Venice Biennale: Ocean City

October 26, 2010

Alexander Hespe and Alanna Howe explore the potential of biomimetics, a design philosophy that might allow our cities to not only survive, but thrive.

This scheme formed part of the Now+When: Australian Urbanism exhibition at the 2010 Venice Biennale, curated by John Gollings and Ivan Rijavec.

Every year, Australia’s beaches are subject to a summertime invasion of hundreds of thousands of people. Unfortunately for these beach lovers, this reflux happens to coincide with the annual migration of another species – the so-called bluebottle jellyfish.

Much like Australia’s beachgoers, bluebottles are drawn towards the coastline by warm water, and most who regularly frequent the coast in summer would be familiar with these otherworldly creatures – for better or worse. Lying shrivelled on the shore, awaiting a poorly placed beach towel, or floating, barely visible, just outside the break, every year the bluebottle is responsible for up to 10,000 stings in Australia.

Small wonder most of those familiar with the bluebottle think of it as little more than a mindless jellyfish. You can imagine you might be met with a fair amount of incredulity, then, were you to try explaining that it is actually the perfect model for a city of the future. This, however, is exactly what Alanna Howe and Arup’s Alexander Hespe are proposing in their contribution to this year’s Venice Biennale.

Firstly, a correction – despite popular belief to the contrary, a bluebottle is not a mindless jellyfish. It is not, strictly speaking, a jellyfish at all, or indeed an animal, singular. It is a siphonophore, which is to say, a colony of interdependent organisms. While it might appear to be one creature, a bluebottle is in fact four different kinds of organisms, each with its own function, vital to the survival of the whole. Were you to sever one of the animals from the colony, both it, and its companions, would die.

The siphonophore serves as namesake, formal inspiration and metaphorical touchstone for Howe and Hespe’s ‘Siph City’, an imaginary metropolis that forms the focus of their Biennale contribution, Ocean City. Here, the duo imagine a future scenario whereby Australia’s annual migration to its seaside playgrounds is no longer a temporary reflux, but a permanent condition. Forced off solid ground by an astronomical increase in the value of scarce arable land, Australia moves its cities to the sea.

Of all of the schemes in Australia’s exhibition at the Biennale this year, Ocean City flirts most explicitly with the seductive, otherworldly forms of science fiction. Much has been made of the impact rising sea levels will have on our cities, but Hespe and Howe’s proposal imagines a city that is not just waterlogged, but water-based, and tries to envision what kind of initiatives in technology and infrastructure would be necessary to make this a feasible reality.

Part Jules Verne, part myth of Atlantis, Siph City is a floating aggregation of ‘pods’ that serve as farms, residences and recreational facilities. In order to sustain themselves and the lives of the inhabitants within, these structures employ knowledge garnered in 20th century oilrig design and construction, and 21st century biomimetics.

In her book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, Janine Benyus defines biomimetics as a “new science that studies nature’s models and then imitates or takes inspiration from these designs and processes to solve human problems.” Of course, there is nothing inherently new about any of these principles – humanity has been adapting nature’s methods to its own purposes for millennia. However, in recent decades interest in biomimetics has been growing, particularly in regards to sustainable design. From Mick Pearce’s Eastgate Centre in Harare, which uses principles gleaned from the study of termite mounds in its passive ventilation system, to Grimshaw’s proposal for a desalination plant based on the method used by beetles in the Namibian desert to collect water, biomimicry is being embraced by many of the world’s leading architects and designers.

While Howe and Hespe entered their submission under the moniker of Arup Biomimetics, they are quick to point out this title was coined for convenience – Arup does not have an official biomimetics division. Both of them, however, have a shared interest in the field, particularly as it relates to sustainability. Hespe, who works in Arup’s Sustainable Technologies Group, once briefly flirted with a role at an organisation called BioPower Systems, a green energy company that works applying biomimetic principles to electricity generation. Howe, an industrial designer who developed Ocean City with Hespe while consulting at Arup, devoted a significant part of her university degree to exploring the potential of biomimetics, and cites Benyus and the work of Grimshaw and Pearce as a highly formative influence on her.

