Hylozoic Ground TED Book

Living Architecture: Rachel Armstrong Wants to Replace “Dead Habitats” With Protocells

Imagine getting up in the morning and seeing the decorations in the halls of your home flutter, shiver and convulse as you walk to the coffee machine. A coating on the walls would lock the carbon dioxide you exhale into carbonate salt and change color as you passed, as if it could “smell and taste” your presence.

Such a structure existed, in a limited form, for three months in 2010 at the installation “Hylozoic Ground” at the Venice Architecture Biennale. Architect Philip Beesley and cybernetic engineer Rob Gorbet created a jungle-like environment suffused with protocells – chemical systems made from oil and an alkaline solution – that behave in surprising ways.

For Rachel Armstrong, the co-director of AVATAR (Advanced Virtual and Technological Architectural Research) specializing in Architecture and Synthetic Biology at the University of Greenwich, London, these protocells offer a promising way out of our static relationship our buildings, which she calls “dead habitats.” The protocells portend a new era of “Living Architecture,” which she describes in her new TED Book of the same name (available from Amazon, iBookstore and Nook).

The material could provide various solutions depending on their chemistry and unique environment – buildings that are net zero carbon because “smart paints” infused with protocells could trap carbon, or protocells that stabilize the city of Venice with a kind of artificial limestone reef.

Venice channel. Courtesy Flickr user lpiepiora

In the book, Armstrong takes as her point of departure the March 2011 tsunami that swept through the Sendai region of Japan. In the midst of a natural onslaught, the buildings did exactly what was expected – they fought back until the external forces exceeded engineering specifications. Then they crumpled. Our architecture should do better, Armstrong argues. It should be able to adapt to the demands of the external world.

This is a particularly pressing problem, Armstrong said in an interview this week, because explosive population growth and our burgeoning megacities have already begun to confound our mechanical solutions and will continue to do so.

“One of the problems with the future city, say the city of 2050, is that we’re trying to solve something that we don’t even know exists yet. We’re trying to solve it in a way that is linear, that is mechanical, but we know it’s not. We’re not actually engaging with the right kind of tools that are going to get us closer to evolving an outcome,” she said.

While the protocell technology is evolving, Armstrong believes that the first hurdle to overcome is our conception of the world as a place of objects that can be dominated using mathematics. She wants to replace that conception with a metaphor of gardening – a complex living system that we set in motion and influence, but builds its own resilience to environmental challenges. In other words, a thinking system.

A flask of protocells. Courtesy TEDBooks

Such technology would fundamentally change our idea of how structures are “built.” Armstrong writes: “Although it is not possible to predict the exact outcomes of a complex system such as protocell technology, a designer will have an idea of the range of possible outcomes. This situation may be explained by comparing protocell technology to the art of cooking.”

Thus, Armstrong’s Japan of the future would feature “living paints” that grow thicker as they pull carbon dioxide and pollutants from the air and entwine with local mosses. Each home would have “survival bubbles” woven into the roof that could protect a person like a nutshell in the event of an earthquake or tsunami.

Such quasi-living systems that lie outside our control conjures images from sci-fi, not all of them positive. Like Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle,” where a fictional substance with a melting point far above ice, called ice-nine, freezes the oceans. Armstrong noted that protocells are not “alive” in the sense they have no genetic code and cannot self replicate. She added, “I think the reality is we’re afraid of the world we live in anyway… I think we need to chill out about that.”

Top image: Hylozoic Ground. Courtesy TEDBooks

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Matthew Van Dusen is the editor of Txchnologist.

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