Interview: Rachel Armstrong, Innovative Scientist Who Wants to Grow Architecture
The next guest in our interview series is Dr. Rachel Armstrong, interdisciplinary practitioner and sustainability innovator. Armstrong’s work uses all manners of media to engage audiences and bring them into contact with the latest advances in science and their real potential through the inventive applications of technology, to address some of the biggest problems facing the world today. She designs solutions for the built and natural environment using advanced new technologies and smart chemistry.
You may know Armstrong from her essay Self-Repairing Architecture and her research in living architecture and protocell technology, a new material that possess some of the properties of living systems and can be manipulated to grow architecture.
We recently talked with Rachel Armstrong about living buildings, Venice’s foundations, millennial nature and how to improve our future.
Here’s what she had to say:
You work somewhere between science and architecture, how would you define your work and how did you start?
I’m a concept and ideas explorer. I like to test the ideas that I have to see how they might work and then re-apply what I learn during my experiments to further refine my ideas. I use a range of different methods and don’t comfortably fit in any particular discipline although I am very happy working across disciplines and learn a great deal from my collaborations.
How did I start? It has been something that I’ve done since childhood, when I was a child I could do art and science, English and math, anything. I was just interested in things, even when I went to university I didn’t want to specialize particularly. I remember when I was about five years old I put my hands down in the earth just trying to figure out what it was made of. I thought this substance was so special that perhaps we could use it to make incredible things. I guess it’s an interest that never died. At university I studied medicine because my ambition was to design and engineer with the natural world, it was the only discipline that allowed me to do this with living things. There wasn’t synthetic biology at that time. Biology itself was an incredibly backward looking practice. Of course now it’s all changed with advances in biotechnology, but when I was a young student it was only really medicine that gave me the opportunity to design and engineer, keeping art and science together. Part of my medical training was to choose a sabbatical. I went to India and worked with people with leprosy and observed how people could restore their lives by bringing together issues of identity, the body, technology and the natural world through art and technology. So, right from the beginning of my career, I never limited myself to one discipline and when I did I got incredibly frustrated, so that’s really how I started.
The integration between architecture and biological systems is already reality, there are some precedents, like the living bridges of Cherrapunji, in northeast India. Here the locals learned to “drive” the roots of the Ficuselastica tree to build bridges able to support the weight of 50 people and reach 30 meters in length. What could 21th century architects learn from these dynamic construction principles? How we could apply these methods to urban areas?
You are absolutely right! Nature itself is larger than the architecture scale. If we actually think about life on this Earth and the mega structures that are produced by living things, for example the algal blooms and aspen trees, which are giant multiple bodies sometimes comparable to cities in their scale, we can see that nature is geological scale in terms of its effects. What we have to learn from nature is to understand its technology. Understanding form and function of natural systems is not enough – we need to understand those processes through which these outputs are produced and how the outcomes are entangled. Culturally, in the modern Western world, we use machines as our technological platform. Machines come from a very particular way of understanding the world. They have a unique ontology that is born from a very particular set of ideas. Most notably machines assume reality is made of objects, which can be defined geometrically and hierarchically linked. It also assumes that the world is at effective equilibrium where matter is passive, so machines need external energy for their functional object hierarchies to do useful work. Nature doesn’t work like that. Its technology deals with processes that we can describe as ‘metabolism’. These are functional chemical interactions that are never static, or the systems are no longer living.
What we have to learn from nature is its technology
Nature needs to do work to be living but it doesn’t require humans to provide external energy. However, metabolic processes can be prolonged by external energy sources such as, the sun and carbon dioxide. There is an internal agency in the technology of nature that can create effects that don’t work in the same way as machines. I think that if we look at a very low level of what nature is – at the level of chemistry – and unravel how she produces her effects we will begin to understand these secrets and much more ecological forms of technology. These systems won’t be machines but will be a different kind of technological platform, which we can call an ‘assemblage’, with completely different outcomes and impacts on the environment to those we associate with the industrial age.
Do you thing “bio-architecture” can become the main architecture in a future next natural world?