The Ocean City scheme is in part an imaginative exploration of biomimicry’s potential, and it is clearly the work of a pair who share a relish for technology, speculative or real. Siph City’s pods, which are both mobile and modular, can be adapted to suit current environmental conditions, rising or sinking above or below the waves. In stormy conditions, they remain deep below the surface, but on sunny days, they float upon it, opening up to soak in the sunshine that powers them and provides photosynthesis for agriculture. This function bears a passing similarity to the survival strategy of the bluebottle, which can submerge itself in the event of attack, and formally the pods also resemble these sea creatures. The materials the pods are constructed from also resemble shell and membrane-like structures, a formal side-effect of their biomimetic development process, while the city’s desalination technology mirrors the osmosis process in living cells to deliver a near-unlimited supply of fresh water at next to no energy cost.

As a mechanical engineer and an industrial designer respectively, it is unsurprising that Howe and Hespe’s motivations tend towards the pragmatic. But while it might be tempting to pigeonhole the scheme as a proposal for a technological quick fix to our environmental woes, this would be a serious misrepresentation. While Ocean City does offer plenty in the way of seductive form and speculative technology, like most good sci-fi, the escapist fantasy is the sweetener, the hook, for what is fundamentally a philosophical argument.

Rather than a future vision, you could say Ocean City throws us back into the Precambrian – civilization as a kind of protozoan jellyfish floating in an amniotic fluid. That the condition of our environment might become so hostile that we would opt to re-colonise this alien sphere is a conjectural device, designed to raise the alarm as to just what is at stake in the struggle towards sustainability. Summoning the spectre of devolution, or even extinction, the scheme asks us to examine what might be necessary to the survival of humanity within this extreme scenario. How might we evolve? The whizzbang (and mostly imaginary) technology is not posited as the answer, but rather the outcome of a radically holistic design methodology and a new understanding of the means by which our societies and cities might function. Much like the bluebottle is a collection of individual animals, totally dependent on one another for their survival, Siph City is an aggregation of component parts that rely on each other for their function. Subtract one, and you destroy the whole. Most importantly though, the growth and character of this organism is described as a product as much of its environment as it is of the fickle appetites of its inhabitants – a responsive cityscape able to evolve and thrive in symbiosis with its surrounds.

At heart, we could call this an ecological approach, but this should not be misread as a romantic idealisation of the natural world or natural systems. Howe cites Ezio Manzini as an influence, a writer and industrial designer who, while sensitive to the impact humanity’s progress has had upon the natural world, wrote in a 1992 edition of MIT’s Design Issues journal that it now “constitutes an irreplaceable element in the functioning of the technological macrosystem on which rests existence of the whole human race.” Manzini has argued that, rather than an attempt to return the planet to its pre-civilisation state, we must hope to find an “eco-technological equilibrium”.

This is a difficult notion to come to terms with for some – it requires an acceptance that returning the planet to its ‘natural’ state is no longer feasible; or at least, not without apocalyptic consequences for humanity. There is mounting evidence though, that even should we want to, a return would prove impossible. Many from the scientific community believe the planet has now entered a new geological era – the Anthropocene. Coined by Nobel Prizewinning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, this term describes the current period in the Earth’s history, where human activities have had a totally transformative impact on the Earth’s ecosystems. To put it in science fiction terms, we are ‘terraforming’ the planet.

We need look no further than the example of our much maligned and misunderstood bluebottle for evidence of this, for it’s not just Australia and the other historically warm regions of the planet that can expect some unwanted company at the beach this summer. In 2009, Pembrokeshire County Council in Wales warned bathers that bluebottles had been sighted in Welsh waters, while in Ireland, there were dozens of confirmed sightings in 2009 to 2010. Global warming was seen as the likely culprit.

Howe and Hespe may be dabbling in some fairly improbable scenarios, but the challenges and opportunities they address are not the stuff of fantasy; we are already remaking the earth in our image. Ocean City prompts the question: can we now take up the mantle of a more intelligent design?

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