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The quest for survival: how harnessing nature will save Venice

Harnessing the computational powers of nature could help us save Venice and build interstellar spacecraft to boot, writes Rachel Armstrong

Just imagine for one moment that Le Corbusier had declared that buildings were not machines, but could be imagined and constructed using a completely different kind of technological platform. How might this have shaped the contemporary practice of architecture?

Technology of Nature

While the idea of an alternative technological platform sounds like a futuristic scenario that relies on an extraordinary scientific breakthrough, it is not. Such a production platform already exists and is woven into the fabric of our reality, which we have drawn upon in different ways throughout our history. This technology is nature. Yet, in our modern age its technical potency is no longer recognised as we have become bewitched by the top-down, object-centred, hard-control paradigms of machines.

Over the last five years, I have been exploring a nature-based operating system that is very different from machines. Bringing together ideas from the new science of complexity, the mathematics of chaos and process philosophy to describe the concepts embodied in this system without surrendering them to the machine paradigm, the application of Deleuze & Guattari’s notion of ‘assemblage’ to embody these ideas makes it possible to understand, construct and experimentally observe how a nature-based operating system works. 

Coupling ‘dissipative’ structures together can produce assemblages. They are far from equilibrium systems that self-assemble from the persistent flow of matter and energy through a space. Assemblages are generally predictable in the range of outputs they produce and operate within definable limits of possibility. Yet, they also have unique and surprising features as they possess agency, are resilient, robust, generate novelty, exhibit a degree of unpredictability and can transform into new states at tipping points. However, it is possible to shape their interactions using a chemical programming language, which exists within a novel field of scientific research called ‘natural computing’ that interrogates the computational powers of nature. Identifying the operating system of nature as an ‘assemblage’ highlights the technological potential within the entanglement of lively agents that make up our natural systems – our ecologies.

A post-natural fabric that is a synthesis of material flows between natural and artificial (designed) systems. Image: Darius Namontas.

A post-natural fabric that is a synthesis of material flows between natural and artificial (designed) systems. Image: Darius Namontas.

Embracing risk in design

But why would we want to work with a technological system that we cannot totally control?

In Neal Stephenson’s 2011 essay ‘Innovation Starvation’, the science fiction author notes that during the 20th century we have become risk averse, which reduces our capacity for radical novelty and replaces it with incremental change that results in continual upgrades to existing technology. While this is not an issue at times of cultural and environmental stability, phase transitions are advantageous at times of turbulence, as they can help us suddenly produce new ways of working through reality ruptures, known as punctuated equilibrium.

Assemblages provide us with a technological platform that possesses lifelike qualities and can help us reimagine the practice of the built environment without referring to machines.

Assemblages provide us with a technological platform that possesses lifelike qualities and can help us reimagine the practice of the built environment without referring to machines. The implication for architects is that it is possible to design spatial programs and tactics that deal with lifelike outcomes such as movement, growth, sensitivity, adaptation and uniquely, transformation – without the need for digital infrastructures and top-down programming paradigms. The outcomes of assemblage technology are in the production of architectural fabrics that couple artificial and natural systems together through many acts of mutual exchange, which constitute post-natural, or ‘icological’ fabrics – or, instrumented ecologies – which take on a propositional approach to the design and engineering of these materials. The downside of this is that since these programs possess a degree of their own agency, designers need to continually negotiate with them to shape their habits and performance. This approach to practice is more akin to gardening and agriculture, rather than the assembly of a flat-pack ready-made.

The island of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice. Photo: Joe Duck.

The island of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice. Photo: Joe Duck.

Future Venice

Future Venice is an example of an urban scale architecture assemblage project. It proposes growing an artificial limestone reef under the city using a giant natural computer that consists of programmable droplets that move away from the light and use dissolved minerals and carbon dioxide when at rest to produce a kind of ‘biocrete’.

The outputs of the natural computer are titrated to increase the girth of the foundations of the city that stand on narrow wooden piles to spread its mass over a much broader base and attenuate its sinking into the soft delta soil on which it has been founded. Field experiments revealed that such a technology already exists in Venice’s waterways and is produced by the mineralising actions of marine wildlife. Yet, these actions are not orchestrated. So, rather than simply acting as a form of ‘smart concrete’, the natural computer proposes to interact with Venice’s lagoon creatures to augment the production of minerals and shape the formation of a synthetic reef in areas where it is most appropriately deployed. In this case, the architect is responsible for constructing the chemical programs that can differentially shape space and for understanding the nature of the interacting assemblages that provide the appropriate tactics to do so. 

Yet, the assemblage platform also demonstrates a unique degree of creativity in that, should the environmental conditions of Venice change and the city dry out rather than drown as currently predicted – then the natural computer could change the range of its outputs. Rather than growing sideways to spread the minerals over a broad base, the accretion-producing droplets deposit their material on the woodpiles, sealing them from the air and stopping them from rotting.

The aesthetics produced by assemblages are radically different to those generated by parametric programs and ‘organic geometries’ and speak of post-epistemological structures that, on many scales, are in constant evolution.

Life-promoting architecture

The possibility of working with programmable materials within an architectural system potentially changes the goals of a building. Rather than being a passive site of minimalised-consumption, architectures may catalyse the continual flow of materials through a site that increases its environmental fertility. In other words, buildings become life-promoting, not just for humans, but also for local ecologies.

