Based in Rotterdam, Studio Ossidiana is an architecture, design and research practice. Working from the Netherlands since 2015 and led by the Italian duo Alessandra Covini and Giovanni Bellotti, the name they chose reflects the ways in which they work. Ossidiana (obsidian) is not a stone; it is a dark volcanic glass formed from intense heat when viscous lava flows rapidly cool. That’s as much as I know, but I like the metaphor that it reveals. The studio’s own process, which has been shaped in tandem by an eclectic series of projects and a concentrated curiosity, has been sustained by an almost devout relationship to creating constellations of objects, rooms and worlds that inspire a sense of wonder. Little that they imagine is as it first seems.
Having both completed their education in architecture, Alessandra was awarded the Dutch Prix de Rome in architecture for Amsterdam Allegories (2018), a speculative response to a fictional brief to reimagine an area along the eponymous city’s IJ river. This scheme envisioned an experimental public domain comprising an archipelago of twenty-one islands, each with their own civic role and material character. Concurrently, Giovanni graduated from MIT following studies in architecture and urbanism. His thesis, entitled ‘The Design of the Encounter’, explored the ecological soup that humans and animals now exist within – how we have come to represent and produce ideas of nature, extending the realm of human politics from the preserve of the village and the city to the scale of the planet.
2021 transpired to be a consequential year for Studio Ossidiana. Fire Dune, four variations on a hearth, was installed and inaugurated in Utrecht. Pigeon Tower – a take on the ancient typology of the dovecote, clad in metallic feathers – stood in Venice’s Arsenale at the seventeenth International Architecture Exhibition. For Utomhusverket, ArkDes’ annual summer installation and the project which set the tone for the conversation presented here, the studio imagined a new type of public space in the heart of Stockholm: intersecting frames, cast in concrete and terrazzo, inhabited by both birds and humans. The floating garden known as Büyükada Songlines, commissioned by the Istanbul Design Biennial, cruised between and around the transcontinental waters of the Golden Horn. Their largest project to date by the measurement of scale is now under construction. Three Floating Rooms will be as its name suggests: a gallery, a promenade and a port – all afloat and anchored to a public space in Almere, one of the Netherland’s youngest cities following the province’s incredible reclamation from the sea in the 1960s.
It is difficult to separate Studio Ossidiana from the birds that they live with. Coco, a parrot, has been a part of their home and studio for some years. He’s widely travelled, having lived on both sides of the Atlantic. Upon their return to Rotterdam following the opening of Utomhusverket in Stockholm, I was sent a sequence of photographs of a dishevelled crow sitting on a carpet. Christened Cornelio, the injured bird was taken in and nursed to health again. Ensuing photographs confirmed its progress, and its confirmation as a part of the family.
James Taylor-Foster: How are the birds?
Studio Ossidiana: The menagerie is completely out of control, James. Hours of clean-up and maintenance. We’ve even had to hire a very sympathetic person to help us with some of the cleaning, but we’re only revealing the ‘secrets’ of the studio one by one. So far we’ve told them that we only occasionally cast plaster and concrete here, and they perhaps understand that there is a parrot … I think we’ll break the news about Cornelio the crow next week. And we have to do some cleaning ourselves before they arrive!
James: Ever since I’ve known you, there’s always been a non-human species – winged, more often than not – somewhere close to you both. Giovanni, you partly grew up on a farm in the Po valley, so I can draw a certain line of logic between then and now. Alessandra, what was the first animal in your life?
Ossidiana: Even though I grew up in a different part of the north of Italy, close to Milan, my family has also had a succession of strange animals! I think the first, or at least the one I remember, was a prairie dog …
James: I find people’s relationships to animals fascinating. The design of civilisation – homes, gardens, agricultural enclosure, cities, and so on – seems to me to have been a process of caging both ourselves and the animals around us. Is that a fundamental desire of design, do you think?
Ossidiana: There is a more generally sentimental answer to that question, and then there’s perhaps a more focused one related to how we position our own work – both through what we do now and how we grew up. At a grander scale, the design of civilisation can certainly be seen as an endless project to domesticate the world. Sometimes it’s very literal. Think of the genetic selection of plant species and animals being moulded to our needs: companionship, gardening, food, fitting into spaces humanity has created.
We might be at a point in which this happens beyond our own awareness. Genes change because we have designed the composition of soils, for instance, in almost every part of the Earth. We have raised nitrogen levels in the oceans, the global temperature, and so on. If we are being optimistic we would say that this planetary project of domestication could be embraced and reimagined as a gardening project which we do have a lot of agency over. There’s a lot of responsibility, too, of course. A lot of room for negotiation and love towards what we do and what we care about. This doesn’t come without a certain violence, however. Anyone who has ever kept a garden realises that the choices are very explicit, sometimes political.
