Frankenstein fear and euphoria as we freewheel into modified future
Perhaps not everybody knows that in an orchard in western Canada there are already genetically enhanced fruit trees that kill insects on contact.
These trees bear apples whose crispy white flesh will not turn brown for many hours after being cut open. In North Carolina and elsewhere in the US there are other experimental trees, these are tough, woody fibre growths that can be processed into pulp without the usual use of large quantities of toxic chemicals. Thousands of miles away in Israel, there are poplar trees that have been made to grow so fast that they could eliminate the need to cut down natural forests altogether.
These trees are not science fiction, but by the same token they are not catalogue items either. They are part of a biotechnological revolution that is expected to become commercially significant within the next five years and commercially crucial within 10 years. Timber production is already a £250 billion worldwide industry and demand for wood, paper and pulp products is so strong that it is expected to exceed available supply as soon as 2010 - earlier if the exploitation of natural resources is prevented by legislation or direct action by environmental activists in the meantime.
The problem with genetic modification is that the more spectacularly it promises to work, the more alarming it can seem to be. Trees consume great quantities of carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas, so that fast-growing trees should be good news. Certainly car producers Mazda and Toyota think so. The former plants sufficient trees to offset the emissions of every car it makes, while the latter has its own forest biotechnology programme which is working hard at developing strains of trees that are especially efficient at photosynthesis. Once these trees are developed they will be cloned so that huge forests can be planted to purify the atmosphere and help it support millions more motor vehicles.
But, then again, news of a green light for more automobiles is not welcome everywhere, whatever other benefits might come along with it - even if these included (as they might) the purification of contaminated land by genetically engineered plants. Whatever the gain, environmental opposition focuses on the 'Frankenstein' aspect of DNA manipulation that the industries involved prefer not to discuss. Things like the addition of genes from bacteria, chickens and even human beings to biotech trees which, say opponents, will henceforth no longer provide habitats for benign insects and birds.
Apart from 'Frankenforest' trees, the other most promising direction for genetic research with relevance to architecture would appear to be the resurrection of a number of ideas dating back to the 1960s for buildings created by animals. One of the least feasible - or so it seemed at the time - was put forward by the Austrian architect Rolf Doernach who proposed spherical undersea dwellings which were to be built by crustaceans colonising the outer surface of large submerged balloons, and thus eventually creating clusters of coral-like caverns for human occupation. With the aid of a genetic engineering laboratory this idea too could surely be rescued from obscurity.
The problem is that, as ever with such genetic freewheeling, the fear engendered tends to outweigh the euphoria that is felt. All genetically modified foods in the US are tested and many have been approved by the relevant government agency. When it comes to trees, which might live hundreds of years longer than the scientists who design their genomes, there is the usual human problem of there being no one to blame when the system breaks down.