Reviewed by Annalee Newitz
In the opening section of her long essay, Living Architecture (based on a TED talk), materials designer Rachel Armstrong lays out the problem facing all urban residents in a crisp, moving description of Sendai in the wake of the 2011 earthquake. Buildings in the coastal region of Japan had buckled and crumbled, and its streets pulsed with contaminated water. First responders tried to rescue a dog, but found that it wouldn't leave until they followed it to an area where they discovered another dog, barely breathing. Both animals were taken to safety and given medical attention. What this sad scene underscored was that in the face of disaster, all forms of life try to help each other survive.
Encapsulated in that tale of two dogs is also the problem and, possibly, a solution to troubles in modern cities. As Armstrong explains, metropolitan areas will be home to nearly two thirds of the Earth's population in the next half century, but they are breakable, dangerous, and depend on unsustainable forms of energy. Still, those cities are filled with life that can make it through disasters that shatter buildings. Armstrong, whose research touches on synthetic biology, asks whether it might not be better to build cities that are as resilient (and compassionate) as the lives inside of them.
The inspiration for the idea of biological cities comes from experimental architects, materials scientists, and synthetic biologists who are all coming to question the idea that a robust city is built like a machine. Now, it's beginning to seem that cities can also be grown like plants, or baked like bread. A lot of what's happening in architecture today, Armstrong explains, is based on the idea of "biomimicry," or designs inspired by nature. An installation called MUSCLE at Paris' Centre Pompidou demonstrated how a framework (for a house or piece of furniture) could respond to people's movements. Aside from biomimicry, there are simple ways to bring biology into traditional buildings, the way architect Patrick Blanc has done in his "living walls" of hydroponically-fed plants that stretch up the sides of train stations, museums, and more.
What's truly exciting about Armstrong's essay, however, is her research on "protocells," or cell-like chemical packages without DNA that can metabolize and transform other chemicals. These protocells, which can be manipulated to have a number of different features, have already been used to "heal" crumbling bricks by synthesizing limestone in the presence of water. And in a group project called Hyzoloic Ground, which Armstrong works on, protocells have been used for carbon capture inside a biomimetic framework that moves and changes in response to the people walking through it.
Right now, Hyzoloic Ground is a prototype, a partly-biological and partly-synthetic structure that looks sort of like a small slice of plastic rainforest. As people walk through it, "fronds" of sensors move and change -- lighting their way or getting out of their way. Its creator, architect Philip Beesley, says the components in Hylozoic Ground could at some future point be converted into a living wall that moves to capture sunlight for energy, responds to ambient temperatures and movements, and absorbs carbon dioxide with protocells. Working on this prototype for a building of the future has given Armstrong and her colleagues many ideas about how to integrate protocells into existing architectures to make cities safer and longer lived.
Protocells could be used in exterior paints that "will produce an accretion of carbonate on the surface" of buildings. This would be a carbon sink that could also serve as thermal insulation. Armstrong also imagines how protocells could be used in a city like Venice, whose buildings are constantly being destroyed by the salty water that runs through its canals. Perhaps, she suggests, protocells could create an artificial reef beneath the city, preventing buildings from sinking into the mud and creating an underwater ecosystem that becomes a fundamental part of our urban infrastructure.
The protocells would be "programmed" to seek out the pilings beneath buildings, where they would then, as Armstrong puts it, "use dissolved carbon dioxide to create insoluble crystalline skins from minerals in the water." Over time, the protocell crystals would petrify, and "the indigenous marine life such as barnacles and clams . . . would make use of the bioavailable minerals produced by the protocells to help them build structures that contribute to the synthesis of a reef." Imagine -- a human city that lives on top of barnacle "city." At moments like this, Armstrong's essay is at its best -- she combines speculation with real scientific innovations with an eye for urban beauty. And she makes the reader believe that cities truly could change radically.
Armstrong leaves us with a vision of the Sendai region 50 years from now, when protocell technologies have been widely deployed. How would a similar disaster play out if buildings were covered in protocell paints that repair shattered facades? What if everyone's roofs were planted with emergency items like biosynthetic pods that "grow" when shaken and work as rafts, armor against falling debris, and food sources? By the time we are immersed in this science fictional scenario, we understand that it's not really fictional at all. We are on the cusp of having all these biotechnologies -- what remains for us to do is deploy them.
As an ebook, Living Architecture has a few problems. It's the kind of essay that benefits immeasurably from pictures and videos, and there are a few here -- but it needed a lot more, especially when Armstrong starts talking about Hylozoic Ground. A casual trip through YouTube revealed several videos that would have greatly clarified Armstrong's somewhat confusing description of the experiment. More videos of protocells would have been helpful as well -- the video that's included in the book does show how beautiful they are, but not how they would function in paint or other substances.
This is an essay that you'll want to read while you're online, so you can supplement the references in the text with images and video you'll wish were linked from the ebook itself. That said, Armstrong's story is so compelling -- and her ideas about future cities so hopeful yet practical -- that you won't mind a bit. We may never have biosynthetic cities, but it's obvious that we need a radical solution to urban problems. Here is one way forward with the potential to make cities safer for humans, and everybody else on the planet too.