interview with etienne issa

Seaweed based composites, Brussels. Photo: Etienne Issa, 2021.

Etienne Issa (born 1989) is an environmental researcher, designer and a trained architect. He is currently a PhD researcher between the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (architectural engineering and microbiology) and the Università di Camerino (architecture). His doctoral project is entitled ‘Fungal Ties: Mycovalorization for Circular Cities, Regenerative Materials, and Resilient Communities’.

LUCIJA ŠUTEJ: You are an environmental researcher and designer. Could you tell us more about your background and how it shaped your interest in built and unbuilt landscapes, identity, and culture?

ETIENNE ISSA: I graduated from architecture school with my Masters degree (2016) at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. During my studies, I took an elective stone carving course at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) as I discovered my passion for rock/stone. I also enrolled in a non-fiction experimental film course at Concordia University that introduced me to the works of Godfrey Reggio, Peter Mettler, and so on. The discipline of architecture definitely speaks to me, but what resonates most is how it can establish relationships between people, stories and landscapes.

Sociology, anthropology and ecology are definitely all tied into a greater web that nourishes my practice of environmental research and design. Film media has really helped me in my youth as a way to travel, overcoming the boundaries of physical space towards mental space. I did also physically travel quite a bit growing up visiting family in Lebanon and Mexico. This cumulative experience definitely shaped my perception of identity and culture in a multisensorial way. For instance, I still have childhood memories from the Bekaa valley associating this particular smell of dry vegetation with lizards, and only recently I came across the same smell here in Ascoli Piceno, and surprisingly enough there were lizards. It’s quite fascinating how the sensorial memory works in linking species habitats from different geographies. 

Travertine surface, Rome. Photo: Etienne Issa, 2021.
Earth pit, Mount Etna. Photo: Etienne Issa, 2018.
Distant Relatives, Montreal. Photo: Etienne Issa, 2021.

LŠ: Your recent research is focused on fungi and their role in the wider ecological system as a new vernacular spatial model. How did your interest in fungi start?

EI: My initial interest for fungi originated through their ability to transform and mutate with surrounding organisms, creating singular entities, or holobionts (as is the case for lichens with algae). The metamorphic potential of fungal species unconsciously intrigued me on the biological level, and later my interest grew for fungi at the material scale. Digging deeper into the wide referential range of mycelium composites definitely fed my curiosity and it became clear that I wanted to pursue an exploration of their place within the built environment. Concurrently, I wanted to address this persistent feeling of urgency to shift our material/building/landscape practices for a restorative ecological impact while granting shared access to the city. The project was actually fuelled by a political agency, wanting to shift the power dynamics within the construction sector to empower community action and provide a measure to counter the incessant wave of speculative development from the ground up.

The initial vision started with hacking the source of the building industry, its material production, where we would no longer rely on global industrial market chains ruled by competition, but instead create opportunities for community members to tap into local urban mining initiatives by valorizing waste streams using biological organisms as binders to produce their own building materials. This would mean redesigning policies for material manufacturing and surely many other legal aspects, but it’s important to remind ourselves that these are cultural concerns which can be overcome if we are willing to accept change. In this sense, fungi along with other bioorganisms can serve as catalysts for deconstructing our views about the building project; where we can hold an ingrained practice of care and maintenance for buildings instead of seeing them as asepticized legal entities with shared responsibilities linked to different stakeholders; or where longevity and durability is no longer seen in a disillusioned performative linear sense but in a circular time-based approach fed by collective actors. 

Distant Relatives, Montreal. Photo: Etienne Issa, 2021.
Seaweed based composite skin, Brussels. Photo: Etienne Issa, 2021.
Seaweed based composites, Brussels. Photo: Etienne Issa, 2021.
Seaweed based composites, Brussels. Photo: Etienne Issa, 2021.

LŠ: Distant Relatives is a recent project, initiated in 2021 that looks at the properties of fungi as a potential material. How was the project initiated and what were some of the challenges of the newly created structures? You mentioned creating multiple prototypes, where you experimented with ratio mixtures.

EI: Distant Relatives was my first attempt, as a fungi neophyte, to condense my basic knowledge informed by preliminary research into the creation of mycelium composites based on local waste. Just like many who start exploring with mycelium, the experiment started in my kitchen and was put to ferment in my storage room. I started with a series of two different substrates.

The first was composed of sawdust collected from the local hardware store, coffee grounds, and bird food, while the second introduced volcanic rock collected from a neighbour’s excavation site. As I wasn’t working in a sterile environment I did encounter a few instances of contamination during the fermentation process which I dealt with by removing it bit by bit as it came up. Only recently I came to discover that this contaminant was most likely Trichoderma, a filamentous fungi that is present in nearly all soils and other diverse habitats. Apart from contamination, which isn’t necessarily always a bad thing, some of the challenges came from working within time constraints. While the growth of mycelial network on the first substrate was quite responsive, the growth on the mineral-based substrate was a little more capricious. It took at least twice the time for the mycelial web to form, presumably because of the toughness of the rock. Working with biological matter shows how change in one parameter, be it substrate, temperature, humidity, or sterility, can have a significant impact on the output. 

Mycelium dehydrated skin, Montreal. Photo: Etienne Issa, 2021.
Mycelium living skin, Montreal. Photo: Etienne Issa, 2021.

LŠ:  In 2019 you received the award from The Deborah J. Norden Fund, a program of The Architectural League of New York. With a research focus on cave dwellings in connection with local architecture, you addressed the urban identity of Matera. Could you tell us more about the project and the role of tufo in the city building?

EI: Matera is one of many historical troglodytic references that serves as testimony to the wholesome bond forged between humans and their immediate environment, from within it. Specific to Matera and the greater Basilicata region, the geological matter that constitutes the ground is tufo (tuff in english), a porous type of rock made of lithified volcanic ash. Dating back to the Paleolithic period, social groups produced a site – specific housing typology that originated from the collection of water through underground cisterns and eventually evolved into a complex scheme of cave dwellings. As space was shaped from the ground, the carved material served as building blocks for construction or extension above ground. The striking feature about this ecosystem is that human needs were negotiated with the land, where spatial transformation was deeply rooted in necessity and where nothing went to waste.

Looking at the intersection of architecture and agriculture, this practice resonates with the Indigenous model known as the Honorable Harvest, which shifts the relationship between humans and non – humans on earth. It allows us to think about ecosystemic reciprocity through acts of reverence where we take only what we need from the land and we make use of everything that’s taken from it. As Robin Kimmerer mentions, it is as much about the relationships as about the materials. Coming back to tufo, similar to other materials used in a wholesome way in their site -specific environments, it comes down to material integrity, which means that we understand what we’re looking at, what we touch, what surrounds us and supports us. The material is the same, without any thermal or chemical transformation as the matter which constitutes the ground, forming a holistic landscape. 

Detail of former rupestrian church, Matera. Photo: Etienne Issa, 2019.
Detail of former rupestrian church, Matera. Photo: Etienne Issa, 2019.
Wild plant life within and over porous landform, Matera. Photo: Etienne Issa, 2019.
Earth threshold, Matera. Photo: Etienne Issa, 2019.
Underground dwelling, Matera. Photo: Etienne Issa, 2019.