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Living Architecture

Rachel Armstrong’s new e-book calls for architecture to grow and mutate – just as plants do

Architecture has had a long-standing and deeply intricate relationship with nature. Since the Vitruvian man, architects have looked at the natural environment not only as a source of inspiration but also as the ultimate term of reference to position themselves within the cosmos. More recently, the wave of digitally-driven designs has continued to turn to nature for inspiration, resulting in extravagant biomorphic buildings. The latest instalment of this long discourse takes the conversation to what is perhaps its logical next step: in Living Architecture Rachel Amstrong calls for an unmediated connection between the two fields, one in which architecture literally behaves like nature; that is, in which buildings will be able to grow, adapt and mutate just like plants do.

Of Armstrong’s long-term research into this topic, Living Architecture represents the most recent and perhaps most popularising outcome. With Neil Spiller, she has been leading the AVATAR group, as well as having edited and contributed to a wealth of publications in which this theme has been tackled from a more specialist and complex point of view. By taking into account urgent problems such as climate change and recent environmental disasters − like the earthquake in Japan, to which the first and last chapters are dedicated − Living Architecture contextualises an otherwise technical issue to encompass the social and ethical relevance of living structures as well re-assessing our current definitions of urbanism and architecture.

The argument hinges on recent developments in nanotechnology and molecular design that promise to revolutionise the very notion of materials and, consequently, effect how the construction industry operates. Protocells − as these new technologies are called − are ‘nongenetic molecules capable of chemical self-organisation through a spontaneous phenomenon called “emergence”, where new features arise from the interaction of simpler systems at the molecular level’. They are synthetic biological particles that can be programmed to react to external factors in the surrounding environment and that can be embedded in other elements to be scaled up and become actual construction materials.

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Alameda Field/Hylozoic Series 7 installed at Laboratorio Almeda, Mexico City, Mexico. The Hylozoic Ground experimental architecture series developed by architect Philip Beesley and engineer Rob Gorbet has been expanded and refined by researchers, engineer

Although we may be unused to thinking about the built environment in these terms, such nanotechnology − which Armstrong reminds us has actually been around for half a century − could have tremendous implications for how architects operate and, most importantly, could finally give rise to a truly ecological mode of practice. Rather than the cosmetic approach taken by what is today largely understood as sustainable architecture, protocells could change the very DNA of architecture by altering its materiality and thus turning it into a sentient and reactive matter.

This book would perhaps have sat well in Bruce Mau’s exhibition Massive Change in which the Canadian designer argued through a number of case studies that the meaning of the word ‘design’ needed to be radically rethought. Design was no longer to be understood as the external, final layer to add to products once all economic and cultural decisions about it had been taken, but rather it was going to mutate into a more fundamental and holistic discipline concerned with products’ very essence: the design of their DNA, both in literal and metaphorical terms.

It is thus unsurprising that Living Architecture has been released in the form of an e-book by the prestigious TED organisation. Its subject not only sits well with TED’s own challenge to ask speakers ‘to give the talk of their lives’ but it also uses this more agile medium to directly communicate in an economical and potentially viral manner.

As I was reading the book on my Kindle, one of the screensavers that kept randomly popping up showed plans and elevations of Palladio’s Villa Rotonda. What initially appeared as a strange coincidence slowly became a contrapuntal rhythm to Armstrong’s rhetoric; the symmetrical plans of Palladio’s villas for Venetian merchants created a contrasting argument to the book’s. In Living Architecture, the author feels the need and urgency to explain in great detail what living matter is and how it will affect the built environment; architecture, on the other hand, is used as a term of reference whose meaning has somehow been stabilised by its own longevity and thus can be assumed without further specification.

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You can sense that much of the battle Armstrong has been engaging in over the past years has to do with convincing various audiences that her ideas will not only improve our lives but also that they will soon be feasible. This preoccupation slowly takes over the main narrative of the book, unleashing a wide range of precise and accessible definitions, examples and references to establish a robust conceptual armature around the notion of living matter. As a result, the vocabulary used to describe the science behind bio-synthetic structures is surgical and convincing, whereas descriptions of their application to the built environment lack equal clarity, casually interchanging distinct terms such as architecture, structure and building.

It emerges that the main issue with the notion of living architecture is not so much with the former but rather the latter term: architecture in fact differs from structure or simply construction as it is often defined as ‘built thought’; that is, architecture has always been able to digest external inputs − such as new technologies − to eventually imagine and construct new architectural languages and modes of inhabitation. On the other hand, Living Architecture too often resembles a catalogue of sophisticated materials and pioneering solutions to implement, without developing a parallel design culture or methodology to grasp how these technologies would change our definition of architecture.

Though built of soft, responsive, growing materials, the tenets of biologically-driven architecture are still reminiscent of the ones underpinning current buildings: we are still talking about a rather conventional architectural vocabulary made up of walls, stairs and rooms, within which our life would be rather similar to the one we are currently leading.

The challenge of a truly ecological construction and material culture has definitely been pushed forward by Living Architecture; what is now perhaps needed is an operating manual for it, a sort of Palladio’s Four Books of Architecture able to alter the way we will design and inhabit living structures.

Living Architecture: How Synthetic Biology Can Remake Our Cities and Reshape our Lives

Author: Rachel Armstrong

Publishers: TED e-books

Price: £1.96

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