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.