On a more sentimental scale, there’s something quite exceptional about having a relationship with another species and coming to know it intimately. Their behaviour has transformed ours as much as ours has transformed theirs. When it comes to animals outside of the realm of dogs and cats, non-typically domesticated animals, whether one keeps them or has another sort of relationship to them, you get to know them and they get to know you. It could be blackbirds in your garden or on your balcony, present for only a few minutes in a day. Being in contact with another animal means understanding that there is no time for the banal because every moment could be their last. Every incident in their lives is completely intense. In Coco’s mind – our parrot! – it’s evident that that thought is always with him; it’s always about life or death, about existing in the moment.
James: This question of life and death automatically interests me. Could this not be extended, and reduced perhaps, to what really distinguishes the design of civilisation to the wilderness of the ‘natural’ world? If we are in a world in which nature is being designed outside of our direct awareness or control, the tension between the scales of a handful of seeds, to a garden, extending all the way to a continent or the planet becomes somehow violent.
What you’re saying reminds me of ideas put forward by Octavia Butler in her Earthseed series, but also other science-fiction imaginaries. In more orthodox sci-fi – Isaac Asimov’s Foundation or Robot series, for example – the idea of a ‘Galactic Empire’ is a common theme. It’s a dark, if not entertaining, thought. Beyond the cosmos-building and the design of the universe, however, usually lies a respect for things that are tangible. Materials, minerals, and so on. Butler’s vision is closer to home, set on Earth, and nearer to our own timeline, but shares the premise that things have gone badly – we have not sensibly cultivated the climate, the social obligations, the energy demands that we depend upon – and are now trying to rebuild what has been dismantled or has dissolved. ‘We caused the problems’, Butler writes in Parable of the Talents (1998), and ‘then we sat and watched as they grew into crises.’ Once we are forced to go back to basics, so to speak, humanity seems to look more closely at the substance of that which is around us. Is it true to suggest that your design practice is trying to address our apparent disconnection with the worlds that we are part of, that surround us?
Ossidiana: You’re right, and it’s interesting that these are common themes in fiction. It’s about trying to find a way to open the gates to a new space of being. Gardening is one way of doing that. If we reflect on Utomhusverket (2021) at ArkDes – one of our most recent projects and also one that we developed intensely with you – we first spent time on the streets of Stockholm. Coming from Rotterdam, a very different city, we were amazed by the difference in how the public spaces of the city feel. The ways in which the ground surfaces are so consistent, for example; how they combine with facades and so on to create an environment that is rich and tangible.
…through our projects to suspend you as the centre of things for a while by offering a space for you to understand things in their combined relationships, whatever they might be…
James: What caught me most about the way you approached Utomhusverket was how driven you were to frame the surroundings of the site, a large open public space in front of the museum that is encased by an assortment of pathways and buildings.
Early in the project you envisioned a designed environment that would invite passersby to look at the ground, to sit and stare at a tree, to interact with a bird, but also to stare upwards and consider the sky and the stars. Not to look at necessarily, but to feel its presence. It asked us to consider our own scale in relation to everything we can sense: that we are small but that there are things smaller than us, too. Perhaps most importantly, that everything is intertwined.
Ossidiana: We think that it’s beautiful to realise that you’re very tiny. There’s something in that. We read history books not necessarily because we’re interested in a specific moment in time, but it does give you a sense that it’s not all your responsibility. Your own role in all these big relationships, so to speak. Just like reading, we try through our projects to suspend you as the centre of things for a while by offering a space for you to understand things in their combined relationships, whatever they might be.
Our work tends to begin with concrete. We have a fascination with this very hard material, so often made to be grey. The exploration for us has been finding ways to subvert, to make it appear to be the opposite of what it materially is. Concrete can take many different forms because, at its core, it’s fluid stone. A project called Petrified Carpets (2016) started this interest as we tried to discover concrete’s expressive potential through pigmentation, stone, sand and cement. It helped us to understand how a material that flows can be transformed into a more permanent form. This transition from the nomadic to the fixed fascinates us – as well as what remains in between.
James: You’re hinting at the fact that there’s an aspect of your creativity lodged or lost between this hardness and softness that is revealed through the way you form and contour the material. If concrete is all around us in the city, as is colour and birds and humans, then what is the alchemy that opens this interstitial space up?
Ossidiana: We don’t really have an answer but in order to try we probably have to move the question beyond the realm of materials. Our search is for tenderness, and the best way we can describe that is by thinking of our work as a project of cultivation. If we consider Utomhusverket in this light, we actually did less than half the job. You and the team at the museum did most of the work, most of the cultivation. You guys cleaned the bird droppings every day, you moved the seagull chicks down the hill when they chose to nest in the project and defensively prey on unwitting humans passing by, you took care of the plants and mosses and grasses in the Bird Garden. Deciding how much and when to clean, how to curate activities and for whom, negotiating the space between birds and people – this is where the softness of what we design lies, perhaps.
The project allowed and asked for a series of choices to be made knowing that it could have turned out to be anything, almost. There were a thousand possible things that could have occurred there, that could have happened inside and beyond these intersecting frames. We raised the ground to make a platform and we tried to enable a space for the imagination. A place where anyone could push the threshold of the real as far as they want.