The benefits of such responsiveness is that the structures are resilient and may even require much lower corrective maintenance although they may need varying degrees of ‘training’. The role of the architect is to decide on whether an assemblage operating system is appropriate for a site or not, but also to create the context in which their programs can thrive. This means that architecture may need to completely rethink how infrastructures are designed and used as they may greatly increase the potency of a site. Currently our buildings are designed to support the operation of machines, which are not life-promoting. Yet, an assemblage requires similar resources to living things. ‘Elemental’ infrastructures – air, water, heat, light, and earth – are required as a precondition for assemblage technology. Yet, infrastructures themselves need to be designed to support living processes – in other words, water supplies must operate as circulations not drains, and air requires a more sophisticated delivery system than vents through breathing systems.

Under these conditions assemblage technology may produce new design opportunities within buildings by designing the context in which assemblages may thrive, such as bioprocess-enabled architectural ‘organs’. These may perform a range of metabolic functions within a space so that our homes may become sites for rich, instrumented ecologies which support a diverse range of functions that, for example, produce heat, filter water or fix carbon dioxide. Such systems could be invisible to the inhabitants by occupying sites within our buildings, such as under floors. But they could also be highly visible and exist as fetishised objects, for example in the speculative Philips Microbial home project where a range of ‘organs’ transform domestic waste into useful substances. Strategically positioned, these architectural organs may give rise to buildings with physiologies that strengthen the material exchanges within a community that benefit human and nonhuman communities. Bioprocesses may also increase resilience within cities, such as following a natural disaster, when our homes can become a life support system by carrying out basic functions such as, waste removal and water recycling. They may also produce vital resources such as, food and energy reduction for a few days – until city infrastructure is restored.

Eco-starships

Assemblages negotiate space in different ways to machines and therefore they have the potential to change values and power structures. For example, rather than consider the absolute efficiency of a technology, which is one of our current approaches to imagining what a ‘sustainable’ building may be, we may think of the material potency of a site and its potential to transform one set of substances to another in ways that are meaningful and can be readily accessed by the biosphere. In the longer term, we may even reach a stage where buildings with bioprocessing ‘organs’ and ‘physiologies’ can actually transform the fertility of an ecosystem or site, so that the answer to desertification may be, for example, to build a city.

Project Persephone (for which I am a designer) is part of the Icarus Interstellar, a global network working on the construction of a crewed interstellar craft within 100 years.

Persephone is responsible for the design and implementation of a ‘living’ interior of a ‘worldship’ to be constructed by harnessing assemblages using natural computing techniques. Persephone is therefore an architectural-scale construction platform that is not framed within an industrial context, but an icological one.

Persephone’s programmable material system will be realised through the technology of soils and elemental infrastructures that insert space and time into her system.

Persephone’s programmable material system will be realised through the technology of soils and elemental infrastructures that insert space and time into her system. They also act as active hubs of organising activity that couple together many species of different metabolic processes. The tactics and specific design programs that underpin the production of soil generates an instrumented ecological system that helps the materials within the worldship from reaching equilibrium. Simultaneously, Persephone’s soils could create the preconditions for the occurrence of possible, spontaneous lifelike events. In other words, Persephone embodies a conceptual and practical framework to interrogate the construction of icological cities that may ultimately, be indistinguishable from ‘life’ itself.

Although a new understanding of land may advocate for a new paradigm of practice, there is a significant risk that this attempt to change the way we produce space will fail as our soft, wet ‘assemblage technologies’ and natural computing systems are at risk of being assimilated into our hard industrial systems as ‘little soft machinery’.

View of the worldship that houses Persephone. Image: Jon Morris and Phil Watson.

View of the worldship that houses Persephone. Image: Jon Morris and Phil Watson.

The rise of icological cities

Despite these risks, architects are in a powerful position to shape the future of architecture using assemblage technology, which may not simply be about designing buildings, as we know them, but by developing new layers of material complexity within the built environment. For example, geometric frameworks may be considered as the structural bones for our living spaces, which are nurtured by elemental infrastructures that can support many different species of assemblages. These would keep the physiology of our living spaces from decaying towards equilibrium states by bringing a constant flow of matter through our living spaces where it would be transformed into substances that improve the material quality of our lives – as a literal engagement with the natural world where our living spaces are selectively permeable to the environment.

It is time to resist the doom, gloom and skinny corporate corset wrapped around the architectural profession by the industrial sustainability agenda

It is time to resist the doom, gloom and skinny corporate corset wrapped around the architectural profession by the industrial sustainability agenda that demands resource austerity and energy conservation that pander to an age of machines. Rather architects must enable their practices to flourish again through networks of material exchange and countless acts of generosity between humans and non-humans to ultimately increase our environmental fertility.

Yet assemblages are not a technological ‘fix’ that proposes to save us from the turbulent jaws of climate change and ecological disaster. Rather, they create an operational framework that may unite humans and non-humans in a common quest for survival. Ultimately, it is hoped that the construction of icological fabrics will give rise to architectures that can restore damaged natural ecologies. By building meaningful links between the natural and artificial realms, assemblage technology can increase our portfolio of choices, so that we may have a broader palette of possibilities from which to codesign our shared futures, through an alternative platform for human development, where the practice of architecture is not about making buildings, but in constructing new kinds of nature.

Rachel Armstrong is a co-director of AVATAR in Architecture & Synthetic Biology at The School of Architecture & Construction, University of Greenwich

 

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