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Is there an Ecological Architectural Design Method?
Rachel Armstrong   Oct 15, 2012   Ethical Technology  

A talk on nature, ecology, synthetic biology and the machines of living grace, delivered to architecture students at the University of Greenwich, October 10th, 2012

All watched over by machines of loving grace
I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

I like to think (right now, pleasel)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms

I like to think (it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched
over by machines of loving grace.

(Richard Brautigan)

The mission of Stewart Brand’s ‘Whole Earth Catalogue’ was simple – to harness the global good will inspired by the iconography of the pale blue dot, earth, seen from space to ignite a serious ecological movement. The catalogue began with the bold declaration that ‘we are as gods and might as well get good at it’. 

Just consider for a moment that in the 1970s we’d just left the gravitational pull of the planet, computing was on the rise, the economic climate was good and ‘anything’ was still a possibility.

By 2009 Stewart Brand made an amendment to his declaration and more urgently pressed his proposal that ‘as gods’ we needed to get good it– and quickly. In full knowledge of the environmental blasphemy he was about to commit, Brand proclaimed that to ‘save’ the planet we should adopt large-scale nuclear energy, embrace genetic modification and get stuck into ecosystems engineering on a geological scale – as soon as possible - to combat the impending sixth great extinction.

Environmentalists wondered if Brand’s entrepreneurial proclivities had sold out on his ecological ideologies. That he had finally become a slave to industry, the perpetrator of our on-going ecological assault.

However, Brand’s heretical environmental views raise much deeper questions about the character of our planetary ecosystems and particularly, what we actually mean by Nature.

Modern environmentalism began to gather empirical evidence about the devastating impacts of industrialization around the 1970s. During these heady days of data gathering when the size of the issue was not entirely clear, a group of eminent biologists including E.O. Wilson, documented the rapid loss of biodiversity that was taking place worldwide.

Evidencing their claims using the fossil records, they predicted that we were heading for a sixth great extinction. But there was also good news – recovery was entirely possible but would take an approximate ten million years. The most shocking part of this revelation was that humans were midwifing this extinction by their systematic pollution of the planet with its destructive impact on

Of course, Rachel Carson’s chilling book ‘Silent Spring’ had already highlighted the devastating effects that chemicals used in industrial practices - notably, pesticides and fertilizers - were having on our ecologies,[1] but she was condemned by the press and subjected to heavy-handed attempts by the chemical industry to ban her publication.

Carson chillingly described the symptoms of modern life and the ecological ‘crisis’ – that Dark Ecologist Timothy Morton calls “ a crisis of reason” where we become shockingly aware that the same systems that nurture - also kill us.

“… a diet of weak poisons, a home in insipid surroundings, a circle of acquaintances who are not quite our enemies, the noise of motors with just enough relief to prevent insanity? Who would want to live in a world which is just not quite fatal?”

The modern world has not gone away, nor has it significantly evolved. We still live in a chemical landscape of our own making. Toxic waste is pouring into our gaseous and liquid oceans where the shocking detritus wallowing in the seas simply mirrors the greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere.

Industrialists and conservative politicians kick and scream that all these changes are forged by the imaginations of a conspiracy-mongering Left and are simply natural by-products of our unstable earth. They claim that the anthropogenic contribution to climate change is at best, flimsily put.  It is worth noting that there was no plastic in the Jurassic epoch and while we may be recycling dinosaurs through our fossil fuel reserves, we’re replacing them with something way more dangerous than T-Rex.

Part of the issue is that it’s taken a long time to factor the role of environmental change into the physiology of the organism. While Darwin noted there was a ‘relationship’ between a creature and its surroundings, he never specified how they were connected and it was not until the 1970s that Howard Odum, who popularised a ‘systems’ view of ecology actually gave elemental forces the same status as biotic ones.

Even Paul Crutzen’s term ‘Anthropocene’, which describes humans as a terrestrial force on a geological scale, which is causing irreversible changes to the ecology of the climate, was only recently coined in 2000 and is still not canonized.

