They live: synthetic biology in architecture

20 September 2012 (Last Updated September 20th, 2012 18:30)

Multidisciplinary teams and practices are generating jaw-dropping projects that imply a future of ‘living buildings’ and metabolic materials. Bill Millard meets Rachel Armstrong, Mitchell Joachim and David Benjamin to discover how the blurring of the lines between biology and architecture is challenging popular assumptions around form, sustainability and the built environment.

They live: synthetic biology in architecture

Listen to Rachel Armstrong for a while, and there’s a chance your world view will change. A co-director of AVATAR (Advanced Virtual and Technological Architectural Research) and a galvanising communicator whose interviews, TED talks and ventures into science fiction quickly show the irrelevance of conventional field boundaries, her discourse is a wild ride. It’s also a purposeful one, leading toward consequential transformations in the relationship between the built and natural environments.

Armstrong doesn’t see biotechnology as simply a greener set of techniques for production within existing systems; she sees it as a lever of history. Synthetic biology as an allied discipline of architecture is moving from the metaphoric stage to the practical. A long series of design ideas have gone under rubrics like organic or biomimetic, but today’s technologies allow the design professions to move beyond imitating natural processes while still working with inert building materials, instead partnering directly with natural elements as collaborators in design and production.

"While fuels and medicines remain the most commonly cited goals for applied synthetic biology, the capacity to generate innovative building components is enormous."

This entails the sacrifice of some degree of control; in place of abstract geometries and tolerances of a fraction of a millimetre, natural and semi-natural agents produce forms whose irregularities require a different aesthetic from that of industrial-age Modernism, closer to the surrealism of Gaudi than the precise detail of Mies. What architects gain in this exchange is access to the power and resourcefulness that nature directly exerts.

Architectures premised on static conditions, aspiring (or pretending) to stand outside nature, have often found themselves at odds with nature’s tendencies toward flux, decay and disruption. Armstrong and a growing group of architects are developing alternative methods that harness nature’s dynamic processes, not to replace, but to amplify human creativity.

Pilot projects yielding self-piloting processes

Mitchell Joachim of the urban-design group Terreform ONE (for Open Network Ecology), Genspace (a community biotech lab) and New York University’s Gallatin School has drawn attention to biodesign’s potential through a flurry of conference presentations and exhibitions. His group has grown a model house out of meat and designed another house, the Fab Tree Hab, comprising a tree guided by an ancient grafting technique known as pleaching. For this year’s International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, Joachim’s students are genetically combining Acetobacter-based cellulose with chitin, the protein in arthropod exoskeletons, to make durable yet recyclable biopolymer chairs that he describes as "completely organic, completely a part of nature, can’t possibly kill anybody; when you’re done with the chair, you can throw it in a park, and after a month or two of rain, it returns to the soil." Terreform’s ‘urbaneers’ have also grown Ganoderma lucidum (reishi) fungus into a model of a Manhattan icon SANAA’s New Museum of Contemporary Art building, made of blocks dense enough for structural support – rapidly, pollution-free, and with low embodied energy.

Biofabrication and biocomputing

David Benjamin, co-principal of another New York firm The Living, recently worked with Cambridge plant biologists Fernan Federici and Jim Haseloff on the National Science Foundation-supported Synthetic Aesthetics project, exploring biofabrication and biocomputing to produce problem-solving composite materials grown from bacteria and from plants’ xylem cells. Arup’s Jan Wurm and partners are investigating façade-mounted flat-panel photobioreactors that use fast-growing microalgae to produce biomass, solar heat and methane while absorbing carbon; a pilot project at the Internationale Bauausstellung in Hamburg has led to a four-storey residential building opening in 2013, the world’s first integrated photobioreactor application. Armstrong’s own work with Christian Kerrigan on protocells – assemblages of organic chemicals that are not quite living (they contain no DNA) but react to physicochemical conditions with complex behaviours – offers the chance to rehabilitate the sinking wood-pile foundations of Venice, racked by centuries of contact with salt water and water-borne organisms.

"Building with more living components than inert materials may revise assumptions about the lifespan of structures."

Applying architectural biotech to urban problems calls for expertise on multiple levels. "There’s no such thing as discrete location of a scale to operate on," comments Joachim, noting how micro or nanoscale phenomena connect with regional and even global concerns: available infrastructure; distributions of technical knowledge; resource flows. "A good designer thinks outside of a particular scale. We think we can separate industrial designers from architects and planners, but there’s so much connection, and the problems are so big that to solve it at one scale is highly myopic. Not only are we getting super-big, but we’re actually shrinking architecture to the scale of biology, or cells or DNA."

What does a cell want to be?

