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The announcement of Rio de Janeiro as the 2016 Olympic host city has placed Latin America on the world’s stage. Now, for the first time since the mid-20th century when Modernist urban design was undertaken on an epic scale, Latin America is the centre of international attention and architectural pilgrimage. The mass migrations from the countryside and the erection of informal settlements in the late 20th century left cities socially and spatially divided. As a response, in recent decades resourceful governments and practices have developed innovative approaches to urban design and development that are less to do with utopian and totalitarian schemes and more to do with urban acupuncture, working within, rather than opposing, informality to stitch together disparate parts of the city. Once a blind spot in cities’ representation, informality is now considered an asset to be understood and incorporated. Today, more than 50 per cent of the world´s population live in cities for the first time in human history, and an increasing amount in slums. As a result of globalisation, Latin America is now once again set to go through major change. The solutions presented in this issue represent the vanguard in mitigating strong social and spatial divisions in cities across the globe. • Contributors include: Saskia Sassen, Hernando de Soto, Ricky Burdett and the former mayor of Bogotá, Enrique Peñalosa. Volume 81 No 3 ISBN 978 0470 664926

• Featured architects: Teddy Cruz, Urban-Think Tank, Jorge Jáuregui, Alejandro Echeverri, MMBB and Alejandro Aravena. • Covers large-scale urban case studies, such as the revitalisation of Bogotá and Medellín.



Over the last 15 years, contemporary architecture has been profoundly altered by the advent of computation and information technology. The ubiquitous dissemination of design software and numerical fabrication machinery have re-actualised the traditional role of geometry in architecture and opened it up to the wondrous possibilities afforded by topology, non-Euclidean geometry, parametric surface design and other areas of mathematics. From the technical aspects of scripting code to the biomorphic paradigms of form and its associations with genetics, the impact of computation on the discipline has been widely documented. What is less clear, and has largely escaped scrutiny so far, is the role mathematics itself has played in this revolution. Hence the time has come for designers, computational designers and engineers to tease the mathematics out of their respective works, not to merely show how it is done – a hard and futile challenge for the audience – but to reflect on the roots of the process and the way it shapes practices and intellectual agendas, while helping define new directions. This issue of 2 asks: Where do we stand today? What is up with mathematics in design? Who is doing the most interesting work? The impact of mathematics on contemporary creativity is effectively explored on its own terms. • Contributors include: Mark Burry, Bernard Cache, Philippe Morel, Antoine Picon, Dennis Shelden, Fabien Scheurer and Michael Weinstock. Volume 81 No 4 ISBN 978 0470 689806



Radical Post-Modernism (RPM) marks the resurgence of a critical architecture that engages in a far-reaching way with issues of taste, space, character and ornament. Bridging high and low cultures, it immerses itself in the age of information, embracing meaning and communication, embroiling itself in the dirty politics of taste by drawing ideas from beyond the narrow confines of architecture. It is a multi-dimensional, amorphous category, which is heavily influenced by contemporary art, cultural theory, modern literature and everyday life. This title of 2 demonstrates how, in the age of late capitalism, Radical Post-Modernism can provide an architecture of resistance and contemporary relevance, forming a much needed antidote to the prevailing cult of anodyne Modernism and the vacuous spatial gymnastics of the so-called digital ‘avant-garde’. • Contributions from: Sean Griffiths, Charles Holland, Sam Jacob, Charles Jencks and Kester Rattenbury • Featured architects: ARM, Atelier Bow Wow, Crimson, CUP, FAT, FOA, Édouard François, Terunobu Fujimori, Hild und K, Rem Koolhaas, John Kormelling, muf, Valerio Olgiati Volume 81 No 5 ISBN 978 0470 669884












Neil Spiller and Rachel Armstrong 8 SPOTLIGHT Visual highlights of the issue 14 INTRODUCTION It’s a Brand New Morning

Neil Spiller and Rachel Armstrong

EDITORIAL BOARD Will Alsop Denise Bratton Paul Brislin Mark Burry André Chaszar Nigel Coates Peter Cook Teddy Cruz Max Fordham Massimiliano Fuksas Edwin Heathcote Michael Hensel Anthony Hunt Charles Jencks Bob Maxwell Jayne Merkel Peter Murray Mark Robbins Deborah Saunt Leon van Schaik Patrik Schumacher Neil Spiller Michael Weinstock Ken Yeang Alejandro Zaera-Polo 2

26 Structure and the Synthesis of Life

Martin Hanczyc 34

Defining New Architectural Design Principles with ‘Living’ Inorganic Materials Leroy Cronin Cronin pioneers a fundamentally new approach to materials, scaling up from the nanoscale.

44 Dream a Little Dream

Mark Morris 50 An Architectural Chemistry

Omar Khan 60 Protocells: The Universal Solvent

Neil Spiller 68 How Protocells Can Make ‘Stuff ’ Much More Interesting

Rachel Armstrong

78 Soil and Protoplasm: The Hylozoic Ground project

Philip Beesley and Rachel Armstrong 90 Authorship at Risk: The Role of the Architect

Dan Slavinsky

106 Back to the Future

Paul Preissner 112 Line Array: Protocells as Dynamic Structure

IwamotoScott Architecture (Lisa Iwamoto) 122 AVATAR and the Politics of Protocell Architecture

Nic Clear 128 COUNTERPOINT Bettering Biology?

Bill Watts

100 Proto-Design: Architecture’s Primordial Soup and the Quest for Units of Synthetic Life

Neri Oxman Oxman explores how material properties are a potent intermediary for the built environment.



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Front cover: Neil Spiller, Baroness Filaments: Communicating Vessels, Fordwich, Kent, 2008. © Neil Spiller Inside front cover: Concept CHK Design

02|2011 4


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EDITORIAL Helen Castle

Neil Spiller has had a long association with Architectural Design (2) and the visionary in architecture. A veteran guest-editor, this is the sixth issue of 2 that he has edited. His previous ones include his two seminal issues on cyberspace in 1995 and 1998; Integrating Architecture, 1996; Young Blood, 2001; and Reflexive Architecture, 2002. Whereas Neil’s issues on cyberspace encouraged us in the Net’s infancy to imagine where the virtual might take us, Protocell Architecture persuades us that a very different future is in sight for architectural matter. The innate cumbersomeness and inertness of conventional construction materials and systems, which block any real engagement with ecological processes, is to be overturned by the chemical innovations of synthetic biology – ‘protocell technology’. That is, artificial cell systems that self-reproduce and maintain themselves. This might be a tomorrow’s world that is being prefigured, but it is firmly rooted in the science of today. For this issue, Neil has paired up with Dr Rachel Armstrong (Rachel also has an 2 under her belt, having edited Space Architecture in 2001). A trained medical doctor and scientific researcher, Rachel is currently investigating ‘living materials’ and their potential for built structures. Along with Martin Hanczyc and Leroy Cronin, she provides much of the explanation in this issue of the ‘primordial molecular globules’ that are protocells. They scale up protocells from the nano scale so that they are visible before our very eyes in the photographs that accompany their articles. Why, however, disrupt the today with a seemingly impossible vision of the tomorrow? Shouldn’t we be fully taken up with the present burdens of the contemporary economic climate and the immediate wrangle with LEED and BRE ratings? What if established technologies and concrete, timber and steel can only take us so far? With conventional materials we might just be chipping away rather than opening up far-reaching new scientific opportunities. The current tool kit and limited palette of materials may just not be sufficient to tackle the shortfall in resources and the increasing vicissitudes in global weather systems. It is highly likely that building materials will only become fully responsive to natural ecologies if they are made up of cellular materials – albeit inorganic; these new materials could have the potential to modulate their environment in terms of temperature, light and humidity to their natural surroundings, but also power generation and self-repair. Neil Spiller and Rachel Armstrong with their contributors effectively open the door on this possibility for us. 1 Text © 2011 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Image © Steve Gorton

Neil Spiller and Martin Pearce (eds), 1 Architects in Cyberspace, Academy Editions, November–December 1995 In Spiller’s first co-edited issue of 2, he opened up the possibilities of the virtual for readers.


Neil Spiller, Bitai Table, 1996 top left: Table design for an ophthalmic surgeon. Its geometries are representations of the various shapes of artificial lens replacements for human eyes plus the ribbon model of phosphorescent protein.


Neil Spiller, Nativity in Black, 1996 top right: Part 3 of the Trashed Tryptych, a conceptual project depicting the distortion of the body as it becomes invisibly puckered, extruded and penetrated by wet and digital technology.

Rachel Armstrong and Alexander Vladimirescu, Extreme Environmental Impact on Bryopsis Morphology: A Model Organism for Systems Architecture and a Challenge for Natural Selection, Cantacuzio Institute, Bucharest, Darwin Now Award, 2009 above: Video still footage, edited by Stuart Munro, taken from the shoreline of the Black Sea, Romania, home of the green algae Bryopsis plumose, a giant celled plant that is capable of regeneration after complete mechanical destruction. Experiments were conducted in collaboration with Alexander Vladimirescu to observe how the body of the regenerating seaweed could be manipulated using magnetism after exposing the healing fragments to particles of magnetite.


Neil Spiller trained as an architect in London during the 1980s. He worked in commercial architectural practice for nearly a decade while simultaneously founding his own experimental practice and teaching architecture. In 1992 he joined the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London (UCL) and was a major contributor to its renaissance, becoming Vice-Dean and Director of Graduate Design. With Phil Watson, he founded the renowned and influential Bartlett teaching unit, Unit 19, and in 2004 founded the Advanced Virtual and Technological Architecture Research Group (AVATAR). AVATAR’s mission is to speculate on the future of architectural design through the lens of advanced technology. It works within the realms of architecture, Surrealism, synthetic biology, film, animation, interaction, cybernetics, digital fabrication and digital theory. Neil is now Dean of the School of Architecture and Construction at the University of Greenwich, London. He is a visionary architect, writer, teacher and critic. He has been instrumental in developing cyberspatial architectural sensibilities, and was the first architect to write in any detail about nanotechnology, as well as one of the first to speculate on reflexive digital environments. In recent years he has drawn and written extensively on the surreal implications of advanced technology and the ethics of architecture and architects. He has written and cowritten many books about the futures of architecture and their recent past, and has now guest-edited six issues of 2. Rachel Armstrong is a co-director of AVATAR, in Architecture and Synthetic Biology, at the Bartlett. She is also a Senior TED Fellow, and Visiting Research Assistant at the Center for Fundamental Living Technology, Department of Physics and Chemistry, University of Southern Denmark. Her research investigates ‘living materials’, a new approach to building materials that suggests it is possible for our buildings to share some of the properties of living systems. She is a medical doctor with qualifications in general practice, a multimedia producer, a science-fiction author and an arts collaborator whose current research explores the possibilities of architectural design and mythologies about new technology. Rachel is currently collaborating with international scientists and architects to explore cutting-edge, sustainable technologies by developing ‘metabolic materials’ in an experimental setting. These materials possess some of the properties of living systems and couple artificial structures to natural ones in the anticipation that our buildings will undergo an ‘origins of life’-style transition from inert to living matter and become part of the biosphere. By generating metabolic materials, it is hoped that cities will be able to replace the energy they draw from the environment, respond to the needs of their populations and eventually become regarded as ‘alive’ in the same way that we think about parks or gardens. 1 Text © 2011 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Images: pp 6(t), 7(t) © Neil Spiller; p 6(b) © Rachel Armstroing; p 7(b) © Courtesy of James Duncan Davidson/TED

top: Neil Spiller above: Rachel Armstrong




Leroy Cronin

Tubular Architectures, Cronin Group, University of Glasgow, 2009 The Cronin Group at the University of Glasgow is exploring a new materials paradigm. These tubular architectures, for instance, that have formed in a beaker of chemicals, provide a stepping stone in the group’s research at the molecular scale.

With the development of protocells, chemistry provides a new future for architecture. Through the creation of bottom-up cellular systems, a wholly new material science is promised that is both artificial and responsive. The cellular is brought before our eyes by the research of the Cronin Group and Martin Hanczyc at the University of Southern Denmark. Fully realised, Philip Beesley’s Hylozoic Ground installation is a textile matrix that is responsive to its environment and to human touch.



Martin Hanczyc

Protocells on glass fibres Hanczyc at the Institute of Physics and Chemistry at the University of Southern Denmark is creating simple protocells. Here with aid of fluorescent light and a powerful microscope he makes them visible to the bare eye.



Omar Khan

Gravity Screens, Center for Architecture and Situated Technologies, Department of Architecture, University at Buffalo, New York, 2009–10 Chemistry’s contribution to architecture started in the 1960s with the introduction of new plastics. At Buffalo, Khan is leading research into soft materials such as rubber in these screens.




Philip Beesley

Hylozoic Ground installation, Canadian Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2010 A ‘live’ textile matrix that provides a new model for a synthetic but evolutionary ecology.


Nic Clear

Protocell Architecture 02 [Networks], 1200 x 600 print on lightbox (detail), 2010 Architecture needs to move away from the massive tectonics of building, and to be reimagined as a network of information and experience. Drawing upon Guy Debord’s psychogeography and Bernard Tschumi’s spatial and programmatic sequences, protocell architecture suggests the creation of open and inclusive ‘synthetic’ spaces that exist between the virtual and the actual.

Images: pp 8-9 © Leroy Cronin, The University of Glasgow, 2010; p 10 © Martin Hanczyc; p 11 © Omar Khan; p 12 © © Philip Beesley Architect Inc; p 13 © Nic Clear


INTRODUCTION By Neil Spiller and Rachel Armstrong




Rachel Armstrong, Protocell Preparation, Center for Fundamental Living Technology, University of Southern Denmark, Odense, 2010 Protocells showing a striking contrast in colour through the different reactions of copper and iron salts when they come in contact with the protocells as a result of the active metabolism embodied in the oil/water system.



Here we are more than a decade into the 21st century. We are told by some quarters that there is nothing new left to discover in architectural practice and that it has all been done before. Yet the world is in a big mess and vicariously architecture’s ability to help deal with this mess has never been at such a low ebb. Architects compete like peacocks for the most colourful tails and justify these shapes with other tales. Often these conceits include references to biology (grass, flowers, seeds, wings and shells) or through parametric software make allusions to baroque folds, quilted curtains and liquid flows. All this is merely the lipstick that graces the gorilla’s lips. Buildings still are mostly dumb, inert blobs of material that act as ecological obstacles. The fundamental problem that we currently design buildings as barriers to the environment and not as proactively beneficial environmental technology now needs to be addressed. To do this effectively we must start to develop architectural paradigms and technologies that cooperate with and embrace, rather than dominate, natural imperatives. This issue of 2, we hope, is a new dawn, much like the 2 issues on Architects in Cyberspace were in the 1990s.1 It describes and explores the architectural possibilities of one set of such technologies – the protocells. Such explorations are by necessity exciting interdisciplinary research, and the issue includes architects, historians, theorists and scientists with the intention of capturing some of the sense of discovery of this new terrain.

Neil Spiller, Communicating Vessels, Fordwich, Kent, 2007 opposite: Site plan. The surreal interconnected vessels are akin to the anatomy of the biological cells: not fully understandable, complex and unpredictable.

A protocell is the output of research programmes aimed at the construction of a chemical life-like ensemble in the form of an artificial cell system that is able to self-maintain, self-reproduce and potentially evolve.2 Protocell technology is the application of protocells to design challenges, and it behaves as a kind of primordial clay that exists between inert traditional matter and conventional biology. In keeping with the interdisciplinary approach to this issue, protocell technology is described in broad architectural terms rather than adhering to strictly scientific definitions. The reasons for doing so are twofold. Firstly, protocells have a broad cultural applicability, which extends beyond their existence in the laboratory. Secondly, scientists themselves have conflicting views on what characterises this new technology and what it actually means. Some declare that protocells do not yet ‘exist’ because they need to fulfil three criteria to reach a technical degree of ‘life’, which specifically requires the presence of a container, a metabolism and information.3 Currently this implies that the protocell needs to be able to replicate itself using chemical information-storing systems such as DNA or RNA. Other researchers, such as Martin Hanczyc, regard the protocell as the agent that precedes the first fully artificial ‘minimal cell’, one that is created from its chemical ingredients rather than stripped down from a pre-existing biological system as was achieved by JC Venter’s laboratory earlier this year.4

Rachel Armstrong, Protocell Preparation, Center for Fundamental Living Technology, University of Southern Denmark, Odense, 2010 top: Protocells created by the Bütschli method, an oil-in-water droplet system that exhibits properties normally associated with living systems, such as movement, sensitivity and complex behaviour; for example, the deposition of solid material over time. These protocells are freshly formed and are interacting with their environment and with each other by virtue of an internal chemistry, or ‘metabolism’.


Protocells are the transition stage towards the creation of fully artificial cells using a bottom-up approach to their assembly, and are an essential part of the discovery of living processes rather than the goal.

Protocells are the transition stage towards the creation of fully artificial cells using a bottom-up approach to their assembly, and are an essential part of the discovery of living processes rather than the goal. Andrew Ellington even questions the value of ‘life’ as a scientific objective, since this terminology does not convey empirically executable data that can be objectively quantified through scientific research methods or technologies. Ellington argues that matter simply needs to be sufficiently interesting to warrant further exploration without reference to a variety of non-empirical value systems that are implicit in the current debates around the definition of life.5 But protocells, as a chemical technology – rather than an ideological model and an embodiment of an alternative to life – do exist, and these dichotomies of existence or non-existence are part of the dualistic, industrial paradigm that currently besets the practice of science as technology and is one which protocells inherently resist. The protocell is a technology that is native to the 21st century and is likely to define it. Indeed, we will be so bold to go as far as to say that the protocell model that engages with living processes is the first technology that can challenge the top-down imperatives of DNA, the information-processing system of biology, in an experimental way. Its mere existence is extraordinarily profound as it strikes at the core of the dominant ideologies and tyrannical dogmas about our identity that have been confined to the chemistry of a single, sophisticated chemical that


has shaped our engagement with living systems and the environment throughout the latter part of the 20th century, necessitating blueprints, hierarchical systems of organisation, determinism and atomic-scale precision. This issue of 2 more than supposes the existence of protocells; it gathers evidence from the laboratory benches where they are being developed and anticipates their architectural relevance which, by virtue of its environmental connectedness, has the potential to become more than ‘environmentally friendly’ – a benign state of being – but environmentally remedial – active and subversive. For the purposes of our discussions we have defined protocells as being primordial molecular globules, situated in the environment through the laws of physics and connected through the language of chemistry. Uniquely, protocell technology possesses a material simplicity that forms through self-assembly. Yet the globule can become dynamic and exist in various forms because it has an embedded chemical metabolism and can be fabricated from scratch using a highly simplified set of organic and inorganic chemicals – see the ‘Protocell Manifesto’ on pp 24–25 which, based on Dadaist text, ridicules what we as its authors consider to be the meaninglessness of biological formalism proposing the principles of protocell architecture as an alternative. Protocells exist as a variety of species – Martin Hanczyc’s protocell technology (pp 26–33) is composed of a dynamic oil droplet in water, while Leroy Cronin’s iChell (pp 34–43), another

top: The protocells at six weeks old. Crystalline deposits at the oil/water interface resemble aspects of the mineralisation process seen in bone.

above: Protocells created by the B端tschli method using a variety of different metabolic chemistries to create brightly coloured crystals at the oil/water interface, which also act as an indicator that an active process is occurring.


