Saturday, September 10, 2011

Rachel Armstrong, Architecture & Synthetic Biology 4

Here's the conclusion of Dr. Armstrong's lecture: Hay on Wye Philosophy & Music Festival on Synthetic Biology & Architecture - Making 'Life' in the Laboratory.

As per before, her words will be in italics, while any annotations we place will be in regular type and color.

The idea is that over time, we create this artificial landscape.  The architectural proposition is to take the stiletto off the city, which is literally these wood piles that support the weight of the architecture, on very soft delta soils, and replace those with architectural platform boots to attenuate some of the sinking which is caused by the weight of the buildings themselves but also, by the millions of tourists, who come through the city.  Here we've worked with some architects who are proposing an ongoing relationship with between these technologies and the architecture, culture, where you can see the effects of the aqua ulta and evaporation and capillary action of the water carrying the protocells, creates stalacites underneath the bridges' side there, and then also incases in a rather organic way, some of the traditional structures within Venice, such as the poles where the gondolas moor.

As you look around the city of Venice itself, and you actually examine the canal site and you examine the brickwork, you already find that biology has been involved in this kind of practice.  So here we've got a step going down to the mooring of a small boat and you can see that oysters, and clams, and limpets, and barnacles, and algae, and bacteria have already started this form of accretion process.

So the idea in synthetic biology in this context is, can we use tools that operate at a cellular or a molecular level to start to orchestrate this procedure?  You can see how changing this environment is. How challenging it is for a rigid machine to actually start to engage with these processes.  How machines would not be sensitive to this ongoing turbulent environment.  Whereas biology, actually can take some kind of hold.

Now I did propose that I would talk to you rather briefly about universal wine merchant and scholar named Moritz Traube.  The idea is that this is a recourse to notions of vitalism, that were proposed by Pasteur, at the beginning of the 19th century, which was the dominant way of thinking about biology then.  Pasteur in particular said that in a yeast, there is a special kind of substance in this cytoplasm that makes alcohol.  Traube, being a wine merchant, thought, I know something about this alcohol substance, I kind of make it.  I think its very chemical.  I don't think there is anything special about it at all.  So, he set out to prove Pasteur wrong, not being  scientist.  He actually followed his brother who was trained to be a physician, and had a very eclectic education, and through physiology and natural sciences.  Traube was absolutely obsessed with physical experimentation of matter to try to inform his own business as a wine merchant.  One of his clients was the Baron von Bismarck.  Traube was actually the first to produce these ideas of membranes, being these sieves thorough which life-like processes could occur.  So he created a variety of them, using lots of inorganic chemistry.  The significane of inorganic chemistry and the differentiation between inorganic and organic comes back from an alchemical time, where inorganic chemistry was suppose to be reversible when in underneath the presence of heat, whereas organic was irreversibly destroyed.  So there was the first kinds of notions of vitalism, in terms of an experimental practice that investigated differences between these two types of substances.

So Traube, not only chose an organic substance, he chose an inorganic substance, which was suppose to be completely devoid of any notions of vital properties.  That's really very significant when he set out to create this artificial plant-like cell, which he did actually manage to achieve, using something very very simple again, a bit like the oil and water droplet system.  He uses a weak salt, a potassium salt,  hexacyanoferrate.  He uses a crystal ovum, bright blue and cooper sulfate.  He puts this diamond shape cooper crystal into this solution as you can see from these serial pictures, it starts to transform from a beautiful geometric system into something that's almost like a hideous seaweed mass.  It's about forty times the volume and dimension of the original crystal.  I've looked at these on a microscopic level again looking at what are the processes through which this physical transformation, this blossoming of something that's inorganic, something that's suppose to be devoid of life, into something that really does have the suggestions of growth and repair.  Where you see these different dots are actually breaks in this inorganic membrane through which the solutions mix again and create little pockets of repair and self-healing.  We've got growth, through repair and self-healing, by the continual mixing where the water molecules rush inside this membrane and started to exert their pressure and terga on the outside of this inorganic cell.

