Polluted Pattern: Working with Concrete and Nanotechnology, and Shaping Sustainable Surfaces Through Design

Publiceret Juli 2014

What would it be like if carbon dioxide were red, and our wasteful emission would turn the sky to the colour of blood? (Bruce Sterling)

This is how Bruce Sterling, science fiction writer, was challenging his audience, at the Door of Perception Conference in Oslo a few years ago. The public squirmed, as the idea sank in. What is true is that we ignore environmental phenomena, or take them for granted, and we don't think about them until they go wrong.

Is it possible to monitor our planet's invisible and virtual signs in the same way technological devices are able to monitor our body's vital signs?


Data representations follow an empiric process, where provable facts show unquestionable results. They are made and used mainly by and among specialists as objects of research, and not as a base for feedback and sense-and-respond behaviour by wider groups of people.

Designers are interested in telling a story, pulling out a specific narrative from a context, and creating a scenario, that would ultimately help people to improve their lives, or draw attention and envision alternatives to contemporary issues. In this process, data, in order to contextualize and analyse context, can also function as part of the design process itself and become part if its aesthetic allure.

Polluted pattern is a design that tackles air pollution within cities, through its visualization in urban environments.

It focuses on external surfaces using sustainable materials and technology that helps to effectively reduce pollution in the air. Its treatment and aesthetic appearance aid to communicate and visualize its presence. It is conceived as a form of ‘environmental data visualization' through a grime-design-process whose ultimate aim is to generate awareness and response from the public.

We analysed urban decay caused by air pollutants whose tangible effects are clearly visible on the discolouration of colour compounds and degradation of materials on exposed infrastructure, building facades, green spots, urban upholstery and advertising campaign, fading in the grime (Figure 1). Unfortunately the most harmful effects on human health are not yet tangible and quantifiable due to their aerial and invisible nature.

Figure 1

Although it is defined as the biggest invisible (environmental) problem it gets far less attention than other socio-cultural ones because of its inability to be quantified and thus visualized.

Beyond national and international policies attempting to contribute to reduce global emissions, creative responses come from artists and designers: From live data visualization displayed through laser technology to exposed print that gets dustier disclosing a message to people passing by (Figure 2) thus helping to communicate a message without contributing to effectively solving it.

Figure 2

More effective solutions come from the field of innovative materials creating a measurable impact in reducing exhausted air in the cities, including the development and implementation of materials with de-soiling and de-pollution properties taking a significant step toward improving air quality.

Many designers and architects working with pollution and environmental designs use photo-catalytic materials, where a catalyzing agent, TiO2, utilizes light to promote a faster decomposition of pollutants, converting them into harmless substance.

Carbon capture technologies have been used to create urban skins applicable on building facades (for example Elegant Embellishment) or as urban furniture (such as Champignon Carbon Capture). Containing TiO2 these designs help in the reduction of CO2, but not clearly communicating that.

Polluted pattern is my response: Designing sustainable decorative motif that gradually appear over time on urban surfaces defined by unpredictable weather conditions. The main scope is to visualize pollution and track its ‘data', while effectively contributing to its reduction in cities. They also address a scope for design, which is ultimately raise people's awareness on shared responsabilities and suggesting behavioural changes.

The idea of designing ‘living surfaces', whose pattern are emerging from their grime in the suffocating urban context, comes from the observation of natural organisms and the way they react to external stimuli.

The design process and methodologies adopted is better known as Biomimicry - interpretation of nature's economical framework and systems replicated in the design process, in order to tackle and address man-made problems. The concept and function are inspired by specific organisms, which are bio-indicator and bio-accumulator generally known as lichens.

Being sensitive to pollutants in the air lichens serve as indicator of regional air quality.

They absorb and accumulate pollution in their tissues, (ironically) deriving their nutrients from it, and any other heavy aggregate they happen to gather from the air. By looking at innovative materials that replicate their working principle, I adopted photo catalytic coatings, to design.

‘Negative' or ‘invisible' motifs that gradually become visible over time, as pollution discolours areas not protected by these nanotechnologies, here applied through the serigraphy process (traditionally used for graphic or textiles). The unprotected sections become catalysts of airborne pollutants, yet the dirtier they get, the more the décor will be evident, almost paradoxically enhancing the surface (Figure 3).

Figure 3

Texts and experiments have been conducted in collaboration with Italcementi, the Italian company who patented the photo-catalytic TX Active® cement and its application. Mixed and pulled through the fine mesh of a serigraphic screen, it will preserve the ‘masked surface' from pollutants agents creating a polluted design (Figure 4).

Figure 4

Its effectiveness has been tested and certified by relevant research centers. In large cities like Milan it has been proved that 15% of visible urban surfaces covered with products containing TX Active® would enable reduction in pollution of approximately 50%.

For the design and visual language, I also found a beautiful parallel among ‘lacy lichens', (the most pollution-sensitive lichen species) and traditional lace structure (Figure 5).

Figure 5

A very subtle and delicate lace pattern can be drawn to propose a more sustainable intervention that would draw public attention, creating a library of environmental living data. For a more effective communicative use I thought of adopting ‘grime decoration' on public furniture, particularly in hotspots like bus stops, park benches etc., where people are standing or waiting, having time to stop, observe and reflect on the visual information they see (Figure 6).

Figure 6

Beyond the aesthetic value this ‘eco-visualization', could potentially be adopted as a strategy for communication promoting reduction of air pollution in cities and more effectively engage the public (Figure 7).

Figure 7

Making invisible data visible the aim of Polluted Pattern should ultimately be to propose a critique on the use of environmental resources and provoke more responsible behaviour toward them.

Small-scale interventions include the Market Estate Project, 2010, where grey photo-catalytic cement was applied to create decoration on an outdoor wall and ‘Polluted Lace', a collaborative project sponsored by Italcementi. Developed between Italy and UK, it was drawing attention on the dark side of lace, represented as a ‘poisoned lace', indeed obtained by printing and exposing cement panels to air pollution (Figure 8).


Figure 8

Future Plans for Polluted Patterns

Further applications will come during the next months and years, for example as part of the ‘Future Incubator Scheme', intended to creatively nurture and trial innovative ideas that advance visual improvement in streets and public spaces across London.

Data visualization has the ability to foster collaboration between scientists and designers to the benefit of both fields. Making data, even invisible data, available and understandable to a wider public and make a difference.

Information is only useful when it can be understood (Muriel Cooper, I-d Magazine, 1994).