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Soft Cities (Part 1)
Rachel Armstrong   Sep 28, 2012   Organs Everywhere  

All that is built squirms. This is the fundamental reality that applies to buildings.

Architecture is both responsible for and can take action against the destructive environmental practices that have characterised the last hundred and fifty years—a fragment of evolutionary time. Architecture in the twenty-first century can take a positive environmental stance to secure a new way of underpinning human development, in opposition to the prospects of a sixth great extinction event.[1]

Twenty-first century society draws from a world that is less determined by objects and increasingly shaped by connectivity. The clear either/or distinctions that formerly informed experience are being replaced by a much more fluid understanding of the world. Identity is not fixed, but shaped by networks where people and ‘things’ can coher-ently exist in many states. This ‘complex systems’ view [2] extends to the characterization of nature, which is made up of many interacting bodies. Some of these are human, others living, and many other participating agencies are dynamic but not thought of as being alive. Yet the animal, plant and mineral kingdoms represent different kinds of organizing networks, which are seamlessly entwined and constitute our living world.

The study of complex systems has become an important scientific field, one that requires interdisciplinary collaboration to characterize a system’s properties. Networks, which share patterns of organization, are at the heart of such systems. This helps us shed light on poorly understood complex systems, such as metabolic networks, by making analogies with well-known ones, such as the Internet. Complex systems are usually represented as diagrams whose points of convergence, or ‘nodes’, represent the various participating bodies. The connections between these active sites are represented topologically to signify the interactions between them. Structural features of complex systems are revealed as secondary phenomena that appear as a consequence of the network interactions that give rise to them. Currently, the mapping of complex systems is not deductive and cannot tell a researcher just how a network arose, or how it will behave in the future.

The temporal properties of complex systems are complicated by the phenomenon of emergence, [3] but the kind of dynamic temporal changes that may occur can be grasped by studying a range of processes that can be broadly thought of as ‘evolution’. The particular structure that best embodies the transition from inert to living matter is the story of soil. William Bryant Logan notes that the earth was not ‘born’ [4] with soil but has acquired it over the millennia.  Soils are a living web of relationships within complex bodies that will eventually grow old and die. Plants take root in the rich chemical medium and bind the particles together to attract animal life. Conversely, soil harbors fungi and bacteria that break down the bodies of dead creatures and turns them into more soil. The speed of this dynamic conversion process varies. In fertile areas it may take fifty years to produce a few centimeters of soil but in harsh deserts it can take thousands of years.

The possibility of artificially engineering soils creates the opportunity to transform artificial landscapes into places that can attract nature. Gardeners already select rich combinations of loam, compost and fertilizer to produce blooming plants, but these techniques do not evolve their infrastructures in situ. Rather, they transport them from other areas of soil production. So, is it possible to create a matrix using a bottom-up, complex systems approach, where interacting networks give rise to a superstructure that performs the work of soil?

An experiment that explored the possible evolution of soil matrix was conducted during “Hylozoic Ground”, an architectural installation by Philip Beesley, at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2010. Iron, the favored mineral of Ruskin, was passed through reactive gels in a chemical process called the ‘Liesegang Ring reaction’, which occurs naturally under certain geological conditions. This dynamic process, driven by gravity and diffusion, produced layers of complex materials over the three-month period of the installation. The process of separating the homogenous gel into layers of different colors and thicknesses was the first stage towards creating an artificial soil.

Of course, much work still needs to be done before the gel could be functionally likened to a soil. It would, for example, need to contain air filled cavities, organisms and be capable of compost production. However, these first experiments suggest that sterile surfaces can be transformed into living, complex bodies through the interactions of multiple biological and chemical agents. This synthetic matrix could potentially provide a supportive, evolving infrastructure for a web of designed life forms and synthetic ecologies, where culture and technology connect through processes that are native to the production of architecture.

Architecture has the power to become a site of ecological regeneration. Its sheer scale rivals another naturally produced body that supports life—the biotic soils. The architecture of soils promotes life, diversifies ecologies, recycles resources and propagates globally. It embodies a ‘deep’ ecological model [5]  that may be applied to the design of the built environment.

