Our idea of sustainability today is based on classical mechanical and industrial principles, and focuses on solutions like reducing energy and material consumption or lowering carbon emissions. At best, this can slow down our depletion of the planet's resources, but it will not release us from our present patterns of consumption. But there could be other approaches. Rachel Armstrong starts with biochemical material flows.

Algae afloat in a Venice canal.

The character of sustainability, as that term is used in architecture today, is not the result of the conscious efforts of a mature design movement. Rather, has been shaped reactively, in response to industrial, technological and political parameters that are simply branded as ‘ecological’ – primarily using the principles of material conservation, i.e. the buildings labelled as ‘sustainable’ consume less energy, use fewer resources and cause less carbon emission. So, although we’re attempting to take the slow, rather than fast route towards environmental poverty, we continue to tread a path of development that is characterised by resource consumption. Indeed, we’re so entrenched in a particular kind of industrial thinking that we’re missing the possible significance of architecture’s role in a much bigger environmental picture – namely, the opportunity to use an ecological paradigm to orchestrate the material exchanges that flow through our cities.

"Even though technology and policies are branded 'ecological', we continue to tread a path of development that is characterised by resource consumption."

Material flow

The flow of matter through the urban environment actually represents only a tiny fraction of the global exchange of material that occurs on a daily basis through living systems such as seas, soils and rain forests. Natural networks enable this flow through environmental cycles that draw on a much larger ‘standing reserve’ of creativity than that which is present in our man-made urban fabric. Indeed, according to Jane Bennett, matter possesses differing degrees of ‘agency’ that can shape human events, characteristics that are not appreciated by industrial modes of thinking.1 My view is that to develop a design approach for truly ecological architectural practices, in which matter can be attributed with ‘agency’, we need to think much more broadly about the performance and the innate creativity of the materials we use. We must also consider how we could use these material ‘forces’ to shape streams of global material exchange, so that we can participate meaningfully in the biosphere in the process of human development.

Inert materials and industrial organisation

Architecture represents the human presence in natural systems, and its ecological ambitions to integrate human communities with Nature are long-standing. Throughout the ages, architects have looked for inspiration from Nature to ally with the incredible creativity of the natural world. Trees, for example, have been fashioned to perform social functions: Hollowed-out baobabs have been used as gaols, and bridges have been built by weaving living tree roots together. Antonio Gaudi made creative use of natural materials in his sublime church, La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, by harnessing the chemical properties of clay and the physical principles of gravity to fashion sculptural substrates for his cathedral, which, like Nature itself, is still under construction. More recently, at the 2010 Shanghai Expo, Thomas Heatherwick’s Seed Cathedral preserved a host of plant kernels in the tips of protruding 22-foot acrylic rods, a project that ambitiously positioned architecture as an archive of biodiversity.

Each of these engagements with Nature is informed by a philosophical view of reality and its material expression. Yet in practice, architecture’s ecological ambitions are constrained by the inert materials and industrial modes of construction that predominate in urban environments, which are literally organised to produce ‘machines for living in’. The issue with industrialization is not simply its object-centred obsessions, but that its inert materiality creates impermeable barriers between things, rather than connecting them.

Can Venice be saved with wet technology?

Wet technology

Back in the 1960’s, Gordon Pask and Stafford Beer explored a different kind of architectural materiality in their cybernetic experiments using biological and chemical systems. However, the science underpinning this ‘wet’ technology was not sufficiently advanced to enable their experiments to progress into architectural innovation. Pertinently, Martin Heidegger considered technology as a process of revealing rather than an instrument or an object of manipulation. Historically, chemistry has been the crux of a particular kind of revealing – the transmutation of inert to living matter.

