Saturday, February 11, 2012

Book Review: Living Architecture by Rachel Armstrong

Thoughts on a new book from Rachel Armstrong, on a new and exciting frontier of architecture.
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PlusUltraTech has spoken about issues of new architecture before.  A lot of the inspiration for this vision has come Rachel Armstrong.  Her vision of new future where the architecture is no longer resistant to nature but bends and adjusts with it is revolutionary.  She does does not take sole credit for this idea. Her association with the architect Neil Spiller has focused in the direction of protocell technology.

"When the world is viewed as a machine, it is constructed as one, too."
 Rachel Armstrong

Armstrong's thoughts, were deeply affected by the 2011 tragedy in Japan's tsunami.  In the beginning of the book she uses the cataclysmic destruction of the Japanese coast to underscore the need for change.  Out of the destruction, Armstrong proposes a radical new approach to architecture,

Instead, architects and designers of infrastructure may be asked to embrace a  proposition that doesn't primarily involve the consideration of steel or concrete. Should  we, as living entities, believing inside dead habitats?  Our structures could become living  objects, responding to the environment.  Instead of our buildings remaining inert, they  could adapt to or respond to the seasons, like parks and gardens, with living coatings  responding to the availability of more or less wind, sunlight and water. Innovation in the  technological functions of architecture is key to meeting these challenges. (Page 4).
Armstrong goes on to clarify what she means,
When the buildings of northeastern Japan encountered the tsunami, they responded to the natural assault as any other mechanical system would: They did what they were programmed to do and fought back.  Although meny were made from lightweight materials designed to resist an earthquake - having deep, specially jointed foundations to absorb the shock of seismic impacts, for instance - they were not engineered to take the impact of a tsunami.  Faced with an unexpected situation, the buildings of the Sendai region simply behaved like machines and crumpled.  They did not have the inherent physical flexibility or robustness to deal with a novel, challenging situation.  I believe we can do better.
The real thesis of Armstrong's book is that buildings have long been considered machines by architects and this is the very problem they have in their design when pitted against the vicissitudes of nature.
 Although machines are able to handle vast amounts of data, their software cannot accurately model the infinite complexities of reality.  There are simply too many variables in the world and not enough processing power to simulate these interactions.  The human mins is able to fill in the gaps between experience and expectation with imagination, but software cannot do this.  Machine minds can solve problems presented to them only though a formal logic, which necessarily leads to a specific, anticipated "answer."  If the mechanical mind cannot solve a problem, the resulting errors in the operating system can cause the machine to crash.
Dr. Armstrong then applies this working principle about machines to the machine called the building.  Speaking of modern buildings, she goes on to say,
They employ industrial processes to use functionally inert materials that then form a barrier between human habitation and nature. Currently, the construction of our homes and cities from inert materials takes a toll on the environment, because buildings can't return anything of value to the biosphere.  Instead, our buildings are little more for extreme consumption of fossil fuel.
She then proposes a radical new approach to architecture, which when stated, seems to obvious and logical a step to take in the design of our buildings.
Unlike machines, living systems are native and positive contributors to the biosphere.  Additionally, life has an extraordinary ability to persist in the face of extreme environmental challenges despite being made of perishable stuff.  It also has the flexibility to cope with unpredictability in a very literal way that deals with the complexity of the world.  Life also takes risks, possesses the capacity for surprise, and accepts a partial loss of function in a system as being successful for survival strategy.  Living systems have the ability to endure what the future holds for them without needing to make accurate predictions.
After these rather dramatic and profound statements, Armstrong deals with the science of complexity. This is a science that is still at its beginnings.  Yet it seeks to understand the complex real world that emerges and defies most mathematical simplified abstract models.  Science has, in some cases, been pushed kicking and screaming towards the utter necessity of formulating this discipline to grapple with the baffling complexities of nature.
Times Eureka Pavillion via: archdaily

The Shortfalls Of Biomimcry in Architecture
Biomimicry has been an initial step to learn some of the secrets of nature.  As a child, man begins to imitate nature, without yet truly understanding what he is imitating.  Despite its ingenuity, biomimicry, according to Armstrong, has a major failing.
...although these ingenious architectural experiences result from fusions of representations of biological form and function, the practice of biomimicry does not fundamentally alter the way buildings are made, nor does it change their material nature.

The Arrival Of Synthetic Biology
When one thinks of synthetic biology, one first imagines artificially customized manufactured living cells.  This would be an accurate visualization.  But there are applications of synthetic biology to architecture.  According to Dr. Armstrong, there are two facets of synthetic biology:

  1. The Modifying of Organisms by manipulating the environment - as in the way gardeners have been doing for millennia.
  2. The modification of organisms directly - J. Craig Ventner is the well known leader in this top-down approach to building organisms.  Terreform ONE's "Flesh House" is one application of this technology to buildings.

The Future of "Chemical" Architecture: Protocell Technology
protocell structures
Armstrong is a strong advocate for this protocell technology which she describes as "...self-assembling chemical systems without DNA..."  These systems to Armstrong, display rather astonishing lifelike behaviors such as movement, sensitivity and the production of microstructures.
"Our future cities will be designed more like gardens than machines." Rachel Arsmtrong, TED Q&A 2012

Armstrong uses interesting terminology in describing the "...chemically bonded 'conversation'..." that occurs between these protocells and their environment.

To close the circle fully which Armstrong began at the beginning of the book, she again returns to Japan.  But not the Japan of today, humbled and confused by the awful power of nature, but a newly revitalized-much-wiser Japan that has learned how to live with nature in the year 2060.

We heartily recommend this short yet detailed book espousing the need to apply protocell technology to our architecture.  This debate is not just an abstract academic discussion suitable for architectural historians and theoreticians.  We have no doubt that the outcome of this debate will determine, whether humanity will be consumed by its own greed, or, enlightened to consider nature, as the loving spouse to which it has been married since the time, when man as we now know him, first took a step in this world.

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