Although environmentalists continue to provide further evidence that we are reaching catastrophic tipping points from which our global ecologies are unlikely to recover. In truth, we are becoming desensitised to these predictions. They’re simply reinforcing what we knew in the 1970s – although we now have more data and better modeling tools, which can pictorially represent complex systems. Besides, there is only so much doom mongering that we can handle before we either completely switch off to the issue – or become motivated to do something about it

I’m in the ‘do something about it’ camp and although there may be a lot that we can’t do - such as, de-invent the industrial revolution and replace it with an alternative paradigm underpinning human development – as Bruce Sterling and William Gibson did in their science fiction novel ‘The Difference Engine’, which imagined a future where computing was based on steam rather than electronics – and brought the idea of ‘Steampunk’ to public attention.

But since we can’t actually do THAT, architects need to examine the capabilities of their own practice and identify opportunities within it, which CAN make a difference. Indeed, if Lars Spuybroek is right that  ‘… only design can change our lives, since living itself is a question of design,’ then architects may be the only professional body that CAN actually drive a new kind of human development.

The environmental movement, armed with data and empowered by increasingly effective public awareness campaigns, managed to petition politicians worldwide to place environmental concerns at the top of their campaign agendas.

The result of the decades of lobbying - was sustainability – which very unambitiously promises to ‘meet[s] the needs of the present [generation] without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ Championed by this highly ambiguous, frankly apathetic statement from the 1987 Brundtland Committee - the current reign of ‘sustainable’ chaos began.

At the centre of this agenda and the target for change is the city. There are a few outstanding reasons for this. [2]

Firstly, cities are where our economies are forged. If sustainable practices were to make money, then they’d have to be implemented where people lived – in urban areas.

Secondly, we are expecting another 2 billion people on the planet by the middle of this century and around two thirds of whom will be living (and spending money) in cities.

Thirdly, cities are the site of the majority of our polluting practices, and the source of many toxic emissions and therefore a good place to start cleaning up – both economically and environmentally speaking.

At this point I’m not going to condemning the production of modern architecture by quoting the references that evidence architecture as responsible for forty percent of our carbon footprint - as it simply justifies the kind of rarefication and empiricization of architectural practice - which an ecological architectural practice should oppose.

Suffice to say that from an ecological perspective, the way architecture is made, is simply very, very bad for our environment. Here a building has tilted owing to the collapse of soil underneath it. Every building creates a net negative impact on the environment by destroying a geometric patch of our life-supporting soil systems, poisoning our water supply, reducing land fertility and reducing biodiversity (unless it’s old and crumbling when nature has finally triumphed and turned it back into the complex material from which it once came).

Simone Ferracina notes the passive, even parasitic role that buildings play in the urban environment:

“Traditionally, buildings were the most static of all inanimate objects: their foundations sunk deep into the ground, their massive weight pulled by gravity, their lifeblood tied to public utilities. Only human beings, through their own liveliness, could activate architecture and bestow motion upon it.” - Simone Ferracina

Sustainability simply does not provide the means to reimagine the role of modern architecture in our ecological systems. For starters, it did not spring from the loins of a mature design movement but was designed by a committee of academics, engineers and politicians.

Its character has therefore been reactively shaped in response to funding incentives according 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. Yet there are no circumstances in which these environmental extrapolations, when recombined actually constitute an ‘ecology’.

So, we continue to tread a path of human development characterised by conservative resource consumption – 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 possibility of complexifiction, the discovery of abundant landscapes and 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, by weak associations with other agents called ‘assemblages’, although these qualities are not appreciated by industrial modes of thinking.

Architecture represents ‘the human’ presence in natural systems – Like Lawrence Oates on Robert Falcon Scott’s fatal expedition to Antarctica,  “I am just going outside” reminds us that ecological thinking requires us to raise the status of non-human systems whose myriad assemblages, work together to exert a formidable force that severely impacts on human lives. Indeed Jane Bennett suggests that, “we need to cultivate a bit of anthropocentrism – the idea that human agency has some echoes in nonhuman nature – to counter the narcissism of humans in charge of the world.”

The ecological ambitions of architects 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. Yet the very idea of Nature is problematic for an ecological method of architectural practice.

Indeed, Timothy Morton in his book ‘Ecology without Nature” argues that we would be ‘well served to ditch our inherited concepts of `Nature’.

