Biosynthetic design is usually discussed at the scale of the individual product. But the city – itself a mixture of synthetic interventions within biological systems – can be considered a more complex piece of biosynthetic design. Conversations in urban planning have moved away from blunt engineering and the evisceration of species to serve human convenience, towards balanced management and co-existence. Joyce Hwang discusses the challenges for designers, and gains for citizens, of living in a truly biosynthetic city.
This essay originally appeared in Volume magazine #35. Get your copy here.
The condition of habitat loss in urban environments isn’t new. We’ve known for quite some time that processes of urbanization have been rapidly depleting cities of biodiversity. Trends seen in recent urban and regional master plans indicate that we are becoming increasingly aware of this critical issue, and are attempting to counter the destructive ecological effects of urbanization by introducing measures to increase biodiversity, such as implementing wildlife corridors and nature reserves. Yet, we also see very conflicted attitudes toward our relationship with urban ‘nature’. What happens, for instance, when urban wildlife encroaches on more densely populated areas of cities? What happens when they develop habitats outside officially zoned territories, and in residential or commercial neighborhoods? In the realm of legal regulations, urban municipalities categorize the presence of undomesticated animals and insects pejoratively as ‘infestations’ or ‘nuisances’. Urban dwellers too tend to see urban wildlife as a nuisance.
As citizens, we urgently need to reexamine our deeply engrained preconceptions of the ‘pest’.
As citizens, we urgently need to reexamine our deeply engrained preconceptions of the ‘pest’. We cannot wave the banner of biodiversity, yet disregard the habitats that are disappearing where we live. We show disdain for bats, although they serve us as ‘predators’ for mosquitoes. We avoid bees and purge beehives, although bees pollinate over thirty percent of the world’s crops and over ninety percent of wild vegetation. Bee and bat populations are not only declining in cities, but are endangered in non-urban environments as well. Bees are disappearing due to Colony Collapse Disorder. Bats are being wiped out in great numbers due to White Nose Syndrome. Many natural pollinators are struggling to survive due to the increasing use of chemical pesticides. If we continue to regard certain animals as ‘pests,’ and therefore as an expendable part of our ecosystem, we only intensify the ecological crises that are taking hold.
Meanwhile we are seeing an explosion of biosynthetic research and practice, where material and biological systems co-mingle. Could these emerging biosynthetic practices begin to address some of these critical issues? We often hear about the performative value of organisms that are deployed to tackle environmental problems, such as (both naturally-occurring and genetically modified) oil-eating bacteria. The undeniable reality, though, is that until we overcome our fear and loathing of ‘pests’ in the world of urban fauna, we will not be able to take advantage of the new opportunities that biosynthetic practices offer us. For instance, using modified cockroaches, outfitted and remote-controlled to find trapped earthquake victims1 could be a major evolution in search-and-rescue operations. Yet, we still find reactions from the public like this: “I’d rather die under a collapsed building than be approached by a roach.”2 By adhering to these prejudices we potentially miss out on opportunities of using biosynthetic means to prevent and save us from future crises.
Habitat loss will transform our perception of urban wildlife from being a nuisance to being a highly valued resource
Fast-forward several decades into the future. If habitat loss continues at its current rate, its unintended deleterious consequences will transform our perception of urban wildlife, from being a nuisance to being a highly-valued resource. This shift in perception parallels Bruno Latour’s discussion of asbestos. In his book The Politics of Nature he discusses how asbestos was once considered to be a ‘perfect substance’ until its health consequences were discovered: “…once an ideal inert material, it became a nightmarish imbroglio of law, hygiene, and risk.”3 In other words, what was once inconsequential is now an epidemic. Similarly, the issue of habitat loss will see a similar fate; a situation that once provoked nothing will be the cause of alarm.
As architects, we are operating in a landscape of shifting ecological and cultural values. We must not only develop strategies for incorporating diverse habitats into the spatial and built environment, but we must also take on the challenge to radically rethink the spatial and visible dimensions of animals and urban organisms. In the process of doing so, we will not only enable urban citizens to envision the possibilities of living among ‘pests,’ we’ll also unshackle architecture from some of its time-loaded assumptions and cultural biases. Only then can architecture become a vehicle for provoking new priorities, rather than simply responding to them. Here are some issues for architects to consider as we proceed into an emerging biosynthetic world.
