By Rachel Armstrong
New technology and innovative solutions for a sustainable future.
Project Persephone is one of a number of projects orchestrated by Icarus Interstellar, and comprises the living interior of a worldship. Persephone brings together international designers to address fundamental design principles necessary to generate the kind of interior that not only supports a colony but can change and adapt to their needs. In other words, from its inception Persephone proposes to be an ecology, rather than a built environment. Although there are precedents in biosphere design and the colonization of closed environments, Persephone aims to take a ‘bottom-up’ approach to the challenge and work like Nature does, starting with the basic ingredients. Yet Persephone’s ‘living interior’ is more than an academic proposition and serves as a platform through which we can develop prototypes to address some of our greatest current challenges in architecture, design and ecology. Persephone gives us the opportunity to imagine how we could create ‘sustainable’ buildings within our proliferating megacities – vast urban expanses that house more than ten million people such as, Bejing, New York and New Mexico – to begin to re-think the way we inhabit space and how we use our terrestrial resources.
The problem with sustainability is that it was designed by committee rather than springing from the loins of a mature design movement. Its character has therefore been reactively shaped in response to industrial, technological and political parameters that are simply ‘branded’ as ‘’ecological’ – using the principles of material conservation – where ‘sustainable’ buildings consume less energy, use fewer resources or emit ‘less’ carbon. So, we continue to tread a path of human development characterised by resource consumption – although we’re attempting to take the slow, rather than fast route, towards environmental poverty.
Indeed, we’re so entrenched in a particular kind of industrial thinking that we’re missing the possible significance of architecture’s role in a much bigger environmental picture – namely, the opportunity to orchestrate the material exchanges that flow through our cities using an ecological paradigm.
The flow of matter through the urban environment actually represents only a tiny fraction of the global exchange of matter that occurs on a daily basis through living systems such as, seas, soils and rain forests. Natural networks enable this flow through environmental cycles that are dependent on a much larger ‘standing reserve’ of creativity that is present our terrestrial fabric. Indeed, according to Jane Bennett, matter possesses differing degrees of ‘agency’ that can shape human events, which is not appreciated by industrial modes of thinking [[ Interview transcript with Jane Bennett on her ‘ecological’ view of the material world http://philosophyinatimeoferror.wordpress.com/2010/04/22/vibrant-matters-an-interview-with-jane-bennett/]].
My view is that to develop a design approach to underpin truly ecological architectural practices, in which matter can be attributed with ‘agency’, requires us to think much more broadly about the performance and innate creativity of the materials we use. And to consider how we could use their ‘force’ to shape streams of global material exchange so that we can participate meaningfully in the biosphere in the process of human development.
Architecture represents ‘the human’ presence in natural systems and its ecological ambitions to integrate communities with Nature are long standing. Throughout the ages architects have looked for inspiration from Nature, to ally with the incredible creativity of the natural world.
Trees have been fashioned to perform social functions such as, a hollowed out baobab tree that serves as a gaol, or living ‘root’ bridges woven from the tendrils of trees that can span, impassable, treacherous gulleys.
Antonio Gaudi’s sublime La Sagrada Familia used the chemical properties of clay and the physical principles of gravity to fashion sculptural substrates for his cathedral that, like Nature itself, is still under construction.
Thomas Heatherwick’s Seed Cathedral at the 2010 Shanghai Expo preserves a host of kernels in the tips of protruding 22-foot acrylic rods, aspirationally positioning architecture as an archive of biodiversity.
Each of these engagements with Nature is informed by a philosophical engagement with reality and its material expression. But in practice, architecture’s ecological ambitions are constrained by the inert materials and industrial modes of construction that predominate in urban environments – which are literally organised to produce ‘machines for living in’.
The issue with industrialization is not simply its object-centred obsessions but that it’s materiality is inert and constrains, obstructs or creates impermeable barriers between things – rather than connecting them.