While fuels and medicines remain the most commonly cited goals for applied synthetic biology, the capacity to generate innovative building components is enormous. The possibilities for programmable life forms broadened exponentially in 2010, when biologist J Craig Venter announced that his team had created the first self-replicating synthetic bacterial cells. They were careful not to claim they had created artificial life. Instead, what they have created is the software of life; the codes expressed in DNA’s adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine combinations.

Manipulating that software to guide, recombine or unleash the properties of living things is so complicated, Benjamin comments, that it requires large-scale partnerships with specialised practitioners. "Architects aren’t going to just open their own lab in the back of their studio to produce new building materials without some kind of collaboration," he says. DIY approaches to equipment have lowered economic barriers far enough that ‘garage biotech’ is now as viable as garage computer hacking was in the 1970s. Terreform/Genspace’s Brooklyn lab has radically democratised biotech work by acquiring and building low-cost gear. A rough-and-ready-looking incubator, for example, consists of an orbital sander and a toaster, creating a hood that would run $18,000 to $28,000 in medical catalogues. This movement from institutional Big Science toward cheap, accessible biotech is the core of Dyson’s argument that the field’s great promise lies with breadth and bottom-up domestication.

A modular approach to biodesign

But no lab small or large, Benjamin notes, can get anywhere by repeatedly reinventing the wheel. A modular approach, letting members of each related field stand on the shoulders of the appropriate giants, strikes him as most likely to yield practical progress. This is where synthetic biology’s developing organisational form takes on particular interest for practicing architects. Synthetic-biology pioneers at MIT have, he notes, since 2003 been assembling, verifying, and organising the Registry of Standard Biological Parts (, a database of parts "that can be snapped together like Lego bricks to create larger systems and devices capable of executing useful tasks." The registry manages complexity and organises communications through an abstraction hierarchy, rising from DNA up to parts, devices and systems. Nonspecialists seeking biological entities with certain properties can identify them in the registry, predict how an organism or material with given components would function, and even begin the design and construction of the desired entity, all without detailed expertise in each modular level.

"The model is a nice one: it’s electrical engineering," Benjamin continues. "You can have some people designing circuits, and because there are standard predictable parts such as transistors and capacitors that they can rely on… the person designing the circuit doesn’t necessarily need to know how a capacitor works, they just need to specify the capacitor with certain functional requirements."

Biological algorithms

Software is the critical element, he suggests, connecting the biological software of DNA with the cut-and-paste registry elements and Autodesk-style design programs, perhaps up to the level of comprehensive building information management systems. "Even if we don’t know exactly how nature is creating certain kinds of forms and structures, maybe we can harness it and figure out how to run these ‘biological algorithms’ to our own use and benefit. We think of biological cells as tiny computers that can help us perform useful functions." Benjamin’s work with Federici and Haseloff, for example, inducing leaves to grow like cylindrical xylem and obtaining unpredicted convoluted forms, represents a "cooperation between a human designer and this kind of biological algorithm to generate new structural solutions that are beyond what a human engineer or human linear thinking would come up with".

"Not only are we getting super-big, but we’re actually shrinking architecture to the scale of biology, or cells or DNA."

"Printing meat cells?" ponders Joachim, "I have no idea what their geometry wants to be." Yet without either an anthropomorphic reading of their ‘wants’ or the presumption that we can always direct them toward our own aims, biotech is quickly learning what cells and other noncellular assemblages can be and do. Sharing degrees of agency with living but nonsentient things, and even with nonliving but active things, is inevitably unsettling; Joachim acknowledges that sci-fi and real-world biotech can overlap, and recognises the popular tendency, conditioned by the long narrative thread from Frankenstein to 28 Days Later, to assume that the path from amazement to applications leads inevitably to catastrophe. In fact, he reports, FBI agents, "guys with business cards that say ‘Coordinator of WMD’," have visited the Terreform/Genspace headquarters numerous times, curious about whether any of the work was being weaponised, or could be.

Whatever the organisms may ‘want’, and whatever forms emerge from the dialectic of their capabilities with what investigators, investors, and architects may want, it would take an extreme combination of malevolence and secrecy to develop unnatural hazards in such a facility. Precautions against bioerror, especially with self-replicating entities, remain standard practice in the field for obvious reasons. Nature’s own safeguards – "its robustness, its evolution over millions and billions of years," he says, "make it highly unlikely that anything created in the lab would be able to survive out in the wild without very specific conditions and support."

Materiality driving theory

Synthetic biology’s interdisciplinarity may strike some observers as a double-edged sword. A set of theories and practices capable of driving a fundamental revaluation of humanity’s place within ecosystems – and Armstrong, like others with expertise in this realm, views its potential as nothing less – can appear formidable to the practitioner who simply aspires to work with processes that harmonise better with nature. To rethink where design practices fit within complex systems, one may ask, is it necessary to rethink everything?