1. Qualitative considerations of architecture, as we know it, will change in marked ways. Seemingly familiar conditions such as ornament, material character, and construction methods will be re-postulated by architects.
To start, façade articulation – which we typically associate with proportioning systems and ‘style’ – will take on more responsibilities. Ornament will become performative in supporting animal presence. We will no longer find bird-deterrent spikes on exterior cornices and ledges; instead, cornices and other forms of façade articulation will be enhanced and enlarged to welcome bird perching and nesting. Selecting colors for exterior paint will take on heightened scrutiny; for example scientists have revealed that white and grey tones are most attractive to insects (and following insects, bats and birds), while purple is purportedly the least attractive.4 The role of artificial exterior lighting will not only address conditions of visibility, but will also be deployed as mechanisms for controlling insect populations. Exterior lights are known to attract swarms of insects at night. Architects will begin to consider how lighting might be designed to dissuade insects from certain zones, while encouraging them to congregate around others, along with their predators, bats, birds and spiders.
Ornament will become performative in supporting animal presence.
Architects will also reexamine the criteria for material and construction strategies. We will consider how materials can perform to accommodate animal behavior. The use of transparent glass – ubiquitous in our skyscrapers – will fall out of favor as it inadvertently kills birds in flight. Instead, we will see different patterns of glass usage in tall buildings forcing us to rethink ways of enabling the much sought-after panoramic city view. Architects will continue to develop strategies for exterior building surfaces to cultivate both flora and fauna as is already happening in the proliferation of ‘green roofs’ and vertical gardens as well as various exterior wall elements that encourage wildlife habitation, such as nest boxes for bats and birds.5 The urgency of incorporating wildlife habitats into our strategies for constructing buildings will ask us to speculate further. For example, it is likely that new materials will be invented for the purpose of resisting decay caused by continuous animal occupation. This will demand new tolerances. At first, we won’t want to hear the noise transmitted by rustling animals, so noise mediation will be incorporated into construction strategies. But as perceptions shift we might begin to regard their presence as a kind of insulation material. We might become so fascinated by our animal co-habitants that we incorporate sensing and visualization techniques to monitor them. Walls and roofs will be re-conceptualized to incorporate several ‘layers’ of windows, not only offering views from inside to outside, but enabling us to see the in-between animal territory.
2. We will develop a new range of strategies for using existing buildings and structures in cities. The term ‘adaptive reuse’ will take on a wider variety of implications.
Many buildings already are a form of shelter for urban wildlife. Tall buildings, for example, serve as lookout points and nesting places for falcons, eagles, and other birds of prey. Unmaintained and vacant buildings – especially overabundant in depopulating cities such as Detroit and Buffalo – often host urban wildlife and vegetation ‘overgrowth’. Urban infrastructure, as well, shelters many wildlife species. For example, the undersides of bridges frequently function as nesting sites for birds. Many of these spaces are seen as undesirable, ‘dirty’ spaces in cities. Overgrown vegetation and wildlife inhabitation are seen as negligence.
Architects will explore ways to productively intervene in these marginalized territories.
Rather than demolishing ‘unwanted’ buildings, we will see vacant buildings as opportunities to develop urban habitats. Neighborhoods will discover the additional perks of sheltering families of raccoons and skunks in vacant houses, as they deter trespassers. Zones with a high density of vacant buildings have the potential to transform into a new kind of urban wildlife reserve. Similarly, the forgotten by-products of urban infrastructure will become sites for creative occupation. Wireless towers, street medians, streetlights, retaining walls, and railway infrastructure will all become potential sites. Water infrastructure – even fountains and other seemingly decorative water features – will take on a more urgent significance given how critical water is to attracting and maintaining habitats. The need to increase the presence of water in cities will lead to architectural and technological invention. For example, buildings will be designed to harvest and collect water and micro-scaled wetlands will become part of neighborhood backyards. Architecture will start to produce fundamental changes in even well-established building typologies. Skyscrapers for instance, whose shapes are determined by zoning setbacks, will begin to embody new spatial criteria to provide high-altitude habitats for birds of prey.