Protocells inherently engage with the principles of design. They manipulate and can be manipulated to alter matter in their environment, reworking and repositioning this material in time and space – a strategy shared by life to avoid entropy and the decay towards equilibrium, in other words, death.


species of protocell, is composed of inorganic chemicals that have not been conventionally associated with living systems. Protocells do not operate within the realms of biological processes that are associated with living systems, but are driven by primordial organising forces – the laws of physics and chemistry. Yet protocells can be regarded as ‘native’ terrestrial entities that can operate in a much wider solution space of possibility than biology does. So while DNA produces biology as the result of its proliferating cellular processes, populations of protocells create completely different forms, functions and landscapes from their materials. Protocells are not just a ‘happy accident’ of the environment, as implied by the principles of biology first formalised by Charles Darwin (1809–82) in the theory of ‘natural selection’, since there is nothing ‘random’ about their existence. I am not speaking of randomness, but of the central principle of all history – contingency. A historical explanation does not rest on direct deductions from laws of nature, but on an unpredictable sequence of antecedent states, where any major change in any step of the sequence would have altered the final result. This final result is therefore dependent, or contingent, upon everything that came before – the un-erasable and determining signature of history. — SJ Gould, Wonderful Life, 19896

opposite: The protocells in the process of laying down crystals of black/brown magnetite, a magnetic iron oxide. The structure is produced by the diffusion and precipitation of inorganic salts interacting with the metabolism of the protocells. The precipitates have been produced over the course of several minutes and are several millimetres in diameter.

Protocells inherently engage with the principles of design. They manipulate and can be manipulated to alter matter in their environment, reworking and repositioning this material in time and space – a strategy shared by life to avoid entropy and the decay towards equilibrium, in other words, death. In frantically throwing out entropy, protocells shape their surroundings and make products that document this process. They are observed as microstructures that become materials through collective interaction and engagement with dynamic environmental processes. This ‘protocell architecture’ can be thought of as an alternative arrangement of terrestrial chemistry that ultimately results in a new living system that has been ‘midwifed’ into existence by human design and technological innovation. In this study of the ‘unnatural history’ of protocell technology, the contributors to this issue comment on the implications of the discovery of these new living systems, taking on a similar role to the original ‘natural historians’ such as Carl Linnæus (1707–78), Antonie Philips van Leeuwenhoek (1632–1723) or Darwin, who provided insights into the behaviour of biology by observing and by comparatively analysing the appearance of different species in different natural habitats to make deductions about what was causing the variation between them. Mark Morris comments on the agency of protocells and the scales at which architects conventionally work to examine their architectural relevance (pp 44–9). Omar Khan urges the need for an architectural

top: The protocells at three months old. Crystals have appeared at the oil/ water interface and a second wave of mineralisation has taken place through the competitive diffusion of metal ions, which has changed the dominant colouration of the deposits.


imagination in the design of responsive and adaptive materials, and comments on the role of scaling, inhabitation and duration as essential parameters missing from the design of ‘smart materials’ (pp 50–9). Khan considers how chemistry, literally and operatively, can become the basis for architectural thinking. Neil Spiller indulges in the implications of the subversive surrealness of these ‘wet’ technologies (pp 60–7), while Rachel Armstrong explores some of the implications of these chemical relationships in a literal sense when they are implemented in a material context (pp 68–77). An example of the implementation of these new materials in architectural practice is provided in Philip Beesley’s Hylozoic Ground project (pp 78–89), and Dan Slavinsky examines the novel forms that result from these moist architectures through a new grammar of protocell ornament (pp 90–9). Protocells are surprisingly social, which challenges the singularity of the origins of life as an event and hints at the evolution of living systems as being collectives by nature. Neri Oxman observes evidence of protocells within her material ecology thesis and establishes them as agents of synthetic ecologies with architectural purpose (pp 100–5). Paul Preissner investigates the construction principles of protocell technologies as a method in which to repair and update existing architectural projects, and examines their control strategies, which are integrated within their environment (pp

above and opposite bottom left: The protocells in the process of simultaneously laying down crystals of black/brown magnetite and calcium carbonate, a limestone-like material that has been used as a traditional architectural building material. The protocells are able to metabolise different environmental materials separately, although all of the protocells in this flask possess the same internal metabolism.


106–11). Lisa Iwamoto views protocells as environmental filters and architectural drivers that create new possibilities for sustainable design interventions (pp 112–21), and Nic Clear looks at the opportunities that the ambiguous technology of protocells presents in a broader context, reflecting on a timeline for change in architectural practice (pp 122–7). The implications of protocell technology are farreaching and offer a long-awaited new beginning for architecture. This beginning may be as profound as a second biogenesis for biology and the origins of life sciences, which promises much more than a brand new day and opens up a whole new world. 1 Notes 1. See Neil Spiller, 2 Architects in Cyberspace, Vol 65, No 118, November 1995; and Martin Pearce and Neil Spiller (eds), 2 Architects in Cyberspace II, Vol 68, No 11/12, Nov/Dec 1998. 2. Ricard V Solé, Andrea Munteanu, Carlos Rodriguez-Caso and Javier Macía, ‘Synthetic Protocell Biology: from reproduction to computation’; see www., accessed October 2010. 3. Steen Rasmussen et al, Protocells: Bridging Nonliving and Living Matter, MIT Press (Cambridge, MA), 2008, p 71. 4. Daniel G Gibson et al, ‘Creation of a Bacterial Cell Controlled by a Chemically Synthesized Genome’, Science, Vol 329, No 5987, 2 July 2010, pp 52–6. 5. Rachel Armstrong, ‘Systems Evolution and Bio-Feminism: Move over Darwin’; see, accessed October 2010. 6. SJ Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, WW Norton & Co (New York), 1989. p 283.

opposite bottom right: Iron- and calcium salt-based structures produced by Bütschli protocells over the course of an hour and reaching several centimetres in height.

opposite top and overleaf: A rich variety of crystals produced by a population of Bütschli protocells with the same metabolism. Protocells are an example of ‘living technology’ that exhibits some of the properties of living systems, such as growth and metabolism, which are demonstrated in this experiment, and are selectively responsive to the chemical landscape of their environment.









We want to change the world with almost nothing. It is possible to generate complex materials and architectures through harnessing the fundamental energetics of matter; in other words, doing more with less. What we call protocell architecture is, at root, a piece of Dadaist and Surrealist research, in which all the lofty questions have become involved. The novel self-assembling material systems that arise from protocell architectural practice make no reference to, nor attempt to mimic, bio-logic. As such, protocell architecture is an alien to the natural world, yet speaks the same fundamental languages of chemistry and physics. The results of these conversations and interactions constitute a parallel biology and second biogenesis whose aesthetics are described by Surrealist agendas. Architecture is dead, long live architecture. Protocells constitute a disruptive technology for architectural practice since they are capable of reaching a transition point when evolution emerges within the system, the outcome of which is unpredictable, and therefore offer novel and surprising ways of constructing architecture that will succeed and replace conventional technologies. Protocell architecture swallows contrast and all contradictions including the grotesquery and illogicality of life. Protocell technology is at the beginning of an evolutionary pathway that is connected to, and dependent on, the environmental conditions around it. The responsiveness of protocells to stimuli means they can be regarded as computing units. Consequently, protocells do not seek to generate idealised architectural forms but to reflect and interpret the full spectrum of the processes they encounter in the real world. What is generally termed life is really a frothy nothing that merely connects. Protocell technology offers an opportunity for architects to engage with the evolutionary process itself. Unlike natural biological systems that evolve randomly according to Darwinian evolution, protocell technology allows deliberate

and specific interventions throughout the entire course of its coming into being. By moving and metabolising, protocells may form the basis for a synthetic surface ecology. These interventions are the basis of what we call protocell architecture. 6

We do not wish to imitate nature, we do not wish to reproduce nature, we want to produce architecture in the way a plant produces its fruit. We do not want to depict, we want to produce directly, not indirectly, since there is no trace of abstraction. We call it protocell architecture. Protocell architecture embodies the principles of emergence, bottom-up construction techniques and self-assembly. It is equipped with design ‘handles’ that enable the architect to persuade rather than dominate the outcome of the system through physical communication. As such, these systems are unknowable, surprising and anarchic.

11 We tell you the tricks of today are the truths

of tomorrow. Protocell architecture is better adapted to the prevailing physical and social conditions since it is founded on a new set of technologies that are not ‘alive’ but which possess some of the properties of living systems. As such these technologies are qualitatively different to the industrial and digital technologies that have become the mainstream tools of the 20th century.

12 We will work with things that we do not want to design,

things that already have systematic existence. Protocell technology has the capacity to transform and modify existing building materials and architecture with the potential for surprise.

13 You know as well as we do that architecture is nothing 7

We want to collage effective organic machinery that composes itself according to the drivers of biological design. Protocell architecture is chemically programmable and operates in keeping with the organising principles of physics and chemistry.

more than rhythms and connections. Protocell architecture embodies the complexity of materials in a literal rather than a metaphorical manner, and becomes a physical part of our existence.

14 We will construct exquisite corpses, not dead but 8

We want over and over again, movement and connection; we see peace only in dynamism. Protocell architecture gathers its energy from the tension that resides at an interface between two media such as oil and water, which causes movement, disruption and change. It resists the equilibrium since this constitutes death.

alive and useful. Protocell architecture is central to the understanding of living systems. It allows us to work with and enhance the unavoidable inconsistency that is the essence of life itself.

15 We deal in a second aesthetic, one that initiates 9

The head is round, so thoughts can revolve. The head of architecture is green, robust, synthesized, and exists everywhere simultaneously, whether it is large or very, very small. Protocell architecture is fashioned from ‘low-tech biotech’ characterised by ubiquitous, durable and affordable materials.

10 We wish to blur the firm boundaries that self-certain people

delineate around all we can achieve. Protocell technology becomes a co-author in the production of architecture through the possession of living properties and its ability to self-assemble.

beginnings and moulds with natural forces. Protocell architecture is connected to the environment through constant conversation and energy exchange with the natural world in a series of chemical interactions called ‘metabolism’. This involves the conversion of one group of substances into another, either by absorbing or releasing energy – doing more with less. Text © 2011 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Images: pp 14, 17–25 © Photographs by Rachel Armstrong, 2010; p 16 © Neil Spiller


Martin Hanczyc

STRUCTURE AND THE SYNTHESIS OF LIFE In the laboratories of the Institute of Physics and Chemistry at the University of Southern Denmark, Martin Hanczyc has been creating simple protocells. Here he explains the principles behind the bottomup synthetic biology and why a clear analogy can be made between architecture and the self-assembling protocell.

Synthetic protocell above: A protocell-type structure produced through the self-assembly of different lipid molecules. Different fluorescent molecules linked to the different lipids allow for detailed visualisation of the structure with microscopy. The diameter of the structure is about 50 microns.


Synthetic cell membranes opposite: The self-assembly of millions of single lipid molecules into a population of large complex structures as seen with a fluorescent microscope. The formation of these structures takes in the order of seconds to minutes. Fluorescent markers linked to the lipid molecules allow for visualisation of the resultant structures. The size of the image is 300 x 300 microns.

Life synthesised from the bottom up (from simple to more complex) though the stepwise accretion of sophistication may be created through chemistry in the laboratory. The bottom-up approach follows closely the classical definition of synthetic biology put forth by Stephane Ludec in 1914: Just as synthetic chemistry began with the artificial formation of the simplest organic products, so biological synthesis must content itself at first with the fabrication of forms resembling those of the lowest organisms. Like other sciences, synthetic biology must proceed from the simpler to the more complex, beginning with the reproduction of the more elementary vital phenomena.1 Bottom-up synthetic biology is primarily concerned with protocells. Protocells are simple chemical models of living cells that possess some of their properties, such as metabolism, movement, replication, information, and evolution, but are not necessarily alive.2 They are artificial in that they are conceived and made in a laboratory. There may be several unrelated varieties of protocells. Both in form and composition, they may hold no similarity to, but only mimic, natural living cells in their functionality. The construction of a protocell begins with different types of both natural and synthetic molecules. The chemical and physical properties of individual molecules govern their formation into higher-order structures, such as synthetic cell membranes. The structures are collections of hundreds of millions of molecules that then possess properties not present in the individual molecules. Some structures, such as synthetic protocells, resemble roughly the architecture of living cells with the same size scale.3 There is a clear analogy here between synthetic biology and architecture: a system is conceived and then synthesised from the bottom up using modular pieces that assemble or self-assemble into a larger structure which possesses

functionality and form derived from the structure as a whole but not possessed by the building blocks in themselves. It has long been thought that self-assembly (the inherent ability of some molecules to assemble together spontaneously into larger organised structures) is sufficient to explain the fundamental formation of living systems. To make an organism demands the right substances in the right proportions and in the right arrangement. We do not think that anything more is needed. — George Wald, 19544 The point of faith is: make the polypeptide sequences at the right time and in the right amounts, and the organization will take care of itself. This is not far from suggesting that a cell will crystallize itself out of the soup when the right components are present. — Joshua Lederberg, 19665 When the appropriate macromolecule has been formed, the final and crucial stage, leading to a primitive organism, would then be one of self-assembly. — Sidney Fox, 19686 However, despite more than a hundred years of experimentation with self-assembly, no one has successfully demonstrated the synthesis of life in the laboratory according to this principle.7 Simply, the self-assembly of molecules into higher-order structures may represent an equilibrium state, such as the self-assembly of oil droplets around a cloth fibre. In chemistry, equilibrium equals death. Living cells and systems continuously consume energy and material to avoid equilibrium, therefore the self-assembly of higher-order structures is only one step in the attempt to synthesise life; the structure must then be able to consume materials while at the same time maintain itself.8 27

The protocell is motile because it contains a simple one-step metabolism that allows for the maintenance of its structure over time. The continuous maintenance of the protocell structure results in movement of the structure in space.


In recent experiments at the Institute of Physics and Chemistry at the University of Southern Denmark it has been possible to create a simple protocell self-contructed through self-assembly and, once assembled, showing dynamic motility. The protocell is motile because it contains a simple one-step metabolism that allows for the maintenance of its structure over time. The continuous maintenance of the protocell structure results in movement of the structure in space. The speed and direction of the motility is governed by the protocell itself. While in motion, the protocell remodels its environment leaving a chemical or physical trail characteristic of protocell motility. Because this type of protocell contains an interface boundary that is highly sensitive to the chemical environment, it is able to sense and respond to gradients in that environment and in doing so displays a behaviour called chemotaxis – directional movement with respect to an external chemical gradient – which is normally attributed to living cells.9 As the protocell moves it remodels the chemical landscape with signals to which it is sensitive. The protocell may therefore exhibit a very rudimentary form of memory by structuring its own environment10 with its future action influenced by its past behaviour which is encoded in a chemical imprint on the system. By synthesising such protocells, it was discovered that self-assembled structures, when embedded with a chemical metabolism, can possess lifelike characteristics such as sensing, motility and memory. No natural living cell resembles the protocell described here either in composition, form or mechanism. Nevertheless, both the natural and synthetic cells share the same type of functionality. The motile protocell described consists of only five different chemicals, making it economical and easy to produce; thus protocell technology may form the basis for new smart materials11 applicable to the future of architectural design.12

Self-assembly of oil droplets around a cloth fibre opposite: An optically clear solution turns turbid over time as the selfassembly of molecules to form oil droplets occurs. The microscopic image is roughly 500 x 500 microns.

Protocell motility above: As the red protocell moves through a dish containing a pH-sensitive dye, a trail of low pH is noticed. The protocell is moving towards the lower right-hand edge of the dish. The diameter of the dish is 3.5 centimetres (1.38 inches).


The chemical landscape Visualisation of the chemical landscape produced by the protocell. An initially homogeneous environment is transformed by the behaviour of the protocell as evidenced by the emergence of chemical gradients as visualised by both red and green fluorescent molecules added to the environment. The upper-left panel also shows that the action of the protocell produces physical structures in the external environment. All images are merged in the bottom-right panel. The size of each frame is about 500 x 500 microns.

30 3 0

The flow of energy and material in an open, selfmaintaining system may provide additional necessary structure and dynamics. A quantitative understanding of both internal and external structure may be necessary to understand the minimal complexity required to synthesise life. The choices the designer needs to make then become crucial: which structural elements should be supplied and which should (hopefully) emerge in the experiment?

Due to the method of construction, the protocell may be programmed to contain various chemistries and metabolisms, from simple to complex. The protocell can therefore be programmed to consume or produce selectively in a given environment. When two protocells with different metabolisms produce products that are then exported into the environment, these products could be detected by the protocells affecting their behaviour, leading to higher-order interactions in protocell populations13 through chemical communication. The protocell is also able to interact with and modify more complex environments such as protocells on glass fibres. This work was carried out in collaboration with Christian Kerrigan, artist in residence at the Victoria & Albert Museum, supported by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. It is hoped that ultimately protocells can be developed that are able to adapt to and navigate within real-world environments and systems; protocells that through their embedded chemistry and dynamic movement are able to perform some needed function in the environment. An example of this would be the accelerated chemical petrifaction of rotting wooden pilings that support buildings throughout the world.14 In order to create synthetic living systems, the systems must be open with respect to the influx and outflow of matter and energy. Interest here lies in the emergence, persistence and evolution of structure in open systems. Indeed perhaps all the life around us produced by almost four billion years of evolution is nothing other than an elaborate structure produced by the flow of high-energy radiation from the sun into thermal energy on the earth. If we are lucky we can produce, on a very small scale, conditions in the laboratory that mimic such an open system that is capable of forming and sustaining synthetic life. Given that many attempts have been made over the past hundred years to synthesise life in the laboratory and none have been successful, one must question whether the correct tools and concepts are being used to achieve the goal. Normal

hypothesis-driven science allows us to take gradual steps in our understanding of the natural world that reveal a limited piece of the puzzle, under highly constrained and usually surreal conditions. Perhaps we are too naive to demonstrate an understanding of life. Even if this is true, significant progress can be made both through normal scientific method and also by considering concepts not typically used in science. For example, the application of the artistic concept of Maximalism to the creation of a synthetic cell in order to achieve the necessary amount of complexity has been proposed.15 If the structure of a synthetic cell and its environment needs a certain level of complexity, then it may be futile to follow a reductionist or engineering path too closely. A scientific dichotomy may exist between understanding life and synthesising life, at least at this point in time. To synthesise life, perhaps a chemical system too complex to understand must be created and tested. If the chemical system is too complex, then a concise and comprehensive understanding of the system may not be attainable, even if synthetic life is created therein. Structure is the key to synthesising life from the bottom up; a complete system needs to be designed with structure present in the agent and structure supplied from the environment. The flow of energy and material in an open, self-maintaining system may provide additional necessary structure and dynamics. A quantitative understanding of both internal and external structure may be necessary to understand the minimal complexity required to synthesise life. The choices the designer needs to make then become crucial: which structural elements should be supplied and which should (hopefully) emerge in the experiment? The hope is that a protocell, such as the motile one described here, will be able to remodel its environment to create the necessary conditions for its own persistence and evolution. The challenge for the designer, then, is to create not only the lifelike structure, whether it be a chemical protocell or a living building, but also the correct environmental context. 1 31

Protocells on glass fibres above: Light emitting from the fluorescent protocells (bright spots) illuminates the glass-fibre landscape. The protocells are able to move and interact in this highly structured three-dimensional environment. The dimension of the imaged field by microscope is 1 x 1 millimetres (0.039 x 0.039 inches).