Soils are biological cities. They house, nourish and provide the vital infrastructure for terrestrial life. Their diverse communities and the countless networks from which they are formed replenish them. The vitality of all living things ultimately depends on living, richly mineralized, vibrant soil whose architecture pertains to earth’s deep history. Soil’s extraordinary genesis embraces the origins of life and its own speciation and maturation—which laid the foundations for the establishment of ecosystems, the evolution of humans and the construction of the built environment. The rich complexity of soil systems provides a model and literal substrate for a built environment that can self-maintain and connect with ecological systems. Soil strategies could potentially be used to inform and embody a ‘deep’ ecological architectural practice that embraces Neil Spiller’s ‘seven continuums’ of architectural design practice. [6]

Soils can be up to several million years old, though many North American and European soils date to the end of the last glacial period, around 15,000 years ago. Yet the oldest cities are only very young in comparison—a few thousands years old. Antep is the most ancient currently inhabited city and dates back to the old Hittite period (1750–1500 BC) but many modern cities are only hundreds of years old. However, their agricultural rhizomes are already in fierce competition with soils for mineral and biotic resources. Unlike soils, cities do not nutrify or replete their ecosys- tems and communities. Rather, they systematically consume them.

Our living soils age as a consequence of natural causes such as changes in the climate but increasingly this is also the result of artificial and biological factors, such as over-grazing and deforestation. Ultimately, soils die and when they do— they are gone forever. These acts of wanton destruction are due to our rapid expansion, technological naiveté and, as Allan Savory notes, our universal tendency to simplify the complex processes of ecosystems in agricultural manage- ment practices. [7]  In these last milliseconds of evolutionary time we have globally acted upon our abstractions of the world at an exponential pace and in doing so we have dis- rupted these ecosystems. It is impossible to say whether we still have time to turn this virulent legacy around, as ecolo- gies are complex, brittle and as fragile as they are resilient.

A soil was not a thing ... It was a web of relationships that stood in a certain state at a certain time. [8]

Modern cities share very little of their ecology with biotic soils. Yet there are many homologies between soils and our cities. In a very literal way, they are made of much the same kind of stuff. What separates a building from soil is simply time. Building materials such as concrete, brick, clay, stone, steel and wood are simply processed agglomerates of molecules that are already present in dirt and minerals. Indeed, classical building materials could be thought of as soil components that have been reverse-engineered from complex, heterogeneous systems into simple, obedient geometric forms. Nature abhors homogeneity and seeks to re-complexify these substances. So, in the same way that soils have been forged by grinding glaciers over thousands of years, the surfaces of buildings are being weathered and sheared by the same forces that created the primordial dirt. Moreover, they are invaded by microbial life that tears apart their inert infrastructure to reveal and vitalise new surfaces, which can be further colonized by living invaders and through the biological process of succession. [9]  These settlers are more organised and sophisticated than those who cut the path before them.

The surfaces of our buildings can be literally thought of as unfolding chemical catalysts and sites of soil synthesis—their deterioration being symptomatic of the presence of life-giving processes. Yet we resist these processes and seek to preserve our building surfaces as sterile interfaces. But perhaps this natural imperative of buildings to re-become soil can be harnessed. Perhaps the infrastructure and the agency of the urban soil-generating system can promote life while meeting human needs.

Although cities [10] and the earth’s ecosystems [11]  have been likened to organisms, they technically do not qualify as such. The current definition of ‘organism,’ or life, does not embrace the pervasive bodies that comprise soils and cities. [12]  Yet the similarities are striking since the organiza- tional principles of cities and soils are complex and share, in principle, many of the characteristics of organisms. Jan Christiaan Smuts [13]  noted the degrees of agency, or ‘living- ness’ that a spectrum of materials exhibits, ranging from crystals to biology.


This 3-part essay will be continued October 4th and October 11th.




1. Ian Sample, “Human activity is driving Earth’s ‘sixth great extinction event,’” The Guardian, July 28, 2009. Accessed July 29, 2009. jul/28/species-extinction-hotspots-australia.

2. Complexity Science considers the physical world to exist as the result of an interconnected set of net- works, of complex and simple systems rather than as a series of objects that are hierarchically connected. Network connections are shared by different organizing systems through information flow where linkages are made and broken around sites of localizing activity. Complex systems do not acquire complexity but fundamentally possess it, exhibiting an optimized, elegant design, even when they are composed of only a few ingredients. Such systems cannot be broken down into components.