Traube thought he'd actually looked at the first living imperatives that existed on chemical matter that was  present in the earth, nothing really special.  He had not gone and made a huge recipe.  He was just looking at existing relationships.

So I've been working with a number of architects, and this is an experimentation taking Traube's idea, and extending it a little, using a bio-scaffolding, gelatin and using alginate, we can extend the growth of the Traube cell, which we can additionally, give more extension to using gravity to drive the length of the cell.  In the textbook, you can grow Traube cells to about four centimeters.  Without breaking into a sweat Phillip and I created cells which were sixty centimeters.  We plan to use these in installations where we actually grow these cells from the ceiling, using this bio-scaffolding and unveiling some of these living processes, which we actually think to be very valuable when we reconsider the kinds of materials that we use, to orchestrate matter and time and space around us.

For me, technology is not about creating machines.  Technology has become equated with inventions of machines.  Technology for me is about the embodiment of mind.  It's the way that we realize our intentions through the material world.  That's very much my view as to why I was interested in this material aspect of this investigation.

The other notion is that these things do not exist in isolation.  Can we actually also orchestrate some of these self-evolving imperatives in matter to work together, for example, to create evolvable infrastructures, to create remedial environmental interventions, where for example membranes can absorb pollutants, a bit like these sinuses hanging down in the cavities of your head, removing allergens and maybe heavy metals, by fronds which exist in architectural spaces for remedial environmental interventions.  We can actually change this relationship between technology and impact on the environment.  Instead of having a negative where the best we can possibly do is to have zero impact, can we actually go way beyond that?  Because zero impact is not enough.  I think personally ideally we should be way past sustainability.  We should have been doing sustainability in the 1850s.

We need to actually have positive remedial interventions.  Because zero impact is not going to do the job, is not going to create the positive change that is necessary for us to start cleaning up the mess that we've made throughout the last one hundred and fifty years with gusto.  Also, these kinds of ecologies can be symbiotic, with existing paradigms.  They're not totalistic ideologies.  They don't require the eradication of cities as we know them.  They can coexist and coevolve with conventional practices, and indeed, they need to.  Do not tell me because they are human nature centered, partly because of their connectedness, but also because they involve us.  They cannot do what they do what we would like them to do without our engagement.  And, again I would say this is fundamentally different than the way we view machines.

Venice flooded
So again looking back into the Venice canals, we're having a look at the materials that already exist.  I'm showing you the materials that already exist, because we have the tools within synthetic biology that help us orchestrate these factors.  So we have light. We have growth in plant imperatives.  We can produce biofuels from algae.  We can create from limestone-like deposits or calcium-based deposits, or mineral-based deposits on the sides of walls.  So can we orchestrate any of that, to create a regenerative engagement with architecture and simultaneously the environment.  One that responds to radical changes in a changing environment.

Sir Francis Bacon
So from this comes an idea of living architecture.  Using the surfaces, which are just lifeless,  and instead of creating bigger barriers, or thicker insulators, between our lives and the world outside us, to actually be exploring an engagement with interface, that enables us to create evolving environments, beautiful environments, that can incorporate both nature and the synthetic aspects of our mind and our technology.

I just want to finish with a quote that I think is incredibly valuable at this particular point in time that comes from Sir Francis Bacon in 1620,
Those who have taken upon them to lay down the law of nature as a thing already searched out and understood, whether they have spoken in simple assurance or professional affectation, have therein done philosophy and the sciences great injury. For as they have been successful in inducing belief, so they have been effective in quenching and stopping inquiry; and have done more harm by spoiling and putting an end to other men's efforts than good by their own. (The New Organon, Preface)
From what I'm taking from that for me is a reminder to self.  But also we have become so obsessed with  as the complete identity of life, cells, the way we identify ourselves, the way we describe the things going on around us.  But, I think that we need to look again and appreciate the phenomenology, the complexity, the richness of life and the environment that we look at.  Really rethink, our relationships.  I think, opportunity is a much more complex engagement with our understanding of the world, and our participatory responsibility in that.

1 comment:

Andy said...

this was amazing. thank you