Two protocells with different metabolisms opposite: The protocell in the lower left is slowly producing a product that then forms a halo surrounding the protocell. The neighbouring protocell does not produce this product and such processes may govern the interaction between the two protocells. The diameter of each protocell is about 100 microns.

Notes 1. S Leduc, The Mechanism of Life, William Heinemann (London), 1914. 2. JW Szostak, DP Bartel and PL Luisi, ‘Synthesizing Life’, Nature 409, 2001, pp 387–90. 3. MM Hanczyc, SM Fujikawa and JW Szostak, ‘Experimental Models of Primitive Cellular Compartments: Encapsulation, Growth and Division’, Science 302, 2003, pp 618–22. 4. G Wald, ‘The Origin of Life’, Scientific American, 1954, pp 45–53. 5. J Lederberg, Current Topics in Developmental Biology, Vol 1, 1966, pp ix–xiii. 6. SW Fox, ‘Self-Assembly of the Protocell from a Self-Ordered Polymer’, Journal of Scientific & Industrial Research 27, 1968, pp 267–74. 7. MM Hanczyc, ‘The Early History of Protocells: The Search for the Recipe of Life, in S Rasmussen, MA Bedau, L Chen, D Deamer, DC Krakauer, NH Packard and PF Stadler (eds), Protocells: Bridging Nonliving and Living Matter, MIT Press (Cambridge, MA), 2008, pp 3–18. 8. FG Varela, HR Maturana and R Uribe, ‘Autopoiesis: The Organization of Living Systems, its Characterization and a Model’, BioSystems, 5, 1974, pp 187–96. 9. MM Hanczyc, T Toyota, T Ikegami, N Packard and T Sugawara, ‘Fatty Acid Chemistry at the Oil-Water Interface: Self-Propelled Oil Droplets’, Journal of the American Chemical Society 129(30): 2007, pp 9386–91. 10. N Horibe, MM Hanczyc and T Ikegami, ‘Shape and Motion Dynamics in Self-Moving Oil Droplets’, Robotics and Autonomous Systems, forthcoming. 11. MM Hanczyc and T Ikegami, ‘Chemical Basis for Minimal Cognition’, Artificial Life 16, 2010, pp 233–43. 12. MM Hanczyc and T Ikegami, ‘Protocells as Smart Agents for Architectural Design’, Technoetic Arts Journal, Vol 7.2, 2009, pp 117–20. 13. T Toyota, N Maru, MM Hanczyc, T Ikegami and T Sugawara, ‘SelfPropelled Oil Droplets Consuming “Fuel” Surfactant’, Journal of the American Chemical Society 131 (14), 2009, pp 5012–13. 14. R Armstrong, ‘Living Buildings: Plectic Systems Architecture’, Technoetic Arts Journal, op cit, pp 79–94. 15. T Ikegami and MM Hanczyc, ‘The Search for a First Cell Under the Maximalism Design Principle’, Technoetic Arts Journal, op cit, pp 153–64. Text © 2011 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Images: pp 26-8, 30, 33 © Martin Hanczyc, ProtoLife Sri; pp 29, 32 © Martin Hanczyc, FLinT


Leroy Cronin


Leroy Cronin, Inorganic Cells, Cronin Group, University of Glasgow, 2010 Grid of iChells arranged so that ‘interchellular’ communication is possible, allowing the exchange of information and chemicals. The iChells here are around 0.05 millimetres in diameter.

DEFINING NEW ARCHITECTURAL DESIGN PRINCIPLES WITH ‘LIVING’ INORGANIC MATERIALS At the University of Glasgow, Leroy Cronin is leading a group of scientists that are pioneering the engineering of a fundamentally new approach to building materials, which scales up from the nano scale to the micro. Cronin reflects on the possibilities of this new paradigm that gives inorganic cellular materials the potential to be ‘programmed’ to sense environmental changes, generate power, self-repair, shift properties and even compete with other building materials for resources. 35

Imagine a space that is able to undergo antonomous structural morphogenesis in response to various stimuli both inside and outside the structure. In the virtual-reality world this scenario is already a reality, but in the ‘built’ material world the technology is still far from realisation in a practical sense. It is fascinating that the drive for morphogenically adaptable structures, from the millimetre, to the tens of metres, is coming not from what is scientifically and technologically possible, but from the push and evolution in architectural design demanding a fundamentally more responsive, intimate, tactile and intelligent class of materials. This is pushing the limits of what is conceivable in materials science and technology as architects and designers try to create more sophisticated and intelligent spaces that serve a multitude of purposes from the functional to the aesthetic. Also, the development of metaspaces, which change over time, has been possible thanks to the advent of modern lighting and materials; for example, transmitting to reflective glass which can be switched as a function of the environment or the user. Such approaches, which allow the development of adaptive environments, are extremely interesting for energyefficient buildings: programmable spaces, for example. In the work being carried out by the Cronin Group at the University of Glasgow, attempts are being made to tame and manipulate spaces from the nanoscale (a billionth of a metre) to the micron-scale (a millimetre is 1,000 microns). However, the focus is not on inanimate materials, but rather on attempting to engineer a fundamentally new materials paradigm. To define this new approach, the group proposes exploiting a new class of nanoscale inorganic molecules that can be reconfigured to allow the fabrication of scalable new building materials and systems that can emulate living systems (based upon inorganic cellular materials).1 Such materials could be ‘programmed’ to modulate the environment (temperature, luminosity, humidity), generate power, self-repair, change mechanical properties, and even compete with other building ‘organisms’ for material, information and resources. The ultimate aim is to reduce the fundamental building block of building materials from the centimetre (real bricks, nails, concrete blocks) to the same dimensions as the building blocks of biology and to produce inorganic cells. Imagine the outcomes of establishing such a paradigm. Buildings would have a cellular structure2 with living inorganic 36

components that would allow the entire structure to self-repair, to sense environmental changes, establish a central nervous system, and even use the environment to sequester water, develop solar energy systems, and regulate the atmosphere, internal temperature and humidity using this decentralised approach. Further, by engineering the cellular system with a standard information network the entire architecture could process and distribute vast amounts of information. In fact, such systems would constitute a type of living technology where biology and nanotechnology would be fused together.3 Biological systems themselves are incredibly complex and the fact that they have been assembled according to a global evolutionary process means that understanding new architectural design principles could inform biologists about how ecosystems develop and vice versa. The most exciting extrapolation could be the development of inherently sustainable built environments whereby the sharing of resources, and the environmental impact of the architecture, was ameliorated by sustainable interactions between the surrounding architectures and the environment. For example, if energy or water was in short supply, then the architecture may develop water- or solar-collection systems; or if the air was polluted, it could develop filtration systems to clean the local atmosphere. The key aspect here is that not only biological principles would be at work; we could also define the desirable positive interactions that support the living architectures. Of course such control is also open to abuse as well as being used for positive environmental outcomes. Let us now focus on how the building blocks are being developed. Today, the promise of ‘living’ inorganic materials is embodied and characterised by self-growing or fabricating entities that are able to seek out and adapt to new environments and stimuli, growing from a ‘seed’ or ‘nucleus’ that contains the information or blueprint for the architecture to develop.4 As this architectural unit develops in time and space, it is able to both explore the surrounding environment and to adapt or learn from its surroundings. This means that the design process is inherently bespoke, whereby the architecture is defined by a range of chemotactic responses and pathways that lay down the hard inorganic material skeleton. In this respect the Cronin Group has been able to develop a micron-scale inorganic

Leroy Cronin, Tubular Architectures, Cronin Group, University of Glasgow, 2009 opposite left: A collection of inorganic crystals undergoing a spontaneous metamorphosis from single ordered crystals into tubular architectures growing in one direction following the flow of liquid. The tube diameter is around 0.001 millimetres and itself is capable of flowing liquids. The transformation is shown here around 3 minutes from initiation, 10 minutes after which the crystals have completely disappeared and the area is densely packed with tubular architectures.

opposite right: Crystals undergoing metamorphosis that have traced a staircase pattern drawn using an external electrode array to direct the precise path of the tubular architectures. The diameter of the tubes is around 0.001 millimetres.

below: View into a sheered tube showing the cross-section, revealing the edge of the tube and the rough exterior as well as the interior. The diameter of the tube is around 0.001 millimetres.

overleaf: Mass of tubular architectures that have formed at the air–water interface in a beaker of chemicals.

Biological systems themselves are incredibly complex and the fact that they have been assembled according to a global evolutionary process means that understanding new architectural design principles could inform biologists about how ecosystems develop and vice versa.

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The key aspect of any living technology is its potential for autonomous adaptation, and its application to design and architecture could be profound in the extreme.


Leroy Cronin, Combined Tubular and Cellular Architectures, Cronin Group, University of Glasgow, 2010 The inorganic chemical cell can develop and tolerate a range of chemistries and also extrude tubular architectures that could act as sensors, feeding pipes and transport networks to move chemicals around the system.

fabrication system whereby crystals of inorganic mineral are refabricated into tubular architectures many thousands of microns long, with well-defined paths and with tube diameters of only around 10 microns. These self-growing architectures5 are extremely interesting since they can respond to the physical and chemical environment; they can grow as fibres with vast aspect ratios, and have a well-defined chemical composition. To be useful, to create systems with this degree of sophistication requires a robust chemical library of structures with embedded chemistries that are adaptive, resilient, environmentally compatible and realisable on a global scale. The global deployment of such a fundamentally new building platform, though, should probably not be permitted until we are able to get to grips with the concepts of artificial inorganic ‘living technology’. Although the benefits are clear, there are also dangers that the technology will be misunderstood, abused or have a negative environmental impact (the most significant danger is poor representation in the media, rather than any real danger). Current research is informing us how the realisation of such systems will allow us to get to grips with the definition of life, to allow us to understand how easy or hard it is for living systems to spontaneously emerge in the universe, and this will also have a multitude of other implications for humankind. Just as important, and possibly even more relevant from a technology point of view, is the impact of living technology on the architectural world. In this respect, if one subscribes to the ability of living systems to adapt using evolutionary approaches, then the impact on design and architecture could be profound. If the design criteria or specification for the building could be encoded into a robustness of the building material, then using a living technology system to evolve towards the product need will profoundly change our world. In this respect, the only viable route to a physical living materials technology will be to demonstrate artificial materials that have built-in compatibility and mutual dependence with the natural world (both living and non-living). The key aspect of any living technology is its potential for autonomous adaptation, and its application to design and architecture could be profound in the extreme. This is because coupling this property with present-day engineering paradigms opens up a vast world of material processes and new building materials, since it combines the approaches of 41

Leroy Cronin, Outerspace and Innerspace at the Nanoscale, Cronin Group, University of Glasgow, 2010 below: Actual image of a nanoscale wheel cluster that has captured, or been found with, a perfect templating molecule.


Leroy Cronin, Inorganic Cells, Cronin Group, University of Glasgow, 2010 opposite: View of a nested set of inorganic cells, or iChells, showing that it is possible to encapsulate a range of inorganic architectures within the cell. The cells are robust and self-repairing as well as able to encapsulate and tolerate a range of chemical environments. The diameter of the iChells is configurable and can range from 0.01 to 10 millimetres.

design and evolution with the idea of autonomous and ‘adaptive matter’. This implies that the entire process of evolution of the matter occurs in the chemosphere (chemical world). Similar to biology, such material approaches could benefit from using cellular components as the minimal units of the living inorganic material. Like biological cells, these inorganic chemical cells, or iChells, can be ‘programmed’ to interact with each other. It would be fascinating to link the tubular and cellular systems; the combination of tube structures with cells would provide a route to networking the inorganic cellular blocks and would even allow the formation of structures based on such systems via the formation of tubular architectures, which may lead to the assembly of electronically programmable units that are already present in the building material. If evolution can be engineered to occur in living, unsophisticated building blocks, then it may well be possible to evolve sophisticated materials with properties as yet inaccessible with conventional technologies. Indeed, improving the use of evolutionary synthetic techniques could allow the evolution of environmentally perfect materials. This would mean that the specification for the materials and the design brief would be presented as the evolutionary ‘fitness parameter’ that would be sought during the growth adaptation process. In this concept, the material used in the building design would initially be suited, but not perfect, and only over time would it adapt, evolve, improve and dynamically address the fitness parameter. This could mean the continual evolution of the material and the architecture as the result of changing environmental conditions: pollution, heating or cooling, humidity, available energy and so on. Thus the potential to embed scalable computing elements within the materials so that they could become ‘intelligent’ could also be an interesting concept, especially the idea of producing cellular materials that could signal between cells, and could compute and adapt. The functional implications for such materials are profound, and the function–aesthetic aspect is equally intriguing. Selfhealing buildings with peer-to-peer information storage, distributed processing as well as energy harvesting could also be embedded. Although the idea of inorganic living materials is coming closer, the use of the robust nature of inorganic materials in combination with the adaptive nature of living systems is

extremely important. In some respects the concepts and ideas embodied by living inorganic cells goes way beyond biology, but this potential has not yet been made into a ‘hardware’ reality. In terms of new materials design, if living or adaptive materials are to be realised and employed in real architectures, then the requirement of the minimum chemical infrastructure to establish a complex system using molecular building blocks is absolutely key, and it is vital to consider the design at the molecular, nanoscale level. At such scales, the design and assembly of protein-sized (around a billionth of a metre in diameter) inorganic metal-oxide clusters gives a good example of complex inorganic nanoscale architectures that surely can scale up to the macro-world with dramatic effect.6 But perhaps the most profound metaphysical aspect of the development of living materials would be the position of the designer or architect. No longer would the architect be creating a space that is as inflexible as before, but instead an adaptive, living, morphologically transient space that could develop over time in a profoundly more flexible way. No longer would the imagination of the architect be static; it would evolve in such a way that the encoding of the structure would shift his or her role from architect to creator. 1 Notes 1. D-L Long and L Cronin, ‘Towards Polyoxometalate-Integrated Nano Systems’, Chemistry – A European Journal, Vol 12, 2006, pp 3698–706. 2. L Cronin, N Krasnogor, BG Davis, C Alexander, N Robertson, JHG Steinke, SLM Schroeder, AN Khlobystov, G Cooper, PM Gardner, P Siepmann, BJ Whitaker and D Marsh, ‘The Imitation Game – A Computational Chemical Approach to Recognizing Life’, Nature Biotechnology, Vol 24, 2006, pp 1203–6. 3. L Cronin, in M Bedau, P Guldborg Hansen, E Park and S Rasmussen (eds), Living Technology, 5 Questions, Automatic Press (Milton Keynes), 2010, Chp 5, pp 55–66. 4. C Ritchie, GJT Cooper, Y-F Song, C Streb, H Yin, ADC Parenty, DA MacLaren and L Cronin, ‘Spontaneous Assembly and Real-Time Growth of Micron-Scale Tubular Structures from Polyoxometalate-Based Inorganic Solids’, Nature Chemistry, Vol 1, 2009, pp 47–52. 5. GJT Cooper and L Cronin, ‘Real-Time Direction Control of Self-Fabricating Polyoxometalate-Based Microtubes’, Journal of the American Chemical Society, Vol 131, (2009), pp 8368–9. 6. HN Miras, GJT Cooper, D-L Long, H Bögge, A Müller, C Streb and L Cronin, ‘Unveiling the Transient Template in the Self-Assembly of a Molecular Oxide Nano-Wheel’, Science, Vol 327, 2010, pp 72–4. Text © 2011 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Images © Leroy Cronin, The University of Glasgow, 2010


JJ Grandville ( Jean Ignace Isidore GÊrard) The Dragon 1840 Grandville’s fantasy of the microscopic is equal parts terrible and humorous. The protocell deserves similar treatment.


Mark Morris

DREAM A LITTLE DREAM Does the protocell require too great a leap in scalar imagination for architects? A detail of a building is manageable, but what about something smaller than the microscopic? Mark Morris encourages designers to scale down to the diminutive level of the nanoscale by providing them with some inspiring precedents in architectural theory and popular culture.


I can add colours to the chameleon, Change shapes with Proteus for advantages, And set the murderous Machiavel to school. — Richard of Gloucester, in William Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part Three, Act III, Scene ii, 1591

By training and discipline, architects are intensely visual professionals. Our ability to engage the topic of the very, very small is strained by a predilection for imagery. Architecture has a scalar range that spans from vast skyscrapers and infrastructure to the daintiest of models and miniature simulations, but beyond this domain we rarely tread even in our imaginations. It just gets too tiny. To think clearly about protocell architecture as collective organisations, we can rehearse those instances where we have intellectually dwelt in similar small realms. While this meditation does not require belief, it is helped along by the admission of fantasy, which often finds safe harbour in the minute. Gaston Bachelard makes much of this partnership in The Poetics of Space where he describes the efficacy of ‘miniature thinking’: Such formulas as: being-in-the-world and world-being are too majestic for me and I do not succeed in experiencing them. In fact, I feel more at home in miniature worlds, which, for me, are dominated worlds. And when I live them I feel waves of world-consciousness emanating from my dreaming self. For me, the vastness of the world had become merely the jamming of these waves.1 This theme of domination has to do with confidence and creativity when imagining the small-scaled. Bachelard stipulates that this intellectual pleasure is rooted to one end of the scale spectrum, citing one’s ability to see a forest when examining moss at close range: ‘A bit of moss may well be a pine, but a pine will never be a bit of moss. The imagination does not function with the same conviction in both directions.’2 He suggests this type of thinking approaches a brand of reverie unbound from the dictates of reality: The cleverer I am at miniaturizing the world, the better I possess it. But in doing this, it must be understood that the values become condensed and enriched in miniature. Platonic dialectics of large and small do not suffice for us to become cognizant of the dynamic virtues of miniature thinking. One must go beyond logic in order to experience what is large in what is small.3

Richard Fleischer, Fantastic Voyage film still, 20th Century Fox, 1966 The Proteus runs into trouble along its bodily journey. The film was extraordinary in terms of cinematography and lavish set production to achieve the scale effects.