Many people adopt the term “bio-architecture” in many different ways. Some refer to bio-mimicry has being a bio-architecture which broadly-speaking, uses industrial processes to copy nature’s shapes and more recently, its functions. Although the outcomes of nature are pretty, and/or useful, we’re really only looking at the end products of hugely sophisticated systems. So the pursuit of ‘mimicking’ biological outputs doesn’t really interest me in a huge way because I’m more concerned with the way that the chemical hardware and software of natural systems are spatially entangled through metabolic processes to shape these kinds of events. When we simply replicate what we think nature has been doing, we do not understand the processes that we’re mimicking at a sufficiently deep level and ultimately we are still working within an industrial paradigm. The kind of architecture I’m dreaming of engages and designs with metabolism and for example, could produce buildings with organs and physiologies, which for example, process vital nutrients, filter our water and even produce energy. Potentially organ systems within buildings will help us transform our waste into rich soils or other products that may replenish, not deplete our environment. I hope this will be the future of architecture.
The kind of architecture I’m dreaming of produces buildings with organs and physiologies
My own practice seeks to identify alternative technological platforms to industrial technologies and culture, simply because they are so wide spread now that they’re causing an imbalance in the chemistry and the natural world. I am not fundamentally ‘against’ machines, but I am ‘against’ them being our only technological option. I would like to see a much greater range of technological platforms to help us deal with the challenges that humans face. By diversify our technological approaches hopefully, we’ll find that the inevitable imbalances between the different systems start to balance each other out. It reminds me of Ben Moor’s definition of “beauty” – to paraphrase – somebody is beautiful when all the imperfections cancel each other out. I think that’s very much the kind of condition that I would like us to technologically and culturally be at!
The path has already been shown by some pioneers of architecture inspired by the life, such as Richard Buckminster Fuller and Antoni Gaudí. More recently we can find other examples of Biomimicry, innovations inspired by nature, did humans begin to understand and accept the fact that technology can have some living systems properties? Is it possible a mind-changing?
I think that people have to observe our contemporary lives differently and wonder at the kind of technological advances that we have accesses to right now – even if, as William Gibson notes, they are unevenly distributed. Warren Ellis in particular reminds us to reflect on just how amazing our lives are when we are able to have a conversation from different parts of the world, send rockets to the International Space Station and understand that some people are actually living there – beyond the Earth atmosphere. So when we look with wonder at the technologies around us, we may actually begin to observe that the patterns within the internet appear to have some lifelike qualities and – teetering on the edge of the uncanny valley – machines and robots are becoming recognizably more lifelike. Yet, most of the times we fail to consider just how amazing these developments are, since we adapt to our surroundings very easily.
Technology follows, not leads, invention
We culturally edit our preferences to suit our technological developments and match them to cultural demands. Right now, we are living in an epoch where we do not expect our machines to be ‘alive’, so we ignore their liveliness and assimilate these incredible developments into the quotidian. But things are changing. We desire to live in a more ecologically connected world where human development may be good for, not bad for, our biosphere. So, we desire more lifelike technologies and perhaps we are beginning to recognize and design with more lively technologies in mind. In fact, this kind of collective appetite may be thought of an innovation driver in which technology follows, not leads invention. I think that in the idea of innovation driving cultural changing, culture plays a large part in established markets. For example, Symbiotica made the provocation in 2000 that we could produce ‘victimless meat’, thirteen years later Andras Forgacs has developed a technique that cultures meat like it was yeast with no cow deaths involved and the first very small squares of leather are being produced that are coveted by international fashion designers. The ‘victimless meat’ idea has also spurred on the idea of cooking with cultured meat – so collective desire manifests in many different forms through a variety of cultural expressions. In other words – it is not always science and technology that leads innovation. Indeed, one of the things that Next Nature Network highlights quite beautifully is the role of culture in innovation and the development of technology.
Assuming we as humans are co-evolving with technology. What can we do to steer this in a desired direction? Can we steer at all?
We have the power to shape our own technological evolution – even if we use ‘soft’ control to direct the outcomes. One of the really interesting things about having many different practices, paradigms and different kind of solving approaches through technology, is that we are increasing our ability to remain fluid and adaptive to change. We are definitely going to need resilience and adaptability as key drivers of human development in this century, if the predictions of an unstable earth and rapid increase in the number of people on the planet are correct. In facing these significant challenges we need not to just consider the amount of ‘life’ that we can support but invest in ensuring a good quality of life. A healthy relationship with technology may help us achieve this as I view technology as being the way that our minds are embodied in the process of problem solving. As this century unfolds, Nature will increasingly be the challenge that we need to address – so there will be an even tighter coupling between technology and the natural world than already exists.
