Urban Reefs: New wilderness in the city

Landscape designer and researcher Pierre Oskam and architect and computational designer Max Latour worked on the project Printen met leven within the Experiment Grant Scheme. After many experiments with clay, mycelium, coffee, seeds, and paper pulp, they created 3D-printed Urban Reefs as habitat for a variety of organisms. ‘There is too little room for “spontaneous wilderness” in the built-up cities,’ Oskam says. ‘We believe in the collaboration between nature and technology as a kind of ecosystem that facilitates new life in the city.’

The first ideas took shape when Pierre Oskam spent a few years travelling through Europe after studying to become a landscape architect at TU Delft, and became fascinated by abandoned overgrown factory sites. He incorporated the drawings, philosophies, conversations, findings, data and inspirational literature he collected during his exploratory research into his PhD Design & Ecosophy. What if you could also let these places emerge spontaneously in built-up cities? It became the question that Oskam is trying to answer in his own practice. ‘In the Anthropocene, human beings want to control nature. But I believe in a bio-inclusive city and endeavour to create the right conditions in which people, robots and ecology can work together to create a new wilderness.’

interventions in the public space
With the grant from the Fund, Oskam, who operated on his own from his studio YSBRAND, decided to collaborate with Max Latour. In 2021, they created the start-up Urban Reef and moved into a new, inspiring workspace on the RDM site at Heijplaat in Rotterdam. Here, in collaboration with three interns and BlueCityLab, they experimented with both biomaterials and the form of objects that mimic natural conditions, so that plants, insects and animals like to settle there. ‘Through interventions in the public space, we give ecological processes room to grow. We encourage biodiversity, solutions for climate adaptation and possibly a paradigm shift in our relationship with nature in the city. We do this by strengthening awareness of our living environment,’ Oskam summarizes.

To develop a material that is porous, durable and bio-receptive, they conducted numerous experiments with biomaterials. ‘It’s like cooking. It takes time to create balanced dishes with the right ingredients and recipes, after experiencing many failures. We kneaded clay by hand and mixed it with coffee, mycelium, seeds, paper and dredged sludge and printed all kinds of strengths, thicknesses and textures,’ says Oskam. 'In addition, we were looking for object forms that could best support the growth of mycelium or plants.’

urban furniture
A shared interest in developing complex designs in which functionality and aesthetics are closely linked led to the ‘urban furniture’ for people and nature. ‘At the start, we were still wondering if 3D printing was the most suitable form. But after the initial experiments, it became clear that you can create shapes with computational design that cannot be made with a mould or drawn by hand. Using algorithms, you can print complex computer-generated objects from a multitude of materials and let them grow further on their own,’ says Oskam.

For now, two objects have been realized that should provide new life among the bricks and stone. With its organic shape, Zoo Reef resembles a dragon-like eco-cathedral and is primarily intended for greening fountains in urban areas. The object has 3D-printed structures with a labyrinth of various spaces. By also differentiating the orientation with respect to sun, wind and rain, different microclimates are created. Rain Reef is a whimsically shaped, 3D-printed rain collector, which disconnects a downpipe from the sewer and is made of a porous material. The complex geometry maximizes water absorption and the variety of microclimates increases the potential growth area for vegetation. The rainwater encourages biodiversity and creates a buffer. To optimize this, the rain collector anticipates the weather forecast through built-in sensors.

The Experiment Grant Scheme proved to be a catalyst for Urban Reef to grow further. During Dutch Design Week 2021, the start-up displayed objects with clover seeds that germinated into young plants. Among other things, the presentation led to a film by the World Economic Forum, an invitation to exhibit at Floriade 2022 and collaborations with other design firms. Fruitful collaborations were also generated via the Fund, including with TU Delft Landscape Architecture (where Oskam is a lecturer and researcher), TU Delft Robotic Building Lab (to which Latour is affiliated), the City of Rotterdam, BioArt Laboratories and Het Nieuwe Instituut. And with the grant from CityLab010, Urban Reef will be able to acquire a larger robotic arm and conduct more research into the possibility of placing sensors in objects that provide insight into microclimates. ‘Eventually, we would like our workplace to become a platform for all kinds of design research in the socio-ecological field, with the ambition of achieving interdisciplinary collaboration to create a more vibrant and liveable city,’ say the founders of Urban Reef.

This project was supported in 2021 through the Experiment Grant Scheme.

Text: Viveka van de Vliet