When COS first called Arthur Mamou-Mani’s London studio to discuss a collaboration at the tail end of August last year, he was out of the office, travelling. But that was only to be expected. Mamou-Mani was, everyone knew, off getting married. He was off getting married, in fact, in a temple he had designed for the occasion. Specifically the vast and astonishing Temple Galaxia, which as well as being his wedding venue, would double up as the focal point of 2018’s Burning Man.
Based on parametric principles and which (according to its own website) “celebrates hope in the unknown, stars, planets, black holes, the movement uniting us in swirling galaxies of dreams”, Galaxia was an epic undertaking. Having gone spectacularly viral during its construction and for the length of the festival, it would be raised to the ground to mark the closing ceremony.
Inspired, Karin Gustafsson,creative director of fashion brand COS, decided to act quickly. “None of us were there but we saw the pictures and then we started reading about it, and we thought it was just so beautiful,” she says. “Looking in more depth and starting to learn about him, his approach and his architecture, we knew this was something special. Mamou-Mani creates structures in a way that will make a difference for the future.”
Six months on, and ‘Conifera’ is the resulting collaboration that emerged from the conversations that did eventually happen on Mamou-Mani’s return to London. It was – especially to those who took the time to really discover it – the surprise hit of last week’s Milan Design Week. COS’s eighth consecutive installation during Salone del Mobile, Conifera is an ethereal structural installation taking over the courtyard and gardens of the 16th century Palazzo Isimbardi, it is formed from some 700 large 3D printed modules that shift from a wood and bioplastic composite through the space.
Each bio-brick is made from fully compostable resources printed in the form of interlocking structural lattices, and their arrangement efficiently spans the man-made and the natural world, the ancient and the futuristic, in a fabulous, photogenic form. One of the largest 3D printed structures realised to date, Conifera reflects a new generation of architecture, showcasing advances in material innovation, technology and creativity.
Mamou-Mani, a French architect whose eponymous studio is based in east London, specialises in parametric design processes. He wanted the piece to echo the circular characteristics of the biodegradable material and create “a journey from architecture to nature” and as such the piece vertically integrates design and construction, forming a direct connection from design to build through a dialogue with robotics: the architect is at once designer and maker.
Did he bring a little bit of Burning Man to Milan? In ethos at least, says Mamou-Mani, if you consider the practical principles that are the foundations of the nine-day mass gathering in the Nevada desert. “The ideas of radical self-reliance, leave no trace and civic responsibility informed the use of compostable material and the circular nature of the project,” he explains. And also personally, the experience of building the temple has in some ways impacted on his design approach forever. “On a more spiritual level, Galaxia helped me understand the importance of lightness and accessibility to create a space that resonate with the soul.”
COS’s Milan Design Week presence has grown in recent years, with hits such as Studio Swine’s bubble tree and Phillip K Smith’s wall of mirrors proving major draws, with queues around the block every time.
According to Gustafsson, however, Mamou-Mani was more interested in teamwork than most. “They are the creatives, and traditionally they have all been really appreciative that we keep a distance in some respects. Arthur was a little bit the opposite, he really wanted to like also have an ongoing conversation. He wanted it to be more of a collaboration, but his approach is different and that was also quite refreshing and is not only us, it's also with the 3D printers who have been involved in this project.” He has, she says, a consistency that is all about testing. “And when he tests he learns and then comes the end result. I think it's really interesting.”
For Mamou-Mani, every project they undertake must establish a discussion between materials, digital fabrication tools and algorithms. “We build systems rather than fixed forms. Once the system is set up, we let it evolve similarly to natural evolution, making sure the rules lead to unexpected poetic results. In that sense, it is very hard to predict the outcome of any of our projects. It's very empirical and we all learn a great deal from each project.”
Flicking through his wedding snaps on his phone (though the setting has been widely shared, some images of the space remain private) Mamou-Mani explains how the musician who played so magically at their nuptials had not been a pre-planned intervention, but simply someone who had “dreamt about the temple and just turned up to play”.
Asked if there were any similarly serendipitous moments in Milan, he says there were. “Yes, the interaction with the beautiful Japanese trees was a surprise, they were not meant to be part of the design as a significant part of the project was meant to be indoors. By shifting this part to the outdoor we had to 'push' the front arch and it magically embraced the two trees as if they always wanted to be part of the structure.”
The lightness of the structure in both concept and physicality is an additional bonus for Gustafsson. “It is a quite heavy time and there are a lot of serious discussions going on, but turning that into something positive and beautiful, this is something that we also really believe in,” she says. And while Mamou-Mani’s Conifera will likely take many different forms over the coming months, it is certainly set to travel.
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