Rachel Armstrong in conversation with Claudia Pasquero and Marco Poletto.
Claudia Pasquero (CP):
You have recently won a grant to develop a new type of bio-catalytic cells powered by soil samples on specific urban sites or landscapes. We could argue that this is more a type of project that conventional scientists would conduct in their own research labs. How do you see this research engaging with the design realm? What is the value of applying this new method within the multidisciplinary realms of design and to the contemporary urban environment?
Rachel Armstrong (RA):
I’m coordinator for Living Architecture, which is a €3.2m project that has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme under Grant Agreement no 686585. It is a collaboration of experts from the universities of Newcastle, UK, the West of England (UWE Bristol), Trento, Italy, the Spanish National Research Council in Madrid, LIQUIFER Systems Group, Vienna, Austria and EXPLORA, Venice, Italy that began in April 2016 and runs to April 2019. Envisioned as a next-generation, selectively, programmable bioreactor capable of extracting valuable resources from sunlight, wastewater and air, it produces oxygen, proteins and biomass. The bioreactor system is conceived as a freestanding partition it is composed of bioreactor building blocks (microbial fuel cell, algae bioreactor and a genetically modified processor), which are being developed as standardized building segments, or bricks. Living Architecture uses the standard principles of both photo bioreactor and microbial fuel cell technologies, which are adapted to and combined into a single, sequential hybrid bioreactor system so they will work synergistically together to clean wastewater, generate oxygen, provide electrical power and generate useable biomass (fertilizer).
The role that Experimental Architecture plays in this project is an architectural one – generating a vision of what this bioreactor could be, bringing together the parties that can make the idea functional, and then developing the prototype for installation in an interior environment. The whole of the project from concept, to technology, to audience and bigger vision had to be developed to be a successful project. Moreover, there are many critical aspects of the project that require design input from the construction of scenarios, to developing the design of the actual hardware. Yet, all these aspects of working on a project this size contribute to a bigger vision and interrogation of fundamental design questions about the nature of our living spaces, the kinds of technologies we use, how they are incorporated into spaces and the kinds of interfaces we may use to operate them. Living Architecture is a prototype and we expect this to be an ongoing research project that raises design questions as much as scientific and technological challenges – such as the nature of “living” bricks – which are modular, programmable, analogue units of design and what kinds of infrastructures ensure their continued liveliness.
The Living Architecture project provokes the possibility of how our relationship with these spontaneous natural processes may no longer be passive and we may begin to “speak” chemically, physically, biologically, mechanically and even digitally (through electricity) with the living world. Of course, this ambition is aspirational but it creates the conditions in which ethical and more symbiotic relationships between cities and the natural world – like biourbanism – may be realized.
Marco Poletto (MP):
Do you see urban design evolving into a new practice of urban bio-engineering? What are the potential opportunities afforded by this shift?
Definitely. We’ve barely explored the potential of biotechnological insights to alter the way we inhabit our living spaces – both at home, or in the urban environment. Some of these insights are quite literal, such as the ways structures are organized, which is the basis of biomimicry. However, we are also able to see things that were invisible to us before such as, identifying bacterial species that can form biofilms and carry out different kinds of functions. This is what we’re doing with Living Architecture – using organisms to create programmable “metabolic apps” that allow us to ask for particular products from a bioreactor. For example, we may be able to extract phosphate from grey water using live biofilms alone without any other processing techniques. So, genetic technologies, for example, open up a new portfolio for how we can work differently with nature, so that we can explore whether an organism rather than a machine might address specific design challenges. One potentially far-reaching impact is to replace “dead” fossil fuels as the major source of power for our homes – with “living” metabolisms. The distinction is important. Dead metabolisms need high-energy thresholds for combustion to take place and are more polluting, since they are characterised particularly by long chain hydrocarbons that do not lend themselves to decomposition by biomolecules.