This point of view opens up Bachelard’s thesis regarding narrative and the strength storytelling takes from settings in radically scaled environments. Fantastic Voyage is a prime example of this sort of scalar storytelling and one that extends themes of the protocell. The 1966 film, novelised by Isaac Asimov, begins as a Cold War thriller with scientists on both sides of the Iron Curtain developing technology capable of shrinking atoms and miniaturising matter. The process is temporary, its duration subject to the amount of shrinkage, until a scientist finds a way to make it permanent. As he races to give this breakthrough to the West with the help of a CIA agent, an assassination attempt leaves him in a coma with a blood clot in his brain. The agent assembles a crew and the group, placed inside a nuclear submarine called the Proteus, undergo the miniaturisation process in order to micro-surgically remove the clot:

Grant: Wait a minute! They can’t shrink me. General Carter: Our miniaturizer can shrink anything. Grant: But I don’t want to be miniaturized! General Carter: It’s just for an hour. Grant: Not even for a minute!4 As the group journey inside the body, complications arise, detours are required and time starts to run out. One of the crew – who suffers from claustrophobia – is a spy bent on sabotaging the mission. He uses a surgical laser to damage the Proteus and is then, himself, destroyed by a white blood cell. The remaining crew obliterate the clot but must swim to exit the body before they return to normal size. The film ends with the group escaping through an eye, expelled in a teardrop, just in time. In the novel, Asimov corrected the film’s misstep in leaving the wrecked Proteus, which would, presumably, also return to full scale and kill the scientist, behind in the body. The submarine’s name is borrowed from Greek mythology, the word meaning ‘primordial’. Proteus can foretell the future but uses his ability to change form – thus the adjective protean – to avoid doing so. The Proteus submarine is a kind of protocell: artificial, indefinitely powered, locomotive. By virtue of its onboard computer, it also holds memory. The Proteus is introduced to the scientist’s body in an injected saline solution, just as a protocell might be. When the laser is damaged, the crew rebuild it using the ship’s radio parts; so the ship had the ability, if not to self-replicate, to mutate and adapt. The crew function as

Bernard Picart Aristeus Compels Proteus to Reveal his Oracles 1731 (engraving) Proteus is caught off-guard in human form. The Old Man of the Sea aspect is evident here, as he dwells in his cave by crashing waves, surrounded by assorted sea creatures.

naturally occurring constituents within the vessel, indispensable to its survival. Proteus was the original Old Man of the Sea. This connection comes back to the notion of primordial soup, the creation of humanity from base material and ooze. Abiogenesis is the study of the same theory, life on earth arising from inanimate matter. Protocells connect to this research directly. Replication and metabolism are required of abiogenesis. Amino acids, proteins and nucleic acids form the basis of abiogenetic experimentation replicating conditions of pre-organic earth. Even more a dip in popular culture than Fantastic Voyage is a celebrated episode of ‘The Simpsons’ created by Matt Groening. ‘The Genesis Tub’, written by Dan Greaney, takes abiogenesis and miniaturisation as the bases of the plot where Lisa Simpson’s science-fair experiment gets out of hand. What was originally a Petri dish test of the effects of soda pop on a recently lost tooth turns into a fast-evolving miniature civilisation moving through the Neolithic to the Renaissance in a day and eclipsing human science by the next. The microculture’s evolution is charted visually by changes in architecture, one city constantly rebuilding. The inhabitants of the Petri dish worship Lisa as a god and assume her brother, Bart, is the devil after he destroys several buildings: ‘Oops, my finger slipped.’ The story surely takes some inspiration from Theodore Sturgeon’s award-winning 1941 novelette, The Microcosmic God.5 Sturgeon’s protagonist is a scientist who creates a miniature race with the same speeded-up evolutionary progress. The scientist introduces technology to his ‘neoterics’, propelling their research and technological sophistication beyond that of mankind. He reaps benefits claiming their innovations as his own, merely scaling them up. Architecture is part of these narratives’ ability to represent culture and link the smalland full-scaled worlds in a dynamic temporal relationship. The materiality of this architecture is a bit of a mystery. Materials are not borrowed from the Simpson household to build the model city; the soda and tooth are the only original matter required to spawn the building blocks for life and city construction. A protocell’s ability to produce salt strands, for example, is a parallel condition where matter and structure are created from next to nothing. A silica-based architecture is similarly promised by the advertising for Sea Monkeys (water, brine shrimp, sand and voila!). The otherworldliness of the miniature civilisation is reinforced by encapsulation and the hermetic seal of glass. The protocell enjoys a similar setting; the Petri dish is no limitation, but a productive frame within which focus is gained and unexpected innovation can safely emerge. These are not ‘a world in a grain of sand’ metaphors, but something just tangible and visible with the naked eye. There is also the aesthetic miracle of the miniature, the fascination for the impossibly small but well crafted: Now, the question arises whether the small-scale model or miniature, which is also the ‘masterpiece’ of the journeyman may not in fact be the universal type of the work of art. All miniatures seem to have intrinsic aesthetic quality – and from what should they draw this constant virtue if not from the dimensions themselves?6


JJ Grandville The Creator Blowing Bubbles 1844 No image comes closer to the iconography of protocell creation. Note the inclusion of the she-devil figure as co-author.

Contemporary artists like Willard Wigan and Nicolaï Siadristy create micro-miniatures in the eyes of needles, the heads of nails or on grains of salt. Microscopes are designed around these works of art, but the objects can also be viewed directly. The flit between unaided vision and magnification is part of the structure of the scalar narratives. There are not so many narratives in the scalar zone of very small but visible. Fairy tales are by definition about tiny creatures and fairy worlds, but their smallness culminates with stories like Tom Thumb or Thumbelina where the effort is to dwindle human figures to a size where they can interact with small animals as full-scale surrogates; mice for horses and so on. Swift’s Lilliput is exceptional for its architectural focus, the city described in rich detail with specific dimensions. Leaving the visible behind, there are several possibilities from Dr Suess’s Horton Hears a Who! (a world on a speck of dust) to Men in Black and its hidden galaxy encased in a gemstone, to the Midichlorians of Star Wars, but very quickly one shifts to the parallel universe genre – Narnia, ‘Doctor Who’, Alice in Wonderland – where scale is not the primary issue and what we might call artistic anticipation of protocell architecture is not present. By this I refer to the supposition that to capitalise on a scientific or technical discovery, there must be some cultural preparation for it. For example, the architecture critic Mark Cousins refers to Claude Mellan’s Veil of St Veronica (1649) – as an artistic conceit – as being a harbinger of photography by centuries.7 The idea that protocells might be deployed to convert the underwater timber supports of Venice to limestone by virtue of a chemical metabolic process draws not only on scalar fantasy, but touches on alchemical lore where elements are converted. This again is mythic, the magic of petrifaction embodied by Medusa. The power to petrify is a curiously architectural ambition.


Vilhelm Pedersen Tommelise 1849 The smaller side of fairy tales; rarely do they tread beyond this size dynamic.

Claude Mellan The Veil of St Veronica 1649 The famous engraving is formed from a single line spiralling out from the tip of the nose – a scalar feat in and of itself.

As with nanotechnology, protocell architecture promises ‘smart materials’ or sentient buildings that can react to climate, emerging resources or even mood. The haunted house comes to mind. Antony Vidler has written extensively on architecture’s association with the sensibility of the uncanny, speculating on the unhomely as a modern architectural condition.8 The hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining9 is host to ghosts, but is itself (its spaces and surfaces) possessed of malevolent intelligence. The walls seem to shift colour and flow with blood, windows block out sunlight, electric lights flicker, doors seal shut; all anticipated capabilities of smart materials. Michael Crighton’s Prey10 focuses on the imagined threat of nanorobots. Protocells, likewise, might be agents for good or evil ends, less robotic and more viral. Perhaps the most fantastic recurring narrative anticipating protocell architecture is the archetypical disappearing castle featured in Viking, Hindu and Judeo-Christian mythic traditions where architecture – temple, castle, whole sacred city – just comes into being without any man-made intervention. It emerges from a ghostly fog and disappears under similar conditions. The theme is picked up in popular culture, in Japanese anime, with Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), which magically shape-shifts and disappears into other dimensions. This is an architecture of minute assembly, impossibly intricate and connected to some broader intelligence. It shelters heroes, sacred objects or reveals secrets. Without a mortal architect, these buildings are physical but also temporary and transmutable. The fog or mist is not only a cloaking device, it is the dance of protocells busily at work. While the protocell might be viewed with the naked eye, its architectural potential requires shedding a miniaturist mentality in favour of the fantastic. For architects this means getting beyond notions of modelling and, instead, entering a domain of mini-architecture that is no longer a sign for something larger, but an end in and of itself. What is required is a scalar paradigm shift where Mies van der Rohe’s ‘God is in the details’ extends to the details of details, to the detailing of their base materials and installation of intelligence within that frame of reference. If we abide by the theorem of The Veil of St Veronica, that the acceptance and full promise of a new technology is dependent on a culture’s anticipation of that technology’s effects evidenced by surrogate and speculative cultural production (painting, writing and so on), it must be recognised that there is some prefiguring of protocell architecture in hand, mostly in the category of fantasy narratives including science fiction. Rehearsing those instances where protocell architecture, though not named as such, seems to be illustrated by these narratives is productive in the sense that these examples are useful precedents prompting forward-looking speculation about the application of protocell architecture in the built environment. It is an anticipatory exercise, one that feeds the future by looking in the rearview mirror and, most importantly, one that implicates more architects who are most happy visualising the visualisable. 1

JJ Grandville Gulliver discovers Laputa, the city on the flying island 1838 Here, there and everywhere, a whole city materialises and floats away leaving us to wonder. Like Lilliput, Laputa is meticulously described by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels (1726).


1. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space [La poétique de l’espace, 1958], trans Maria Jolas, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1994, p 161. 2. Ibid, p 163. 3. Ibid, p 150. 4. Fantastic Voyage, Director Richard Fleischer, Twentieth Century Fox, 1966. 5. Theodore Sturgeon, ‘The Microscopic God’, Astounding Science Fiction, Street and Smith (New York), April 1941. 6. Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind, Weidenfield and Nicolson (London), 1966, p 23. 7. Mark Cousins, Public lecture, Architectural Association, 26 October 2001. 8. See Anthony Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely, MIT Press (Cambridge, MA), 1992. 9. See Stephen King, The Shining, Doubleday (New York), 1977. 10. See Michael Crighton, Prey, HarperCollins (New York), 2002. Text © 2011 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Images: p 46 © 20th Century Fox/The Kobal Collection; p 47 © The Stapleton Collection / The Bridgeman Art Library; p 48(b) © The Trustees of the British Museum


Omar Khan


Omar Khan, Gravity Screens, Center for Architecture and Situated Technologies, Department of Architecture, University at Buffalo, New York, 2009–10 opposite: Detail of the connections between the different layers of hard and soft rubber.

below: Full-scale gravity screen with different rubber hardness indexed by colour, where green is the hardest, followed by red, yellow and blue the softest. This hardness modulation calibrates the screen to keep its shape and perform elastically.


Protocell technology has a precedent in the innovative use of plastic in the 1960s, when chemistry first came up with an innovative new material that could be applied to architecture, interiors and product design. Omar Khan describes how at the Center for Architecture and Situated Technologies at the University at Buffalo in New York, he is developing a line of research that builds on the legacy of the 1960s and 1970s for soft materials and the capabilities of an elastic responsive architecture. 51

below: Cover of Nicholas Negroponte, Soft Architecture Machines, 1975.

opposite: Covers of Progressive Architecture: Plastics in Architecture, Vol 41 (June 1960) and Vol 51 (October 1970).

In a special 1960 issue of Progressive Architecture devoted to plastics,1 James H Krieger’s concluding article ‘Future: Role of the Chemist’ forecast a significant contribution from chemistry in the future of architecture. While it lamented the chemist’s inability to produce ‘the one magic material’, it predicted that plastics would ‘provide [the architect] with perhaps the widest range of properties of any of the building materials’.2 The history of architecture is intertwined with that of material science, but there is something notable about this ‘chemical’ moment. It has to do with the unique ability of science, in this case chemistry, to create something new; a material entirely artificially made. Architects were well accustomed to working within the fixed properties of traditional building materials like stone, clay, wood, concrete, steel and glass, but plastics were, and remain, confounding. They could be light yet strong, soft and hard, transparent and opaque, elastic or stiff. Since chemistry worked at the scale of the molecule, it could reorganise the underlying structure of matter. Now it was possible to design materials with specific performative properties from the bottom up, rather than shape them from the top down as had been done for millennia. The contribution of chemistry to the architectural imaginary has arguably been less pronounced than that of biology or physics. This may have to do with the fact that unlike physics and biology, chemistry does not lend itself as easily to abstractions. Although it has its roots in alchemy, its modern focus has been on describing the nature of matter that surrounds us; how it comes together and undergoes change. Its influence on the architectural 52

imaginary has therefore come through the fascinating performativity of its products and the molecular structures that make them possible. Crystals, fluids, plastics and rubbers all demonstrate mutable and evolving properties that emerge out of well-defined and easily describable molecular structures. For the architectural imagination of the postwar, this suggested a different material reality where architecture did not need to resist environmental perturbations but instead could respond, adapt and even evolve to changing situations. Adaptable Materiality and the Architectural Imagination An important early voice in the discussion of intelligent environments was Nicholas Negroponte and his Architecture Machine Group. In their polemical book Soft Architecture Machines (1975),3 Negroponte recognised two characteristics of a responsive architecture. The first was what he termed ‘soft’, referring to the architecture’s material and information substructures. Soft materials, like inflatable plastics, demonstrated an ability to change form and reorganise space in real time. Their formal variations could be managed by a computer system (software) that would provide intelligent responses to environmental changes. ‘Softs’ would be adaptable on both the material and informational levels. The second quality he noted was ‘cyclic’, which referred to a continuous cycle of construction and deconstruction that architecture would have to perform over its lifetime. This did not pertain to day-to-day adaptations, but rather to how radical changes like renovation, expansion or demolition could be included in the architecture’s design.

In other words, responsiveness included a responsibility over the lifetime of the building to its materials and waste. The solution would involve making the difference between useful and waste materials negligible. Negroponte offers few examples that might give us insight as to how this might happen. However, the solution seems to lie in chemistry. Both qualities, soft and cyclic, are chemical in nature; one speaks of material mutation while the other of material de- and re-composition. In this regard, Wolf Hilbertz’s ‘cybertecture’ provides one of the clearest conceptual frameworks for such a chemical architecture.4 Hilbertz’s work is unfortunately not very well known but needs to be given its rightful place in the early imaginings of computationally augmented adaptable environments. Many of his ideas are reflected in current 3-D fabrication technologies like fused deposition, stereolithography and laser sintering, but their role within a holistic design framework is currently not as well articulated. Hilbertz’s cybertecture was founded on three interacting parts: a computer brain, a material distribution and reclamation subsystem, and a sensing subsystem. It was conceived as a self-generating architecture that could build itself through a material deposition process that included ‘chemical reaction, radiation, heating and cooling, mixing and the like’.5 Accreted material allowed variable material properties to develop across the architecture and also provided easy capability to change material states in response to inhabitation needs. A sensing subsystem, which would be embedded in the materials, would relay information about the environment back to the computer brain which would then

Crystals, fluids, plastics and rubbers all demonstrate mutable and evolving properties that emerge out of well-defined and easily describable molecular structures.


instruct the material distribution and reclamation subsystem to adjust the material states to better accommodate the required needs. In the event that a part of the architecture was no longer needed, the same subsystem could reclaim through ‘melting, cooling and breaking, grinding, chemical dissolving, application of ultrasonic vibrations, decomposing by radiation’6 materials which could be regenerated and redistributed to other parts of the structure. Cybertecture proposed an evolving material ecology that blurred the boundary between building and waste material, suggesting a type of adaptation that closely resembled that witnessed in nature.7 While unable to create the magic material that could function accordingly, Hilbertz went on to patent an electrolytic process that uses seawater to accrete minerals on a structural substrate. This has been successfully used by his company, Biorock SA, to repair coral reefs and create marine structures.8 Soft and Elastic: The Chemistry of Responsive Materials The Center for Architecture and Situated Technologies at the University at Buffalo9 is currently developing a line of research that revisits the challenge of designing softs. Like Hilbertz, the interest is in developing direct correlations between material properties and sensing and actuating capabilities for a responsive architecture. To do so it has been necessary to focus attention on a single material property – elasticity – through which cyclical and reversible change can be explored. Elastic materials perform the opposite of traditional building materials. Under stress, their entropy decreases as their 54

Matthew Hume, Warped, Center for Architecture and Situated Technologies Department of Architecture, University at Buffalo, New York, 2008 opposite: Mechanically connected wood ply with grain running in different directions orchestrates wood expansion into kinetic movement.

below: Filleted surface. The expansion of individual plywood cells due to moisture in the air allows the screen to go from closed to open.

bottom: Unfilleted surface. A fully connected screen using the same plywood cells goes from flat to twisted in response to moisture. A detail of the screen shows how multiple connections are subsumed in the overall pattern.

molecular structure becomes more ordered and they become more stable. This is easily demonstrated by pulling a rubber band which stiffens in response to the force. Traditional materials like steel, concrete and wood are designed to be static and therefore exhibit increased entropy under stress. They have a small and constrained elastic tolerance which, if pushed beyond its limits, results in material failure. If frequent mutation is a fundamental quality of responsive architecture, then elasticity would seem to be an obvious material quality to adopt. As such, the centre is exploring ways to expand the elastic capabilities of conventional materials while also studying the potential viability of engineered elastomers for responsive constructions. Warped (2008) examines the elastic potential of wood grain as it responds to moisture. Taking existing plywood as the starting point, the project develops elastic plywood cells that do not resist moisture but use it to perform work. Some convincing surfaces using these cells have been developed that demonstrate how a small expansion at the scale of the wood grain can be multiplied to mutate large architectural surfaces. The project’s ingenuity lies in the way that the material becomes both the sensing and actuating agent; the wood grain senses the moisture by expanding, which the plywood cells convert into productive motion. In addition, the same cells, depending on the way they are connected in the matrix, can either open and close a screen or cause the surface to curl. These surfaces have a chemical sensibility in that their bottom-up organisation allows the same underlying structure to produce distinctly different architectural effects. 55


Omar Khan, Gravity Screens, Center for Architecture and Situated Technologies, Department of Architecture, University at Buffalo, New York, 2009–10 opposite top: Organisation of gravity screens that can transform the movement in a space from linear to polar.

opposite bottom: Performative model of screens organised in two layers as a circular space. Manipulating the screens ‘softens’ the architectural boundary, allowing for variable modulations in light and sound.

Gravity Screens (2009–10) explores the elastic potential of synthetic rubbers for architectural surfaces. Elastomers exhibit two unique properties that are relevant for adaptable constructions.


below: Elasticity studies of different screen types that explore their formal transformation from flat to volumetric as a result of gravitational pull.


opposite: The geometric properties of both these screens are the same but their elastic performance is radically different because of where the hard (orange) vs. soft (white) rubber is located.

