- Article by Simon Sellars
Architectural researcher Rachel Armstrong has had an interesting career trajectory. She began her career as a general medical practitioner and has since worked as a television presenter and as technical adviser to renowned performance artists Orlan and Stelarc. She has also had a science fiction novel published, The Gray’s Anatomy. Currently, she is a senior lecturer in the School of Architecture and Construction at the University of Greenwich, and works with Neil Spiller in the AVATAR Research Group at The Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment. She spoke to Simon Sellars about her research into ‘living architecture’: using model artificial cells to create responsive buildings that can overcome harsh 21st century environmental challenges.
This is the extended version of the interview that appears in Architectural Review Australia #123: The Resilient City. All photography by Rachel Armstrong.
SIMON SELLARS: You came to work in architectural research from a medical and science background. Are there any parallels between the disciplines?
RACHEL ARMSTRONG: Architecture is very similar to medicine. It is idealistic, optimistic and requires technology and the application of science to create change, but rather than being focused on a single body, it applies to a greater number of people by shaping their environment. In my view, medicine’s engagement with environmental health is really still stuck in the paradigms of the public health movement in the 1830s. Unlike other forms of medicines that have witnessed technological developments in their practice, public health hasn’t had such advances for intervention and I believe that architecture is our environmental technology, but we really don’t do anything with it beyond the traditional expectations that we hold.
SS Does this mean we need to question our assumptions about what architecture is – or can be?
RA Yes. The most pressing thing that is needed in architecture is to go back to first principles. Coming from a non-architectural background, I regard my role as being one that challenges the basic assumptions of the design and engineering of environments. For example, we do not make enough use of the geo-engineering scale of architecture, as a metropolitan landscape that through its very design could create wind tunnels that could be harnessed to produce renewable energy. We also need to establish how we can best prepare for common human challenges and equip our architecture students to have flexible frameworks for problem solving. It saddens me deeply when bright, young, idealistic architecture students are turned into cynical Mac Monkeys by schools of architecture that serve as factories to make human interface technicians for the construction industry.
From a very practical perspective, architecture has to urgently consider how flexible infrastructures could help our cities evolve to adapt and respond to the changing needs and challenges that our urban populations are going to have to face in the next few decades. The next challenges are to develop new frameworks for problem solving, such as ‘systems thinking’ as a way of addressing architectural challenges in the real world. Architecture has become so closely allied to industry that despite the best intentions for ‘sustainable’ development, we’re ending up with green lipstick on the industrial gorilla’s lips rather than finding genuinely new ways of making.
SS You’ve mentioned that the design profession needs ‘credibility’ and ‘feasibility’. Has it lost its way?
RA Design has not lost its way but industrial processes enslave it, which makes creativity in the workplace a challenging notion. Design education is also struggling with some rather entrenched and outdated forms of learning that are focused on formalism and technological tools, rather than design strategy. All students need a broader education in this day and age, because there is a general crisis in education owing to funding and employment opportunities. There is a fundamental shift taking place in the way that the world works. When everything was neatly sitting in an industrial Cartesian universe, standard methods of design were possible. Now everything is complex and it’s requiring new ways of thinking and problem solving. Science does not have all the answers but some of these new, emerging biotech technologies offer real challenges in ways of thinking. Architects now have to start to grapple with a new tool set, as well as mastering the current approaches if they are to get qualitatively different outcomes – and it’s vital that they do! It’s a very challenging time!
SS In your own work, you design with protocells. What are these? Artificial cells?
RA Yes, although the terminology is controversial. Some describe them as fully artificial cells, cells which technically don’t exist yet! However, protocells, precursors to fully artificial cells, are real and do exist in the laboratory. I see them as not being technically alive as they don’t have any DNA but they do possess life-like qualities being sensitive to their environment and can also be programmed chemically. The protocells I use in my experiments are self-assembling agents based on the chemistry of oil and water. They assemble themselves from a spontaneous field of self-organising energy and can exist as oil droplets in a water medium, or water-based droplets in an oil medium. There’s a range of different kinds of ‘species’ composed from different recipes.
SS How would you introduce them into an architectural environment?