Back in the 1960s Gordon Pask and Stafford Beer explored a different kind of architectural materiality in their cybernetic experiments using biological and chemical systems. However, the science underpinning ‘wet’ technology was not sufficiently advanced to enable their experiments to progress into architectural innovation. Pertinently, Martin Heidegger considered technology as a process of revealing rather than an instrument, or object of manipulation and historically, chemistry has been the crux of a particular kind of revealing – the transmutation of inert to living matter.
In the last twenty years, synthetic biology, the design and engineering with living systems has made a set of technologies available that enables us to work with the principles of ‘transmutation’ where one thing can literally become another. For example, the Traube Cell is an example of a salt crystal is being transformed into an artificial ‘cell’ that consists of a ‘growing’ membrane when it is dropped into a weak solution. Growth occurs through continual cycles of rupture and repair of the inorganic membrane as water passes through it.
Yet if ‘wet’ technology is to thrive in urban spaces then a different kind of infrastructure is needed. One that is very different to those that currently support the functioning of computers and machines.
The kinds of infrastructures that support chemical ‘technologies’ are elemental systems, which include airflow, earth and water. They are environmentally contextualised and can give rise to niche specific performances so that – for example, a wet technology would perform differently in Italy to Norway, where it would vary seasonally and respond to local microclimates.
The importance of infrastructure in optimising chemical outcomes has been evidenced in the fossil record where a diffuse, water carrying infrastructure helped simple plants fix large amounts of carbon. Non-flowering plants could evolve into flowering ones and gave rise to the biodiversity that we see in our rainforests today.
So, the materiality of ecological architecture shares the same elemental infrastructures as living systems, which are present at many scales to support life on the planet – from the microscale interactions of microbes, to the production of geological soils.
This universality of infrastructure shared by living systems that form our ecologies, raises questions about exactly ‘whom’ we are designing architecture for.
Classically, the human body is regarded as a ‘discrete’ structure but in recent years genetic analysis and microbiology have revealed that bacteria and viruses are interwoven into our genome and that the ninety percent of the cells in our body are bacterial. We carry about 3 kilos of bacterial cells, which are much smaller than our own. A recent article in the Economist summarised the influence of bacteria on our bodies, which change our mood, help us digest our food, act as part of our immune system and reinforce the barrier function of our skin. When our bacterial systems do not work properly, we become unhappy and ill.
The BioBE project at the University of Oregon led by 2010 Senior TED Fellow Jessica Green, explores the impact of indoor bacteria on our living spaces and bacteriologist Simon Park at the University of Surrey, is looking at urban cryptobiology as an indicator of the health of environments. Their work shows that our urban environments are not the inert clean spaces depicted by modernism, but lively ecologies of interacting agents. To engage these systems technologically requires us to work with them in very different way to how we use machines.
My research with AVATAR (Advanced Virtual And Technological Architectural Research) examines how ‘living’, wet technologies, could help us develop design principles to integrate the practice of the built environment and ecology in a non-mechanical way – both by orchestrating what already exists but also by introducing ‘living technologies’ into the built environment.
Over the last three years I’ve been using a model ‘wet’ technology called the Bütschli system to explore some of these design challenges. The Bütschli system produces life-like droplets when alkaline water is added to olive oil that show remarkable life-like behaviours – although they do not have any DNA to instruct them. Bütschli droplets can move around their environment, sense it, appear to ‘communicate chemically’ with each other, form ‘chemical biofilms’ and even undergo population scale behaviours.
This is a short film compiled by microscopy of the impressive range of interactions, forms and behaviours of the robust ‘Bütschli’ system
Two droplets interacting and producing a solid material, which in this case is a ‘soap’ deposit of sodium oleate.
These droplets are ‘communicating’ with their neighbours but although the interfaces are responding vigorously, they do not fuse. The central droplet is approximately 2mm in diameter.