Newcomers to biodesign’s potent, potentially unruly toolkit face heady cultural and perceptual learning curves, beginning with the aesthetics, where the space between nature’s rough nuances and humanity’s simplifications looms large. Widespread acceptance of biodesigned structures requires an adaptation to forms with a touch of the alien. Armstrong cites her collaboration with Philip Beesley on the Hylozoic Ground installation for the 2010 Venice Biennale, a dense milieu of mobile microprocessor-controlled acrylic fronds and tendrils that wouldn’t appear out of place on a film set by HR Giger, as a purposefully challenging model. "When you walk through Beesley’s installation," she observes, "part of the joy is you don’t know whether it’s friend or foe at the beginning. And then at the end you are on your back, lying down, looking up at the ceiling, thinking, ‘This is a strange world’."

Current parametric design strategies, Armstrong notes, make it possible to "represent complexity as topologies, using big computers, but the second you try and manifest this in a material way, the whole dynamism, the smartness, the homologies with nature essentially fall apart. So essentially there’s a natural theory, which is ecology; there’s a scientific principle, which is complexity; but in order for this to become a technology, we really needed synthetic biology – in other words, embodied materials that can behave according to the laws of complexity. So synthetic biology I often think of as being the fusion of nature and technology."

Nature-friendly infrastructures

Living or lively materials and cheap, widely distributed production technologies, she expects, will make architecture more symbiotic, "like new biology wrapping itself around the bones of the old biology… This is not about tearing things down but creating more nature-friendly infrastructures, like water channels, light and the passage of fresh air, which will lead to the complexification of building fabrics, and enable designers many more degrees of freedom to construct and invent new modes of production that will underpin new forms of social organisation."

Much of what now passes for sustainable design, Armstrong goes on to say, differs little from branding or greenwashing. Biodesign at its best can either restore currently misplaced elements of systems to proper places or invent new, harmonious places for them; it is emphatically not about restoring a nostalgically reified natural condition. "Our life in a city is an ecological arrangement," she continues, "and the performances of all the agents are different, but that doesn’t mean that we’re any more or less engaged, depending on the kind of materials that we’re choosing. They’re just different kinds of responsibilities, and I think we’re seeing an age of real neglect. We’ve found the convenience of shiny surfaces and holes in the ground way too attractive to actually think about what the consequences of that way of life are."

Attuned to natural dynamics

Because biodesign must consider changing elements over time, it is better equipped than either 20th-century modernism or its direct descendants to comprehend processes of succession in both the ecological and the philosophical sense. It replaces the stasis implied by sustainability with an attunement to natural dynamics, fostering an evolutionary architecture rather than one that aims for an unattainable equilibrium and puts components of systems in places where they inevitably become ectopic. Benjamin notes that building with more living components than inert materials may revise assumptions about the lifespan of structures; though we don’t yet know much about the long-range durability of buildings with living elements, "another possibility would be that some materials have a shorter lifespan – but maybe that would be OK. Maybe that wouldn’t be purely a weakness to be overcome by more and more technology." It’s not hard to see temporary buildings re-entering the carbon cycle without energy-inefficient demolition, as preferable to the buildings whose remnants currently constitute 30-40% of US landfills.

"It’s not hard to see temporary buildings re-entering the carbon cycle without energy-inefficient demolition."

Synthetic biology and biodesign are also more likely to inspire and inform youth, Armstrong speculates, than traditional Greens have done by framing ecological responsibility in the discourse of sacrifice. "I teach a little boy who’s 13 years old," she says, "and he’s absolutely sick of environmentalists telling him that this is the age of austerity, that he’s got to give up this, that, and the other – the gloom and doom that our generation is painting in relationship to the environment." She seeks a design practice that can offer this student "conscious techno-optimism and a search for a new abundance appropriate to the relentlessness and creativity of a generation that actually wants something to inherit. They want to make the Earth their own".

Observing that "the Earth is full", as Greenpeace CEO Paul Gilding succinctly put it, but that decades of "textbook" discourse on sustainability have barely budged the interests that preserve dysfunctional systems, Joachim is sceptical that the necessary paradigm change can occur without some crisis, economic and/or environmental. Yet after Pearl Harbor, he says, "it took us three days to align the US into rethinking its food systems, its energy systems, [and] its industry towards the war." Some systems can change when they have to.

Architecture deserves a prominent role in this systemic change. "Architects’ training in and of itself," Joachim says, "is extremely creative," an antidote to siloing in biology and other fields. Benjamin cautions against repeating the profession’s history of adopting new technologies late in their development cycle. "This is an ideal moment," he believes. "We don’t know exactly how the software for synthetic biology will be integrated with the software for the design of the built environment" and path-dependent practices may become locked in, "biased toward bottom-line, cold-blooded efficiency and not open enough to creativity and invention."

If a strange yet oddly familiar new world is taking shape, it’s a good time to be among those forming it.