Living Architecture

Rachel Armstrong takes an alternative approach to environmental design that couples the computational properties of the natural world with the technology of liquids and productivity of soils. She calls the synthesis that occurs between these systems and their inhabitants “living” architecture.

She is Professor of Experimental Architecture at the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, Newcastle University. She is a Rising Waters II Fellow with the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation (April-May 2016), TWOTY futurist 2015, Fellow of the British Interplanetary Society and a 2010 Senior TED Fellow.

In this exclusive interview she discusses her ideas and work.

Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?

Rachel Armstrong: I am a former medical practitioner with a Ph.D. in architecture. My work looks at the intersections of designing and engineering between bodies, living spaces, and environment. My earliest recollections are being in the back garden constructing habitats for creepy crawlies using all kinds of materials – both from the garden and kitchen – to make ‘better’ places for these creatures to live. Since there was no ‘synthetic biology’ as a study option at University, my passion for designing and engineering along with the natural world was continued in medicine and consolidated during a sabbatical in Pune, India while working with residents with leprosy who had to completely configure their bodies and lives in new ways using simple technologies like leather straps to stop foot drop and wax moulds to shore up sunken noses. On my return to the UK, I sought to extend my practice and vocabulary for working at the interface between bodies, technologies, and habitats by collaborating with practitioners in the arts, such as Helen Chadwick and then being invited to work with architecture students by Neil Spiller. I am currently Professor of Experimental Architecture at Newcastle University where I work with the Experimental Architecture Group (EAG) alongside Simone Ferracina and Rolf Hughes to develop prototypes and exploratory approaches that are relevant to designing and engineering inhabited spaces at a time of great environmental flux. These protocols for choreographing spacetime operate through the experimental practice of ‘worlding’, which invites alternative modes of inhabitation and being-in-the-world.

RB: You work bridges both science and architecture, how would you define your work?

RA: Experimental architecture develops knowledge through transdisciplinary synthesis, which becomes key not only to developing the scope of research itself, but also its capacity to link and connect forms of expertise previously kept apart. This is not merely a theoretical position but a practice that engages in experiments that speak to transformative materialities, invisible realms, change, uncertainty, risk, hybrids, assemblages and typically use dynamic hypercomplex materials such as soil, and protocells.

Figure 1: Synthetic soil, photograph by Rachel Armstrong, 2015.

Activated gel matrix transforming the nature of soluble salts through reaction-diffusion-proecipitation events.


Figure 2

Protocells, movie by Rachel Armstrong, 2010.

Bütschli dynamic droplets are produced by mixing oil and a solution of alkali. They produce remarkably lifelike structures that are around 1mm diameter and can move around their environment, sense it and even undergo population scale behaviour.

RB: Proponents of Biomimicry use a wonderful phrase, ‘The conscious emulation of life’s genius’, to describe design innovation inspired by Nature. Your work is not so much about mimicking biological outputs but more about understanding the metabolic processes that shape these outputs. What could 21th century architects learn from these dynamic construction principles?

RA: My work does not use biology as the starting point for metabolism but searches back into the origins of life. I am looking for the dynamic material relationships forged before biological ‘programs’ and narratives about ‘biological determinism’ come into play. There is a political as well as a technical dimension to this. I aim to open up a narrative of life that is not enslaved by the dominant rhetoric of genes, or the aspirations of vitalism. I am exploring the material conditions for mutual thriving from a ‘deep’ relationship with materiality that invokes, cooperation, openness, synthesis and the linking of life and death to find webs of kith and kin (which embrace diversity) rather than vertical ancestries (where like begets like) – and which stand a chance of offering qualitatively different outcomes in planetary terms in the process of human development. To do this, a fundamental shift in the assumptions of life needs to take place. My palette is drawn from material systems at far from equilibrium states, which possess their own liveliness and agency as a fundamental and actual condition of their existence. Using the technological and material portfolios associated with ‘dissipative systems’ (and the associated theory of dissipative adaptation, where matter at far from equilibrium states becomes more organized with time, within the limits of its context) I work with protocells, metabolisms, cellular and simple organisms to develop a toolset and platform for prototyping a ‘living’ technology that underpins our habitats and provides a counterpoint to the ‘machine’ metaphor.

