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A Fuller Understanding

Scientist and artist Rachel Armstrong and sociologist Steve Fuller cast new light on the ecological approaches to building at the RCA/AR lecture Architecture & Ecology held at London’s V&A Museum

The Architecture& lecture series was organised to expose architecture to cutting-edge thinking developed in adjacent fields, to either construct spaces for exchange or to expose inadequacies. In this second event on Architecture & Ecology, scientist and artist Rachel Armstrong and sociologist Steve Fuller had the arduous task of casting new light on ecological approaches to building.

Before a packed auditorium, the two speakers took turns outlining their views on the subject. The conversation flowed smoothly benefiting from the long-standing professional friendship linking Armstrong and Fuller (his latest book, Preparing for Life in Humanity 2.0 is dedicated to Armstrong). They definitively agreed that in order properly to investigate ecological issues, it would be necessary to ask radical questions that could elevate the debate from immediate pragmatic concerns to a more holistic view. Ecology is here understood as a paradigm-shifting concept equipped with its own technological, philosophical and political means, able to give rise to an original approach to design.

Armstrong elegantly introduced her research on Living Architecture − also the title of her latest ebook (AR April 2012) − by polemically arguing that Modernist thinking has for too long portrayed nature and technology as oppositional categories to the detriment of human relationships with the environment. Living Architecture literally applies biotechnologies to constructions, banking on Armstrong’s research on protocells − microscopic material compounds which exhibit life-like characteristics, though bereft of any actual DNA.

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Protocells produce solid substances which may have future architectural applications

She advocated a much closer relationship between environment, artefacts and politics, one mediated by highly responsive, interactive materials able to compute external information. It was refreshing to see Armstrong grounding her research in early experiments on biological computing by Alan Turing to remind us that the computing power of our machines is only a minuscule representation of what can be found in nature, even in the most elementary organisms.

Living Architecture as advocated by Armstrong finds a natural ally in the notion of Humanity 2.0 that Steve Fuller has been articulating. The role of human beings in a world increasingly governed by convergent nano- and bio-technologies will unavoidably fade for at least three reasons.

First, the effects of climate change demonstrate that human actions are problematic: they are causing natural resources to rapidly deplete with the risk of eventually endangering the entire biosphere.

Second, the notion of Living Architecture implicitly levels out differences between living beings and inorganic matter. Biomaterials react to information whether this has been generated by humans or not.  Living Architecture takes much greater care of the whole ecosystem we inhabit: botanic life, animals, etc. After all, as Armstrong pointed out, most living creatures share up to 95 per cent of their DNA material.

Finally, the definition of design and designer will also have to radically change. As a plurality of actors and factors begin to ‘design’ our environment, the architect will recede into the background to become more a designer of systems of interaction rather than fixed objects. Interestingly, Fuller decided not to stress the obvious parallels between his and Armstrong’s work, but rather to accept the general premise of her thesis and speculate what next steps would be required to actually implement such technologies. Swiftly the conversation moved away from technology to investigate the social and political issues posed by Living Architecture.

Fuller’s argument drew from the influential study Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty by A Banerjee and E Duflo, which concluded that in order for innovative solutions to be adopted by local residents, substantial work needs to be done at grass-roots level. Comparing the task of eradicating global poverty to constructing architecture out of living materials appeared appropriate to Fuller: both concern global problems and neither will be implemented without a larger, international political will backing it.

Fuller repeatedly challenged Armstrong to map out strategies in support of the notion of Living Architecture, not without suggesting some himself. The most interesting and plausible of these is to rethink school curricula to develop early awareness of ecology and convergent technologies.

As the evening drew to a close, an interesting and perhaps telling gap opened up between the title of the lecture − Architecture & Ecology − and the ideas discussed by the two speakers. The more the conversation progressed, the more it focused on scientific and social issues, drifting away from architecture, whose definition was increasingly implied but never clearly stated. If, on the one hand, this reflects a recent trend through which other disciplines have convincingly included the word architecture in their vocabulary (for instance, software design) allowing some sort of knowledge transfer; on the other hand, architecture itself has been somehow diluted to become an ever more ubiquitous and generic concept. However, the history of innovation in architecture is rich with precedents in this area.

The pattern with which new technologies are assimilated is often characterised by two phases: first a new material is merely applied often to simulate the features of an existing one; then the new material is ‘architecturalised’, and charged with the potential to redefine the canon. A good example of this is the Domino diagram by Le Corbusier, in which the application of concrete to structures enabled new kinds of spatial arrangement.

At the cultural end of the spectrum, there are also numerous studies on self-built, spontaneous vernacular structures able to strike a remarkable balance between artefacts, inhabitants and environment. The reference here is Architecture Without Architects by Bernard Rudofsky, who in 1964 argued that such structures were indeed architecture. There is a distinct feeling that the debate on convergent technologies would be enriched by confronting more disciplinary, conventional issues concerning architecture, which are too often sidelined. As critic Steve Shaviro noted, this will perhaps promote the formation of ‘an aesthetic of decision, rather than the current metaphysics of emergence’.

Architecture & Ecology

RCA/AR lecture
V&A Museum, London, on 4 December.
The next lecture in the series, on Architecture & Beauty is on 19 February, with guest speakers Will Alsop and Stephen Bayley. For more information visit architectural-review.com/ArchitectureAnd

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