These droplets are forming a chain formation and consist of two populations – one with fluorescent dye, and one without
The importance of this system is that it is a real example of extremely lively matter, which is not biological and yet, it can be ‘programmed’ to distribute materials in space and time. For example, it is possible to use this system to produce magnetic structures by using the droplet as a carrier system. This technology offers a starting point for exploring how it may be possible to produce, or ‘grow’ ecological architectures.
Hylozoic Ground, collaboration with architect Philip Beesley integrated smart, living chemistry into a cybernetic framework. I modified this tiny millimetre-scale technology so that human audiences could see it with the naked eye. The chemical technology responded to the presence of people and the environment by fixing small amounts of carbon dioxide and turning them into brightly coloured crystals called carbonates. This chemical system could be likened to a sensory system that could smell or taste the dissolved respiratory gas, in a similar way that our own nervous systems do.
Other work includes the development of an algae bioreactor with Sustainable Now Technologies where locally harvested, non-genetically modified strains are harvested for different properties and supported by an infrastructure of ‘macrofluidics’ – a means of organizing nutrients through the living system. The algae bioreactor uses carbon dioxide and sunlight to make biodiesel and also provides organic matter that can be made into paper, or used as fertiliser on the green roof in which it will be situated. Again this technology is niche specific, so different strains would be used in Norway to those we will be harvesting in the UK or California. This bioreactor is due for completion in 2014 for the green roof on the new School of Architecture, Design and Construction at the University of Greenwich.
Plans for a Future Venice also imagine a reef garden designed to attenuate the city sinking into the soft delta soils on which it was founded by increasing the surface area of the base on which it is standing which currently rests on narrow wood piles. We proposed to do this using the smart oil/water droplet technology that I mentioned earlier by creating a species of droplets that can move away from the sun towards the darkened foundations of the city. These droplets activate a second chemical reaction when they are at rest and build shell-like calcium structures like limestone. They accrete over time to form an artificial reef that is responsive to its environment and to the local marine biology. Ultimately the reef grows with and is shaped by the activity in the city via reflected light and through the pollutants and minerals that are added to the lagoon water. Although this project is still speculative we’ve been testing the principles of making shelled droplets in the Lagoon water with Red Bull and some Venetian architecture students.
All of these architectural research projects have created the conditions for a new kind of architectural construction, which works more like Nature than a machine. We intend to push forward with this field of research with Persephone project, which we regard as a black-sky challenge. We will be holding a major conference around Easter 2013 in the UK at the University of Greenwich, which will focus on establishing the basic design principles for the project. These will range from how to design a project over the course of 100 years, to what kind of culture would be best supported in a closed system. Technical projects are likely to include models that explore how it may be possible to seed a biosphere from active, synthetic soils and terrestrial micro biota. On going research and development will be considered such as the use of water to absorb radiation and regolith to absorb heat from re-entry as these substances could have dual functions in also supporting new life within the worldship. Prototypes produced during this process may also be turned into commercial products to help our current practice of the built environment integrate more seamlessly with the natural ecologies within our megacities and reach for a new kind of ‘sustainability’ where, through the design of buildings, our civilization can return useful substances back to the environment as well as consume them.
The future for ecological architectures is extremely encouraging as we’re at a time of amazing developments in the field of synthetic biology. In order to make the most of these will need to first develop the appropriate infrastructures and change our problem solving approach from being based in an industrial paradigm to a truly complex, ecological one. Ecological architecture must be based on design principles that engage with a new reading of materiality, in which non-human matter possesses, more status than is possible using an industrial framework. By appreciating the innate ‘force’ of the material world, ecological architecture may ultimately produce interventions that share the same operational principles as Nature and work alongside it. Ultimately then, it may be possible to change the paradigm that underpins human development so that the solution to repairing a damaged, or struggling ecology may be to produce an architecture. For a space-faring colony to thrive in the long term, this is not a speculative proposition – but a fundamental requirement.