By genetically modifying biological systems, we could grow biodegradable walls from pig cells. Studying “protocells” — nongenetic molecules that are “capable of chemical self-organization” and exhibit movement and sensitivity to their surroundings — could lead to the development of intelligent, responsive and dynamic structures, says Rachel Armstrong in her book Living Architecture: How synthetic biology can remake our cities and reshape our lives.
The digital book is being released tomorrow, February 7, available for download through TED Books, the publishing arm of the nonprofit known for its TED Talks. Armstrong is the co-director of the Advanced Virtual And Technological Architectural Research (AVATAR) Group and a senior lecturer at the School of Architecture & Construction at The University of Greenwich.
In the book she explains how old or inadequate buildings could be “recycled” into new, living structures by “pruning and extending” their concrete frameworks in order to create cladding that is not made of inert materials but rather of skins capable of heating or cooling the structure, or trapping CO2 or other pollutants from the air.
In water-starved areas, protocell technology and materials designed through synthetic biology could be trained to collect and utilize the morning dew on building exteriors. Materials that are harmed by excess water could instead be engineered to “tolerate water excesses and manage water shortages” through the application of living technologies. Essentially, homes could have characteristics not unlike those of succulent plants.
It’s a hopeful technological forecast, based on biomimicry and a vision for truly integrative systems that would merge biology with design, architecture and infrastructure. Of course, there’s no shortage of serious concerns and hurdles associated with the concepts that Armstrong explores — especially those that would require genetically modifying organisms. Aside from being difficult to scale, she says, genetic manipulation is prohibitively expensive and the resultant materials and systems would be vulnerable to infections. “From a public health and safety perspective, genetically modified organisms raise social and ethical concerns, particularly regarding their potential to contaminate natural environments,” Armstrong writes.
But throughout the short book — TED books are designed to extrapolate on a single concept that can be consumed in a single sitting, and this title is just 36 pages in length — Armstrong does call out a number of real-world experiments that underpin her long-term vision.
For example, she describes an installation from the Venice Architectural Biennale in 2010 by architect Philip Beesley and cybernetic engineer Rob Gorbet. Called “Hylozoic Ground,” (see image, left) the exhibit used protocells in an architectural, plant-like sculpture that was comprised of “intricate cybernetic machines” that responded to the presence of viewers by “shivering, fluttering, squeaking, convulsing and scattering dust…”
OK, so that won’t keep your house warm in winter, but it showed that materials can react to chemical exchanges from the air and can be engineered to have a metabolism.