Whether conjuring up futuristic workstations aboard bicycles bedecked with gardens or crafting dreamy multi-level caravans that resemble small apartment buildings on wheels, Berlin-based design studio Ulises uses the artificial intelligence platform Midjourney to envision a future that is beautiful, surreal and sustainable.
Founder and architect Ricardo Orts is the mastermind behind the studio’s latest series, Kinetic Kingdoms, which presents illusory futuristic structures that enable communal living, without the stagnation of having to remain rooted in one location.
The project was inspired, Orts tells me, by the journeys of his childhood. “My personal history involves growing up in a family where culture was very important,” he explains. “At the close of business in August, we’d travel all over Europe in my parent’s old caravan every summer.”
Though some years he would have preferred to spend the summer with friends, those trips (and the caravan) became a beloved part of his life. He eventually used the same old caravan to go to music festivals and take weekend trips to the beach.
“I eventually realized how lucky I was to explore all these new places and to live in a less materialistic, more experiential way,” he says.
The whimsical designs of the Ulises stacked caravans belie the seriousness of the series. It is a theme that winds through all of the Ulises worlds: the planet is being eroded and there are many cities and island nations that are at risk of being submerged into the sea or consumed by fires and floods. The prospect of being able to move an entire apartment block or commercial building is an appealing one and perhaps one that—far from a fantasy—seems a reasonable solution to inevitable, looming disaster.
It’s a concern that aligns with Orts’ interests. Though he is skilled at erecting virtual structures, he prefers to spend his time in the world, not crafting imaginary ones. It’s one of many contradictions in his professional and personal lives. Another is that he’s an itinerant creative whose endless work commitments keep him in the studio.
“This [designing imagery] is just a part of my life,” he tells me, adding that he loves life off the computer. “I find much more joy in riding my bike or swimming in the lake. I use computers for work, but I see much more value in dancing in a club or sitting by a canal.”
Looking at Ulises’ various designs, if a home on wheels doesn’t appeal, then perhaps one of the studio’s contemporary homes fashioned on the aesthetic priorities of fifteen different nations is more intriguing. The imagined interiors of houses in Chile, India, Japan, and the Netherlands are more than fanciful speculation by the designers. Each was developed based on data specific to the country and its housing idiosyncrasies.
There’s also the studio’s Floating Fantasies series, which imagines large-scale, inflatable installations on the River Seine in Paris. The colorful, majestic creations resemble sophisticated bouncy castles, and Orts hoped that city officials might feel inspired to develop a physical exhibit along the same lines. It’s a testament to his optimism: ‘if you can see it, you can believe it.’ Imagine telling a council official that they should install a bouncy castle on the Seine; you’d likely be marched out of that office, tout suite! But there’s something delightful about Orts’ gorgeously sunny images of communities of men, women and children frolicking upon an easily recognizable landmark.
Orts graduated with a degree in Industrial Engineering from the Universitat Politecnica de Valencia in 2003 and followed that up with an Architecture degree that added an additional six years of study to his academic skill building.
“Since then, I’ve lived in a few places in Europe due to work,” he says. “In Gdańsk in Poland I worked in 3D rendering, then I lived in Oslo and Paris, before I spent three years in Antwerp in an architect’s office as a product architect.”
Berlin was where he found a home, both literally and, after a breakup and a professional crisis, in the deeper sense of dropping roots in a place that feels safe and inviting.
“ I consider myself queer, and I love the freedom that this city has, the queer rights and non-hegemonic realities,” he tells me. “It was the first time I could choose where I wanted to be, because I had savings, so I was in that privileged position to decide to live here. I love the clubbing culture”
In August, Orts started using new design tools and A.I. to create imaginary worlds, and he posted the results on social media. Playing with the new tools was revelatory.
“It really crystalized my experience in architecture and design with visual imagery,” he says. “I’d been rendering as a freelancer for many years, so it felt like the right time to explore my personal universe. Even before I began studying, I’ve been expressing my ideas through writing, photography and design, so [the design tools] just took it to the next level.”
He has always expressed his ideas through artistic endeavors—writing, photography, design—and this was a natural extension of that. But his new hobby, which he embarked upon under the social handle Ulises (the Spanish form of Ulysses, which is the latin form of Odysseus), got serious. It wasn’t his intention or expectation, but interest in his work quickly grew.
One of the most ancient pieces of literature, Homer’s sprawling Odyssey tells the story of Odysseus’ encounters with divine, mythical and natural forces over the ten years it takes him to return to Ithaca after the Trojan War. It is a story of survival, endurance and the unexpected magic that arises in the ordinary act of waking up and setting out every day.
The magic conjured in Greek mythology pales in comparison in some ways to the magic we can now conjure with A.I., which gives form to new myths, sacred creatures and interactive dreams. But with characteristic modesty, Orts denies that he’s a master of Midjourney but says he’s put a lot of effort into learning to use the tool that he feels democratizes design.
From its earliest inception, Ulises was a studio with cross-media appeal.
“When we began to work on commercial projects with brands and doing media work with places like ArchDaily,” Ort tells me. “At the beginning of January, I brought in a partner, Anka, who is based in Zurich. For now, it’s the two of us working remotely because we have a lot of offers—and possibly the goal of translating these projects into reality.”
The popularity of his images and the subsequent requests from brands and media have left Orts with little time for music festivals, beach trips and bike rides. He’s in a fortunate position—one in which he can be choosy about which real-world projects to prioritize—but I get the feeling he’s also working more than he wants to.
When we conduct our interview it’s a cold Melbourne evening for me and a cool, cloudy Berlin mid-morning for him. The Hollywood writer’s strike is in full swing, and ‘Godfather of A.I.’ Geoffrey Hinton has just quit Google out of concerns that artificial intelligence poses a very real threat to humanity.
“I have a lot of contradictory feelings towards A.I., including around the impact of image manipulation, and I think a democratic government should focus on legislation around it,” says Orts. “I don’t know if A.I. will take our jobs—that’s a reductionist point of view—but it’s going to change how the world is automated.”
He’s just an architect using these tools, he adds, not an expert in the technology. He’s just trying to use all the available tools in a productive way to enlarge his creative realities.