Cow Dung Goes High Design

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Two Italians are turning manure into renewable electricity —and the inspiration for a museum. Following the scent of one big idea.

THE DAIRY FARMER Gianantonio Locatelli climbed up the steel ladder and peered over the brim of a large corrugated vat, about the size of a very deep above-ground swimming pool. “It’s full!” he exclaimed, with warbling joy. “It’s beautiful!”

The vat was full of liquid cow dung. I handed my phone to Locatelli’s friend, the architect Luca Cipelletti, and climbed the ladder to the top, disembarking on a viewing dock. Beneath my feet the manure bubbled and gurgled, forming foamy peaks and crests. It was a topographical map, a primordial stew. A rich and beautiful shade of brown.

The day was sunny, with a gentle wind. T-shirt weather. From the top of the poop vat we had a view of the entire Castelbosco farm, one of eight farms run by Locatelli in the province of Piacenza, about an hour south of Milan. We could see the barns, home to some 1,500 dairy cows that produce milk for Grana Padano cheese. Their roofs and eaves were painted in cheerful geometric patterns by the British artist David Tremlett: yellows, fuchsias. We could also see the 13th-century medieval castle where Locatelli lives from May to November with his wife, Laura, a cheesemaker. We had breakfasted there a little while ago.

Another vat, this one disused, was directly behind us. At first it appeared to be some kind of “green roof” building. But the verdure that covered it had sprouted spontaneously, nourished by the remnants of fecal waste. It reminded me of the wild grasses of Manhattan’s High Line.

We took in the processing facilities and digesters, also painted by Tremlett, where cow dung is transformed into electricity. Since 2007, Castelbosco farm has been entirely powered by energy produced on the premises, from the cows’ excrement; Locatelli sells the electricity he does not use. Last year, he and Cipelletti, along with the artist Gaspare Luigi Marcone and the art collector Massimo Valsecchi, opened the Shit Museum in 10 rooms on the castle’s first floor. It’s a charmingly unmodern space that showcases paintings, objects, video art about poop, a display about the dung beetle (also the museum’s logo) and a giant coprolite. (Visits are by appointment only, and include a guided tour of the property.)

In addition, the museum produces and sells home goods — including vases, flowerpots, coffee mugs and plates — that are made out of a compound of baked manure and clay that they call merdacotta — “baked shit.” For a site-specific show, composed of the museum’s goods and some of its installations, the group won the top prize for exhibition design at this year’s prestigious Milan Design Week.

But I am still standing on top of a vat of liquid waste, and you are wondering about the smell. Of course you are. The thing is, unless you have the well-trained nose of a sommelier or a professional taster, it’s hard to describe smells. They are not over there, something to be coolly appraised and summed up; they are overwhelming, literally consuming. Describing a smell is like describing a feeling or a mood or an atmosphere. Smells are reminders of the body’s defenselessness and porousness; they come from the inside. But here’s what I can say. The smell, from the platform on top of the poop vat, was pleasant — earthy, farmlike, wholesome. It was far, far preferable to the smell that clung to the barns like a bad memory.

Castelbosco farm is no mom-and-pop operation. Locatelli is an intensive farmer. His cows do not range free over open fields. When they are not being milked, they jostle haunch to haunch in file. Poking their blocky, sweet heads between bars, they scarf ever-diminishing piles of hay. They defecate. Properly speaking, they do all of these activities at once. And these are big animals. Waste floods out of them like water from an open pipe. It drops out of them like grenades. They stand in their own filth. The pregnant ones lie down in it. It stains their haunches.

If the wind is favorable, the odor around the barns is tolerable — a little sweet, a little sharp. But when the wind blows against you, the odor is rank and nauseating. Fun fact: Every day the cows on Locatelli’s farms produce 50,000 kilograms of milk and 150,000 kilos of dung.

It’s ammonia that makes manure smell bad, a by-product of its natural decomposition. When manure is collected and stored in an oxygen-free environment, it produces several other gases, including methane — a greenhouse gas that traps heat many times more effectively than carbon dioxide. Globally, agriculture is the number one source of methane emissions. According to a recent E.P.A. report, in 2014, 8 percent of U.S. methane emissions due to human activity were produced by manure management. And 23 percent were produced by enteric fermentation — the digestive process in which cows also produce methane, which they mostly release through burping. (A typical dairy cow can emit 145 kilograms of methane per year.)

The liquid manure in the vat was tolerable to the senses because it had already been processed — the methane and other noxious elements had been removed. What we were standing on was a slurry, a leftover from producing biogas that would be used as liquid fertilizer. The process of extracting methane also leaves behind a dry material that becomes fertilizer, as well as the base for the ­merdacotta.

SUBSTANCE OVER FORM is the mantra of the museum. At dinner the night before, Cipelletti had little to say in favor of contemporary design or architecture. Those disciplines are like fashion, he complained: They pursue form for its own sake, and the result is boring — decorative and arbitrary. The dining room had been frescoed by Tremlett with white curved lines and bright circles, like gumballs. We were served by a cook named Pablito, with a fantastic, huge head. Pablito rolled each course out on a cart: mushroom risotto, pheasant and potatoes, chocolate mousse. Locatelli agreed that architecture is in a bad way. “Architects have no heart,” he said, by which he meant no concepts. “When a concept is strong,” Cipelletti said, “the form is simple.”