We will see vacant buildings as opportunities to develop urban habitats
3. Urban maintenance will be completely re-conceptualized.
When we think of urban maintenance today, we think of lawn mowing, tree trimming, street cleaning, and garbage disposal. Further embedded in maintenance routines are chemical processes such as fumigation. The concept of maintenance is intrinsically tied to the task of clearing away unwanted and untidy nuisances, a notion that contributes to our construction of the urban ‘pest’. We are beginning to realize though that certain kinds of unwanted animals in fact have also been maintaining our cities. Bats, with their voracious appetite for insects, have kept mosquito populations down. Spider webs eliminate other insects. Birds of prey, and even stray cats have been instrumental in scavenging dead pigeons and keeping rat populations in check. To a certain extent, we tacitly acknowledge the role of urban wildlife as forms of ‘ecosystem services’. Architects will endeavor to intensify their awareness of the role of animals as ‘natural’ maintenance and develop strategies for making these conditions more visible. The performative role of animals will take on formal and aesthetic dimensions. For example, we will see building exteriors that are increasingly textured and varied, designed to facilitate spider-web construction and bat inhabitation. In cities that have an overabundance of rats, we will see new kinds of fences and other property delineation tactics to encourage ‘trespassing’ by stray cats. This will force us to rethink our notion of ‘cleanliness.’ Aspirations for cultivating green lawns will disappear, especially in economically-declining cities that struggle to maintain basic infrastructural services. Instead we will see more varied forms of ground cover, including moss, underbrush, and weeds. The management of ‘trash’ will become more nuanced than it already is today, as we begin to recognize the value of organic waste not only as ‘fertilizer,’ but also as food sources for urban wildlife.
We tacitly acknowledge the role of urban wildlife as forms of ‘ecosystem services’
4. Bioengineered animals and their material by-products will begin to take on spatial dimensions in the built world.
Today, scientists are already outfitting and bioengineering animals for specific anthropocentric purposes. Many farmers are invested in producing animals and plants that are bioengineered to resist diseases. The ethics of building a ‘better’ organism through science has been central to ongoing societal debates. While the topic of bioengineering has been of topical interest to architects, it will soon enter the discipline in a more performance-driven capacity. It is inevitable that we will begin to more actively incorporate bioengineered materials into the built world. Scientists are already cross-breeding goats with spiders for the purpose of creating dragline silk, a fiber that is purportedly stronger than Kevlar (‘Spider-goats’ produce this in their milk).6 Building with spider silk fabric, the idea of ‘bullet proof’ construction, and thus our mental image of ‘security’, will shift away from heaviness and stability, and toward notions of lightness and flexibility.
Architects will be called upon to negotiate the territory between scientific tinkering and larger-scale strategic planning
It is possible to even consider bioengineered animals as effect-producing entities. Take, for instance, the relative ease of introducing green fluorescent protein into animals to make them glow in the dark. In 2008 scientists were credited for the discovery.7 Only five years later a group of ‘citizen scientists’ from a non-profit ‘biohacker’ organization called BioCurious8 have started introducing fluorescent proteins from jellyfish into bacteria. We are now at a point where biology hobbyists are able to mimic the high-tech labs. Given this trajectory, it will not be long before we begin seeing the possibility of ‘engineered’ effects shaping our urban environments. Architects will be called upon to negotiate the territory between scientific tinkering and larger-scale strategic planning. For instance, given that there are certain types of bacteria that are introduced into water to ‘clean’ oil spills, a possible future scenario might be to manufacture this bacteria to glow in the dark and deploy it in strategic locations where one would find oil-saturated water, bringing further visibility to the organisms that we take for granted.
5. Architects and urbanists will need to take a position on the uncomfortable ethics that come with the territory of biology.
Animals will begin to occupy a more visible place in the conception and construction of urban environments, a condition which will demand that we revisit the question of how we are defining the limits between ‘our’ world and that of the ‘other’. As we begin to include animals and organisms into the way we think about designing and maintaining our cities, we will inevitably need to grapple with ethically difficult questions that challenge the way we fundamentally think about values – not only in design, but also in terms of life itself. Biologists are almost habitually confronted with social and political resistance, particularly those involved in contentious issues such as genetic modification and stem cell research. Despite political debates and resistance, the use of animals in science is generally accepted because we understand the value of lab experiments, and we classify animals within that structure. Mice and rats, for example, are ‘valued’ for their genetic makeup and their ability to give us reliable outcomes in a multitude of experiments. Yet, because our inclination is to value them for these traits only, they are seen as expendable, replaceable tools – objects to be used to service a particular objective.