You studied a protocell technology that could stop the city of Venice from sinking on its soft geological foundations by generating a sustainable, artificial reef under the foundations of Venice and spreading the point load of the city. How this project is close to become real and concrete?
This is a very interesting question, because I think it relates to the way that we envision the future. My Venice research is at a prototyping stage and it could be ready in 15 or 20 years. In reality the future is much more complex than just setting a linear time line on laboratory developments and prototypes, it’s contingent on many different events that are beyond the control of the designer. ‘The future’ is not an empirical quantity that can be guaranteed by setting up a chain of events – it is probabilistic. It is therefore only possible to orchestrate a diverse series of supporting events as best as possible to try to create the conditions in which a desired outcome is most likely. The advent of an artificial reef ultimately depends on many factors that are beyond my direct influence and require decentralized control over the project. Firstly, in my view, the people of Venice need to want this particular idea to happen. Its success also heavily depends on the political and economic situation and on my ability to raise funds and put together a team to make sure that the technology works in an environmentally enhancing way. Then the way that the technology and its relationship with the environment needs to work in ways that it has been imagined. If not, further research and development will need to be conducted to re-shape the possible outcomes in ways that continue to be desirable. There is nothing inevitable about the future, we need to continually negotiate it – on many different levels – and since we only have finite time and resources we may as well dedicate these to shaping the kind of outcomes that are important to us. If the idea of an artificial limestone reef under the foundations of the city of Venice is something that the citizens want and is supported by the government and external funders, then this greatly increases its likelihood.
What are the possible benefits and risks or negative aspects, if there are, in self-repairing architecture?
The benefits are that you don’t have to spend a lot of time, money and energy trying to work against nature or natural forces. Inert, or non-living systems, inevitably deteriorate due to the continual actions of nature that is not in equilibrium on their static surfaces.
Currently we spend around 2-3% of the original cost of a new building every year on maintenance and repair. Of course, as the buildings get older the percentage of the original value spent on maintenance and repair rapidly rises. So, for older buildings in particular, it may be economically prudent to find ways of introducing self healing systems into an architectural structure, as there will be a huge cost and maintenance saving.
We spend 3% a year of the original cost of the building on maintenance and repair, with the self healing system there will be huge savings
Regarding the negative aspects of the technology, questions are always raised about how the system is controlled. Obviously, if something has living properties there will be concerns about the potential for it to contaminate and destroy the natural environment. Yet dynamic chemistries need our active participation for them to survive in their surroundings. They can only work as long as they are externally fed and replenished. For example, they can’t go into the Adriatic Sea in an uncontrolled fashion, as we would have to direct and support this process. Lifelike chemistries need humans to keep on living. The droplets are not a GMO, with a gene with the autonomy and the ability to survive without us. In this way the droplets inhabit a twilight zone of existence being between acting in ways that suggest they are ‘alive’ and simultaneously being far from being completely autonomous. Another negative aspect to the technology is this degree of engagement that we need to exert for the droplets to work in meaningful ways. So, they will require a lot of care for them to do what we need them to do, like growing a delicate garden. In face, we will be more like surgeons or doctors rather than throwing magical seeds into the water and walking away without any accountability for what they do.
At this point it is clear that architectural processes are becoming much more dynamic, what kind of aesthetics do you expect will emerge from it?
The aesthetics of these structures will be co-constructed by human preference and the limits of performance of the system. In the same way that a wood carver can only works with a particular kind of wood, which suggests what their work will be, it will be the same for lifelike technologies, which will offer a certain quality of substrate that can be shaped by our aesthetic preferences. This idea of co-design is a challenging one for designers who are used to working with obedient digital geometries. I suspect we will have some really good designs and some really bad ones, but this is the same with all media concerned with aesthetics.
Is there the prospect of using your new materials in different areas other than buildings?
Yes, for example, we can use this technology in areas that are flooded because protocells do very well when there is water around. Indeed dynamic droplets need an aqueous medium before they can move. So, this particular technology will enable us to design able to design in place where water damages buildings, so that the presence of water in the system may activate a set of protocells that stimulate growth – like the way the Florida Glades bloom and swell after sudden rainfall. Protocells may even be used in food stuffs – where our dinner may move around on the plate, rather than lie still! There is probably a whole range of possible applications, like the cavity inside the body. Who knows, we may like to have jewelry for body cavities that can only be seen when we have an X-ray or a medical scan. These kinds of applications are not really functional – but frivolous. I like the idea of protocells not being bound to rational solutions. A system that is playful, peculiar, intriguing, beautiful and unpredictable is sufficiently wonderful!