3. Emergence is a term that proposes an alternative roadmap of organization between a mechanistic view of the world and a vitalistic one. In the late 18th century emergentists sought to describe the nature of vital substances that were composed of ‘inanimate materials’ yet in some sense continued to retain irreducibly vital qualities or processes. “All organized bodies are composed of parts, similar to those composing inorganic nature, and which have even themselves existed in an inorganic state; but the phenomena of life, which result from the juxtaposition of those parts in a certain manner, bear no analogy to any of the effects which would be produced by the action of the component substances considered as mere physical agents. To whatever degree we might imagine our knowledge of the properties of the several ingredients of a living body to be extended and perfected, it is certain that no mere summing up of the separate actions of those elements will ever amount to the action of the living body itself.” John Stuart Mill, A System of Logic (London: 1882), Book III, Chap. 6,1. See also: Timothy O’Connor and Hong Yu Wong, “Emergent Properties”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2012 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta, forthcoming. Accessed August 15, 2012. http://pla- ties-emergent/.

4. William Bryant Logan, Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth, (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2007).

5. Deep ecology is a politicized view of the environment that aims to adopt a non-anthropocentric view of the natural world rather than a ‘shallow’ engagement with nature in which technological fixes, improve the compatibility of machines with nature according to a set of predetermined parameters without addressing the ‘deep’ systemic and societal issues that underpin the industrial destruction of the biosphere. Arne Næss proposed the prevailing scientific view of biology and nature could not address important ethical issues. [See Arne Næss, “The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement,” in Inquiry 16 (Routledge: 1973), 95-100]. Therefore it was necessary to develop an ethics in which a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community but is wrong when it tends otherwise. Næss’ ecological ethics originates in environmental wisdom that is forged through networks of relationships in nature. In a ‘deep’ ecology the status of objects is reduced to being of secondary importance, existing as the consequence of network node activity. By displacing the power of objects, Næss returns power to the sensory side of existence, which reconnects people with the non-human world in which they are simply one organism in an extended community of earth’s systems. See Stephan Harding, “What is Deep Ecology.” Accessed 15 August 2012. DE6103/Read%20DE/Harding,%20What%20is%20 DE.pdf.

6. Neil Spiller invites designers to position their work in relation to seven continuums: space, technology, narrative, semiotics and performance, scopic regimes, sensitivity, cyborgian geography, and time. Neil Spiller, “Plectic Architecture: Towards a Theory of the Post-digital in Architecture,” in Technoetic Arts: A Journal of Speculative Research, Volume 7 Number 2 (London: Intellect Ltd, 2009), 95-104.

7. Allan Savory, Holistic Resource Management (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1998).

8. William Bryant Logan, Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth, (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2007), 96.

9. Biological succession is a directional, non-seasonal, process of change that transforms ecologies over time. Michael Pidwirny, “Plant Succession.” Fundamentals of Physical Geography, 2nd Edition, 2006. Accessed August 15, 2012.

10. Casey Kazan, “Is the City an ‘Organism’ Operating Beyond the Bounds of Biology?” Accessed August 15, 2012. blog/2008/06/is-the-human-ci.html.

11. In 1785 James Hutton, the father of modern geology, envisaged the Earth as a metaphorical ‘super- organism’. He suggested that its circulatory and respiratory cycles were geological processes such as erosion. However, Hutton’s ideas violated Darwin’s theory of evolution in which living things responded to environmental conditions rather than shaping them. Yet, in the mid-’60s, British chemist James Lovelock began to develop the idea that living organisms changed their environment and their combined actions regulated the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and soils to make it habitable. In 1970 Lovelock began collaborating with Lynn Margulis, who highlighted the role of micro-organisms such as bacteria in forming links between life and the Earth.

12. The ‘Chemoton’ model [Tibor Gánti, The Principles of Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003). See also] proposes to generate increasingly complex machineries from algorithms of chemical reactions, which, at a certain degree of complexity, transgress living and non-living states. At this transitional zone, the chemical constructions belong to the field of biology. In other words, the current definition of life is based on a mechanical worldview in which emergence can be understood algorithmically and therefore is describable according to the laws of physics. The discussions as to how emergence leads to biological cells is a deterministic one proposing that a container, metabolism and a form of heritable information are necessary. These preconditions exclude cities and earth’s ecosystems from being ‘life’ forms. James Lovelock has contended that biologists such as Stephen Jay Gould who dismissed ‘Gaia’ as simply a metaphor for the earth’s processes [Stephen Jay Gould, “Kropotkin was no Crackpot,” Natural History 106 (1997): 12–21.] were not sufficiently versed with articulating complex systems and sought to describe emergence in reductionist terms. Which is exactly what is happening in the case of the Chemoton model.

13. Jan Christiaan Smuts, Holism and Evolution (London: McMillan, 1926), 88.

Rachel Armstrong is a TEDGlobal Fellow, and a Teaching Fellow at at The Bartlett School of Architecture, in England.

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