Biotechnology meets architecture

Sensemaking / Biotechnology meets architecture

Visionary scientist Rachel Armstrong talks to Anna Simpson about bringing the built environment to life.

04 Nov 2011

Visionary scientist Rachel Armstrong talks to Anna Simpson about bringing the built environment to life.

We all respond to our surroundings: green space prompts us to feel calm and to breathe more deeply, just as small cluttered spaces can send our stress levels soaring. But imagine living in a space that responds just as actively to your presence. Its walls shiver or convulse as you wander by; the colours change as they pick up on your body heat, or the perfume you’re wearing...

Eerie, perhaps, but also very engaging. For Rachel Armstrong, who has turned this vision into a reality with an award-winning installation, this interaction between people and place is the way forward. First displayed at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2010, Hylozoic Ground is a jungle-like immersive environment embedded with a primitive neural network. Sensors respond to the temperature and chemical presence of visitors, and to changes such as airflow in the gallery caused by their movements.

The physical impact we all have on the world around us – through the air we breathe and the ground we actually tread, as much as through our carbon footprint, is often difficult to envisage. Responsive surroundings have great potential to bring it home.

But the real value, says Armstrong, is in a new understanding of our built environment as a living system, of which we are a part.

Rachel Armstrong“I’m unashamedly human-centred”, she declares. It’s not what her techie CV might lead you to expect: she’s a senior lecturer in architecture and construction at The University of Greenwich, Co-Director of the Advanced Virtual and Technological Architectural Research Group, and a senior Technology Entertainment Design (TED) fellow. But, she points out, her background is medicine.

“Medicine is optimistic science applied to the body; architecture gives you the chance to improve health and wellbeing in society.”

“Have you heard of Shusaku Arakawa?” she asks. “He was a Japanese architect who proposed that challenging interiors keep the body and mind active, helping people to stay alive and fitter for longer. Modern architecture, on the other hand, is static: it lets us be passive. In some ways, Hylozoic Ground represents this challenge…”

But surely, given our changing climate, the challenges we face are great enough? Yes, says Armstrong, which is why it is so important that our designs for the built environment are interactive – and so able to respond to change.

“I’m not an architect at heart”, Armstrong insists. “I’m reluctant to propose an aesthetic.” Instead, she sees her work as a collaboration between the science she draws upon and the environmental context in which it’s applied. She may offer some structural guidelines – rather like a skeleton, but the design itself is fleshed out by the elements and biological systems at play. “There is a form, but it’s yet to be decided.”

This isn’t merely a philosophical treatise: “It’s a necessary survival strategy.” Given how little we really know about the future climate, it would be mad to set our future cities in stone, as it were...

Take Venice. “Of course, everyone wants to save Venice! It taps into our cultural imagination.” But it does have wider relevance. Beyond the rising sea levels and floods faced by many coastal towns, Venetian buildings have struggled against the elements since their first days. Their brickwork has been reduced to dust by the build-up of saline crystals where they meet the canals. And where they aren’t exposed to saltwater, they are desiccated by the sun.

Armstrong is working towards a vision of a future Venice in which its structures and foundations aren’t eroded by the constant ebb and tide of seawater, but rather ‘activated’ by it: strengthening their defences and expanding in response. At the crux of this vision is a technology that combines self-assembly with the ability to respond to natural surroundings.

So how would it work? Rather like scar tissue, explains Armstrong. With her colleague Neil Spiller, also at Greenwich, she is developing tiny droplets that can be programmed to create little ‘skins’ when they come into contact with the city’s foundations. These tiny shells would reinforce the vulnerable structures, forming a protective reef. The droplets are synthetic protocells, programmed to respond vigorously to light, moving away from it towards the shade offered by woodpiles and brickwork, even against the flow. As they knock against these foundations, a chemical process is activated, drawing on the minerals and dissolved carbon dioxide in the water to build insoluble crystalline ‘skins’.

Initial field tests conducted by the city’s lagoon itself, sponsored by Red Bull in collaboration with the European Centre for Living Technology in Venice, have been successful. “But the project has many real world challenges”, Armstrong admits. “We don’t have the scale and momentum. We need investment, and we need to raise awareness of different ways of building at the shoreline.” And yet Armstrong is optimistic. “Science is changing”, she says. Her work is just a small part of a new field in which nanotechnology, biomedicine, information technology and cognitive science converge. “You have to admit it’s likely that the coming together of these disciplines will come up with something useful.”

Anna Simpson is Managing Editor, Green Futures

Photo credit: istock/thinkstock

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