George Monbiot observes that “Green enthusiasm for vertical farms shows that no one is untouched by magical thinking. No one is immune to it; in some respects it is the foundation of our lives. Magical thinking is a universal affliction. We see what we want to see, deny what we don’t. Confronted by uncomfortable facts, we burrow back into the darkness of our cherished beliefs. We will do almost anything – cheat, lie, stand for high office, go to war – to shut out challenges to the way we see the world.” [3]

Nature is an eternal concept and it’s a challenging legacy to deconstruct, since it’s identity has evolved alongside us. Pagan society indulged pantheism, which often involved the worship of natural and elemental forces such as, the Moon, Sun and Thunder, in which a seamless relationship between humans and nature was implied, while the ancients embraced bucolic Arcadia – (shown here in this painting by Thomas Eakins) - and Christian societies imagine heaven as a Garden of Eden. Nobel Prize winner for Chemistry Jean-Marie Lehn observes that Eve’s eating the fruit of knowledge as the birth of science, which lead to humans being cast out of the garden as sown here by by Arthur Nowell– and presumably - into cities.

The garden, the rural idyll, the picturesque and notions of ‘natural’ – are symbols of ‘naturalism’ – the idea that natural laws are the rules that govern the structure and behavior of the natural universe – and are ideologically loaded such as, in this rustic landscape painting by Albert Bierstadt where the view is dramatic, the animals obedient, the peasants are tranquil and inhabit a world from which dirt is absent.

Another example of how ideas of Nature unconsciously shape our understanding of ecology, are our Jolly ‘green’ sustainable architectures. Like Eakins’ picture, they are simply bucolic, dirtless utopias that, like all ideals, are more problematic when built than imagined. Urban green tapestries are constructed ‘ectopically’ – in an environment where they do not occur spontaneously - by transposing soils, water and mineral infrastructures (sometimes hydroponics) into an ecologically sterile environment.

Although this may seem a relatively harmless practice, the current ‘love affair’ of gardeners for peat in places where it is not spontaneously produced, is destroying natural bogland.

‘Dark’ ecologists such as, Timothy Morton, Graham Harman and Slavoj Zizek raise challenging questions about our cultural ideas of Nature so that we can stay ‘present in the current ecological crisis.

They propose, “Modernity is in a war against matter” and “Nature is always eluding being conceptualized – not because it transcends the material realm – but because it is relentlessly material.”

To drive a point home Morton ridicules the ideology that underpins philosopher Martin Heidegger’s environmental rhetoric. “Heidegger’s environmentalism is a sad, fascist, stunted bonsai version, forced to grow in a tiny iron flowerpot by a cottage in the German Black Forest.” 

Just to clarify Morton’s position here – I do not think that he is not ‘against’ tiny iron pots, flowers, forests or cottages per se. He uses these symbols to reconstruct Heidegger’s prose into a picturesque veneer, which he quickly shatters to expose the dreadful ideology they conceal. Once we understand that the person who lives in the cottage bears malice towards others and that the flower that thrives in the tiny pot is the only kind of flower on the forest owing to its extremely parasitic nature – then the seductive composition quickly shatters, the spell of the veneer is broken and – like the button eyed people in Neil Gaiman’s ‘Coraline’ – enters the realm of the diabolic.

Yet, the main issue that the Dark Ecologists have with naturalistic ideologies such as, ‘holism’, or Ernst Haeckel’s ‘monism’, is in their attempt to homogenize our experiences through universal truths, (exemplified here by Michelangelo’s famous painting of god and Adam in the Cysteine Chapel).

Dark ecology becomes, ‘a way of producing ecological forms of culture, philosophy, politics and art to inform our future ability to imagine place and space without unconscious prejudice, so that we can develop a fresh vocabulary for reading environmentalism in both content and form.

This decoding is of utmost importance as the all-pervasive “postmodernism is mired in aestheticism.“ Dark ecology is therefore relentless in questioning the essence of what exists, rather than imagining some new thing.

