While Professor Carlo Ratti’s favorite time of year is summer, the architect, designer, and innovator of MIT’s Senseable City Lab is about to bring all four seasons into one place. For his new project “Garden of the Four Seasons” in Milan, he designed an all-year garden with intelligent sensors and zero waste energy technology.

Carlo Ratti is known for award-winning innovations. Among them are projects like the Digital Water Pavilion in which water droplet rates are controlled to create text effects, or the Copenhagen Wheel used by bicyclists to generate additional power.

A professor at the Senseable City Lab of Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Ratti’s current focus is a 2,500 square meter installation based on a concept by German-American creative think tank Studio Römer. Commissioned by property developer Citylife according to a master plan by renowned architects Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind, and Arata Isozak, the Garden will use advanced climate control strategies and zero waste energy technology to create a closed loop system.

All four seasons will exist side by side, letting visitors stroll between a snowscape and budding flower blossoms in a matter of minutes. It aims at solving the problems of detachment from nature that sometimes accompany urban living. “It is about reclaiming a closer relationship between urban dwellers and nature,” explains Ratti.

Scroll through the panoramic view of the garden:

the entrance of the garden of four seasons
Carlo Ratti’s Garden: a room where it is autumn and a room where it is winter
summer and spring in the garden of four seasons
glass dome of the garden of four seasons

Forecasting weather innovations

This will be Ratti’s most ambitious climate related installation. It builds on concepts explored in the visionary’s previous work. Sun/shade, a 2017 project in coordination with Dubai’s Museum of the Future, created a digital controlled canopy layered with mirrors that track the light much like a sunflower, using the harnessed energy to cool down a space in what’s essentially a 21st century version of the shadowing techniques used in Arabic architecture.

Ratti’s Cloud Cast project also takes inspiration from the Arabic peninsula, where evaporative cooling mist has long been used as an energy-efficient alternative to air conditioning. The difference in Ratti’s work is that the misting focuses directly on people rather than large spaces, thus saving large amounts of energy.

In addition to incorporating high tech adaptations of ancient Arabic technology, Garden of the Four Seasons also takes local inspiration from the historic Quattro Stagioni fountain located in the same neighborhood of Milan.

“Our aim was to create a symbolic parallelism with the past, projecting the old theme of the four seasons into the future, thanks to the adoption of new sustainable technologies”, says Andrea Cassi, Project Manager at Carlo Ratti Associati.

Creating climates that can adapt to change

Most scientists agree the largest challenge currently facing humanity is climate change. It’s an impossible trend to ignore, especially if you work in a field that involves analyzing information captured from nature and using that data to drive innovation.

“As climate change might become more extreme, the importance of envisioning strategies for climate remediation will increase dramatically,” Ratti stresses.

So how does one create summer all year long? And keep the Italian summer rays from melting away winter? It starts on the outside of the building, with photovoltaic sensors collecting solar energy. Inside, underneath the transparent ETFE (ethylene tetrafluoroethylene) membrane structure, energy is channeled into both heating and cooling systems, which transfer energy between each other much like a refrigerator.

The intention is to create ideal thriving conditions for hundreds of different species of vegetation. It may sound like a costly environment to maintain, but once it’s up and running, the entire project will operate sustainably with zero wasted energy. And surprisingly, the whole operation hangs on two main variables: lighting levels and heat.

“By constantly adjusting two key components of plant growth – lighting levels and heat – the system indeed allows plants’ metamorphosis to follow the different seasonal cycles,” explains Ratti.

vision: winter ladscape in the garden of four seasons
Winter in summer – divided by nothing but a revolving door.

Intelligent seasons

At MIT, Ratti guides the research of students towards creating innovations in smart city technology, so it’s no surprise that Garden of the Four Seasons will be equipped with sensors to gauge the health and nutritional needs of each plant.

It’s a small scale adaptation of the types of innovations fueling projects like the connected Spanish city of Santander, in which thousands of sensors monitor everything from traffic patterns to watering levels of vegetation. The sensors display information in real time, which the designers hope visitors will see as the green equivalent of social media updates.

Whether visitors will be enraptured by status updates from blossoming flowers is yet to be seen, but at the very least, Garden of the Four Seasons will make for some great Instagram photos. The non-digital natives, meanwhile, will just enjoy it´s overwhelming nature.