Talking with architect Rachel Armstrong sends an adrenaline shot to the imagination. In one sentence, she will take you from quantum mechanics to Neo-Darwinian ethics to futuristic homes that gurgle like a stomach – all in the space of answering a single question. You leave the conversation dizzy with the future, and the world brims with new possibility around you.
“I got a view of architecture as quite a visionary space that had a relationship to the body and technology,” explains Rachel Armstrong, the professor of Experimental Architecture at Newcastle University, where she mixes synthetic biology, medicine, sustainability design, ethics, and occasionally surrealist poetry to forge a discipline all her own. Pioneering what she calls “living architecture” – which uses metabolic materials such as protocells and micro-organisms to create “living” buildings that respond to their environment – Rachel seeks to invent a whole, new technology and paradigm of building. The potential applications run from revitalising contaminated areas to perhaps saving Venice from sinking into the sea. But no single project can encompass the scope of her work, for she does not just seek to redefine the materials of architecture but redefine our very model for living. Rachel admits, “I’m currently looking for an alternative model for life than a machine.”
Rachel has recently joined the University of the Underground, an institution dedicated to reimagining the rules of countercultures for the 21st century. Rachel will be a guest tutor for the university this autumn, and here she speaks to Ted Gioia about the challenges of designing for the future, the intersection of science and art, and pushing the outer limits of the imagination.
You work at the intersection of architecture and biology. How did you fall into this unusual intersection of disciplines?
I started off as a medical doctor. At age five I was building little worlds in jam jars because I wanted to create environments where ants and spiders and creepy crawlies could all get along together. I used to add things like sugar, salt, soil, and everything from the kitchen to make that happen. Then every evening my mother would turn out these jam jars of my failed experiments and I’d happily start again in the morning.
But Mother Nature doesn’t always empty out your jam jars. When I went to university, I was looking for disciplines that would help me be able to design and engineer natural systems. Synthetic biology hadn’t happened then. So I went to do medicine because it was a way to think about how to influence living systems. I went on a sabbatical to India and worked at a leprosy colony where I saw people reclaim their lives from having been utterly rejected by society to having built their own village from a piece of ground that was unfarmable. They also made their own body extensions: they used wax noses to stop their nasal cartilages from failing, resisting the stigma of leprosy. I was out there as a medical doctor doing hand surgery with a hand surgeon, where we were transplanting finger tendons into the thumb so that people could retain their major muscle movement. Also splitting the temporalis muscle around the eye so that when you chewed you could blink, and if you gave people chewing gum and dark glasses that would preserve their eyesight if they’ve got facial paralysis. After this period, I thought, “How does this relate to what I’m doing because this is incredible?” You’re not just fixing a problem to do with a bacteria. You’re reintegrating a person within a world. And that was something medicine couldn’t teach me.
What is “living architecture”?
I think very simply, living architecture is about constructing spaces that possess some of the properties of living things. What if our homes could grow, excrete, metabolise, defend us like an immune system, or make useful products. Why would we want to do this? Partly because we are looking for different impacts of the built environment on nature, so the best way to do that is to become as natural systems and participate in the flows of materials and resources shared by living things.
The other is more philosophical. It draws on the idea of “living” in more ways than one. When I first started off using the programmable, artificial cells it was reported a lot as a technical project, so I’m trying to find ways of enriching that. I see “living” as also inhabiting, so an environment that enriches the quality of living inside it. Not necessarily by being alive or living itself but creating the possibility of flourishing and happiness – augmenting positive encounters. So “living” is really the modes of inhabitation within a space as much as it is a technology that connect the structures and choreography to the much broader environment and ecology in which the architecture is situated. So it’s living on a kind of material and technological level – which seeks to make the barriers we create between the living world and the spaces we chose to inhabit more permeable – and in doing so, increase the quality of inhabitation that becomes possible through those spaces.
What metabolic materials have you found that architects and designers of the future could use?
One of the things I’ve been doing for the last eight years is looking at these artificial cells that don’t have DNA, and yet their capacity to compute and organise the matter from which they’re made is incredible. These protocells I’ve been working with are a visualisation system that doesn’t obey the logic of machines. I’m working with those as a system of thinking to start to articulate how life is actually more like weather than it is a system of highly organised and complex marbles.
What I found is that it’s not just the bio-technology but all the prototyping systems and distributed forms of manufacturing that allow us to customise possibilities and develop “hyper-local” solutions to global or urban-scale challenges.
How would you imagine redesigning something like the house? You mentioned having circulatory systems of water and air. How do you envision the 21st-century house as opposed to the Jetsons model where everything is mechanical and floating?
I’d go with a house made of soft technologies. What I mean is like gels that are computers and compute through space and time with chemistry. What they can do is literally process molecular transformations so they can generate heat. Say, for example, you want to heat water: you would take a container – maybe it’s a ceramics container – and place the ceramics in the gel. The gel is a like a kind of compost that produces a lot of heat and maybe makes some other chemical transformation and can actually heat your ceramics container to boil your food or your water.
I also think we are maybe looking at enzyme-based cooking, so that no longer do we need fossil fuel-based heat in order to generate the power for hot plates. We could use enzymes a bit like the way the fly pre-digests its food. There would be a cuisine of predigestion, and I think it could be quite an exquisite and tasty form of cooking. And that would be very suitable if you have young children at home or if you’ve got elderly people with various brain diseases. Let’s rethink how the natural systems that keep us alive actually connect with us in our homes, because right now they are barriers.
What would be the shape of the house? Would you see the water flowing around?
I see it as being like an alternative organ system: the house would sound like a stomach rather than motorway traffic or the inside of a combustion engine. You might hear your house gurgle rather than the boiler go on and the pipes rattling in the background.
I think you would have two parallel circulations. One would be the messy stuff that isn’t particularly nice to look at and that would flow in ceramic pipes or ceramic containers. The other one would be light-penetrating – they could be glass or they could be a bio-degradable plastic – but clear containers that would allow light through. So you’ve got the light system and you’ve got the dark system: the dark system is there to help contain smells and the light system is there to invite the kind of extraordinary transformations that photosynthesis and light-based processes can obtain.
How is the role of the architect changing in the 21st-century versus the 20th-century?
The 21st-century architect is not going to be the kind of iconic genius designer who makes the perfect form. It’s not going to be all about an individual ego. We’re seeing that also with things like the Nobel Prizes. These are not one-person, egotistic enterprises. These are communities of creatives. The role of the designer is not at the peak of the hierarchy. It’s further down on the infrastructure, it’s actually creating the conditions for events, forms of livability, and experiences of spaces. So, in fact, we are taking ourselves out of the role of God and actually becoming part of the soil of the city.
So 21st-century architects will allow for the expression of others within their work. Their project is more likely to be a multidisciplinary team. But that doesn’t make them any less of a designer. The beauty, in some ways, is their invisibility and their capacity to allow other agents to participate in their project. I think that’s more challenging, but also incredibly rewarding. It’s just a different kind of design, and I think it’s very possible.
The University of the Underground is a new interdisciplinary creative postgraduate university hosted in subterranean spaces across the globe that’s dedicated to the design of experiences which support power shift in institutions. To learn more about the University of the Underground, click here.