However, Dark Ecologists have dug themselves into a typical postmodernist hole in which the ‘difficulty’ of any kind of representation leads us to despair and hopelessness. Hell, after all is an endless reading of the 20th century French Philosophers who have inspired them such as, Jacques Lacan, who rejected the belief that reality can be captured in language.

For example, Morton proposes that Metabolism can generate straightforward environmental images – but how do you design with, or represent metabolism?

However, in the few propositions that the Dark Ecologists make, they assert some important principles that suggest how it may be possible to move from deconstructed ideology into action. Ecology as a fundamentally social construct that engages collectives and “Eco-critique must be nostalgic for the future.” Although science fiction is not specifically identified as a valid method for Eco-critique, sociologist Steve Fuller is rather passionate about this possibility in his book Humanity 2.0. He notes that ‘if we were to treat science-fictional propositions as revisable hypotheses rather than stand-alone fantasy worlds, then they could quite quickly form a kind of sociology.’

Most controversially, Morton proposes that ‘the task is to love the disgusting and meaningless’ so that by changing our perspective -rather than avoiding damaging the natural world - we can no longer hurt it.

In the film ‘Examined life’, by Astra Taylor, Slavoj Zizek revels in his love of the abject by quite literally hugging up a huge pile of garbage, rather than a tree!

Through the lens of Dark Ecology, Carson’s chemistry in the environment does not produce an alien toxic landscape – but potentially forms the substrate for a new kind of nature.

Yet the Silent Spring that Carson descibes is not the kind of nature that is in accordance with the ‘communism’ that the Dark Ecologists propose. Its new chemistry does not give rise to new communities of interacting chemistries or biologies that may give rise to different kinds of Natures. Rather, the cumulative effects of DDT in ecosystems were ultimately anti-social and produced noxious solipsistic islands of progressive material separation causing Eco-systemic collapse. DDT acts on the plasma membrane of the cells of plants and animals and although it quickly kills small animals like mosquitos, it destroys larger animals in the food chain more slowly, leading to thinning eggshells in birds of prey and may even breast cancer in humans []. In order to equip ourselves for dealing with our increasingly chemically-infused ecology it is essential that we familiarize ourselves with the language of chemistry so that we can understand which dialogues speak about ‘community’ and how we may nurture them.

Historically, the chemistry of matter has been understood in a highly figurative way. Alchemists developed symbols to represent the spectrum of elements and attempted to decode them. They practiced the purification of matter in an experimental and emblematic manner, which sought to reveal the fundamental qualities of life. By removing the veils of complexification they hoped to reveal the essence of, immortality, transmutation and the creation of life itself.

In his essay on Iron, John Ruskin celebrated the complex mineral configurations of the element and lamented their purification into cast metal. Modern chemistry has also turned away from the simplification of matter and now is looking towards ‘supramolecular’ chemistry to produce substances that quite simply, have not existed before.

The associative interactions between atoms enable a chemical language to be forged in a conversation, which is driven by time and is locally discovered. Bonnie Bessler’s work with bacteria characterizes their use of chemistry as a language – complete with words and grammar.

Until now we have only deduced these interactions at the atomic level, but these chemical ‘conversations’ have many scales of interactions and we are beginning to perceive the conversations of matter via listening devices in the laboratory.

‘Eyeborg’ Neil Harbisson, who was born without colour vision can convert sound into audible frequencies, giving him a greater range of colour perception than anyone in this room, since he can ‘hear’ the colour of ultira-violet and infra-red. With devices similar to these perhaps the rich complexity of molecular conversation will become a perceptible reality and may help us forge new natures from chemical ingredients.

The question is not whether we can start to engage in this process, but what kind of conversations we want from a ‘dialogue’ with matter. What does an ecological conversation sound like, and what happens when we uncover things that we have not previously imagined by immersing ourselves in this new sensory experience?

Perhaps chemistry underpins the next poetry of life!

If matter is to become participatory in shaping our environment then, according to Jane Bennett, its status needs to be elevated by attributing its newfound liveliness with ‘agency’. The advent of vibrant matter 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.

Over the last twenty years or so a new practice in science called synthetic biology has enabled us to design and engineer with living things. We can do this with such precision and at such small scales that we can think of some of life’s processes as being a technology and this has enabled us to shape the course of natural development.

