and complex adaptive systems in urban ecologies.
Watch the video

Part 6. Ecology & Emergence of the Self
Prof. Sarah Durston, Professor of developmental disorders of the brain UMC Utrecht, research fellow UvA-Institute of Advanced Studies, Chair Sentience and Science foundation. Shells, selves and surroundings: on the emergence of the ‘self’ within the environment. How can we partake in the reality we inhabit?
Watch the video

Part 7. Philosophy of Ecology
Chris Julien, Science Philosopher & Innovation strategist, Senior Research Fellow Waag. Eco-philosophy & New Materialism: diffracting architecture.
Watch the video


Interactief bouwexperiment met calciet en rode bloedcellen - door Esmee Geerken
Interactive building experiment with calcite and red blood cells - by Esmee Geerken


What is Urban Ecology?

The world is made up of complex systems. A complex system consists of several separate elements that interact with each other, or are entangled. Due to a multitude of interactions and feedback loops, a system becomes unpredictable.

A good example of a complex system in which humans are entangled with the environment, is climate change. Before we started mapping climate change, no one knew that the climate was such an integrated whole. Countless elements and processes appear to be interconnected. Science is a powerful method to examine things we don't know. But there are gaps in our knowledge, and these are often our pitfalls. We are not good at pointing out what we don't know: specifying the known unknowns.

The western tradition of dualism assumes that the laws of nature are constant. And so we generally strive to discover universal laws with which we can explain the world around us. Urban Ecology does not try to simplify reality, but rather examines its complexity: the multitude of connections and interactions in an environment.

Urban Ecology examines the interrelationships between things. Not to rationalise and explain, but to immersify ourselves. We cannot know everything: when making analyses, humans will always select elements that they do or do not include. Our view is not neutral, and the way we know the world all the less so.

In order to build with nature, Urban Ecology tries to let go of the human desire to control the environment. We are looking for alternatives to the human-centered way of building. In nature, nothing starts from a fixed design - everything emerges from self-organisation. Interaction with the material creates patterns, from which complex systems arise.

Nature grows and builds by means of efficiency - a constant search for the path of least resistance. Complexity arises on the edge of chaos. Complex systems arise from unpredictability, from bodies to cities. Embracing ecological principles allows us to get back in tune with the natural world and create systems that are sustainable and inclusive for all species. 


Interactief bouwexperiment met calciet en rode bloedcellen - door Esmee Geerken
Interactive building experiment with calcite and red blood cells - by Esmee Geerken





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This project has received funding from the European Commission under the H2020-SC5-20-2019 call under Grant Agreement number 868887.