RA You take the basic ingredients like you would a cooking recipe, mix them together, then introduce them into an appropriate design context. Protocells need an aqueous environment, so fluid infrastructures or water-based environments are necessary for the full range of living properties of these systems. I’m currently collaborating with colleagues to develop protocell ‘birthing’ machines, using 3D printing technologies.
SS How does that relate specifically to ways of making contemporary architecture?
RA By exploiting the way that modern architecture is constructed. All buildings possess a set of structural ‘bones’ made from steel and concrete, which are draped with an exterior surface, or cladding wrapped like a ‘skin’ around them. Since concrete chemically strengthens with time, it’s possible to change the bone structure of a modern building by pruning and extending the concrete framework, using carbon nanotube-based materials, without needing to raze the building to the ground. The altered bone structure can accommodate a new skin, which could be replaced with environmentally active exteriors. These could be thought of as ‘living’ claddings, as opposed to traditional inert surfaces. Living claddings are designed to contain a range of synthetic biology-based technologies, which inhabit building surfaces and participate in the urban ecology of the building through active physical and chemical processes.
SS What are some examples of this process in action?
RA Well, living cladding can produce heat and provide cooling for buildings; it can modulate sunlight or trap carbon dioxide and other pollutants from the atmosphere. Living architecture is a new way of thinking about how to solve problems in the material world. It offers synthetic biological tools as the basis to make this change. I’ve got a TED Book on living architecture coming out on the Kindle, which explores the recent Japanese tsunami and asks how different the outcome would have been if the buildings were equipped with living materials. My short story on this, Japan 2060, accompanies the TED Book and could be thought of as a short SF narrative.
SS I’m interested in the role of science fiction in your work. What do you take from it, and can science fiction play a role in architectural discourse in general? There are plenty of SF stories featuring cities as living organisms. Do these generate research material for you?
RA Yes, of course! All disciplines need an arena for thought experiments. I tend to identify with, rather than draw from, what I read in SF novels. I do not read as much science fiction as I would like to, but I actually love reading old scientific notebooks, as they reveal alternative ways of thinking and expose the kinds of pretensions that we habitually fall into.
SS You gave a TED talk on rebuilding the sinking foundations of Venice with protocell technology, which has garnered quite a bit of attention. Could you explain how it would work?
RA In this case, protocells offer a completely new approach to an issue that has not been satisfactorily resolved by machine-based methods. Venice is a suitable site to test protocells, because it offers ready access to water, requires a material solution, would benefit from environmental responsiveness and warrants an intervention that could clearly be distinguished from an industrial intervention. Venice was built on the soft delta soils in the harshest environment on earth, the shoreline, where the fabric of the buildings are repeatedly battered by the elements, flooded by the periodic aqua alta and desiccated by the sun. This ferociously unstable environment poses an insurmountable set of conditions for materials that are effectively inert. On a geological timescale, it is worth remembering the tempestuous forces of nature eventually subsume mountains. Venice has weathered its environment for three centuries and its unique buildings are already being actively eroded. Walking along the waterways reveals buildings that have literally been digested into dust fragments, which has led to all kinds of acts of architectural desperation, like fist-sized holes in the wall plugged up with concrete, rubble, rubbish, even chewing gum.
SS I distinctly remember the chewing gum when I was in Venice years ago! It was kind of disgusting; I assumed it was the work of a peculiar gang of Venetian vandals. Are you suggesting that traditional architectural methods have failed Venice?
RA Yes. The traditional architectural approach to meeting the challenges of hostile environments is to create the most effective possible barrier between nature and human activity, using durable and inert materials. That has worked sufficiently effectively for human development, but on an evolutionary timescale it’s not how the most resilient structures persist. Along the edges of the waterways is an indigenous system able to respond to the constant challenges of a hostile environment. Algae, shellfish and bacteria have claimed a construction process within this harsh terrain, accreting, secreting, remoulding and sculpting the materials of their surroundings to create tailored micro-environments. It’s like an unruly garden, finding opportunities to extend into new territories and vigorously pursuing easily accessible sources of nutrients. Consequently, the presence of biological systems in the waterways poses a threat to the integrity of the architecture. Protocell technology, in combination with synthetic biology, could offer a new kind of approach to shape these natural processes and redirect their activity symbiotically in an architecturally relevant way, for example, by growing an artificial limestone reef underneath to stop the city sinking into the soft mud.