Working with nonlinear, or far from equilibrium fabrics requires a different set of design principles in architecture. The role of the designer is ‘decentred’ from the modern notion of ‘iconic’ designer. Yet, the kind of design that ‘living’ architects practice are no less important than a design culture of object-making, as their expertise centres on the infrastructural conditions through which ‘living’ materials can persist. In other words, rather than ‘form and function’ as being the drivers of the design process, the maintenance of flow, the tipping off balance of systems, the linking of catabolism and anabolism as strategies for synthesis and decay and the coupling of unlike bodies begin to replace the hard geometries, inert materials and fossil fuel energy sources, which typify the industrial modes of making that underpin modern architecture. While buildings have been likened to life since ancient times, at the start of the 21st century we can begin to realise this relationship in a new way through the origins of life and biotechnologies. Buildings become soft, dynamic, hypercomplex, ‘mortal’ configurations of matter with metabolisms and a potentially augmenting relationship with natural systems. Of course, we are not ‘there’ yet, but prototypes like the BIQ house (with algae cladding that absorbs heat to cool the building), MIT’s living architecture project that scrubs flue air, and EcoLogic Studio’s work with urban algaetecture are all exploring this widening space.

RB: You are the coordinator for Living Architecture, a project to develop a new type of bio-catalytic cells and programmable bioreactor systems. Can you say something about this project and how it will engage within the multidisciplinary realms of design and to the contemporary urban environment?

RA: The €3.2m Living Architecture project is a collaboration of experts from the universities of Newcastle, UK; the West of England (UWE Bristol); Trento, Italy; the Spanish National Research Council in Madrid; LIQUIFER Systems Group, Vienna, Austria; and Explora, Venice, Italy, that began in April 2016 and runs to April 2019. It is envisioned as a next-generation, selectively programmable bioreactor that is capable of extracting valuable resources from sunlight, wastewater and air and, in turn, generating oxygen, proteins and biomass. Conceived as a freestanding partition, it is composed of bioreactor building blocks (microbial fuel cell, algae bioreactor and a genetically modified processor), which are being developed as standardized building segments or bricks. Living Architecture uses the standard principles of both photo-bioreactor and microbial fuel cell technologies, which are adapted to and combined into a single, sequential hybrid bioreactor system so they will work together synergistically to clean wastewater, generate oxygen, provide electrical power and generate useable biomass (fertilizer). When combined, these modular units can be incorporated into common construction methods where environmental performance may be optimized through sensor arrays that detect internal and external conditions. The goal of Living Architecture is to design and build a proof-of-concept biologically programmable structure whose targeted breakthrough is to transform living spaces from inert habitats into environmentally sensitive and productive sites. The Living Architecture project proposes the possibility of how our relationship with these spontaneous natural processes may no longer be passive, and we may begin to ‘speak’ chemically, physically, biologically, mechanically and even digitally (through electricity) with the living world. In the near future, the Living Architecture unit could potentially change how we think about sustainability and resource management. The work in this section of the project is at an early stage, but is likely to reclaim phosphates from wastewater, remove pollutants, produce biofertilizers – or make new forms of environmentally friendly soap, just by using carbon dioxide and sunlight. These products have not yet been verified experimentally although, theoretically, they are realistic outputs of the system. Of course, this ambition is aspirational, but it creates the conditions in which ethical and more symbiotic relationships between cities and the natural world may be realized. Such a project requires trans disciplinary coordination and synthesis, as well as an understanding of sites and native ecologies to ensure the correct selection of organisms and the respective procurement systems that will necessarily have to deal with public and environmental health and safety. Currently this installation is a prototype, which is developing protocols for its appropriate usage in the built environment.

[[*Footnote: The project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme under Grant Agreement no. 686585.]]

Figure 3: Photograph courtesy of LIAR project, 2016. [[Footnote: The project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme under Grant Agreement no. 686585.]]

Figure 3

Photograph courtesy of LIAR project, 2016.

[[Footnote: The project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme under Grant Agreement no. 686585.]]

Figure 4: Drawing by Simone Ferracina, 2017

Designs for a structural system with a ‘living’ internal metabolism based on microbial fuel cells that decompose organic matter to produce electricity, water and oxygen.

RB: Is urban design evolving into a new practice of urban bio-engineering and what potential opportunities do you envisage by this shift?


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