Living Architecture

A project at the Venice Biennale suggests creative rethinking of nature, architecture and biotechnology

Venice is more than city. It’s an idea of fragile beauty symbolized by the city’s famous spaces and artworks that are simultaneously threatened by the erosion and flooding of the city’s islands.  But Dr Rachel Armstrong, Professor of Experimental Architecture, Newcastle University is working on a project designed to make people rethink conventional approaches to tackling the city’s many problems. Dr Armstrong is scientific curator for the Azerbaijan Pavilion at Venice Art Biennale 2015 and the Future Venice 2 project which questions inherited ideas of materials in architecture, assumptions around sustainability, and seeks to open up new creative connections between science and architecture/design. 

Dr Armstrong’s first Future Venice project proposed using protocells (chemicals that act like living cells) to grow an artificial reef under the city, acting as a barrier, improving water and encouraging micro-wildlife. It’s the idea of what she calls Ecological Living Technology (ELT) that captures the lifelike processes of new technologies we may need to solve threatening environmental issues – it also involves rethinking inherited ideas of what a technology is. 

Future Venice 2 envisions using microalgae to consume microplastics in the lagoon, binding them together. The experiment being conducted during the Biennale explores the idea that these plastics could be transformed from something that we know is currently destined to arrive in the future as a pollutant, into something that transforms through decomposition into a useful material for future generations. ‘Plastics did originally come from oil in the ground,’ says Dr Armstrong, ‘and if we can garden these processes by adding different microorganisms to speed up various processes in the production, we are taking them out of the food chain. Then if we can actually make them useful and less toxic that’s another thing. We obviously need to do this mindfully but we can’t wait 30 years for the official statistics. We have to start actually thinking about some of these possibilities now and be propositional about it.’ 

Re-imagining technologies

If Dr Armstrong’s work suggests a more dynamic relationship between science and design, it’s partly because she herself has explored and developed the space between the science-art divide ; she is a medical doctor who has worked, among other places, in Guy’s Hospital, London, and has been a General Practitioner. She has also been a lecturer at the Bartlett School of Architecture at UCL, Greenwich University’s School of Architecture, and is now at Newcastle University.  

Her work explores new developments in material science, at the same time posing questions about what it is to make things, how these new ‘things’ can help us rethink our relationship to the world, and how we might usefully do experiments differently. Dr Armstrong’s work questions ‘industrial’ approaches to architecture and making in general, to tap into life-like processes of making. She poses the question, ‘If the processes we are using are effectively reverse terraforming the earth – harvesting the earth’s natural resources and converting them into things that are either poisonous or had all the life squeezed out of them – then given the last 30 years of biotechnology, can we look at life forces as a technological system and see what kind of making that offers us? How do we free up biotechnology in ways that allow us to engage in the natural world on a more equal footing?’

Dr Armstrong’s vision of technology, as one element of a living system, originated in the 1990s when she went to work in a leprosy colony, and saw how people in the colony remade their world. ‘These people were outcasts from society, they were unclean, cast out by their families and they beat the ground into fertility with their bare hands,’ remembers Dr Armstrong. ‘They built a village and built tools that could compensate for their broken bodies and physical challenges, they recreated their lives.’ What was effective in this situation wasn’t simply a question of what medicine did to the body. Their creation of technologies, ‘was a way of claiming who they were and re-imagining the world around them and acting upon that to reassert their dignity as people. As a young medical student that affected me, I thought this is incredible, why are we not doing this in western medicine? I had questions about our relationship with technology, our identity, nature, that weren’t simply addressed by medicine alone.’ 

Protocells

This eventually lead to a focus on the idea of living technology, and to collaborations with artists and designers who could reframe questions about technology and nature differently and who were designing different kinds of experiments with science. In 2010, she worked with Toronto architect Philip Beesley on a project for the Venice Architecture Biennale. This work used protocells for the exhibit Hylozoic Ground; an installation which responded to visitors and changes in the environment. This inspired the original conception of Future Venice. 

‘Venice became the site most relevant to my work,’ Dr Armstrong says, ‘because firstly dynamic droplets were invented in Venice.’ Martin Hanczyc who is currently Principal Investigator in the Centre for Integrative Biology and the University of Trento, Italy, ‘was working at the European Centre for Living Technology based in Venice, as Chief Chemist there he was with a group called ProtoLife. And so when I thought about the origins of these dynamic droplets where they’ve been imagined, and understanding they needed a watery medium, then Venice seemed to be the site in which they made most sense.’ 

These eye-catching architectural projects are not just useful experiments in themselves, they reframe questions and problems that seem intractable given current approaches. Dr Armstrong argues that the current vision of making things more efficient and less damaging hasn’t changed the dominant paradigm of our relationship to nature. ‘Sustainability really hasn’t moved out of an industrial mode. What we are inviting people to do is to take a much broader view of what biotechnology is, challenging people to think how nature can be a technology, how we can actually work with it and not just try to stamp our preconceptions on it.’ 

Creative possibilities

The tangible context provided by her work enables the public to engage with unthought possibilities of science. ‘I’d seen in genetic modification when you come up with an abstracted idea of a technology people are afraid of it,’ she says. ‘If you give them a context, first of all they can ask you what the technology can do, they ask you “does it do this does it do that?” They start to become creative with the process, understanding that not all avenues have been exhausted. And then two-thirds of the way through the discussion someone goes “but what if it runs away and takes over the world?” At that point you think, “yes this is great, we need to ask that question,” but I’m glad that’s not right at the beginning!’ 

The work at the School of Architecture Planning and Landscape at Newcastle University is fostering creative trans-disciplinary thinking. ‘We’re building teams of scientists and designers to work together on these ideas,’ she explains, working with Dr Gary Caldwell from the School of Marine Science and Technology who is helping with the algae, and Anil Wipat, Professor of Integrative Bioinformatics. ‘Rather than simply analysis,’ she says, ‘I think there’s a need for – let’s call it – the “synthetic approach” for understanding the big challenges we’re facing. You actually need the space where new kinds of synthetic thinking, of synthetic forms of making, of bringing things together, can be studied.’