Gravity Screens (2009–10) explores the elastic potential of synthetic rubbers for architectural surfaces. Elastomers exhibit two unique properties that are relevant for adaptable constructions. The first is nonlinear elasticity which pertains to rubber’s capacity for extreme deformation without material failure. The second is hyperelasticity which describes its ability to return to its original shape after stretching. In order to modulate rubber’s elastic tolerance, synthetic rubbers can be chemically altered with different hardnesses; a range that can move from as soft as chewing gum to as hard as golf balls. By properly calibrating the hard-to-soft ratio, a rubber’s stretch can be controlled to be more resistant against gravity and hence more responsive to the forces that may act upon it. The gravity screens use weight to change their shape. A simple vertical pull by a counterweight causes them to open their apertures and to curl and expand in multiple directions. The significance of this is that the material performs complex formal and kinetic gymnastics without complicated connections or mechanisms. The screens can be used to change linear motion in a space to polar movement, a spatial transformation that would require many parts if done through mechanical means. An important argument for a chemical approach to adaptive and responsive architecture has to do with how energy resources can be handled. The mechanical approach, which has defined responsive architecture since Cedric Price’s Fun Palace of 1965, requires multiple moving parts with complicated connections and energyconsuming machines to operate them. Chemistry’s ability to act at the scale of

the molecule affords unique possibilities to compound small movement into large motion. It also affords the possibility of storing this energy at the chemical level. If we are to be serious about energy consumption, the answer lies at the scale of the molecule and not that of the mechanical joint. But it is also here that an aesthetic shift must be appreciated: where mechanical joints squeak, molecular chains hum. 1 Notes 1. Progressive Architecture: Plastics in Architecture, Vol 41, June 1960, whole issue. Ten years later, in 1970, a follow-up special issue soberly recognised the limited role that plastics had actually played in the decade past. The reasons were the same as those that always accompany innovation – lack of predictable performance, cost, not conventional and, most significantly, unfamiliar to designers, builders and the public. There was no follow-up special issue 10 years later. Currently plastics are back in vogue for green construction where they are recognised for their greenhouse gas- and energy-saving properties. 2. Ibid, p 202. 3. Nicholas Negroponte, Soft Architecture Machines, MIT Press (Cambridge, MA), 1975. 4. Wolf Hilbertz, ‘Toward Cybertecture’, Progressive Architecture,Vol 51, May 1970, pp 98–103. 5. Ibid, p 99. 6. Ibid, p 100. 7. Hilbertz presents the example of the spider’s web which is formed by changing the quantity and quality of glandular secretion relative to the web’s structural needs. In addition, the spider can reclaim the web material by eating it and recouping some of the energy used to produce it. 8. See Wolf Hilbertz, ‘Electrodeposition of Minerals in Sea Water: Experiments and Applications’, IEEE Journal on Oceanic Engineering, Vol OE-4, No 3, July 1979; downloadable from and www. 9. The Center for Architecture and Situated Technologies in the Department of Architecture at the University at Buffalo ( explores the intersection of pervasive computing and information technologies with architecture, urbanism and landscape through research and pedagogy. Text © 2011 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Images: pp 50-1, 56-9 © Omar Khan, pp 54-5 © Matthew Hume


Neil Spiller


Protocell architecture inverts the current economic and procurement processes of construction with their emphasis on cost, speed and quantifiable outcomes. Wet, semi-living and symbiotic with ecological systems and materials, protocell systems promise a pargadigm that is the very antithesis of existing practice and will require the employment of very different skills sets and approaches. To ease the intellectual transition from hard engineering to chemical solutions, Neil Spiller investigates the enduring notion of alchemy.



As the distance between use and manufacture becomes greater and greater and as skills are replaced by mechanisation, building skills have become undervalued and consequently mostly lost.

‘Here hold out your hand.’ He had the test tube poised over her hand. ‘Palm up, stupid.’ ‘Is it safe?’ ‘It’s better than safe.’ Jazir opened the tube and poured out a large globule. ‘It’s horrible.’ ‘A sllght burning sensation. It soon passes.’ ‘No I mean it’s greasy. And … oh …’ ‘Yes?’ ‘It tickles! …’ — From Jeff Noon, Nymphomation, 1997, p 1421 Wetware, Architecture and Bespoke Constructions For centuries the simple rule for making highly finished architecture or products has been to make it somewhere other than from its point of use – the medieval masons’ yards, the baroque sculptor’s studio, the 19th- and 20th-century factories, for example. As the distance between use and manufacture becomes greater and greater and as skills are replaced by mechanisation, building skills have become undervalued and consequently mostly lost. Coupled with notions such as ‘fast track’ construction techniques (where the imperative is to limit ‘wet’ trades as much as possible and build with ‘dry’ prefabricated elements that ‘click’ together), the skill sets of site operatives have been emaciated to almost nothing. This denudation is now at the point where no one really expects anyone on a building site to have any skills apart from the most simple. Prefabrication brings with it an obsession with ‘tolerance’ – how far a product’s actual dimension differs from the idealised dimension due to inaccuracies in the factory process, the inherent qualities of a material or the inexactitudes of site settingout and measurement and how we can ‘cover’ these variations. Much technological innovation has been aimed at reducing


these margins of error in the fabrication and construction process to achieve cheap, easily quantifiable outcomes that are quick and easily erected. These ideas also predicate a view of the world and the sites of architecture as mostly ocular-centric, anthropocentric, ubiquitous, non-site-specific – lacking in difference and fighting against nature. Proposed here is the opposite paradigm – the one that fosters a view of the world that is bottom up, wet, microscopic, chemically computational, Maximalist and ecological. It also changes the economics and procurement dynamics we are so used to within the realms of traditional construction. Further, it is a ‘ReCant’ technology; it takes less than it gives back in relation to carbon, energy and contextual damage. It is not inert or finely honed, yet is fecund, highly sensitive and safe. Living Technology ‘Allow me.’ Jazir picked up a syringe, which he filled with the blurb juice off Daisy’s palm. ‘Now, watch …’ He dragged Daisy over to his bedroom door. ‘You wanted me to open the door, right? OK, try the door.’ ‘It’s locked. You locked it …’ ‘Good.’ Jazir shoved the syringe into the keyhole. He pressed the plunger. ‘Give it ten seconds …’ ‘And?’ ‘Try it. Go on.’ Daisy looked at Jazir like he’d gone mad, a clear possibility. Then she turned the doorknob. It swung open, nice and easy …2 A new group of materials is emerging that exist in a realm between the living and the inert. While displaying some of the properties of living systems such as growth, movement, sensitivity and complex behaviour, the

Neil Spiller, Communicating Vessels, Sturry and Fordwich, Kent, and distributed input and output sites elsewhere including Paris and Rome, 1998–2010 The drawings here concern themselves with a small proportion of architectonic spaces and ideas that are included in the 10-year Communicating Vessels research project. All of the proposals form part of a cybernetic system of reflexive inputs, outputs and symbolism. The status of the outputs and inputs is always in flux and often choreographed by chance. Specifically, the project illustrates how it is possible, while utilising advanced technologies, to create a cybernetic universe of discourse that blooms in a variety of interesting, intellectual and interstitially unstable ways. It is within this personal epistemology of art and architecture that the old dichotomies between landscape and building disappear. Architecture would therefore blossom not just with flowers, but also with many vessels (spaces and objects) that communicate. Some vessels will bustle with electronic transactions that record and transmit the space/time geometries of falling leaves, bees’ flight and turbulent river surfaces and such like. Other vessels will use protocell grease as their communicative medium.



materials are not truly ‘alive’. One example of a living technology is a protocell, a chemically programmable agent based on the chemistry of oil and water. It is able to move around its environment, sense it, modify it and construct materials. Protocells are symbiotic with, rather than competing against, existing systems and materials and, in particular, share a common physical language with natural systems called a ‘metabolism’. This is the dynamic process through which one material becomes another by the absorption and production of energy. Through an engagement with the language of metabolism, the twilight zone of existence of protocells may initially seem inexplicable, but on further examination, at the molecular scale, these extraordinary new materials may be understood very simply as being driven by the laws of physics and chemistry. Ultimately, protocells and other forms of living technology can be manipulated through the canons of scientific and technological experiment, but through their similarity to living systems they promise to become agents of transmutation that are more familiar to the practice of alchemy. We are already au fait with applying substances to restore the holistic functioning of the human body, and living technology offers the potential to deploy this technique in order to restore the harmony in irretrievably damaged architectural micro-environments. To ease the intellectual transition from the provision of hard engineered products to the chemical mixing of solutions, one must investigate the paradigms of alchemy. Alchemy is not just similar to architecture, but with our current and future technologies has become one and the same. The alchemic analogy is useful in pointing the way towards possible spatial chemistries that exist as living technology that just might free us from architectural deadlock. Living technologies are alchemic in their ability to reconfigure matter. The more science progresses, the more we become architecturally, alchemically adept.

Alchemy almost disappeared nearly three centuries ago, but there has always been an interest in its literature and its art. Nearer the present day, the Surrealists used alchemic and other occult literature to inspire some of their most memorable works. We are reminded of Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride stripped bare by her bachelors, even – The Large Glass (1913–15), Max Ernst’s Of This Men Shall Know Nothing (1923) and The Robing Of The Bride (1940), among others. Living technologies and protocells are also Surrealist technologies of softness, growth, swarm and scaffold.3 The initial step in the alchemic work is to discover the transmutable prima materia (prime matter). In the context of living technology the prima materia in protocells is the self-curvature and bottom–up formation of the spherical lipid membrane. Contemporary developments in the scientific understanding of matter suggest that, essentially, all matter is space at various interacting curvatures. It is here, at the outset of the alchemic opus, that it can be seen that alchemy and architecture share a fundamental basis – the manipulation of space, in all its varied forms, philosophical and physical. Once the prima materia is established, a process of considerable complexity is undertaken. The prima materia of the protocell transforms the non-living into the living, the simple into the complex, the predictable into the mysterious. Various stages and transformations occur, producing a taxonomy of forms that are created by the system for the architectural observer to read, explore and use. Their origins remain mysterious and are most comprehensively read through mythological lenses, as the not live becomes a living agent with apparent anthropomorphic desires and ambitions, capable of behaving at a population scale. As a colony, the protocells interact and gather information about their surroundings, which is displayed as complex behaviours signalling and transforming the surroundings so that their environment eventually becomes

The prima materia of the protocell transforms the non-living into the living, the simple into the complex, the predictable into the mysterious. Various stages and transformations occur, producing a taxonomy of forms that are created by the system for the architectural observer to read, explore and use.


The Communicating Vessels project speculates on the protocell and other forms of synthetic biological structures. Here they are called the ‘grease’ and are created by a biotechnological factory called Little Soft Machinery.


changed. They have an ability to arrange themselves into a community of bubbles, and then chemically negotiate these boundaries to make movement, garner food/fuel, precipitate skins and be sensitive to light. All these phenomena will have a huge impact on the construction site of the near future. Construction processes could be instigated and sculpted by sharp pulses of light, for example. Nymphomation: Sexy Knowledge4 All I need is a name for it. The stuff that opens anything! The universal lubricant. The oil of the world! Puts Vaseline and KY in their place, don’t you think? Jaz Vaz!5 What is interesting to a Surrealist is the connection that can be made between the exchange of information in wet unconventional computers and the sexual act or desire and the mixing of information. There is much precedent for such notions. Duchamp was very adept at these sorts of analogies and epistemologies. His Large Glass is conceptually activated by gas, water and electromagnetic forces to create tableaux of desire, auto-erotics and barely maintained equilibrium. His addition to his lover Maria Martins’ version of his Boite-en-valise (1936–41), Paysage fautif (Wayward or Faulty Landscape) (1946) was a spurt of seminal fluid on Astralon backed with black satin. Jeff Noon is much more explicit about this connection. ‘I’ve found of these masses [he calls them ‘vaz’ but they could equally be protocells] floating around. Sometimes they fight each other, like galleons. They steal supplies off each other. They eat each other. They f**k each other. They give birth. The cycle goes on.’6 The Communicating Vessels project speculates on the protocell and other forms

of synthetic biological structures. Here they are called the ‘grease’ and are created by a biotechnological factory called Little Soft Machinery. Little Soft Machinery isn’t very smart, just smart enough to desire. This desire provokes his biomechanical glands to produce the grease, the vaz or the holy gasoline (this substance is called many things, it changes lives, it mixes chance). It is a synthetic biological elixir, smart but highly explosive. The grease lubricates the project and is always present when human or machine information desire is present – which is most of the time. The grease eases things, it is lustfully combustible, it is sought after and it is autonomous until it is caught. It is used by many of the structures that inhabit and interact in the site, which is a garden. This is indeed a Duchampian ‘faulty landscape’ teeming with desire, the exchange of information and the probabilities of chance. Let’s undo the locks that have constrained architecture for centuries and rejoice in hearing the chains drop to the ground. Our new architecture is an architecture of bespoke, wet and invisible solutions. 1

Notes 1. Jeff Noon, Nymphomation, Doubleday (London), 1997, p 142. 2. Ibid, p 143. 3. The work of the alchemist has been described as bringing about successive changes in the material that is operated on, transforming it from a gross, unrefined state to a perfect and purified form. The ‘gold’ is not just real gold, but the Stone of the Philosophers, the Lapis (enlightenment). The metallurgical analogy is both the means of encryption into which the secrets of The Great Work are encoded and the anthropocentric operation of its ritual: the scale of the microcosm. The Gold is also to be understood as Man’s search for perfection of spirit. Alchemy has been practised by many influential people, among them Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle. Without it their work may not have reached its celebrated heights. 4. Noon, op cit, p 146. 5. Ibid, p 143. 6. Ibid, p 147. Text © 2011 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Images © Neil Spiller


Rachel Armstrong



Philip Beesley, Hylozoic Ground installation, Canadian Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2010 The protocell populations are designed with the same metabolism. However, since they are sensitive to environmental conditions they respond locally to the presence of metal ions in the flasks to produce a colourful landscape of crystals at the oil/water interface that gradually became petrified over the duration of the exhibition.

Rachel Armstrong explains why living systems with their own metabolisms provide more exciting and far-reaching solutions than conventional building materials. She also explicitly explains why the pursuit of protocell technology, which enables us to artificially design living systems, is so much more promising than established methods, such as incorporating high-maintenance biological features – green walls or roofs – into existing urban context or applying biomimicry to traditional materials.



opposite: Two Bütschli protocell flasks incorporated into the Hylozoic Ground cybernetic framework. The chemical metabolisms are connected via the neural net of the responsive geotextile system as well as through the physical and chemical changes in the gallery environment. The protocell metabolisms are able to respond to heat, light and the presence of carbon dioxide produced by visitors.

Imagine you have a spade full of ready-mix cement, which in the broadest sense is a binder, typically composed of calcium, silicon and aluminium salts, that combines constituent materials together. In front of you is a hole that you want the material to fill and provide structural support for a wooden post. You take your spade of concrete and throw it into the hole, packing it tightly around the base of the post. You add water. On activation, the mixture sets and hardens. It is a chemically dynamic process. You wait. The mixture takes the shape of the hole, it warms, it swells, it fixes the post in the correct position, it produces carbon dioxide – lots of it – as part of its curing process, and it cools. Finally, the concrete sets, the chemical dynamism is lost and the post remains upright. The world turns. It rains, it snows, the ground dries in hot weather and gradually the edges of the hole recede and the concrete loosens from around the post. The material no longer serves its original purpose because the environment has changed and the oncemalleable object is now obsolete. It is raining again and there is a lot of water around the base of the wobbly post. You somehow need to repeat the process or repair the existing system. Concrete was a cutting-edge material in Roman times that enabled the binding together of discrete structures for the ambitious architectural projects that accompanied the expansion of the Roman Empire into the far reaches of Barbarian Europe. Nowadays industrial-scale manufacturing processes and machines replace manual labour and although a variety of facade materials, such as durable plastics, have been developed, the actual process of building has changed very little. However, concrete is the most widely used building material and is used in such quantities that this substance alone accounts for 5 per cent of our total carbon emissions. The current approach to the production of architecture is ancient and yet the technology that could potentially revolutionise our approach to the construction of buildings is even older than the invention of concrete. This technology is life. Unlike the case of a setting spade of concrete around a post, living systems do not expend all their energy, materials and process in a burst of chemical energy. The physicist Erwin Schrödinger (1887–1961) defined living matter as that which actively ‘avoids the decay into equilibrium’ (1944)1 and occurs when dynamic processes reach their lowest energy states when

below: Close-ups of the structure of the Bütschli protocells.

The current approach to the production of architecture is ancient and yet the technology that could potentially revolutionise our approach to the construction of buildings is even older than the invention of concrete. This technology is life.

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the system functionally becomes inert. Living systems are able to regulate their use of energy and harness it to change their usage of raw materials over the course of a lifetime. The chemical process of taking in energy for living processes and expelling waste products is a metabolism. Through the process of metabolism, organisms are able to differentially distribute their constituent material in time and space while simultaneously releasing it into the environment. Resisting the ‘decay into equilibrium’ – in other words, avoiding death – is so important for living systems that they continually optimise this process and even adopt new configurations to adapt their chemical strategies as their surroundings change. Some creatures that grow over protracted periods adopt sometimes surprisingly different forms as their needs change with their size and complexity. For example, embryonic stages enable young air-breathing organisms to respire in fluid environments, while dramatic physiological changes are precipitated when the enlarged creature prepares for living in a gaseous atmosphere around the time of birth. Other organisms, such as the tardigrade, or water bear – the only organism that has survived direct exposure to the vacuum of space2 – may even change from an active to an inactive state when resources are poor. These different forms and chemical systems within a single organism enable living systems to continually perform this differential distribution of materials in time and space so that they can quickly adapt and respond to changes in their environment and so prolong their survival. To produce genuinely sustainable building techniques, the materials and construction approaches need to be connected to and responsive to their environmental context3 in time and space, and may also require different forms and functions over their lifespan. The most mature technology that could perform this function is biology, but its unique chemical information-processing system, which depends on DNA, does not thrive in a city landscape. In urban environments biology is suboptimally designed for the environment and requires energy-intensive support systems to keep it alive, and is counterproductive in environmental terms. Current architectural trends to incorporate established biological systems into an urban context such as green walls and roofs require constant energy, water, artificial fertilisers, maintenance, 7 72

and a high upfront cost to create the illusion of a mature and self-sustaining ecosystem. Once installed, these systems are resource-intensive and require daily upkeep from external sources, which effectively outweighs any environmental benefit they offer. Other strategies such as biomimicry where biological forms and functions are transposed into traditional material systems using a top-down design approach lose much of their relevance when their scale and materiality are changed. The result is a design solution that is inferior to the original biology being mimicked and has become little more than an aesthetic formalism or metaphor for sustainable, but essentially unworkable, aspirations within an urban context. A new kind of biology is needed for the built environment that is native to its context and is genuinely sustainable. In order for this to happen, the basic materials that underpin this system need to be developed using a bottom-up approach. In other words, the substances that comprise the materials need to be constructed meaningfully at a molecular scale using the natural flow of energy in their constituents. This is a new way of creating design outcomes, which contrasts with the architectural tradition of making a blueprint to impose apparent order on a system by sheer brute force. However, nature has been taking a bottom-up approach to design for millions of years. Biology uses chemical processes to develop successive systems of organisation that are relevant to the environmental conditions, and when these change, biological systems alter their developmental strategies so that the ‘living’ solution is always relevant in the context of the surroundings. Materials that give rise to genuinely sustainable architecture must also be comprised of chemical arrangements that are ‘native’ and responsive to their environments in the same way that biological systems are. Over the last few decades, new perspectives and models in understanding biological cell organisation have provided insights that enable us to engage with living systems in new ways so that we can design and influence their outcomes in an increasing variety of ways. A number of chemical systems, such as protocells, can ‘make decisions’ based on the temporal and spatial context of their internal and external conditions, and can be thought of as being capable of performing their own kinds of information processing. They may even be thought of as being ‘material computers’, which work using

opposite: These Bütschli protocells are in a rich environmental landscape being connected to the responsive neural net of the Hylozoic Ground installation, the chemistry of the carbon dioxide-rich gallery air and sunlight streaming in through a glass panel in the roof of the pavilion. The protocells respond to this complex landscape by producing a range of brightly coloured crystals at the oil/water interface.