For example, we can introduce jellyfish genes into cats and mice and pigs so they glow under dark light. Matter has never been so creative. For example, we can introduce jellyfish genes into cats and mice and pigs so they glow under dark light. Matter has never been so creative.

But synthetic biology is about to change all this by introducing the idea of ‘living materials’ into our everyday manufacturing processes and our social species. Indeed it’s influencing our design practice so profoundly that it’s starting to shape our cities. Concrete can be healed with the help of bacteria.

Lichen painted on to buildings helps them self-regulate their temperature.

And algae grown in your garden shed could produce enough biofuel so that you may never need to top your family car up at the gas station again.

Synthetic biology does not only work with top-down design - by modifying a living system that already exists - but also can produce living qualities from chemical ingredients using a bottom up approach.

I have been working with a chemically programmable dynamic droplet system called a ‘protocell’. These artificial agents do not exist in nature and exist only by virtue of human intervention through simple combinations of ingredients that are added together like a cooking recipe.

Despite their simplicity ‘protocells’ can be designed to meet very specific performance criteria and can even work under conditions that biology finds too toxic, or environmentally hostile. This form of bottom-up Synthetic Biology is not alive as it does not have any central operating system such as, DNA and therefore it cannot reproduce. When the technology runs out of energy, the agents are deactivated and they become inert – like soft stones.

Importantly, protocells can interact with each other and appear to share some kind of chemical ‘language’.

Which helps them forms populations and even undergo strange phase-shifts in behaviour.

The Future Venice project speculates how protocells, using a chemical language responsive to light and the presence of carbon dioxide, could enable architects to grow an artificial reef under the darkened foundations of the city, which rests upon wood piles. The mineral accretion spreads the point load to stop the city from sinking into the soft delta soils on which it was founded.

Further applications of these kinds of ‘soft’ technologies may form the basis for ‘organs within buildings’ that process our water, waste and make energy – but not mechanically, like the McKudzu contained behind the walls of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Buildings with organs may incorporate algae bioreactors into their systems which act like ‘little green cows’ in watery tanks using sunlight and dissolved carbon dioxide to make useful products such as, oils and organic matter that can be pressed to form paper, bricks or used as compost. Using ‘wet’ technologies and elemental infrastructures that are enfolded within our living spaces, we may ultimately experience the rise of ‘soft cities.’

But what of the ethics and morality of creating new life-like entities and Natures? Are we not potentially simply inviting catastrophe?

Without wishing to trivialize the ethical and moral dimensions intervening in living processes, all technologies can potentially be used for ill. Understanding the limits of these systems as well as their benefits provides a framework for development and suggests where regulation may be necessary.

However, we should reject the fundamental pessimism of some “deep” ecologists who argue that the biosphere’s exquisitely balanced processes of self-regulation could never be equaled by human intervention.  If scientists can discover the bizarre world of particle physics and general relativity then they can also discover how to manage ecosystems – but we need to think fundamentally differently about the challenges we face.

We need to approach the idea of management with humility and accept that we are co-authors of eco-systems, not their controllers. We also need to appreciate that we have a responsibility for the ‘communities’ involved in these relationships, and we are engaged with their outcomes for their duration. This is a very different idea of ‘control’ to the top-down, interventions that we’re used to making with machines, which may be thought of as ‘hard control’. When working with systems and technologies and materials that constitute ‘vibrant’ matter, (which possesses some of the qualities of living things but do not have the status of being ‘alive’), the control is much softer, persuasive and of much longer duration. Our decisions in using ‘softer’ modes of control must be centred on a concern for whether we are seeking qualitatively different kinds of outcomes, or whether we’re looking for more of the same kind of approaches.

Soft control raises questions about how we might design so that our solutions are always open and subject to change and modification. It asks how we could design across generations and deal with unexpected events in a system of much longer duration than we’re currently familiar with.

The full complexity of ecological architectures is still very far from our full comprehension. Ecologist Rob Macdonald notes that: “Humans are very far from being able to fully replace, or even maintain, everything they need from the natural world. For all of humanity’s knowledge about nature, and for our enormous increase in the power we can exert over the natural world, we can still only at best partially manage and maintain Spaceship Earth” – although we have not embarked on a journey of soft, engaged ‘control’.