In the last twenty years, synthetic biology, designing and engineering with living systems, has made a set of technologies available that enables us to work with the principles of ‘transmutation’ where one thing can literally become another. For example, the Traube Cell was discovered by wine merchant Moritz Traube in 1867.2 Traube was interested in making ‘artificial plants’ by adding a salt crystal into a weak solution. The inorganic membrane of this ‘wet’ technology grows, by the continual rupture and repair of the system as water passes through the membrane. Yet if ‘wet’ technology is to thrive in urban spaces, a different kind of infrastructure is needed – one that is very different to the structures that currently support the functioning of machines and computers. The kinds of infrastructures that support chemical technologies are elemental systems, which include airflow, earth and water. They are sensitive to different kinds of environmental conditions, and can give rise to niche-specific performances. For example, a wet technology would perform differently in Italy to Norway, as its performance would vary seasonally and even respond to local microclimates. The importance of infrastructure in optimising chemical outcomes has been evidenced in fossil records, where a diffuse, water-carrying infrastructure helped simple plants fix large amounts of carbon.3 Non-flowering plants could then evolve into flowering ones, and gave rise to the biodiversity that we see in our rainforests today. The materiality of an ecological architecture based on these elemental systems must share the same elemental infrastructures as living systems, which are present at many scales to support life on the planet – from the microscale interactions of microbes to the geological production of soils.

Biological realities

The infrastructural universality of living the systems that support our ecologies raises questions about exactly ‘whom’ we are designing architecture for.

Classically, the human body is regarded as a discrete structure, but in recent years genetic analysis and microbiology have revealed that bacteria and viruses are interwoven into our genome and that the ninety percent of the cells in our body are bacterial. We each carry about three kilos of bacterial cells, which are much smaller than our own. A recent article in the Economist summarised the influence of bacteria on our bodies – they change our mood, help us digest our food, act as part of our immune system and reinforce the barrier function of our skin. When our bacterial systems do not work properly, we become unhappy and ill.4

"Classically, the human body is regarded as a discrete structure, but ninety percent of the cells in our body are bacterial."

The BioBE project at the University of Oregon, led by 2010 Senior TED Fellow Jessica Green, explores the impact of indoor bacteria on our living spaces, and bacteriologist Simon Park at the University of Surrey is looking at urban cryptobiology as an indicator of the health of environments.5 Their work shows that our urban environments are not the inert clean spaces depicted by modernism, but lively ecologies of interacting agents. To engage these systems technologically requires us to work with them in very different ways to how we use machines. My research examines how living, ‘wet’ technologies could help us develop design principles for integrating the built environment and natural ecology in a non-mechanical way – both by orchestrating what already exists, and by introducing ‘living technologies’ into the built environment.

Lively matter

Over the last three years I’ve been using a model ‘wet’ technology called the Bütschli system to explore some of these design possibilities.6 When alkaline water is added to olive oil, the Bütschli system produces life-like droplets that show remarkably life-like behaviours – although they do not have any DNA to instruct them.

Bütschli droplets. The droplets are a kind of proto-cells, inorganic but capable of a form of chemical communication. These react with their environment to form a biofilm.Bütschli droplets.

Bütschli droplets.Bütschli droplets.

Bütschli droplets can move around in their environment, sense it, appear to communicate chemically with each other, form chemical biofilms and even undergo population scale behaviours.7 The importance of this system is that it is a real example of extremely lively matter, which is not biological and yet it can be ‘programmed’ to distribute materials in space and time in a life-like way. For example, it is possible to use this system to produce magnetic structures by using the droplet as a carrier system.8 This technology offers a starting point for exploring how it may be possible to produce, or ‘grow’, ecological architectures.

Hylozoic Ground. Installation in Mexico 2010 by Philip Beesley, with Rachel Armstrong's protocells. Photo: Pierre Charron

‘Hylozoic Ground’, a collaboration with architect Philip Beesley, integrated smart, living chemistry into a cybernetic framework.9 In this installation, I modified this tiny millimetre-scale technology so that human audiences could see it with the naked eye. The chemical technology responded to the presence of people and the environment by fixing small amounts of carbon dioxide and turning them into brightly coloured crystals called carbonates. This chemical system could be likened to a sensory system that could smell or taste the dissolved respiratory gas, in a similar way to our own nervous systems.10

Other work includes the development of an algae bioreactor, with Sustainable Now Technologies, where locally harvested, non-genetically modified strains of algae are harvested for different properties and supported by an infrastructure of ‘macrofluidics’ – a means of organizing nutrients through a living system. The algae use carbon dioxide and sunlight to make biodiesel and organic matter, that may be processed into paper or used as fertiliser on the green roof of the building in which the reactor will be situated. Since this technology is niche-specific, different strains would be used in Norway to those that will be harvested in the UK or California. This bioreactor is due for completion in 2014 for the green roof on the new School of Architecture, Design and Construction at the University of Greenwich.