Protocells are very simple chemical systems that are capable of behaving in ways that we would associate with life. The mechanism of action is complex and not clearly characterised.

below: The chemistry of the flask and the metabolism of the Bütschli protocells are influenced by the gallery environment, including natural light entering from a glass roof where the rays of sunlight are refracting into the different wavelengths of visible light through the lensing effect of the oil medium of the protocells.

different sets of instructions and regulatory pathways to those systems that are orchestrated by DNA, the informationprocessing system that typifies biology. Protocells are very simple chemical systems that are capable of behaving in ways that we would associate with life. The mechanism of action is complex and not clearly characterised. However, it appears that the protocell provides an environment in which one set of chemical relationships is separated by a semipermeable barrier across another set of chemistries, which creates an energy gradient between the two chemical systems. In all species of protocell technology the interface, the point of contact between the two systems, becomes the place of dynamic interactions. The outcome of this relationship can result in complex structures that take otherwise inert materials and distribute them in space and time. A simple chemical differential such as the ‘protopearl’ system, which is an oil droplet containing a metabolism that can produce an insoluble form of carbon dioxide, or a carbonate, at its surface, generates structures that resemble the structure of the oil droplet because there is no forwards movement and the crystals become deposited equally over its surface. This arrangement is observed as the system is not dynamic and the metabolism takes effect in a spatial context only at the interface of the agent, which remains globular throughout the chemical process. In contrast, droplets of sodium hydroxide in olive oil, the Bütschli system of protocell production, are highly dynamic and not only produce soft crystalline ‘skins’ at the interface, but these are stretched through the oil by the moving droplet. These skins become structurally manipulated by the physical properties of the medium, giving rise to highly complex structures. By varying the medium in which they operate and the internal metabolism, protocell technology can be chemically programmed to create a variety of surfaces and microstructures whose forms are reminiscent of biological structures. However, the protocell products differ fundamentally from biology in that they have not been produced through the regulatory system of DNA. Interestingly, protocells do not just appear to be able to undergo transformation at the individual level, but cooperate and interact on a population scale. Protocells appear to be able to attract and repel each other and behave sympathetically, 73 3


opposite: Close-ups of the structure of the Bütschli protocells. These protocells can metabolise copper salts and respond to the light, heat and chemical composition of the gallery environment, by creating structures that are a mixture of green copper carbonate and blue copper sulphate crystals which in this installation are between 1 and 2 centimetres in diameter at the oil/water interface exhibition.

below: Detail of the base of a protopearl flask. This protocell system fixes carbon dioxide from gallery air into a solid crystal ‘carbonate’ form of the gas, which is similar to limestone. A ring of carbonate deposit is forming at the base of the flask.

bottom: The protopearl flasks are connected to the neural net of the installation and respond to physical and changes in the environment, such as this burst of light and heat from an LED situated under the base of the flask.

. . . a group of protocells may be attracted to each other and, after an initial interaction, produce ‘skins’ almost simultaneously, giving the impression that there is some basic chemical communication between them.

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below left: These protocells are created using oil droplets in a water medium, which has been drawn from the local Venice canal water. Carbon dioxide exists in solution in the canal water and also enters the flasks in the installation from the respiratory products of gallery visitors. The metabolism of these oil droplets interacts with the dissolved carbon dioxide and converts it into a carbonate, which is a solid form of the gas, creating a pearl-like crystalline coat around it.

The group behaviour of protocell interactions in the laboratory suggests a radically different view of how living systems could organise.


below right: B端tschli protocells with the same metabolism in the presence of a variety of soluble salts responding to the light and heat energy transmitted through the neural network of the installation framework by rapidly evolving and producing multicoloured small crystals at the oil/water interface exhibition.

bottom: B端tschli protocells exist at an interface and are chemically energised by the molecular interactions where oil and water are juxtaposed, providing a site for material computation which, in this case, involves the transformation of soluble salts into insoluble ones.

conducting similar – though not identical – processes when they form a colony. For example, a group of protocells may be attracted to each other and, after an initial interaction, produce ‘skins’ almost simultaneously, giving the impression that there is some basic chemical communication between them. Additionally, these populations are capable of surprising behaviour and have been observed to undergo ‘phase transitions’. For example, two distinct protocell populations have been observed to come into proximity with each other and, after a brief initial group interaction, part in a synchronous manner while simultaneously producing long tails of crystalline material. This concerted behaviour is reminiscent of ‘quorum’ sensing bacteria, which are particular species of bacteria that can signal changes in their surroundings to the whole colony in response to information being signalled by a threshold number of interacting organisms that have detected a meaningful environmental change such as the concentration of food in that location. The group behaviour of protocell interactions in the laboratory suggests a radically different view of how living systems could organise. It is possible for very simple chemical complexes, which are not alive themselves, to cooperate in colonies and produce emergent, sophisticated and surprising behaviours, such as growth, movement and sensitivity, that are not present in individual agents but are recognised as being characteristic of living systems. Perhaps the earliest ‘cells’ were not discrete sophisticated single entities, but more like populations of chemical complexes interacting with each other, in a similar way to the behaviour of soap bubbles or foam on the surface of water. This has important implications for the development of living materials for the built environment. It may be important to think beyond their unitary organisation of constituents and consider their emergent properties, which stem from the population dynamics of very simple units. By altering the composition of these chemistries, it may be possible to create a wide variety of different materials that are able to perform different kinds of functions. The ability to create complex materials from simple and readily available ingredients, and evolving them into useful forms, has broad implications for the manufacturing of these materials. In particular this ‘low tech’ approach makes them accessible to communities beyond the First World, and their development in unique geographical contexts would potentially give rise to a diverse range of material ‘species’ that are uniquely designed for their particular environment. Moreover, it is possible that different species of materials are used in series to grow the biological equivalent of tissue layers around an architectural infrastructure where the growth and maturation of the structure would be in keeping with the notion of changing environments and materials with time. It is possible to consider that the multiple applications and evolution of these living materials over time and space could form an embryological approach to the construction of buildings. In this way the sequential deposition and remodelling of building surfaces

becomes a way of adapting architecture over time so that it remains relevant in the context of its environment. Protocells can also be designed with very specific, unique metabolisms that can perform very particular functions that do not exist in biology. For example, over the next 10 years we will see a new generation of solar panels and cladding that can make biofuels from sunlight to help power our homes and cities, and chemically active surfaces that will actively absorb carbon dioxide and use this as a raw material that can lay down insulating protective ‘shells’ around buildings. Let us return to the spade of concrete and imagine that it is distributed this time using protocells that are programmed to respond to light, fix carbon and reproduce. You take your spade of ready-mix concrete and stir it into a bucket containing a greasy solution, reminiscent of salad dressing. The solution congeals as the chemistry of the concrete is taken up into the protocell droplets, and you pour the mixture into the hole containing the post in this thickened state. The mixture swells and almost instantly supports the pole with its turgor. It now resembles a large lump of jelly. Bubbles start to appear and are quickly turned into a precipitate as the released carbon dioxide from the reaction is absorbed into a solid form. A fine network of greyish-white filaments starts to knit together in the gel with the appearance of a spongy bone. The sun comes out and the filaments appear to be thickening deeper in the hole, filling the darkest recesses first and building up a sturdy layer of support for the pole. The hole is still full of gelatinous material but the post is now held firmly enough to leave the material to its own devices. The world turns, the rain falls, the snow comes, the sun drives water out of the ground, and although the gel appears to fill a greater or lesser volume as conditions change, the filaments continue to extend, bind and hold the post. By the end of the year it is time to add a new protocell material to the base of the post. This is a species of strengthening agent, which contains a different combination of chemical reagents and effectively grows around the filaments that have been laid down by the first population. You add the solution over the gel base where it seeps into its matrix and slowly, very slowly the filaments thicken and become struts. Each year you come back to the post and make an assessment regarding what processes are required for the post to be kept in place, and each year a new protocell species is added. Gradually you realise that you are talking to the material, like you would a favourite plant, and that in many ways it is just as ‘living’ as the biology that surrounds it. 1 Notes 1. E Schrödinger, What is Life?, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge), 1944, p 70. 2. New Scientist, ‘Water bears are first animal to survive space vacuum’; see, accessed October 2010. 3. Rachel Armstrong, ‘Living Buildings: Plectic Systems Architecture’, Technoetic Arts, Vol 7, No 2, 2009, pp 79–94. Text © 2011 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Images © Photographs by Rachel Armstrong, 2010

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Philip Beesley Rachel Armstrong



Philip Beesley, Hylozoic Ground installation, Canadian Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2010 Detail of protocell incubator. Pulsing light responds to visitors touching whisker-sensors suspended below the glass flasks. Protocell formation is influenced by small increments of energy transmitted by the pulses.

Housed in the Canadian Pavilion in the Giardini in Venice during the 2010 Architecture Biennale, the Hylozoic Ground project provided visitors with the unique experience of interacting with a responsive and ‘live’ textile matrix. Philip Beesley and Rachel Armstrong describe the extraordinary ‘soil-less’ environment that they collaborated on and how it provides a new model for a synthetic but evolutionary ecology.


Philip Beesley, Hylozoic Ground installation, Canadian Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2010 Detail of glass flask containing the protocell incubator, including oil stratum above and diethyl phenyl phthalate below.


Hylozoic Ground is an environment organised as a textile matrix supporting responsive actions and ‘living’ technologies, conceived as the first stages of self-renewing functions that might take root within a future architecture.

Can soil be constructed? The architecture of the Hylozoic Ground project pursues qualities of new soil. Hylozoic Ground is an environment organised as a textile matrix supporting responsive actions and ‘living’ technologies, conceived as the first stages of self-renewing functions that might take root within a future architecture. This environment, Canada’s entry to the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale, is part of a series of collaborative installations that have been developed over the past four years with a collective associated with the University of Waterloo, Canada, including designers led by Hayley Isaacs at PBAI (Philip Beesley Architect Inc) in Toronto, engineers directed by Rob Gorbet in Waterloo, and the AVATAR and FLinT research centres in London and Odense.1 The first of the series was commissioned for the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 2007–8 and interim stages have appeared in Linz, Madrid, New Orleans, Enschede, Quebec City and Mexico City. Like the current environment in Venice, each of these stages of development has been framed as an open system that combines details from preceding environments with contributions from numerous designers and assistants in each city. The work has been developed and components manufactured by digital fabrication within the PBAI studio. The work is conceived as a new primitive hut that speaks of cultural origins within wilderness. The Hylozoic building system forms embroidered surfaces of a hybrid public architecture, a sprawling, tangled series of small public spaces. If attention turns from social gathering within these spaces towards the enclosing ‘soil matrix’ fabric, close inspection will reveal physical and chemical elements in various stages of transformation. The Hylozoic environment is a model system of a synthetic ecology undergoing an evolutionary process. Visitors can observe the initial state of the environment’s ingredients, influence dynamic processes that respond to external presence, and review these ongoing modifications over time. The geotextile forms and protocell circulation systems that prevail in recent generations of the ongoing Hylozoic Ground project pursue practical methods for building synthetic earth. The oscillation of this new soil’s alternating collapse and expansion offers an emphatically ambivalent, fertile building material for a renewed architecture. The Hylozoic Ground environment can be described as a suspended geotextile,2 81

Philip Beesley, Hydrozoic Soil: MĂŠduse Field, Recto-Verso Collaborative, MĂŠduse Centre, Quebec City, 2010 Filter layers are organised like atmospheric weather systems within the Hylozoic Soil environment.

Artificial chemical cell species form habitats within the Hylozoic soil matrix that are capable of thriving under the initial conditions. Given enough time to evolve, new species take hold, as spontaneous physical and chemical changes take place within the living technology.


gradually accumulating hybrid soil from ingredients drawn from its surroundings. Akin to the functions of a living system, embedded machine intelligence allows human interaction to trigger breathing, caressing and swallowing motions and hybrid metabolic exchanges. These empathic motions ripple out from hives of kinetic valves and pores in peristaltic waves, creating a diffuse pumping that pulls air, moisture and stray organic matter through the filtering Hylozoic membranes. A distributed array of proximity sensors activates these primitive responsive devices, stirring the air in thickened areas of the matrix. Dense groves of frond-like ‘breathing’ pores, tongues and thickets of twitching whiskers are organised in spiralling rows that curl in and around its mesh surfaces. A trickling water source connects the matrix to the Venice lagoon. Alongside mechanised component systems, a wet system of flasks, bladders and interconnected channels has been introduced into the environment, supporting simple chemical exchanges that share some of the renewing functions of a human lymphatic system. Thousands of primitive glands containing synthetic digestive liquids and salts are clustered throughout the system, located at the base of each breathing pore and within suspended colonies of whiskers and trapping burrs. The salt derivatives serve a hygroscopic function, pulling fluids out of the surrounding environment. Thickened vapours surround these bladder clusters. Adaptive chemistries within this system capture traces of carbon from the vaporous surroundings and build delicate structural scaffolds. Engineered protocells and ‘iChells’ – liquid-supported artificial cells that share some of the characteristics of natural living cells – are arranged in a series of embedded incubator flasks. Bursts of light and vibration, created by the responses of visitors standing within the work, influence the growth of the protocells, catalysing the formation of vesicles and inducing secondary deposits of benign materials. Sensors monitor the health of the growing flasks and give feedback that governs the behaviour of the interactive system surrounding the viewer. The flux of viscous, humid atmospheres creates a hybrid expanded protoplasm with changing boundaries. These design systems provide an expanded physiology akin to the layered envelopes created by nightdresses and bedclothes surrounding a sleeping body.

Organic soil is made of structurally repetitive organic and inorganic materials that possess heterogeneous properties. Similar to the complex assemblies of tissues and organs in living systems, soil contains functions that are supported by an orchestrated variety of cells. The various elements of a soil matrix are spatially arranged in a way that provides suitable surfaces for self-organising and evolving biochemical exchanges. The chemistries self-regulate and interact and they confer the various molecular species with behaviours of living systems such as growth and sensitivity to their surroundings. Similar to these properties of organic soil, the soil matrix of the Hylozoic environment is composed of a responsive framework made of inert materials and a ‘living’ technology layer made of the various species of adaptive chemistries that include organic ‘protocell’ technology and inorganic iChell (chemical cell) membranes. Protocells and iChells are chemical models of primitive artificial cells working together to form the tissues and organs of the soil matrix. The self-assembling chemistries of the protocells and iChells offer ‘minimal cell’ criteria – container, metabolism, information.3 These cells therefore exhibit some of the properties of living systems, even if not considered by researchers to be truly alive. Artificial chemical cell species form habitats within the Hylozoic soil matrix that are capable of thriving under the initial conditions. Given enough time to evolve, new species take hold, as spontaneous physical and chemical changes take place within the living technology. The new species further modify the habitat by altering physical variables such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere or the mineral composition of the synthetic tissues and organs of the Hylozoic soil. The exchanges between adaptive chemistries, responsive materials and environmental fluxes within the Hylozoic soil matrix oscillate and respond to each other and also, crucially, to people passing through the environment. Together these processes result in a series of transformations within the soil matrix that manifest over time as a ‘synthetic succession’. This living succession of protocell and iChell technology forms the tissues and organs of the Hylozoic soil matrix. Key ingredients include incubators (protocells), carbon-capture protopearls (protocells) and traube membranes (iChells). 83

The organising nuclei that are scattered throughout the Hylozoic environment’s soil matrix – as tissue (incubators), organs (protopearl flasks, traube membranes) and associated systems (hygroscopic islands) – offer a model of how complexity and scale can be related.

Incubators nest in the responsive Hylozoic filter layer and function as a tissue system – an aggregation of similarly specialised cells that collectively perform a special function. Their cellular units are not biological but are created by protocells. The incubator protocells are generated from an arrangement of water molecules in an oil-based environment that undergo a dynamic interaction with iron- and copper-based minerals. The timing of these changes is phased by using oil layers of different densities – in this case olive oil and diethyl phenyl phthalate. As the water-based minerals travel through the oil layers, they come into contact with the water-based protocell agents and the chemistry intermingles at the surface of the protocell. This reaction generates precipitates of iron and copper that influence each other’s formation as they compete with each other in their micro-environments under conditions that dictate their precipitation and redissolution. This complex growth process resembles how bone matrix is first laid and then reshaped through resorption. Carbon-capturing protopearls are also located within the responsive Hylozoic filter layer, alternating with incubator systems. These function as carbon-fixing organs for the Hylozoic soil matrix. Like biological organs, protopearl flasks house autonomous material systems with tissues that perform a special function. The tissue is formed by protocells made by oil droplets in the medium of water. Protopearl flasks derive their nutrients from Venice canal water, which contains dissolved carbon dioxide and dissolved metal ions such as calcium and magnesium. These chemicals are introduced into the vessel through a filter (to remove organic matter from the Venice canal water) and a simple gravity-fed circulation system. The flasks reveal the presence of carbon dioxide and minerals in the solution by creating material building blocks when their specifically designed metabolism comes into contact with carbon dioxide. Carbonate crystals gather within the organ flasks to form pearl-like structures. Hygroscopic islands are integrated into the weed-like layers of glands and traps that line the upper meshwork surfaces of Hylozoic Ground. They are composed of alternating organic (glycerin and latex vials), inorganic (sea salt) and natural (dried lavender, trace blood and soy) materials. While these substances interact dynamically, their relatively simple behaviour is distinct 84

from the living functions demonstrated by protocells. Their affinity for water enables them to draw circulating moisture from the gallery space into their substance. In the Hylozoic Ground installation this moisture consists of a fine, barely perceptible blend of water droplets: the densely humid local atmosphere, the heavy mist of the Venice canals, human respiration and condensation that is animated by local air flow, convection, evaporation and the movement of people through the space. The large density of hygroscopic islands tends to form a second-order gaseous matrix within which environmental conditions can act, amplifying latency and increasing the range of chemical influence. The hydrophilic properties of the islands enables them to act as oases and extract sustenance for adjacent protocell forms by forming sinks, reservoirs and sites of dispersal for water-borne chemicals. The organising nuclei that are scattered throughout the Hylozoic environment’s soil matrix – as tissue (incubators), organs (protopearl flasks, traube membranes) and associated systems (hygroscopic islands) – offer a model of how complexity and scale can be related. Exchanges within the Hylozoic Ground matrix tend to be reciprocal. Form and production are enabled by feedback from optical sensors that prompt the production of more protocells as the density of carbonate rises. This sensitivity guides a logic of evolutionary process selection, maintained through interactions between discrete protocell units. Through this interaction of form and system dynamics, the system gains physical and informational memory.4 The linking systems that form scaffolds for the bladders and flasks use a tessellated geometry of self-healing hexagonal and rhombic arrays that readily accommodate tears and breaks within their fabrics. In opposition to design principles of the past century that favoured optimal equations where maximum volume might be enclosed by the minimum possible surface, the structures in Hylozoic Ground prefer diffuse, deeply reticulated skins. These forms turn away from the minimum surface exposures of pure spheres and cubes as they seek to increase their exposure and interchange with the atmosphere.5 Pure, distilled spheres and pyramids from Plato’s cosmology might hover as ghosts that inform this environment, but that family of reductive crystal forms does not govern. Far from transcendental perfection, the formwork that organises the

Philip Beesley, Hylozoic Ground installation, Canadian Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2010 below: Detail of filter layers. Suspended filter clusters emit chained light pulses, catalysing formations within protocell flasks.

bottom: Light pulses pass between protocell glass flasks, following networked communication paths.


below: Entry view. Flexing, breathing meshworks populated by humidity-filled fields of bladders and kinetic pores frame a tangled series of small public gathering spaces.


bottom left: Protocell incubator system. Ferrofluid vesicles are suspended between oil and diethyl phenyl phthalate liquid layers.