The principle of the merdacotta products is anti-design — substance over form, shit over shape. The molds are simple, clean and classic, with no embellishments. The eye’s attention is drawn to the surface, which is uniquely patterned. The clay and dung are mixed with straw that burns off during baking, leaving behind tiny holes and a pink, nubby texture. Most of the items are branded with the museum’s logo. They sell hexagonal and rectangular tiles that would be beautiful in a home, huge unadorned Judd-like cubes that can be used as benches or coffee tables, flower pots in the most traditional shapes and a large cylinder called “Homage to Piero Manzoni,” a reference to the tin cans that the artist Manzoni sold of his own feces in 1961.

They also make a toilet, a reproduction of a 1920s design. It isn’t yet functional. I asked Cipelletti what he thought of Maurizio Cattelan’s solid gold toilet, which will be installed at the Guggenheim for patrons to use. “We’re against it!” he said, laughing uproariously. Then he tried a more diplomatic tack. “Which toilet do you think is more contemporary?” he asked. He answered himself. Cattelan’s toilet is decadent, a totem for the culture we have; the museum’s toilet is sustainable, a totem for the culture we need.

Cipelletti spoke repeatedly of his desire to “get back to basics,” or “back to zero.” He meant that given the growing awareness of climate change and the reckonings attendant on the Anthropocene — the idea that human beings have entered an era where we are irrevocably changing the Earth’s ecology — a small clay pisspot is a cutting-edge technology. “Art,” Locatelli said in an outburst of passion, “shows us what is possible.”

Locatelli is a collector. He is especially passionate about conceptual art; he lived in Greenwich Village in the 1970s, where he first encountered Warhol and Pop Art. He loves punk music and Devo; his conversation is peppered with references to John Cage and Gordon Matta-Clark.

Cipelletti specializes in museum design. “A museum should be a place of change,” he said. It should change its visitors, and it should always be changing. Museums, he insisted, are not collections of objects; they are ways of thinking. Here, the museum displays photographs and films and drawings. But though art inspired them, it is secondary to the message. “Art supports the idea,” Locatelli said. Regardless of the space or exhibition he’s working on, Cipelletti’s aesthetic emphasizes “showing the layers” — making history visible in a contemporary way. This philosophy takes an eccentric turn in one of the bathrooms of Locatelli’s castle, where the walls are partially made of exposed dried cow dung. It’s good insulation, not at all cold to the touch. The brown is set off by a cool aquamarine paint and fixtures.

AS LONG AS THERE have been people living in proximity to cows, there have been people making use of their waste — fabricating bricks or dwellings; tennis courts; coffee filters; paper. As for turning fecal matter into electricity, it’s done here in the United States, too: As of May, there were approximately 240 digesters operating on American farms. That number is increasing. Obama wants to cut methane emissions in the oil and gas sector by 40 to 45 percent by 2025. The focus on methane emissions has led to a corresponding push for sustainable manure management programs.

Merdacotta’s appeal has more to do with a principle of zero waste than with creating a building material that is superior to existing building materials. As Andrew Dent, a Ph.D. in materials science who works for Material ConneXion, said to me, “He’s doing what we all would like to do, which is to use the whole of the cow — its waste as well as its milk and its hide and flesh. But is it going to be an industrialized process which takes over existing industrialized terracotta? Probably not.”

It might not take over, but I can imagine a day when Home Depot sells flowerpots made out of merdacotta, or a similar material. It has a rough, artisanal-looking appeal lacking in mass-produced terracotta. It’s also lighter. Recently, when Cipelletti and Locatelli applied too late to get a booth at the Orticola Flower Show in Milan, they simply tied their own merdacotta flower pots to their heads and walked around the market. The short-term benefits of merdacotta are twofold. It makes use of Locatelli’s cow dung, which is otherwise expensive and wasteful to dispose of, and it provokes people.

Microorganisms, excrement: These are materials that are usually invisible, either because we literally can’t see them, as in the case of bacteria, or because we choose not to. It’s not that we don’t imagine feces as a renewable resource — it’s that we don’t imagine it, period. Our ancestors didn’t have this choice. They emptied their chamberpots in basements. They used human waste as a weapon — spread it on arrows, filled bombs with it and flung it over enemy walls. This thing where humanity flushes without looking down and never thinks about it again is relatively new, and it cannot last.

You can’t ignore shit. It will have its revenge. When Cipelletti and Locatelli began renovating the physical space of the museum, they realized that the castle was sinking, because the basement was filled with hundreds of years of feces. In the final room of the exhibition space, they’ve cut a hole in the floor through which you can see down into this centuries-old cloaca. Dung is compacted into dusty boulders, mounds the size of calves. Creating their museum of poop caused them to discover the centuries of waste Locatelli had been living on all along. Shit saved the castle.

Cow Dung Goes High Design