Venice: Restoration through accretion

Plans for a Future Venice also imagine a reef garden designed to slow down the sinking of the city. Venice is sinking into the soft delta soils on which it was founded, and on which it currently rests on a base of narrow wood piles. A species of chemically programmed, smart oil/water droplet technology could be used, based on a droplet that can move away from the sun towards the darkened foundations of the city. When they are at rest, these droplets activate a second chemical reaction and build shell-like calcium structures from dissolved minerals and carbon dioxide in the water, producing a limestone-like material.

Algae and shell accretion on a post at the waterline; a well-known phenomenon.Accretion at a microscopic level. Carbonate deposits form a “proto-crete” protecting and reenforcing the rotting post.

Over time an artificial reef grows by the process of accretion, and is shaped by the activity in the city as pollutants, reflected light and minerals that are scattered through the waterways. Although this project is still speculative, the principles of making shelled droplets in the Lagoon water have been tested in collaboration with Red Bull and a group of architecture students in Venice.

Armstrong imagines that the “wet” technology of protocrete accretion can be harnessed to reinforce the timber pile foundations of the city of Venice, that are slowly dissolving.

The canals contain the ingredients of a possible solution for the city: water, dissolved matter and sunlight.

We are at a time of amazing developments in the field of synthetic biology, and the future for ecological architectures is extremely encouraging. In order to make the most of these biologies, we will need to first develop the appropriate infrastructures, and change our problem-solving approach from being based in an industrial paradigm to a truly complex, ecological one. Ecological architecture must be based on design principles that consider the material world in a different way, in which non-human matter has a different and much more potent status than is currently possible within industrial frameworks. By appreciating the innate ‘force’ of the material world, ecological architecture may ultimately produce interventions that share the same operational principles as Nature and can work alongside our native ecologies. Ultimately, then, it may be possible to change the paradigm that underpins human development so that the solution to repairing a damaged or struggling ecology may be to produce an architecture.

"Ecological architecture must be based on design principles that consider the material world in a different way, in which non-human matter has a different and much more potent status."

  1. Bennett, J. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Duke University Press (2009). p. xvii 

  2. Traube, M. Experimente zur Theorie der Zellbildung und Endomose. Arch Anat Physiol Wiss Med 87, (1867). pp. 129–165. 

  3. www.phys.org 

  4. www.economist.com 

  5. www.microbe.net 

  6. Bütschli, O. Untersuchungen ueber microscopische Schaume und das Protoplasma, Leipzig (1892). 

  7. Armstrong, R. (2010), ‘Living Architecture’, Forward 110: Architecture and the Body, Ed. Noble, C., Published by The American Institute of Architects, Spring 2010, pp.77-82. 

  8. Armstrong, R. and Hanczyc, M.M. ‘Bütschli Dynamic Droplet System’, Artificial Life Journal, MIT Press, Cambridge, M.A. (In Press). 

  9. Ohrstedt, P. and Isaacs, H. (ed.), Hylozoic Ground: Liminal Responsive Architecture, Riverside Architectural Press, Toronto, (2010). 

  10. Armstrong. R. Living architecture. How synthetic biology can make our cities and shape our lives. TEDBooks. Amazon Singles (2012). Online. Available on: i-Book, Nook and Kindle platforms. 


Rachel Armstrong was keynote speaker at the "Norwegian Sustainability" conference in Haugesund, 13th September 2012.
See some of Philip Beesley's "Hylozoic Ground" here.

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