SS Do you see your work as a continuation of the standard architectural practice of looking to nature for inspiration?
RA Yes. I guess that the spectrum of biomimicry-based practices would be considered as part of the design spectrum that my work and experiments belong to. I do not really regard nature as purely an inspiration but also a resource that we can literally plug into, connect and negotiate with. Nature is not ‘out there’ and untouchable but a very real part of the fabric around us. Our cities need to work with nature, but also exceed the limitations of the natural world if we are going to witness humane or positive human development. The law of the wild is not good enough – we have to do better.
While nature is extremely smart, and we should learn from it, it does not have our interests at heart, so we must give ourselves the permission to design outcomes, engineer biological systems and believe that these technologies have the capacity to exceed the potential of what already exists. This is the pretension behind synthetic biology – we must assume that we can do better than nature – or we shouldn’t interfere at all. This is not to assert that we do this at all costs. Using industrial technologies to subordinate and poison the natural world with is not good for anyone. The way forward is to develop a mutual relationship, and I believe that this is the principle that will be embedded in our new practices of making.
SS At the Bio: Fiction festival in Vienna, which you presented at, it was suggested that there should be a ‘call for a new ethical engagement’ around the practice of synthetic biology, especially ‘concerning the question of how and whether we should act simply because we can’. What are your thoughts on the ethical dimensions of your work with living systems?
RA The ethical dimensions of synthetic biology and protocell technology are essential. We need to develop responsible new ways of ‘making’ that have sensible regulatory mechanisms in place that enable us to do this. This is particularly important when the ambition is to apply these technologies to challenges where people live. What’s interesting about synthetic biology and protocells is that because they are living, they are inherently unpredictable. This comes with the territory. The unpredictability is unlikely to produce something really alien, because the outcomes exist within a narrow solution that has been set, but these outcomes must be considered and strategies need to be in place that are designed to deal with the outcomes.
Since the protocell system in particular has been designed from a bottom-up perspective, we understand how these systems work to such a degree that we also know how to persuade and direct them. They respond to negotiation as well as top-down imperatives. This is true of nature, too. That’s why this kind of technology is important: we will have to redefine our responsibility to the natural world. Nurturing and controlling the technology within acceptable degrees of freedom and authorship will be an inherent part of developing the right kinds of ‘sustainable’ approaches!
SS I was reading about protocell applications to cities in hot climates and in generating new energy sources. Can living architecture make cities more sustainable or resilient?
RA Living materials are at their earliest stages – it’s not yet a revolution in making. Realistically, I think new materials would work alongside traditional materials and even traditional construction approaches, where their role would be to remediate and improve the quality of the environment.
SS In AR 123, David Neustein argues that ‘sustainability’ and ‘resilience’ are overworked terms in architectural discourse. Do you agree?
RA Many biologically inspired words have been assimilated by architecture as a formalist style, so they are high on aspiration and low on delivery. With ‘resilience’, it’s a better term than sustainability, as it implies that buildings themselves have spontaneously dynamic features. I personally prefer the term ‘evolvability’ but until the principles are developed outside of an industrial framework of practice, the ambition will remain grand and metaphorical. Instead, it becomes a rhetorical distraction to cover up a stasis in methods of practice. Many of the arguments are metaphorical or poetic, not literal references to the processes underpinning the drivers of change. There’s nothing wrong with metaphor and poetry, but it’s not the same as having a solid science and engineering framework, where aspirations can actually become reality. The liberal use of biological metaphors is essentially a way to rationalise why the very idea of sustainability is at least 200 years too late. Today, most sustainable or green solutions serve to preserve the status quo, put a spin on, and justify, industrial paradigms of making over celebrating small variations on a theme. Less of more of the same, no matter how beautifully presented, is not different!
SS What’s the first step in changing that paradigm?
RA The first thing to do is to clean up the mess we’ve spectacularly made. Then we need to find ways to work with what we’ve got, invest in designing flexible infrastructures and practice extreme forms of recycling buildings! Protocell technology and synthetic biology interventions could be used as part of a holistic practice in approaching urban development and regeneration. My exploratory work with AStudio architects in London suggests that it may be possible to recycle a building in situ by incorporating protocell technology and other synthetic biology approaches, so that the new spaces are fit for purpose and can also make a positive environmental impact.
