Staging the future: interview with Joseph Grima from Space Caviar
Sustainability and the environment are two crucial themes today, which could not fail to influence the reflections and work associated with the 23rd Triennale International Exhibition (15 July – 11 December 2022). And it is precisely with a view to sustainability and reuse that the thematic exhibition Unknown Unknowns (curated by Ersilia Vaudo, astrophysicist and chief diversity officer at ESA), the nerve centre of the International Exhibition, has been developed. Designed by Space Caviar and developed by WASP, the installation has been created directly within the spaces of the Triennale by means of 3D printing, using a special material of natural origin largely derived from by-products of the food industry. RH400-3D (patented by Ricehouse) is a premix made from natural clay from the rice field, combined with rice husks and straw designed specifically for 3D additive printing processes. This innovative product was specifically developed to withstand the load of the printed top layers during installation, and the mixture is able to fulfil the basic functions of construction through its use in digital design. In view of the forthcoming exhibition, we had the pleasure of interviewing the British architect Joseph Grima, co-founder of Space Caviar.
© Space Caviar
The future of exhibition set-up practice: the case of Unknown Unknowns
When we were commissioned by Triennale to look after the exhibition set-up for the 23rd International Exhibition, we immediately began an extensive and in-depth dialogue with Ersilia Vaudo. What emerged was a desire to expand the vision of the Unknown Unknowns exhibition beyond the normal boundaries of architecture. Our way of designing the space around us is also determined by the earthly conditions in which we live. With reference to the exhibition theme – the unknown –, there is certainly plenty that is unknown on Earth, although obviously one of the main focuses of our curiosity as the human species is to go beyond the Earth, beyond the boundaries of space, which is regulated by mathematics and physics, something that we designers are used to working with. We therefore started researching how to design and build outside Planet Earth. In recent decades, and especially in recent years, there has been a renewed push for colonization, for travelling beyond the Earth’s borders, and at the same time there have been numerous trials involving construction methods that are independent of materials available on Earth. We have recently become aware of research into the use of substances and elements that can be found on the Moon, Mars or other planets and that are suitable for transforming into building materials through 3D printing. Hence the inspiration that led us to contact WASP, an Italian company at the forefront of manufacturing architectural-scale 3D printers. We worked together to try to imagine a set-up system that could be printed on site. As with many of our other exhibition set-ups, we wanted to pay special attention to the issue of the materials being used, because unfortunately exhibitions can easily become large (collateral) producers of waste and refuse due to the fact they are temporary. We therefore approached this exhibition as an opportunity to research what alternatives there might be to using highly processed raw materials (such as plasterboard), which are difficult to reuse. One of the most interesting aspects of 3D printing is that it actually lends itself well to the use of particularly crude raw materials, such as earth or clay. These are completely biodegradable organic materials that can then be returned to nature. This seemed a great opportunity for this exhibition: on the one hand, we could use 3D printing technology to also introduce a new idea of aesthetics, a geometry of space that can only be produced through these means; on the other hand, we could propose a palette of materials that is completely different from those normally seen in exhibitions, which generally rely on materials much closer to those used by the building trade.
Ph.: Delfino Sisto Legnani – DSL Studio © Triennale Milano
Gravity as a designer
Once the set-up method had been identified, a long research phase began with WASP on how the constraints of the space in question – namely the upper curve of the Palazzo dell’Arte (built in the 1930s by Giovanni Muzio) – could be combined with the limits and potential of 3D printers. Very quickly, given the rather significant size of the necessary set-up, we decided to print on site using large printers suitable for being moved through the space and progressively shifted, depositing pedestals, plinths and other necessary supports point by point. However, a rule was needed to interface with the geometries of the space designed by Muzio. So, we developed a geometric system that has as its reference a point that is normally completely “invisible”: the centre of rotation that describes the curve itself, which determines its geometry. By working in a space that is not linear or rectilinear but orbital, we were able to produce a much more dynamic and fluid set of shapes, volumes and relationships between objects. Once again, we drew on Vaudo’s ideas, which permeate the exhibition. The curator talks about gravity as a designer, how many of our design choices are determined by the presence of gravity itself.
Organic and local: rice husk
Since it would have been difficult to imagine reusing these plinths and podiums – whose shapes are specifically related to the geometries of the Palazzo dell’Arte – we wanted to use a basic material that could be disposed of without harming the environment. This is why we worked with Ricehouse, a Piedmontese firm based in Biella that specializes in the production of building materials that are biodegradable or in any case of organic origin. They suggested using a series of materials resulting from their research, which are based on agri-food industry waste, biodegradable and locally produced. We made the most of this opportunity to look for a production idea that is as local as possible, using materials found in the place where we operate. We therefore used one of the waste products of rice production: husk. A material that is normally thrown away has become the binding agent that holds the printed exhibition set-up at the Triennale together.
Reinventing our aesthetic language
As regards exhibition design, we’ve become accustomed to a very specific aesthetic, and we expect it when we go to see an exhibition. We’re used to a certain language based on certain materials. I believe that as our awareness of environmental issues grows, we should also reinvent the aesthetic language that governs practices for cultural production and the development of major exhibitions. I’m of the opinion that this period of major transformations should be seen as an opportunity, not as a penalty. I think that it can open up new horizons of experimentation and exploration. This is the first time an exhibition set-up has been printed entirely in 3D, entirely in situ and entirely with organic materials. We faced a number of challenges that were very difficult to overcome. There is a year and a half of research behind the scenes. But as we know, when things have been done once they become much easier. Nor is it necessarily the case that 3D printing is the easiest, cheapest or smartest way to produce exhibition set-ups. I believe that lots of opportunities will open up in the field of architecture. And our collaboration with WASP was also a way to test some production techniques that we later plan to try out on a larger scale. The most important thing was to bring this topic to the centre of such an important event as the 23rd Triennale. Because if a major institution with international visibility such as Triennale is able to shine a spotlight on this issue, this will have positive repercussions on other cultural institutions that see Triennale as a reference point.
Ph.: Delfino Sisto Legnani – DSL Studio © Triennale Milano