SecularAnimist disagrees with Macdonald’s observation and responded via social media. “Bullshit… Humans are WRECKING many of the major ecological processes on the planet… It’s like saying that … the bull is “managing” the china shop.”

This passionate exchange between environmentalists that share different views on what the best way is to address our ecological crisis is an enduring reminder that there is no particular ‘solution’ to our environmental conundrum. The only way to avert anthropogenically-induced ecological crisis would have required us to take drastic action hundred and fifty years ago. Now Ilya Prigogine’s arrow of time – has hit its mark true - Newton’s apple has irreversibly swerved from it’s geometric course – and demonstrates that there is no ‘going back’.

But how do we boldly go forwards into the unknown – or, more accurately, the unknowable? Is Stewart Brand wrong about using technological interventions at a drastic scale if we are to seriously engage in ecological events? I personally am rather cautious about the whole issue of geoengineering – not because of its intent to manipulate the ecosystem per se – but because WHO makes the decisions and HOW they intervene. I suspect that, as in the case with ‘sustainability,’ that the interests of industry will be appropriated and equated with ecological concerns. This will matter deeply to the biosphere – which, as a complex system – is a largely conservative force, although it possesses revolutionary potential. If we are going to use technological interventions then we need to pay heed to Einstein who noted that – ‘we cannot solve our problems with the same kind of thinking we used when we created them’ - and not cover up our ignorance through less of, more of the same kinds of practices.

Is Rob MacDonald right about humans getting better at managing our spaceship? Well, that depends on whether he means we can actually ‘manage’ ecology from a top down perspective – because if that’s his position- then I’m with SecularAnimist … but if MacDonald means we should continue to work with the metaphorical bull so that it’s less destructive and might even be trained to behave as a creative force in the china shop, then I’d say he’s on the right track.

Fortunately, in 10 million years time – (which might look something like Vincent Van Gogh’s painting Starry Night’) - we’ll be through the worst of it. The bad news is that ‘humanity’ as we know it, may not be around to heave a deep sigh of relief by then.

Perhaps cunningly, the Dark Ecologists do not pose any solutions to the ideological chains they condemn – as they would be guilty of forging more chains of their own making, But architects already wear the heaviest environmental chains – ( which we might imagine as a ‘greened’ version of those that the ghost of Jacob Marley carries) - and when you’re forging them during your professional lifetimes,  I would urge you to consider diversity in your chain making, like Isabelle Stengers constructivist ‘Ecology of Practices’. This is the responsibility of the architect – to generate variety in how you grow your ideas, choose your teams, build your infrastructures, use your technologies and how you orchestrate their interactions through human and non-human ecologies. Every link you forge begins to shape the character of many different kinds of ‘ecological’ architectural design methods and perhaps at some stage in the future you’ll realise
that what you’ve been making isn’t a chain at all but weightless networks and connections of interactions that seamlessly connect old with new Natures.

Ecological practice should not be a giant obstacle - like the wall in Terry Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’ that overshadows your work as an aesthetic, a style, or god help us, an ‘ism’  – but more like breathing, which quietly infuses life into your designs and permeates your practice.

If you adopt an appreciation of the strangeness and creativity of our material world, and hold a healthy respect for it then ecological architectures will emerge as naturally as weeds sprout from the gaps between urban walls and evolve quite spontaneously.

Of course, future ecology – and future Natures – will never be free from influence through poetics, aesthetics, technology and ideology. They are its lifeblood and the reason why we care about our surroundings. An ecological approach is not one that you can master all by yourself. As Ecologist John Phillips observed:

“‘ seems plain that co-operative or team work is essential; botanists, zoologists, workers in other sciences must labour together, and link up with men of practice and administration. The field is too wide for any single worker – the investigators of the biotic community must be inspired “to set the cause above renown, to love the game beyond the prize” – a sentiment as yet none too common in circles ecological.’ [4]

Yet the expressions of all the possible combinations of these factors that can shape an ‘ecological architectural method’ have not been determined. I hope that all of you will seize the opportunity while you are here in a supported learning environment to explore as many opportunities as you dare!