In fact, we need a fundamentally different approach to making, since the models we’re using – industrial models – just consume and do not return useful things back into the environment to be used in other ways. Current sustainable ambitions are towards zero impact on the planet, but actually that’s not good enough, even if it was achievable through current practices. Zero-carbon approaches are only used in a minority of buildings, which make very little impact upon the global south, especially in areas of rapid urbanisation.
SS Outside of resilience, what terminology best encapsulates the embodied potential of urban space?
RA If I had to choose a word that best characterises the processes necessary for future cities, it would be ‘metabolic’, the chemical systems that underpin evolution. The materials and practices that could embody this approach currently exist, mainly in forms of social organisation where the environment and its communities are interconnected, similar to how Richard Lewontin describes in the co-evolution of organisms and their environment. In general terms, you can use living materials to imagine how it may be possible to create an internal physiology of a building, where the walls are ‘flesh’ that process water, waste and heat, and need feeding and their ‘fuel’ products collecting. Building surfaces that metabolise, like leaves taking sunlight and carbon dioxide and converting them into liquid fuel, are really not that far away in our technological future. In desert areas, we could use heat from the sun to drive chemical processes on the surfaces of buildings, where the materials themselves act as catalysts and collectors of the processes, such as splitting of minerals – which require very high temperatures – to release water molecules or hydrogen.
SS Can we consider this a kind of open source approach to city-making?
RA Yes! Because of their ‘life-like’ properties, living materials have the capacity to respond to local challenges in niche environments. This underpins the need to give distributed access to these technologies, to make the basic recipes generally available globally, so that communities can customise them with their own local resources and make them in a process that would resemble something they already know how to do – like cooking.
SS Is the next step developing artificial life as an enabling agent in architecture? Will there soon be an age of ‘intelligent architecture’?
RA What a lovely question. I’d say that ‘artificial life’ is already an enabling agent in architecture – the technology is real. It just depends on what you mean by ‘life’. I agree with researchers such as Simon Ellington, who say that it is irrelevant in an experimental setting whether a system is ‘alive’ or not – the important thing to ask is how the system challenges your understanding of the world. Using this approach to architectural practice, I’d say that for all intents and purposes that artificial life is pretty real. Philip Beesley has been dubbed the first architect to work with artificial life, referring to the complexity of the cybernetic systems he designed with engineer, Rob Gorbet. I don’t think we have to wait for any more technology to give us permission to think about this possibility. To all extents and purposes, the moment is already here! The big challenge is to get the blue-sky science – and blue-sky architecture – into a form that is publicly accessible, so that we can start to develop principles of best, responsible and humane practice. I think it is important that design and thought experiments work together to create new opportunities for practice and commerce. I guess that is why I consider my own portfolio to be a work of ‘practical science fiction’: not to be limited by what is possible, but to be reinformed by it so that I can move meaningfully into exploring new possibilities.
Currently, our architecture is knee-jerk style reflexive at best, in terms of its appreciation of its surroundings but I don’t see why there would not be properly intelligent architecture one day. In some ways we could think of bacteria as already being an architecture and ‘alternative consciousness’ that encircles the planet. Since we cannot speak bacteria, we may need to develop a portfolio of chemical languages to negotiate terms of engagement with them at some point. Similarly, we would also need to find ways to communicate with truly intelligent architecture if we are expecting to hold a meaningful dialogue with it in the future.
SS Will buildings of the future be ‘alive’, in the cognitive sense?
RA Well, over the course of this century, aspects of buildings will be regarded as alive in the way our gardens are alive. Should we be able to figure out how material intelligence is encoded and accessed, we may then consider them intelligent in the same way our pets are. Beyond that, if we can start to upload some of our personal qualities into complex material contexts, there may be uncanny features of buildings that remind us of ourselves. Perhaps we’ll even leave a little of ourselves behind in the places where we live and travel through.
There will be ghosts in the buildings – literally!
Simon Sellars is the editor of Architectural Review Australia.