bottom right: Protopearl flask system. Harmless, pearl-like carbonate deposits result from the processing of Venice canal water by protocells housed within the flask system.

bottom left: Extended traube cell system. Extended traube cells would spread over geotextile scaffolds in the next generation of Hylozoic series.

bottom right: Filter layer, hygroscopic islands and meshwork canopy system. The general systems diagram shows the protocell ‘lymph’ system at a lower level embedded with layered filters driven by shape-memory alloy mechanisms. Fields of humidity-bearing bladders are suspended above, and corrugated diagrid meshwork canopies support the assembly.


below left: Slow ripples of movement cascade out from filters and columns, responding to electronic signals from proximity and touch sensors embedded within the system.


below right: Detail of filters, columns and canopy system. Meshed networks of filters suspended below hyperbolic skeletal canopies are embedded with protocell incubator flasks. Trickling lagoon water irrigates the system.

opposite: Light pulses pass through neighbouring flasks in waves. The flasks are surrounded by sieve-like fronds that slowly draw air through the layer.

space boils out of local circumstance. As with the fabric that emerges from the steady cadence of knitting or crocheting, the chevron links are combined in repeating rows, and their numbers tend to drift and bifurcate. Adding links within linked rows crowds the surface, producing warped and reticulated surfaces that expand outwards in three dimensions. In the next phase of development, following the Venice installation, traube membrane iChell systems will be included within the Hylozoic filter layers. A traube cell is an artificial, inorganic model of a cell that consists of a semipermeable membrane surrounding a vesicle that allows water to pass inside, but not back out again. The growing, seaweed-like membranes of traube cells are driven by hydraulic forces that create expanding and diffusing forms. A continuous supply of raw materials provided through a syringe driver will ensure continuous mingling of the traube salts. The membrane produced by the copper hexacyanoferrate is initially soft and hardens on drying. A continual feed of traube salts, supported on an organic polymer matrix such as alginate, creates a sequentially layered structure that adds thickness to the membrane. The combination of older dried layers and younger moisture-laden deposits creates a many-layered matrix that traps water for growth and adds structural integrity to the developing chemistry. In these next stages, traube cell functions might move out of the secure containment of current systems of glass flasks and flexible tubing, flowing over the supports of porous meshwork scaffolding systems. The generation of viscous, mucus-like membranes in open air involves a host of practical design challenges, while offering increasingly direct fulfilment of active ‘geotextile’ soil-building functions. Installations containing these evolving details are slated for Salt Lake City, Reims and Beijing during 2011. What ground, what soil, might be adequate for viable and involved dwelling? Soil has always been the prima materia of architecture. But this contemporary soil does not quietly offer itself to the enlightened framing of space. Natural soil might seem to stand silently, apparently offering secure mass and compression as plastic, friable resources for framing human territory. But soil’s lumpen, sodden masses counter any enlightened world of social construction. Soil desires collapse. Soil’s inexorable infolding of matter within matter maximises surface area and eliminates space, compacting interminably

into dark. Soil eliminates and eviscerates space. The soil crust of the earth covers and disguises myriad layers formed from condensation and deposition. Soil consumes and erases daily circumstance within its unspeakably silent, primal fertility. And, soil also desires springing growth. The soil crust of the earth seethes with myriad seeded viscera, minuscule fragments gathering and efflorescing, redolent with chorusing oceans of growth to come. Soil’s inexorable flowering genesis of matter building upon matter overwhelms and saturates space, riddling voids and boiling and flaming outwards. The ambivalence latent within soil makes it a monstrous doppelgänger for architecture. The Hylozoic series offers a diffuse matrix, a site for assimilation and transformation. This matrix offers a map of a dissociated body moving to and fro across junctures of conception, charged with territory whose gendered roots speak of birth. If, quickened by a humid microclimate and organic atmospheres blooming around human occupation, the vesicles and primitive glands crowding the Hylozoic Ground surface spoke, they might call and lure, voicing abject hunger. This soil is pulling. Its environment seeks and depends on human presence as elemental food. 1 Notes 1. The ongoing series is directed by Philip Beesley with principal collaborators Rob Gorbet and Rachel Armstrong. Key individuals include design associates Hayley Isaacs, Eric Bury and Jonathan Tyrrell. The Hylozoic Ground Venice team includes production director Pernilla Ohrstedt, funding and promotion by Poet Farrell and Sascha Hastings, designers Carlos Carillo Duran, Federica Pianta, Carlo-Luigi Pasini and Adam Schwartzentruber, engineers Brandon Dehart and Andre Hladio, protocell research associates Martin Hanczyc and Davide De Lucrezia, and photographer Pierre Charron. 2. Geotextiles are civil engineering structural layers that provide support for landscapes. Many geotextiles are biodegradable, and are eventually taken over by organic growth. 3. Steen Rasmussen et al, ‘Bridging Nonliving and Living Matter’, Artificial Life 9, 2003, pp 267–316. 4. Terence W Deacon, ‘Emergence—The Hole at the Wheel’s Hub’, in Philip Clayton and Paul Davies (eds), The Re-Emergence of Emergence: The Emergentist Hypothesis from Science to Religion, Oxford University Press (Oxford), 2006, pp 111–51. 5.The geometries of this system are ‘quasiperiodic’, combining rigid repetition with corrupted inclusions and drift. Penrose tilings following the 10-way division of a circle alternate with close-packed regular hexagonal geometry. Some passages from this essay are adapted from Philip Beesley, Pernilla Ohrstedt and Hayley Isaacs (eds), Hylozoic Ground: Liminal Responsive Architecture, Riverside Architectural Press (Cambridge, ON), 2010. Text © 2011 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Images © Philip Beesley Architect Inc


Dan Slavinsky



Dan Slavinsky, In Arcadia at the End of Time, Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2009–10 The perspective shows the broad sweep of the park and the composition of its architectural pieces, and vicariously the spatial flows of its exterior spaces.

The exquisite drawings of Dan Slavinsky were the highlight of the 2010 Bartlett Summer Show at University College London (UCL). Here, in an article featuring his series ‘In Arcadia at the End of Time’, he questions how the introduction of protocell technology might shift the position of architects and ultimately require them to relinquish control of details, as features and materials become subject to evolution and decay.

Protocell technology is an emerging science and although it opens up many possibilities for its potential application in architecture, there remains only speculation as to the practicalities of using tissue and soft matter as realistic materials for construction. Indeed, the protocell is not (yet) an object or a tool that can be taken straight from the laboratory to the building: rather, it needs to be tooled up, by combining this ‘softness’1 with practical structural systems. As materials become more flexible, and technologies more autonomous, we must investigate the extent to which a design system can self-organise. In other words, with materials potentially having the capacity to think for themselves, the architect might have very little say in what his ultimate vision will look like and risk losing the ownership of his design. Furthermore, is the idea of ‘creating’ architecture outdated? Can architects continue to dictate the function and appearance of every inch of the structure, imposing a concept into a space that ignores the factors of time and erosion? Instead, architects would perhaps have to relinquish some control over what their ‘creations’ would look like. Designs would have to take into account the gradual weathering of facades, the slow accretion of lichen and moss on the exterior of buildings, the materials changing colours over the years and the way the building interacts with each. The myriad ways with which nature can change the appearance of a surface over time needs to be acknowledged by architects while they simultaneously use their power as designers to ensure their vision shines through, despite these influential factors. Christian Kerrigan writes that ‘we have reached a point in our evolution where we are now capable of creating design criteria to manipulate natural growth and development’.2 The critical word in this phrase is ‘manipulate’ – that is to say, in place of brutally imposing a vision into a space using inert materials, the process of architecture would become one of sculpting nature. Critics would see this new approach to design as the first step in making the role of the architect redundant. Yes, it would still apply that every technology needs to be designed, but in the short term at least, the emphasis towards the scientific and away from the artistic may make the role of the architect almost unrecognisable. The emergence of soft technologies, such as protocell technology, heralds a

new method of designing, a critical step in which natural metabolisms are taken and reclaimed in laboratories. This radically shifts the boundaries of what we can call architecture, with the role of the architect almost coming closer to being that of a doctor or a scientific technician. Yet architects would only become redundant if they did not make the evolutionary transition themselves from a Cartesian-based world to a systems-based one. However, this adjustment would not be the exclusive concern of architects: there are companions in other disciplines that will be equally affected. Consequently, a ‘systems’ architect (in the living technology sense of the word) will need to be an interdisciplinary practitioner as a matter of survival. Despite some concern about the extent to which autonomous systems would put authorship at risk, human imagination and design flair will always play a crucial role in architecture. The tools and materials – and even the scale of operation – may change, but good design is always relevant. Even in a world in which the very materials may be completely unlike anything we have today, the architect will still have to solve problems to do with the division and function of space, the massing of buildings and its visual impact on its surroundings. At present, protocell technology – not being robust enough to be used as a load-bearing construction material – serves the purpose of stimulating thought about architecture and the composition of space in a completely different way. An accumulation of protocells, each being a singularity, has the capacity to be arranged in an infinite number of ways. This infinity of possibilities frees the designer from the container of the object, thus forming a new architecture of, according to Sylvia Nagl, ‘assemblages, new types of multi-scale … “symbio-systems” – layering, splicing, grafting and interweaving inanimate and animate matter.’3 Technology would no longer be used to create components that divide the space (walls, floor slabs and so on) – instead technology will become the building. 1 Notes 1. In this case, the term ‘soft’ is used in the sense of something being able to adapt to its situation in real time and consequently having the capacity to embed itself in its environment or into the architecture. 2. Christian Kerrigan, ‘The 200-Year Continuum’, The Technoetic Arts Journal 7.2, 2009, p 122. 3. Sylvia Nagl, ‘Spaces of Affinity‘, The Technoetic Arts Journal, op cit. p 193.


Dan Slavinsky, In Arcadia at the End of Time, Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2009–10 The proposal speculates on the possibility of a flexible architecture being achieved using living technology, and seeks to establish a new lexicon of ornament based on this new approach. It discusses the transition from an object-based Cartesian model of architecture to a more complex, systems-based one that celebrates the use of hybrid technologies to better integrate our buildings into nature. The drawings depict an Arcadia frozen at the End of Time – an ambiguous garden of symbolism, referencing the architectural movement of Art Nouveau, in which this new ‘soft’ ornamental code is expressed.


below: An ambiguous soft architectural form reclaimed as a living entrance to the Arcadia at the End of Time. The capacity of living technologies to learn and adapt logically means that information can be embedded within the ornament, making it more connected to its surroundings and to its users.

opposite: Ambiguous soft architectural forms: two of the pieces frozen in the garden at the End of Time.


below: Architectural thesis on how soft ornament might be applied to the design of a threshold.


below: The boatman discusses ideas of desire, decadence, ambiguity and complacency, all characteristics of soft architecture.

bottom: The site of Arcadia, along the River Rhine on the border of France and Germany in a clearing within the forest of Domaniale de Marckolsheim.



Dan Slavinsky, The Bride of Denmark Absinthe Bar [Remembered], Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2009–10 The Bride of Denmark, the private pub in the basement of No 9 Queen Anne’s Gate, London, under the former offices of the Architectural Review, has been closed for several decades. Speculating with ideas of ‘soft’ ornament and living architecture, this project seeks to reinstate this exclusive drinking establishment as an Absinthe Bar, now called After the Bachelors. The well-proportioned Georgian interior provides the setting for exploring how ‘ordered’ and ‘vagrant’ geometries could coexist.

opposite: Schematic explorations of ‘vagrant’ geometries at play within a constrained plan. Living, or vagrant, technologies will affect architectural ornamentation in several ways by opening many degrees of freedom within which to design, both in three-dimensional space and in time.

below and overleaf: The elevation of No 9 Queen Anne’s Gate will accommodate two new gateposts that must be passed on the way to the bar itself – one representing duality (ambiguity and immorality), the other absurdity (frivolity and decadence).



below: The wash-basin design takes advantage of the ritual of washing and the fluidity of water, and becomes an exercise in soft ornament and one of the architectural centrepoints of the project. Text Š 2011 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Images Š Dan Slavinsky


Neri Oxman



Neri Oxman, Tropisms, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), 2006 Design for an inflatable furniture piece based on parallel rewriting logic. The underlying geometry is determined by an L-system algorithm guiding the growth direction of the overall structure. Cell size and distribution are determined by the anticipated load triggering inflation.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Neri Oxman is engaged on the Material-Based Computation project. It takes an approach that can be regarded as analogous to protocells. It places a similar emphasis on material properties as intermediary agents for the built environment, containing the information for behaviour and evolution. Here she outlines three methods that define her research. 101

Neri Oxman, Stalasso, Museum of Science, Boston, Massachusetts, 2010 below: Parts and wholes: an exploration into the relationship between cellular units and their assembly within a site-specific, light-refracting surface. All cells are computed as a consistent tissue corresponding to local conditions through the local manipulations of each uniquely defined cell.

Neri Oxman, Fatemaps, Museum of Science, Boston, Massachusetts, 2009 opposite: Natural micro-structural 2-D tissues are visualised, analysed and reconstructed into 3-D macroscale prototypes by computing hypothetical physical responses. An object-oriented finite element application is used to determine material behaviour according to assigned properties and performance such as stress, strain, heat flow, stored energy and deformation due to applied loads and temperature differences.

The interaction between the directional morphology of the specimen and the tensor direction produces physical effects that emphasise the tissue’s spatial texture in different ways. The resulting model is sixdimensional and includes 2-D information (X, Y), out of plane deformation (Z), elastic stress (S), strain (S) and temperature flux (T). The tissue is then reconstructed using a CNC mill and metal/steel and wood composites. Anisotropic in nature, grain directionality and layering are informed by the analysis, resulting in laminated structural composites that respond to given ranges of energy and loading conditions.

Questions regarding the units of digital design have been at the centre of the discipline since its inception.1 From masonry bricks to multidimensional voxels, architectural design is possessed with the search for synthesis. Motivated by new scientific discoveries, such enquiries are now advancing new ways of thinking and making architecture. Such is the case of protocells, hypothesised to have been pregenomic blueprints for the units of life made of inanimate matter. Following the discovery of protocells, their contribution to spontaneous generation2 and to the emergence of life on earth, designers are now seeking the synthetic design counterpart to basic science.3 Pertaining to a gene’s-eye view of the built environment, wherein a material unit might incorporate data that is inclusive of its assembly, behaviour, decay and regeneration, what might the proto-brick of the future look like? Parallel to, and inspired by, the contemporary discourse in synthetic biology, a bottom-up approach to design is indeed one of the key characteristics of design inspired by performance.4 In this approach, a units-based strategy is commonly devised and encrypted in order to correlate between form’s material properties and its environmental milieu. Material-Based Design Computation was developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as the theory and method by which to relate units of matter to units of performance in the generation of form.5 According to this approach, material properties are considered intermediary agents mediating environmental impetus with material response,6 such that inanimate matter might contain the information for its behaviour and evolution, 102

not unlike protocells. This method assumes complete synergy between geometry, physical matter and energy.7 Such synergy can only be achieved if and when the various processes of design will have been integrated to allow modelling, analysis and fabrication to occur simultaneously in parallel fashion not unlike the behaviour of living organisms.8 The systems assume that each and every cell comprising the whole is in constant flux as it remodels and evolves under environmental pressures: call it proto-design. The explorations below, part of the Material-Based Design Computation project, illustrate three approaches for the definition of a proto-design unit from the modelling, analysis and fabrication perspectives respectively. However, it is only when these are combined into a single process that we may begin to speculate on the generation of a synthetic protocell. Geometric Protocells: Tropisms Devoid of sensor-actuator technologies, geometrically defined units comprise – within the scope of illustrated experiments – the simplest method for achieving bottom-up design. These units are parametrically defined as they contain curvature data, but do not typically designate and predict physical properties and material behaviour. In the case of Tropisms (MIT, 2006), a load-sensitive pneumatic furniture system, each geometrical component is designed to optimally inflate and deflate upon sitting and standing respectively. The assembly logic of all cells determines the overall form its assembly would take as behaviour control and accommodation are geometrically defined and exercised.

Analysis Protocells: Fatemaps Mesh discretisation processes allow the designer to subdivide a continuous mathematical domain into a set of discrete subdomains referred to as elements and represented as singular geometrical entities. Lattices and triangulations are common rationalisation discretisation techniques, where quadrant and triangulated elements may respectively wrap the surface area or volume of the object. These structural meshes are used by engineers to simulate structural loads, analyse their distribution and predict any potential displacements that may arise. More recently, engineers have been utilising mesh-free algorithms to rationalise 3-D form in the process of translating it from the digital domain to its material manifestation via appropriate fabrication routines. Such mesh-free methods eliminate some, or all, of the traditional mesh-based view of the computational domain and rely on a particle view of a field problem. When inverted, these analytical tools may be put into synthetic purposes of form generation. Mesh-free methods can then be viewed as continuous fields of particles that may potentially carry material data as they ‘grow’ a structure. This is the case with Fatemaps (Museum of Science, Boston, 2009), a study exploring natural tissue reconstruction using artificial materials. Perfect alignment between form and material behaviour may be considered by calibrating the size, shape and proximity of the element to the size and shape of the material unit from which the form is to be fabricated. 103

Neri Oxman, Raycounting, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, 2008 Raycounting is a method for originating form by registering the intensity and orientation of light rays. In this process, form generation is guided by fabrication constraints and material properties. 3-D surfaces of double curvature are the result of assigning light parameters to flat planes. The algorithm calculates the intensity, position, frequency, polarisation and direction of one, or multiple, light sources placed in a given environment, and assigns local curvature values to each point in space corresponding to the reference plane and the light dimension. These parameters are then interpreted as 3-D printed material particles in the construction of the physical prototype.

Imagine the case in which the size of a mesh-free particle, applied for the purpose of form generation informed by light performance, precisely matches the size of an imaginable powder molecule, or – more realistically speaking – a material aggregate providing for the substance of the 3-D printing process.


