Synthetic Biology and Architecture
I’ve been meaning to out some of this stuff together for a while but got distracted. During our post Architecture in the Information Age meeting the topic of Biological Architecture came up. One of the things that interests me about an architects education is that we have elements almost all major disciplines from Physics through to Philosophy and History and Psychology but we dont really look at Chemistry and Biology. Biology, in particular has provided much inspiration in Architecture (its worth looking at Steadman’s The Evolution of Designs for an overview) and there is, I believe, some relationship between Buckminster Fuller’s geometric explorations and the way we represent and understand molecular structures in Chemistry. More recently, however, the analogy between architecture and has been questioned by the fast emerging technologies from biotechnology. There is an underlying thread of research and experimentation on approaches to architecture which use evolutionary theory, bottom up approaches to design and, perhaps most progressively, the use of biological materials in construction. The interest for me was triggered an article related to this project undertaken by students at Newcastle University on the creation of a bacterial that would fill in cracks in concrete. I wrote to the project supervisors but got no response unfortunately. After that though I started looking into examples where biological materials were being developed in architectural contexts. WHat I found is mostly experimental and speculative and there is no coherent ‘Synthetic Biology of Architecture’ research but there are some examples:
Has an interesting background in medicine and various other felids and is now a researcher at UCL. Along with Neil Spiller she has had a papers published in various places on ‘Protocells’ Its worth checking out her TED talk and her Slide Share Introduction to the MArch Living Architecture Module and Synthetic Biology and Architecture . Rachel also recently edited and AD entitled Protocell Architecture. Also see her blog – the post on Protocells is particularly interesting.
Always a good place to start. There are also a few relevant TED talks including:
Mitchell Joachim’s: Don’t build your home, grow it! where he introduces the slightly disquieting notion of ‘The Meat House’.
Magnus Larsson’s: Turning dunes into architecture where he introduces the notion of creating sandstone by stabilizing dunes using a programmed bacteria.
There are not that many schools of architecture which looking at this area but a bit of Googling will uncover initiatives in places like Columbia with this reference to a Workshop and Seminar on Synthetic Biology and Architecture with some really useful links.
More generally its worth looking at relevant ideas outside architecture. Molly Steven’s who is a Professor at Imperial College London is leader of a group creating biomaterials – predominantly for medical use but many of the challenges that they face are engineering ones involving creating scaffolds and appropriate substrates to allow biological materials to grow and take appropriate forms. This is a very different notion of what scaffolding is from ours in Architecture. Her group is incredibly well resourced and doing genuinely exciting things.
The competition that started this exploration off is also worth checking out. Called Igen it runs competitions every year for new ideas for applications in Synthetic Biology. The Newcastle team won gold.
From a slightly different perspective but no less relevant is work conducted at MIT by Saul Griffith. His PhD. called Growing Machines is available as a download and looks at building a mechanical but emergent system where the pieces are able to assemble themselves. There is also a mention of the concept on Neil Gershenfeld’s talk on Fab Labs. The interesting relationship here between Griffith and Synthetic Biology is that he may provide clues as to how form could be encoded in small cellular level parts and be self constructing. What Griffith does with magnets could just as easily be binding proteins.
Beware the hype this is an embryonic field and is still more science fiction than practical application but I think that Synthetic Biology and Architecture has potentially a really exciting future. There are lots of areas to discuss – not least the ethical implications of having living buildings or materials derived from engineered organisms but if I were starting again I might choose a Joint honours degree in Molecular Biology and Architecture and, perhaps given that such a thing dosent exist we should be making one.