James: What makes this approach so powerful is that it subverts expectations in very subtle ways. Utomhusverket pushed at the boundaries of the real, as you described, in ways that were not about itself but also about context and experience. I can recall many moments during the project’s life in which I had to pause and look at this enormous UFO that had landed in the middle of Skeppsholmen simply because the deep red colour of the tree in the Bird Garden stood out so beautifully against the orange elm far behind it. There was one week, for instance, in which there was a blood moon – I am convinced that what you had placed on the ground made me look up at the moon more often and with more intention.
This project and many of your others – I’m thinking specifically of Büyükada Songlines (2021), an incredible floating garden which sailed the waters of Marmara and the Bosphorus this last summer – are no more than carefully constructed frames. These frames are magical because they openly offer potential. They’re unafraid of the unforeseeable. Someone, on the right day and in the right mood, can experience something that might never be experienced again. They could see, or touch, or interact with something that they might not usually. Are you working towards unpredictability, of conditions that are yet to exist?
Ossidiana: We think so, yes. We have been framing a lot of our efforts as the antithesis of optimisation in design. We’re rather irritated, as many are, by the idea of ‘making more with less’ – of working towards an optimised system as opposed to sort of proposing another system entirely. We still do this with a healthy dose of realism, though, because we actually want to build things rather than just making an image of it. We want to touch our projects, and we want the life of them.
A tentative answer to your question might be this: if optimisation doesn’t work with an idea of a world, it’s catastrophic. If it’s about producing more food with less land, let’s say, or producing more work with less pay then design becomes incredibly problematic. Perhaps this is where violence lies – in the things that go unaccounted for when we transition from one scale to another without a holistic understanding of a world? It’s not that this approach eliminates the possibility of violence, but at least it would be a type of violence that we could read and understand.
…there is a worldly scale and a more sentimental scale of things – but it remains a kind of a crossroad…
James: In line with this idea about optimisation, and in connection to unpredictability, I’m interested in what it really means to design conditions. A farm, for example, is a type of designed condition – you plough the fields and sow the seeds, but you have no idea whether or not it will be unseasonably warm or cold or wet or dry. You cast concrete but, as I know all too well from our work together, the formwork is no more than a controlled intention. You only have an idea of how the concrete, once set, will turn out – whether or not it will have the intended strength, whether or not it is cracked. Where do you draw the line between accepting what is controllable and what isn’t?
Ossidiana: I think this can be understood in terms of scale. As we said, there is a worldly scale and a more sentimental scale of things – but it remains a kind of a crossroads. It raises a question that we – conveniently, perhaps? – cannot solve. That said, it’s one that every design project can operate within. Each project proposes its own line. Maybe that’s between the guano and nitrogen levels and that single specific bird that you’re going to recognise. There’s a political scale to this.
James: What do you mean by political scale?
Ossidiana: The various definitions of origin that obsess us as a species don’t seem to concern other animals very much or at all. Where an animal was born, for example, or how it came to be in a certain place. There was a conversation with a team member at ArkDes who mentioned that the geese around, which we assumed were Canada geese, were in fact a very specific protected species with white cheeks. As a result, we simply weren’t allowed to bother them. We had to work around them, in one way or another. This is what we mean by a political scale.
James: What does it mean, therefore, for you to take in a stray crow (Cornelio) and raise it in domesticity? Or, for that matter, to raise Coco in domesticity? There’s a power relationship there; at the very least an exchange. What does it mean for you to actively coexist with animals in a way that others choose not to?
Ossidiana: To use Cornelio and Coco as an example. Coco simply sits in his cage and drops his food because that’s what parrots do. They have absolutely no interest in saving it for a rainy day. Everything is in the now and about the sheer experience of it – ideally it should be fun. And, as if by magic, we bring fresh food. The crow, Cornelio, is completely different. He comes out in the morning and walks beneath Coco’s cage and picks up all the food the parrot has discarded. He then hides it in different parts of the studio – on the carpet, behind a chair, sometimes even in our shoes. We often find banana or peach peels in our pockets …
James: Food is crucial! I think I only truly realised the beauty of your company when you cooked spaghetti with Gorgonzola!
Ossidiana: Yes, food is the most basic of transactions! There is an element of tenderness, of giving, and so on. But, at the end of the day, when you coexist with animals in this way you really begin to understand what that sort of negotiation really takes. Sometimes a human is more bird, and sometimes a bird is more human. We extend this approach into our projects, particularly those that exist in public space.
James: It’s a beautiful thought, and one that’s emblematic of how your work meets the world. If I were to be binary, architecture and city-making is fundamentally a paranoid response to the dangers of the world – it is about shelter and safety from the elements, and so on. And yet architectural responses can be soft. They can open up space for tenderness; a certain passivity.
Ossidiana: Absolutely. Being able to temporarily suspend the rules of the world in some way is quite important for us, where we can achieve it. We search for relationships, tenderness, for softness.