Architecture will confront similar conflicts in negotiating the space between ethics and usefulness. In time, we will realize the value of animals as part of our ecosystem. We will develop ways of classifying their ‘use value’ in the constructed world. Bees, bats, and birds of prey will be understood as forms of maintenance. Goats and spiders will be valued as material producers. As we script them into our plans for constructing buildings and cities and become increasingly aware of their use value in our environment, how will we consider their ‘value’ as sentient forms of life?
Bees, bats, and birds of prey will be understood as forms of maintenance.
Will our discipline and profession reach a point when we collectively determine the value of an animal’s life based on its ability to perform ‘work’ for the urban environment? How will these logics affect our relationships with domestic animals, such as pets, which we now consider to be part of our families? We see urgent conflicts of opinion regarding the place of domestic cats in cities, cats being regarded as the ‘deadliest’ killers of urban wildlife.9 On the one hand, wildlife conservationists demand that domestic cats stay indoors and that stray cats be ‘removed’ – for the sake of protecting birds, rabbits, and other forms of cat-prey. On the other hand, animal rights groups and pet-owners defend the cat’s freedom to freely move outdoors. Does an agenda of sustaining wildlife ecologies in the city need to include sustaining the ‘ecologies’ of our families?
Is it too much to say that our profession will need to reexamine its code of ethics? Architects are, by definition, responsible for the health and safety of a building’s occupants. If animals become both part of the ‘construction’ of the building, as well as its occupants, how would we logistically approach our professional obligations? We now, arguably, find it acceptable to experiment with animals for the sake of science. But will it be acceptable to ultimately experiment with animals for the sake of architecture?
Will it be acceptable to ultimately experiment with animals for the sake of architecture?
If the aim is to increase the visibility of city wildlife to provoke new urban priorities, architects are tasked, at the very least, with the responsibility of aesthetics. But soon enough, we will go beyond provocation and deploy biosynthetic architecture more systematically, and at larger scales. Once architecture enters the realm where it is a service that takes on responsibilities to perform in precise ways, it also enters the realm of trial and error, experiments, and testing.
This brings the processes of biosynthetic architecture into a territory that is fraught with ethical questions that need to be navigated not only in terms of science, but also in the interest of architecture. Given the impending conflicts that are about to ensue, it is certain that the notion of living among ‘pests’ is only the first bridge to cross in the broader scope of what is yet to come.
Image via the New York Daily Post.
Mark Elise Andrews, ‘Roaches to the Rescue’, The Scientist, September 13, 2012, http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/32611/title/Roaches-to-the-Rescue/ (accessed February 10, 2013).
2 ‘Remote-Control Cockroaches: Scientists Show Off ‘Biobots’ That May Aid Search & Rescue’ Huffington Post, September 07 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/07/remote-control-cockroaches-biobots-search-rescue_n_1865084.html (accessed February 10, 2013).
3 Bruno Latour, ‘Why Political Ecology Has to Let Go of Nature’ in Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), 23.
4 Matt Walker ‘Wind Turbines Wrong Color for Wildlife’, BBC, October 15, 2010.
http://news.bbc.co.uk/earth/hi/earth_news/newsid_9067000/9067721.stm (accessed February 10, 2013).
5, ‘Nest Boxes for Birds & Bats that nest in or on our buildings’, Schwegler http://www.schwegler-natur.de/index.php?main=produkte&sub=gebaeudebrueter (accessed September 19, 2012).
6, Adam Rutherford, ‘Synthetic Biology and the Rise of ‘Spider-Goats’’, The Guardian, January 14, 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2012/jan/14/synthetic-biology-spider-goat-genetics (accessed February 10, 2013).
7 Nobelprize.org: The Official Website of the Nobel Prize, http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/chemistry/laureates/2008/press.html (accessed February 11, 2013).
8 BioCurious, http://biocurious.org/about/ (accessed February 10, 2013).
9 Scott R. Loss, Tom Will, and Peter P. Marra, ‘The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States’ in Nature Communications, January 29, 2013, http://www.nature.com/ncomms/journal/v4/n1/full/ncomms2380.html (accessed February 10, 2013).