In contrast, living metabolisms have catalysts and enzymes that reduce these activation thresholds and therefore require much less energy to release further energy from the organic substrates. Moreover, living metabolisms enjoy a richer portfolio of possible transformations from their organic feedstock, as they have access to a plethora of biomolecules that can orchestrate the necessary chemical intermediaries and transitions, while sharing an active portfolio of biochemical exchange with the biological realm. This means that the kinds of waste products made by living metabolisms have a significant chance of being the feedstock for another biological system. In design terms this means that homes are likely to have bioreactor systems like a series of organs that process household waste and provide water and heat. Such technologies require a different kind of infrastructure and will change the nature of encounters so that our living spaces are more like bodies than machines. In other words they’ll gurgle like a stomach rather than roar like an engine; they’ll smell like a body does rather than reek of volatile chemicals and they’ll be soft, or warm to the touch rather than hard and cold like the inert materials that we currently use in building interiors.
These developments will inform urban spaces in extending the connecting systems and infrastructures between houses, so that our public spaces are more compatible with natural systems. For example, certain waste products like compost could make and facilitate biodiversity offering the capacity for us to introduce more green spaces in potentially unlikely spaces. For example we could explore unconventional spaces between buildings by constructing aerial islands from earth produced from bioreactors, which are suspended by liquid infrastructures and tension wires that could support plants, and small birds.
In your projects the materials applied through your interventions are not inert but have a life of their own. How do you understand the relationship between the necessity to control how these interventions evolve over time, as distinct from their ability to self-organise? In other words, are you suggesting that designers and planners should learn to exploit the ability of complex dynamic systems to react to changing environments? How should we deal with the potential catastrophic failures inherent in the non-linear dynamic of complex systems?
As we make a transition from an industrial era of design towards an ecological era, certain fundamental shifts in our thinking and expectations occurs. The “life of its own” quality in living materials invites important design issues that need addressing and broadly engage with notions of control and permanence. While the notion of absolute, atomic, top-down control of matter is possible at very small scales, this kind of precision is unattainable in architectural contexts. So even with inert materials, architects need to make adjustments to design solutions on site, and estate services managers need to carry out regular maintenance operations, to keep buildings in working order. Such practices reflect design and performance expectations in buildings.
So, the context of living materials, and technologies design programs engage with probability, limits and uncertainty in their programs rather than deterministic blueprints, which require a broader design portfolio. In the same way that we learned to deal with seasons and the fertility of land in agriculture, design with living technologies engages with patterns and variations in behaviour, which gives us real time information about the current limits of performance. However, when we see signs that systems are tipping into disorder – typically read through a lack, rather than an increase, in variation, we need to act on this information. Yet, if we acknowledge these are the conditions for design then we can to take into account the potential for collapse, or unexpected outcomes. Design with living systems considers a range of outcomes and contingencies that offer designers the capacity to flexibly respond to a range of possible eventualities. These may even allow a system to collapse and undergo planned regeneration, repair or succession. Serious risks arise when industrial logic is applied to address fundamentally ecological challenges – then the potential for damage is much more significant. Yet, the unpredictability of living systems should not always be blighted as system failure but also acknowledged as having the capacity to respond in unlikely ways to address changes that may not initially appear to have solutions. We currently exploit this capacity in bio concretes where the resilience of bacteria is depended on at the microscale to plug tiny fractures when water enters.
In Experimental Architecture, we are also looking at how biofilms may help us remove invisible plastic particles from bodies of water, which is an interesting study in unpredictability where a range of responses may be provoked even under conditions that are designed under the same initial conditions. What we’re learning in these situations is that we cannot “control” these outcomes but we can produce iterations, so that variations in the performance of living systems can be accommodated in the design process. However, the take home message would be that if industrial design outcomes are absolutely critical for a project – then use them. It’s more about the appropriate application of living technologies when conditions are uncertain where the recalcitrant potential of the biological realm benefits design practice.
Rachel Armstrong is Professor of Experimental Architecture at the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, Newcastle University. She is also a Rising Waters II Fellow with the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation (April-May 2016), TWOTY futurist 2015, Fellow of the British Interplanetary Society and a 2010 Senior TED Talks Fellow. She takes an alternative approach to environmental design that couples the computational properties of the natural world with the productivity of soils. Rachel calls the synthesis that occurs between these systems and their inhabitants “living” architecture.
Claudia Pasquero is TAB2017 Head Curator.
Marco Poletto is TAB2017 Webzine Editor.