So – we’ve travelled from ‘there’ to ‘here’ … which, according to an old Irish song (that I am not about to sing), gets further every day - and it’s a mysterious process – rather like how twenty tonnes of herring ends up on a Norwegian beach – Also, it’s getting late so I will recap this evening’s journey.

The environmental crisis is real.

Sustainability and Jolly ‘green’ architecture are ideologically loaded, hankering for a time when we were blissfully unaware of our toxic chemical impact on the bucolic world. At best, ‘green’ architecture is a fruitless exercise in dressing up modernist buildings in green wigs. At worst, it is anti-progressive and avoiding real debates about the nature of our infrastructures, technologies and the kind of ecology that we need to curate – if we are to withstand some of the impacts of the sixth great extinction.

Genuinely new technologies (and their infrastructures), in a Heideggerian sense – can ‘reveal’ a different kind of truth about Nature, which is deeply influenced by design - but we need to be careful about hidden ideologies in this revealing.

The role of architecture is not to save the earth - but design new material strategies and systems – New Natures that can help us deal with the unpredictable changes ahead of us. Unlike machines, these new tools do not need to predict the future to deal with it, yet they operate within the limits of a definable predictability and it may therefore be possible to form multi-disciplinary partnerships, design systems and solutions that can deal with environmental change. However, we must be aware of our unconscious notions of ‘Nature’ so our cultural ideas don’t limit our options before we make the important choices that will ultimately influence our survival.

In the pursuit of diversity - I’m handing all of you the ecological baton so that you can forge your own ‘ecological method’ with the full reassurance that there is no ‘correct’ answer. Make the most of your time here at the University of Greenwich to help shape the nature of your architectural inquiry – and keep on asking deep, searching questions about your practice.

After all, whatever buildings you may or may not end up making, every single one of you still has an ‘ecological footprint’ to make, and while your tutors may be able to help steady your gait - they really can’t do anything about the shape of your feet.

To conclude, I will offer my own spin on Richard Brautigan’s poem, which I’ve infused with my own thoughts on ecology, technology, nature and the ‘machines of loving grace,’ and what they might mean at this troubled ecological time on Spaceship Earth, Stardate 10th October, 2012.

All entangled with new natures of living grace
I like to think (perhaps
sooner than expected)
that when I die,
my flesh will mingle
with slime, fungi and bugs
at the soil’s black horizon
where worms, seeds and ions fly with me
in dark recycled ecology

I like to think (right now as it rains)
I am in each drop of water
that swerves
around mathematical conformity
and swells in bricks to crumble them
so, like me
they return to earth
through a path of knotted diversity

I like to think (quite honestly)
that life is to labour,
not struggle free from participation
in earth’s Great tapestry
where animal, vegetable and mineral
are equally embraced
by toiling assemblages
that forges new natures of living grace.


[1] Rachel Carson’s observations were particularly poignant as they came soon after the thalidomide scandal (Brooks, P. 1970. Silent Spring. The Genesis and the Storm. Audubon 72:70-72.) (Eiseley, L. 1962. Using a Plague to Fight a Plague. Saturday Rev. 29 Sept., 45:18-19, 24.). Yet she was not a fanatic and was not against the careful use of pesticides. Two weeks after her death this was reemphasized in the New Yorker. “She was against the indiscriminate use of strong, enduring poisons capable of subtle, long-term damage to plants, animals, and man” [New Yorker. 1964. Notes and Comments. New Yorker, 2 May, 40:35. ]. Also see,

[2]  In fact, they can all be distilled into a single motive – money, which simply highlights the dominant role that industry has played in shaping ideas of ‘sustainable practice’.

[3] Monbiot, G. (2010) Towering Lunacy, The Guardian, Available at,  Accessed October 2012.

[4] Phillips JFV. 1931. The biotic community. Journal of Ecology 19,1-24, p.21

Image 1: Whole Earth Catalog
Image 2: SIlent Spring
Image 3: Algae Soup Bubble
Image 4: Bottle Bright One
Image 5: Photocrete 5-1
Image 6: Photocrete and Light 1a
Image 7: Protocell

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

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