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Lawless Sustainability—new technology & innovative solutions for a sustainable future
Rachel Armstrong   Sep 16, 2012   Ethical Technology  

The problem with sustainability is that it was designed by committee rather than springing from the loins of a mature design movement.

It is a chimera that is retrofitted to suit industrial, technological and political parameters that are ‘branded’ as ‘’ecological’ using the principles of material conservation – where ‘sustainable’ buildings consume less energy, use fewer resources or emit ‘less’ carbon but are nevertheless based on industrial modes of production. 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 chemical exchange that occurs on a daily basis through living systems such as, seas, soils and rain forests. Yet our cities occupy almost the same surface area as the world’s fertile soils at two percent and three percent of the total, respectively. Natural networks enable this flow of matter 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 and even act in communities of ‘assemblages’, which is not appreciated by industrial modes of thinking.

My view is that to develop a truly ecological architectural practice, in which matter can be attributed with ‘agency’, requires us to think much more broadly about the performance and innate creativity of materials. And to consider how we could use their ‘force’ to shape the exchange of matter so that we can participate meaningfully in the biosphere during 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 their designs with the incredible creativity of the natural world.

Trees have been fashioned to perform social functions such as, this baobab tree, which functions as a gaol.

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 twenty-two foot long acrylic rods, aspirationally positioning architecture as an archive of biodiversity.

Each of these engagements with Nature is informed by a philosophical understanding of reality and its material expression. But in practice, architecture’s ecological ambitions are constrained by the inert materials and industrial modes of construction that prevail in an urban setting - which are literally organised to produce Le Corbusier’s idea of ‘machines for living in’.

The issue with industrialization is not simply its object-centred, resource-consuming obsessions but that its materiality is inert and impermeable and creates barriers between things, rather than connects 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 development of wet technology was not sufficiently advanced to enable their experiments to progress into architectural innovation.

Pertinently, chemistry and biology can be thought of as an alternative kind of technology to machines. 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 engineer with living systems has produced a set of technologies that enable us to work with the principles of ‘transmutation’ where one thing can literally become another. Synthetic biology can do this in one of two ways. It can genetically modify an existing organism taking a ‘top down’ approach often by modifying the expression of its genes - or it can try to build one from the bottom up starting with its chemical ingredients. Although nobody yet has been able to create life from its building blocks, a range of chemistries exists with life-like qualities but is not technically alive. For example, the ‘Traube Cell’ grows in a life-like way although it is simply a salt crystal that is being transformed into a ‘growing’ membrane when it is dropped into a weak solution. Growth is possible as a consequence of the continual rupture and self-healing of the inorganic, semi-permeable membrane, as water passes through it, exerting an osmotic ‘pressure’.

Yet if ‘wet’ technology is to thrive in urban spaces then a different kind of infrastructure is needed to those that currently support the functioning of computers and machines. Chemical ‘technologies’ require elemental infrastructures, 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 variably to local microclimates.

The importance of infrastructure in optimising chemical outcomes has been evidenced in the fossil record where a diffuse, water carrying system helped simple plants fix large amounts of carbon and evolve into flowering plants. This gave rise to the biodiversity that we see in today’s rainforests.

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 universal infrastructure shared by living systems supports our ecologies and raises questions about exactly ‘whom’ we are designing ecological 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 around with us, 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 is led by 2010 Senior TED Fellow Jessica Green and 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 urban environments. Their work shows that our cities 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 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.

These droplets show remarkable life-like behaviours yet do not have any DNA to instruct their interactions. They can move around their environment, sense it, and appear to ‘communicate chemically ‘with each other, form’ chemical biofilms’ and when they get together as populations - they can behave in surprising ways.

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. This technology offers a starting point for exploring how it may be possible to produce, or ‘grow’ ecological architectures.

Hylozoic Ground is a collaboration with architect Philip Beesley that integrated smart, living chemistry into a cybernetic framework. I modified millimetre-scale Bütschli droplets so that audiences could see them 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. The droplet-containing flasks could be likened to an artificial sensory system that could smell or taste the dissolved respiratory gas, in a similar way to our own nervous systems that can detect aromatic substances.

Other work includes the development of an algae bioreactor with Sustainable Now Technologies where locally harvested, non-genetically modified strains are supported by an infrastructure of ‘macrofluidics’ – which provides an abundant supply of nutrients to the actively metabolising algae that need carbon dioxide and sunlight to make biodiesel as well as organic matter. These complex residues can be turned into paper, used as fertiliser, or compressed into building blocks. 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 in London.

Plans for an ecological future for Venice 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 that currently rests on narrow wood piles. We proposed to do this using the smart droplet technology that I showed you earlier by creating a species of droplets that can move away from the sun towards the darkened foundations of the city. When they come to rest, a second chemical reaction is activated and they start to build shell-like calcium structures - similar to limestone. These 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 metabolic activity in the city through the presence of direct and reflected light, shadows, tides, pollutants, bacteria, algae, shellfish and minerals that flow through the Venetian waterways. An ecological ‘Future Venice’ is not just for the enjoyment by humans but enhances a geographically specific ecology. 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 of the architecture students in Venice.

Another project called ‘Persephone’ is at its earliest stages of design. It is a black-sky challenge being to design a living interior for a space-faring worldship, which is being developed for Icarus Interstellar.  Of key importance to this project is that it also doubles up as a research and development platform, which focuses on the seeding of biospheres from the ‘bottom-up’ through the production of active soils and micro biota to support a space-faring human colony. Prototypes produced during this process will also serve in everyday architectural situations as a way of exploring how it is possible to integrate ecologies within megacities by using living systems such as, bioreactors and artificial soils.

The future for ecological architecture 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 also 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 make an architecture.

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


Really enjoyed this piece, thanks.
Everything will be grown eventually, I believe.
The Ur plant will become the Ur plant (as in factory)

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