Nature caused by people is the focus idea of Next Nature and the fact that humans are increasingly able to manipulate natural processes also appear in your activity. In your opinion, how does nature change along with human culture?
Timothy Morton asks us to deconstruct the idea of nature and proposes that it is a cultural concept. He does a wonderful job of exposing the different kinds of natures that we share when we talk about the natural world. Everybody has a different idea of nature. Some envisage bucolic, picturesque landscapes, neo-environmentalists consider nature as a creative resource that can be consumed, while for others, nature is a place without people. However, after deconstructing the idea of nature, we need to make new propositions and profess our biases. My view of nature is a millennial one. Millennial nature is vast, raw and relentlessly material. It is more than biology and is a combination of geochemical forces working with living systems that are deeply entangled and keep each other away from collectively reaching relative equilibrium.
Nature is a cultural concept, everybody has a different idea of nature
Millennial nature is much less picturesque and much more democratic in its materiality than more Romantic views of nature, which are concerned with a particular organic aesthetic. Millennial nature is not anti-human, but needs to be properly engaged using the language of chemistry and ‘metabolism’ that enables us to connect with the processes that forge the natural world. In this manner, millennial nature possesses the possibility of transformation and may be ‘technologiesd’. This for me is the defining characteristic of millennial nature – that it’s a material transformer that requires us to treat it with respect. It’s not against our survival, but we need to align with it as a technology, to continue to live ‘bios’ – ‘the good life’.
Why are we having this Next Nature discussion now, and not 1000 years ago or in 100 years?
On reaching the third millennium we have encountered two major factors that are enabling things to happen that have not been possible before. The first is the Internet, which has established the condition for a global conversation about the state of humanity and what it means to be humans. The second is the biotechnological revolution that is allowing us to develop tools to build and shape technologies that are not machines.
Third millennium major factors are the Internet and the biotechnological revolution
In combination these factors are beginning to bring about a paradigm shift in the way that we imaging and build the world. This is why next nature is incredibly exciting, because it’s not just about the technology, it’s actually us asking much deeper questions about our humanity and how we’re going to shape it as we experience a paradigm shift in the way we live. It’s taking place on a global scale very rapidly. Each of us is shaping our future every single day and bringing together those ingredients that we think are important, whether we are conscious of the new possibilities, or not. Next Nature Network is doing a great job of raising awareness of these transitions and is providing a platform through which we may be able to work together and imagine and construct the futures we want.
Which one of your works do you think is most successful and representative of your activity?
I would say that the Hylozoic Ground, an installation for the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale, probably encapsulates my thinking the best, because it’s been built and it works. It was a collaboration with architect Philip Beesley. I scaled up a chemical system that was only a millimeter big and modified it to a point where people could see it without a microscope. Then I developed it in a way so it could connect with the lively cybernetic framework of the Hylozoic Ground installation. It’s not a mechanical environment; it’s a strange, emotional, playful space that seems to want to participate with its visitors. I really hope to do many more kinds of project like this.
We have to work together and imagine and construct the futures we want
What are your big plans for the future?
To keep on doing more of what I’m doing now, I’m having so much fun. My five year old self would be proud of where I’m at today and the kind of things that I’m doing. Very immediately I’m working on the Persephone Project which is concerned with the design and implementation of a giant natural computer that will form the ‘living’ interior to a world-ship. It is going to be officially launched at the Starship Congress,in Dallas, from august the 15 of this year. I will also talk about Persephone further at Future Fest in the UK which runs over the weekend 28th to the 29th September. The idea is to literally grow a living interior from the basic ingredients necessary to make its first soils. Although this is a real project, it is also an innovation platform that proposes to use Black Sky Thinking to escape being constrained by what already exists by taking a bold and creative leap into the unknown – or unknowable. In that way, Persephone provides a context where we may deconstruct and reconstruct ideas around the idea of what it means to be human – and reflect on how these relate to the kind of nature we would like to see ‘evolve alongside us’ – just as Next Nature Network proposes.
Thanks so much, Rachel, for sharing your work and viewpoints with us!