Semi-Living Architecture

Where the architectural arts meet biological possibility. (A small essay at an early stage of a PhD)

A little architecture critter - preserved in formaldehyde

A little architecture critter - preserved in formaldehyde

Fictions of factual possibility…

Semi-Living Architecture is concerned with exploring the application of biological techniques, knowledge and materials to the architectural arts. I am interested in challenging prevailing architectural acts that seek to defend against natural forces and instead turn attention to a world populated by architectures that grow, self-assemble, get sick, heal, die and may even reproduce. The work requires a novel approach to architectural research, one that involves both laboratory skills and a far-flung architectural imagination that can critically review its creations. In an effort to develop/grow Semi-Living Architecture care and caution must be taken for it is alive, or at least partly so.

Due to such an engagement, where the very material being manipulated for architectural use is living, many ethical, moral, social, cultural, economic and even political concerns are raised. The creatures I create in the laboratory cannot survive the current architectural landscape; they’re not conceived or designed for it. They need a different lifestyle sensibility, a shift in the way we think and interact with nature, and most importantly a new paradigm for thinking about architecture and design. Instead my semi-living architectures must exist, both for research and design purposes, within an altogether other world. This world is science fiction.

Science fiction is a written topography dealing with innovative imaginary but possible scenarios. Generally set in the future, science fiction considers alternative scientifically plausible worlds where the technology, principles, social systems and abilities of its subjects are key elements in illustrating an alternative view or a critical response to the current predicament.

However science fiction has also given birth to actual characters, products and scenarios. We may not have jet packs, ray guns or teleportation machines we do have ‘video-phones’[1], carbon nano-tubes, cyborgs and the atomic bomb. It is not unreasonable for the plausible to become real given time, and this is precisely where the power of science fiction has the ability to effect the present. It is also the safest place for the improbable to become possible. In this way science fiction becomes the crucible in which the research of semi-living architecture has room enough to grow and experiment and its progeny have a chance to leap from fiction into fact.

Actually, part of the project is to distort time and space, fact and fiction, through manifesting proof of just such a leap. Science fiction is the “literature of ideas”[2] and is prone to developing its futurist worlds with the support of future histories. These are histories of the future, fictions in waiting so to speak, employed as signs of proof for the science fiction present. The projects I bring to life in the laboratory are the future histories of the science fiction landscape my semi-living architectures seek to populate. They are the stepping stones that help the reader/viewer cross the imaginative waters that separate fact from fiction.  

The semi-living architectures I am investigating employ cell and tissue cultivation techniques to produce living skins to grow over pre-engineered self-defining and self-assembling structures. The cell type I am currently working with is found in the tentacle skin cells of the Australian upside-down jellyfish native to north eastern waters. This jellyfish is one of the rare animals that enjoy a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship at a cellular level; it has algae in its tentacle skin cells that produce carbohydrates upon which it feeds and oxygen as a by-product of photosynthesis. In return the jellyfish swims upside-down, effectively sitting on the bottom of the waterway to pump fresh water over the tentacles, to allow the algae access to sunlight and fresh nitrogen from the water.

The jellyfish has no brain; instead it uses a rudimentary nervous system to take in and respond to information about its environment. It has, as part of its normal skin cells, ‘ocelli’ which are light-sensitive cells that allow it to register light from dark. Since it cannot ‘compute’ the information its nervous system simply responds to ensure light is always kept away from its direction of travel, i.e. to keep its tentacles directed toward the light.

These two cellular characteristics aid the imaginative possibility of an architectural skin that can grow, practice photosynthesis, regulate its position with regard to the sun, heal itself and produce both its own fuel and oxygen for its environment. The cellular genetics can also be engineered to express particular traits at different depths, age, reproduction or metabolic rate. With the discovery of “jumping genes”[3], the architectural skin also has the ability to mutate, defend itself from possible biological attacks and, in response to stressors, create novel gene expressions of its own.

Other bio-architectural products of the future, for which I can cultivate proof-like examples now, include microbial-induced calcite precipitated sand structures, DNA chains that can lay themselves out to reveal the ‘blueprint’ of the structure they code for,  and even structures biologically profiled from the bodies of their inhabitants. The architectural possibilities they offer are numerous.

Architecture has a responsibility to develop its imagination in response to burgeoning biological advancements and the biotechnologies currently under development. It has a history of challenging the future with visions beyond the present, asking for engineering beyond the understood, materials beyond the manufactured, and designs beyond the inhabitable or practical. Architecture has, as part of its cannon, an imperative to extend its vision beyond the probable to the possible.

One of the key research outcomes that Semi-Living Architecture offers up for consideration is the means to communicate the realism of the fiction. In architecture such things as plans, models and renderings bring the reality of a design into focus. For biology, the test tube, petri dish, incubators, specimens and laboratory reports bring the potential of an experiment and its results closer to the real. Such things may be considered indexical, signs that are linked to their real occurrence or object. Indexicality is a kind of certificate of authenticity, a material trope that ushers belief through the double doors of doubt. For if things have their architectural or biological fragments and records preceding them then it is not hard to make a transhistorical leap to their reality.

Just as painters in the fifteenth century produced impossible still lives, paintings that defied nature, time and logic, so too can the bio-architectural arts, communication and mediation strategies I’m developing disrupt, influence and persuade my audience to not only suspend disbelief but go so far as to believe in the inevitability of semi-living architecture.

Jens Hauser calls this “hyperskindexicality”.[4] He understands the indexical role of the cipher to act as a skin between the signifier and the signified, connecting them through a material presence or representation of which prints, traces and fragments can stand as records of the real. For example the hyperskinindex of my ‘test-tube towers’ is the test-tube and the performance of a sterile and mediated environment for them to ‘live’ in. The metadata of the test tube implies a laboratory environment, along with the representational associations of sterility, designed growth, and the possibility of a future. These little ‘test-tube towers’ are embryos of a future that is yet to come. And they stand as the traces or fragments, promises of a sort, records predating the real future to come.

Semi-Living architecture relies on a trans-disciplinary platform from which to strategically realise this thesis. Architecture and biology meet in the land of science fiction and assume the identity of new media; new media that ethically, morally, socially, culturally and economically find a home in each other’s company.  The object of this thesis is to draw the architectural imagination and design thinking across the threshold of this skin and to tread carefully in a world where architecture doesn’t defend humans from nature and the biological but becomes a mediator and responsible educator of our symbiotic relationship with it.

[1] As present in science fiction films 2001: A Space Odyssey, Space: 1999, Star Trek, Total Recall and Blade Runner, not to mention The Jetsons.

[2] Cassie Wagner, Science Fiction: The Literature of Ideas. A Report of the LITA Imagineering Interest Group Program, American Library Association and Annual Conference, New Orleans, June 2006.

[3] Leslie Pray + Kira Zhaurova, “Barbara McClintock and the Discovery of Jumping Genes (Transposons)” in Nature Education, 2008.

[4] Jens Hauser, “Hyperskindexicality”, for Transdisciplinary Conference 2010: at the Intersections between Art, Science and Culture, at University of New South Wales, November 5th 2010. 

This essay was previously published in “An Antipodean Imaginary for Architecture+Philosophy: Fictocritical Approaches to Design Practice Research” by Hélène Frichot, in Architecture Culture and the Question of Knowledge: Doctoral Research Today, in Footprint Journal:Issue # 10/11, Spring 2012