Fabrication Protocells: Raycounting Imagine the case in which the size of a mesh-free particle, applied for the purpose of form generation informed by light performance, precisely matches the size of an imaginable powder molecule, or – more realistically speaking – a material aggregate providing for the substance of the 3-D printing process. Such is the design motivation behind Raycounting (MoMA, 2008), the form of which is mediated by environmental and structural constraints. The maxel unit9 can be thought of as an intermediary representation linking the digital form to its physical manifestation, particularly when rapid fabrication processes are considered. In this respect, the maxel provides for a lower-limit material definition establishing the degree of granularity required to manifest the 3-D details of the design. From here it is relatively easy to imagine the implications of using maxels as the units for calibrating voxels and printing powder. The designer would then be generating 3-D form using the precise units applied to describe its physical manifestation, not unlike protocells. To conceive of design as the ‘dry path’ of biology in the generation of synthetic form requires designers to find the formula to describe matter as generative. To do this,

they must first abandon the conceptual structure of a divided and hierarchical process separating the analytic and the synthetic, and arrive at their ultimate integration. A new philosophy of design is slowly emerging which anticipates and supports the merging of matter and energy on the way to proto-design. 1 Notes 1. N Oxman, ‘Material-Based Design Computation: Tiling Behavior’, ACADIA 09: reForm Building a Better Tomorrow, Proceedings of the 29th Annual Conference of the Association for Computer Aided Design in Architecture (ACADIA), 2009, pp 122–9. 2. Philip P Wiener (ed), ‘Spontaneous Generation’, Dictionary of the History of Ideas, Charles Scribner’s Sons (New York), 1973. 3. C Zimmer, ‘Origins: On the Origin of Eukaryotes’, Science 325 (5941), August 2009, pp 666–8. 4. M Weinstock, The Architecture of Emergence: The Evolution of Form in Nature and Civilisation, John Wiley & Sons (London), 2010. 5 N Oxman and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Department of Architecture, ‘Material-Based Design Computation’, doctoral thesis, 2010. 6. For example, consider force as an environmental impetus, extension as a material response, and stiffness as the material property that mediates the two. 7. Cellular digital units must scale with variable gradients; if illumination is changing rapidly, then the computational unit must be small enough to capture this gradient. 8.The human bone is a great example illustrating the integration of growth, analysis and remodelling as an integrated process. 9. A maxel is defined as a physical voxel. See ‘MaterialBased Design Computation’, op cit. Text © 2011 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Images © Neri Oxman


Paul Preissner



Paul Preissner provides a typological prototype for the protocell, the Protocell Tower. Does it, however, already look familiar? Though a breathtaking chemical innovation, could protocell technology actually be behind the curve of architecture? Could it be that architects have already been playing with the aesthetics of this unrealised matter for the last 15 years? Preissner suggests some urban approaches that might enable us to use protocells to rejuvenate existing architecture.

Paul Preissner Architects, Protocell Tower 01, Atlanta, Georgia, 2010 above: The animate nature of the material allows for the introduction of visually distinct rehabilitations to existing facades with no visual indications of material seaming. The proto-cellular construction offers new introductions within existing elevations.

opposite: Elevation detail of shape migration from existing geometry to proto-cellular structures. In addition to the economy offered to its construction, the ability to direct its growth provides a fully discernible contrast between the older grid and the newer structures without seams.


There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact. – Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi, 1883 It only takes a few moments to be taken in by the utterly fantastic possibilities protocells offer the world; for example, these real and shapeable life forms promise to grow us limestone faster than limestone. Starting from oil and water and a few more things, the resulting calcification suggests a material residue that is not only agreeable, but also useful, essentially giving us the ability (not unlike our novelty plant-imal the Chia Pet) to grow our surroundings – although, instead of sheep or heads of hair, we can think about growing our buildings. Buy some land, mix up some salad dressing, sit back a couple decades and then move right in. Wild.

Still, the reality of this biochemical science is oddly a bit behind some of the formal thinking that has taken place within architecture over the past 15 years. Another way to put it is that we have been waiting for this for a while and have already figured out how to deal with its looks (and a number of us architects have decided we like it!), because we have been goofing around in software fortuitously replicating the shape and fashion of this new tiny life in anticipation of its eventual arrival. In fact, plenty of creative practices have made their creative fortune (and staked their careers) on this formal reality, and so, while from a scientific and artificial-life standpoint this protocell discovery is breathtaking, its visual presence seems, unfortunately, to be unremarkable, and already ‘old’. Rapidly developing slightly new forms with software has led to enthusiasm about looks, and typically the resulting projects express this way of looking in its entirety; exhaustingly, earnestly and fashionably

It only takes a few moments to be taken in by the utterly fantastic possibilities protocells offer the world; for example, these real and shapeable life forms promise to grow us limestone faster than limestone.


top: New aesthetic anomalies offer ways in which to casually and yet radically restructure the visual expectations and pleasures of our city environments.

above: Adapting to the connective structure, the cellular material can rapidly develop new formal expressions that retain visual rhythm to the previous design, while introducing a wholly new contrastive expression.


Homogeneous Homogeneity – Paris top: The militant manner in which each building and identity replicates the other produces a recognisable yet imperceptible sensation.


Heterogeneous Homogeneity – Osaka above: The litter of modern individuality shoulder-to-shoulder sums our cities up to visually empty compositions, neither resolute in its staging, nor expressive in its variety of creativity. This is in part the result of the totality of each individual building’s expression, which results in an arrangement of variety, but an absence of visceral difference.

City Strategies: Older – Zurich opposite left: Each city, regardless of age, now offers enormous possibilities for visual distinction.

City Strategies: Newer – Tokyo opposite right: Through symbiotic relationships to the contemporary cityscape, proto-effects can offer stark feelings resonant of otherwise soulless constructions.

decorating or shaping the whole of a project as a complete example of the formal innovation. If the project takes up X amount of volume, then X amount of volume will look this way, without contrast and without irony. This has, not surprisingly, led to a budgeted bodybuilding scene, with each new project looking to muscularly outdo the last in terms of biological complexity (first as metaphor, then as symbol). Perhaps surprising is the speed with which this formal school has stopped being able to matter. This is a largely compositional problem, rather than one due to form itself. Or, to be more pointed, it is a deficit of ideas about how to use looks. So what happens next, and how can pleasure and surprise be put back into the world with a technology that looks like what we already wanted? If we take a very quick (really), and very reduced (truly) appraisal of how our cities look, we could find they are organised into two types of the same thing: visually homogeneous, regardless of individual

formal differences or histories. Whether we see this homogeneity through designed homogeneity itself (the case of Parisian roofs) or through the unintended results of littered urban heterogeneity (the patchwork of individuality found within the modern city), the atmospheric effects are the same. By growing patches and parts, and amending existing work organically but differently, maybe we can make cities feel more novel, more light, more fun, and use this organic, mutable material to continually reform what we already see through alterations to existing buildings, to create the newness we haven’t yet come to expect from technology interfering with the city. Introducing land-sized visual contrast within cities can short-circuit the two types of homogeneity and render our surroundings newly old, reflecting backwards towards the shapes of the future. 1 Text © 2011 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Images © Paul Preissner/Paul Preissner Architects


Lisa Iwamoto


IwamotoScott Architecture, Line Array, 2010 opposite: Overall view of protocell aggregation.

below: Detail view showing aggregation of protocells along lines of structure.

Lisa Iwamoto of IwamotoScott Architecture describes how the Line Array project was developed as a means of proposing a new range of structural surface formations in which protocells could be applied to architecture. She specifically speculates on how materials might behave pholloggicallly, resp pond dingg in a fluid d manner to morp varying surface geometries.


IwamotoScott Architecture with Buro Happold Engineers, Voussoir Cloud, SCIArc Gallery, Los Angeles, 2008 below: Construction and assembly drawing of the Voussoir Cloud describing the order of attachment based on structure.


bottom and opposite: Interior view of the vaulted construction.

The protocell project asks how architecture can respond at a cellular level to such conditions as environment, gravity and structure. Protocells – chemical and solid state agents that respond in a biological manner – typically exist at nano and molecular scales, and are often generated in liquid. This allows them to circumvent gravitational conditions as well as aggregate without concern for larger-scale, hierarchical structure. A driving concern for Line Array (2010) was how to envision a protocell modality suitable for architecture that could be applied to a range of structural surface formations. Protocells are used here as a selforganising structural matrix. In particular, the project speculates on how materials might behave morphologically to varying surface geometries in a fluid and responsive manner. Structure depends on the interdependency of geometry and material. Historically, architects have employed geometrically defined elements such as vaults, domes, thin shells, tensile membranes and cable nets to unite surface structure with material. These systems maximise material behaviour through the purity of the structural diaphragm. In contrast to typologies based on uniform, symmetrical form, contemporary analysis and design techniques can adapt material systems to address variable, localised and non-symmetrical loading conditions. This has opened up the possibilities for at once muddying and synthesising geometry, structure and material performance. IwamotoScott’s previous work examined how to produce such synthetic results from intentionally contradictory criteria. Voussoir Cloud (2008) inverted the conventional material definition of compressive vault construction. Edgar Street Towers (2009) blended a structural diagrid skin with deep and planar surfaces. In both cases, the local particulars informed the aggregation of parts as well as the configuration of the whole.

Structure depends on the interdependency of geometry and material. Historically, architects have employed geometrically defined elements such as vaults, domes, thin shells, tensile membranes and cable nets to unite surface structure with material.



IwamotoScott Architecture, Edgar Street Towers, Greenwich South Vision Study, New York, 2009 opposite: Street-level view of east–west street passage and fibre-optic core.

below: Detail of the atrium structure and terrariums for the Edgar Street Towers.

Like lines of magnetic force, structural forces find the path of least resistance to the ground along any given surface. As surface geometries move away from idealised forms, the protocells are designed to accumulate, disperse and reconfigure to accommodate the revised surface stresses.


IwamotoScott Architecture, Line Array, 2010 below: Refined line deformation according to structural finite element analysis.


opposite top: Initial line deformation according to changing vault geometry, surface and supports.

opposite centre: Vault taxonomies.

opposite bottom: Preliminary cell study.



Detail view showing aggregation of protocells along lines of structure.

In a similar fashion, Line Array leverages such computational techniques to organise cellular modules in a fluctuating, as needed basis. Using the principle of magnetic fields to generate its formal and material logic, the cells act similarly to iron shavings in threedimensional force-field visualisations. They respond with simple attraction at the microscale that corresponds to forces at the macroscale. Like lines of magnetic force, structural forces find the path of least resistance to the ground along any given surface. As surface geometries move away from idealised forms, the protocells are designed to accumulate, disperse and reconfigure to accommodate the revised surface stresses. The organisation of the structural matrix became a matter of morphology and packing. Like most protocell typologies, the Line Array cells are defined by their method of aggregation. The vaults comprise a taxonomy of line array types, each responding to different surface geometries in relation to the overall structure. The prismatic definition of the cell is drawn from crystalline geometry whose threedimensional aggregation varies from densely packed to a loose lattice. The cells create oriented areas of beam-like thickness, taut surfaces and ruptures. The final outcome is porous, hairy, dense, aligned and oriented. This study attempts to reveal new possibilities for material aggregation based on internal stress intensities of a deformed surface structure. Line Array suggests just one of any number of possible packing organisations, however. Protocells are dynamic and reconfigurable by nature, and it is this malleable character that suggests the possibility of continual reformation such that the surface itself becomes a fluctuating, non-static entity. The architectural connection between protocells and form are described here largely to suggest the potental for many others. 1 Text Š 2011 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Images Š Courtesy IwamotoScott Architecture


Nic Clear

AVATAR AND THE POLITICS OF PROTOCELL ARCHITECTURE The Advanced Virtual and Technological Architecture Research Laboratory (AVATAR) was founded in 2004 at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London (UCL). The original remit was to provide a forum for staff and their units to exchange and share their explorations into the digital and visceral terrain. With Neil Spiller’s appointment in September 2011 as Dean of the School of Architecture and Construction at the University of Greenwich, the centre of research has shifted south to Greenwich. Here, one of the principle proponents of AVATAR, Nic Clear describes why, given the present economic and political situation, Protocell Architecture has provided the group with such a fecund field of research.


The architecture of tomorrow will be a means of modifying present conceptions of time and space. It will be both a means of knowledge and a means of action. — Ivan Chtcheglov, ‘Formulary For a New Urbanism’, 19531 We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. — Tony Judt, Ill Fares The Land, 20102 AVATAR’s Protocell Architecture is a collaborative project dedicated to the development of new architectural ideas and strategies through the deployment of science and technology, produced in a manner that is sustainable and ethical.3 AVATAR seeks inspiration from outside the traditional realms of architectural discourse, particularly in the margins of science and digital technology, in the esoteric worlds of alchemy and ’pataphysics, through the avant-garde aesthetics of Dada, Surrealism and Situationism and with ideas gleaned from science fiction and fiction science. Protocell architecture seeks to speculate on the ideas and research initiated in artificial cell biology to create new architectural possibilities that are in direct opposition to the products of the ‘corporate architectural complex’. While AVATAR is inspired by the use of scientific ideas, it is quite clear that it is producing architecture and not science, or even pseudo-science. The differences between the aims of the two discourses are important; as Dave Hickey the American art historian succinctly puts it: ‘Art and architecture are practices, not sciences. The constructions of science aspire to universal application. Pictures and buildings need only work where they are.’4 Apart from wondering exactly what Hickey means by ‘work’, this is a very useful definition. AVATAR does not seek to imitate science in the development of Protocell Architecture; it seeks to harness the creative potential of collaboration through the deployment of art, architecture, science and technology to create new architectures. Given the methodological differences between architects and scientists it might seem improbable that these groups can fruitfully collaborate. However, what AVATAR proposes is that architects, scientists, artists and technologists of all hues can not only learn from each others ideas, but, given the opportunity that is afforded by contemporary communication networks, such collaborations can make work that is more productive, more challenging, more enjoyable and more effective. The collaborative nature of Protocell Architecture and how it is being developed is both dependent on, and a prime example of, a type of network thinking.

The basic ‘science’ of the protocell is that by combining two simple chemical solutions,5 complex life-like behaviours emerge from their interaction. The results of these behaviours can be controlled, organised and used as the basic components in even more complex arrangements. ‘Complexity’ is of course a highly loaded term, but here it is understood in terms of outcomes that could not be inferred simply from an analysis of the original components.6 The technologies that emerge from the protocell will allow the accretion of structures that can be ‘grown’ and controlled via chemotaxis, phototaxis, self-assembly and self-organisation. Protocells represent a technology that is not conceived of in terms of computational power and elaborate infrastructure; it is something that starts with a simple premise and yet can exhibit truly extraordinary behaviour. For AVATAR, the protocell as metaphor is as rich in possibility as the protocell is as a chemical building block. While Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari may have favoured the rhizome as their epistemological model,7 AVATAR sees protocells as a more appropriate way of describing a model of knowledge and praxis. Two Narratives We are in the throes of two competing narratives that depict the future of our planet: one describes a world of overpopulation, catastrophic climate-change and a scarcity of usable resources resulting in human and environmental devastation of an unimaginable scale; the other sees us at the threshold of a new technological era ushered in by advances in science and technology that will bring about an unheralded period of prosperity and growth. While the latter does not deny the possibility of the former, it assumes that a technological fix will be found to remedy the problems of population growth and climate change. Although one should never underestimate the resourcefulness of human adaptation, and even allowing for the possibility that technology does address resource shortages and environmental damage, the uncritical desire for limitless development simply for the sake of it needs to be questioned. As far back as the 1970s, studies have warned that society cannot go on expecting infinite growth with finite resources;8 indeed, some commentators have even questioned whether growth is in fact an essential component of our society.9 Despite the apocalyptic nature of some current planetary predictions, it is also clear that technological development and, in particular, the development of artificial intelligence, genetic engineering and nanotechnology will radically transform the productive capabilities of our societies. The idea of such a radical advance in technological development is explored by Ray Kurzweil in his book The Singularity is Near. Kurzweil predicts that within 123

the next 30 years, machine intelligence will surpass the capacities of human intelligence and this will lead to an exponential increase in technological development. Such a transformation will result in unimaginable social and technological changes. Kurzweil suggests that the benefits of this shift may be that people can live as long as they wish to, material shortages become irrelevant with almost any material being able to be manufactured through nanotechnology, and virtual environments will be part of everyday life due to the existence of intelligent ‘foglets’. He posits that, ultimately, the whole of our universe will become part of an extended machinic continuum.10 A key issue not addressed by Kurzweil concerns the political and social distribution of these technologies and whether such advances will benefit all people or be the reserve of a relatively small minority; previous technological ‘revolutions’ have been, and still are, to the benefit of only a few. Kurzweil assumes that such advances will be universally embraced, though judging from recent opposition to GM foods, human genetic research and the popular demonisation of machine intelligence, this might not be as smooth as he imagines. Underpinning his view is the assumption that it is developments in advanced hardware and software that will be leading the way. However, not all technology should be reduced to a factor of computational power. There are other models of technology that run alongside the ‘heroic’ grand narrative and some of these other ‘minor’11 narratives are developing through more modest technologies that may have an equally important impact on our future development. The implementation of these minor technologies does not come with the same extravagant pronouncements, and they operate much more discreetly as everyday agents directly transforming the lives of individual subjects. One of the most significant of these technologies focuses around new ways of using networks for working and sharing information through collaborative exchange. Many such practices are often collected together under the term ‘open source’. The use of open-source collaborative endeavours originated in the technical and scientific communities as a practical way of distributing tasks and pooling resources, and the development of open computer software was particularly instrumental in the spread of this approach.12 However, such tactics have been taken up within other spheres of cultural and political life. Central to opensource methodologies from their inception was a political concept of power and knowledge distribution that forces us to question issues of authorship and copyright; through the development of creative commons licenses, this form of decentralised collaborative development is not only highly attractive but also highly effective. Protocell Architecture has essentially been set up as an open-source project; through a series of conferences, 124

exhibitions and publications, AVATAR is inviting collaboration and actively looking for partnerships. Through its own particular version of auteur theory,13 architecture has failed to embrace the potential of these ideas. The discourses of disaster versus utopia, like many future predictions, may actually say more about our own time than offer an accurate picture of what is to come, and it is dangerous to see the extremes of either of these narratives as inevitable. Attitudes to the future cannot be reduced to an either/or situation; what is needed is a coherent engagement with our use of technology that requires us to be both more efficient with resources and to utilise technological developments more effectively to enable us, as citizens, to flourish. Merely putting our faith in ‘high’ technology without recourse to the issues of social justice will perpetuate division and social unrest. Protocells and the Architecture of Late Capitalism One thing that does seem clear is that things will not carry on as they have in the most recent phase of capitalism, described by Ernest Mandel as ‘late capitalism’.14 Despite what politicians and bankers may want to tell us, there is no ‘getting back to normal’; we are clearly in new territory and we need to embrace new ways of thinking and new ways of acting. One of the most important concepts behind the development of Protocell Architecture is the apparent simplicity of protocell technology and the belief that its potential as an architectural component will be the ability to implement a locally derived variation in nearly all situations, using locally obtainable variations of the necessary materials, using local skills and expertise, and to perform specific locally directed tasks without the requirement of importing massive amounts of external infrastructure and capital. The failure of the recent speculative building boom to deliver coherent long-term strategies for our urban centres has once again exposed the vulnerability of the architectural profession to the whims of the market. What needs to be questioned is whether the goals and outcomes of contemporary architecture are simply defined by the traditional laissez-faire concepts and procurement methods of the building industry. Architects need to be looking beyond the short term to create new ideas about the development of the built environment utilising a whole range of approaches and emerging technologies responsive to future needs, rather than simply trying to get back to ‘business as usual’. The architectural profession is failing to rise to the challenges of finite resources, the development of machine intelligence and the collaborative possibilities of opensource methodologies. Where once architecture took a leading role in developing ideas that could shape the future, it is now reduced to hoping that a reactive strategy will be preferable to committing itself and getting it wrong.

Protocell Architecture has essentially been set up as an open-source project; through a series of conferences, exhibitions and publications, AVATAR is inviting collaboration and actively looking for partnerships.

Nic Clear, Protocell Architecture 01 [Form], 1200 x 600 print on lightbox, 2010 Architectural form is fixed by the material limitations of its construction techniques. Following Max Ernst’s decalcomania and Situationist bricolage techniques, Protocell Architecture imagines spaces that could be literally grown, printed or found.


What is of great interest is the way that the concepts surrounding the development of Protocell Architecture can be used to challenge traditional notions of architectural production and offer alternatives for thinking about how we develop and produce architectural ideas that do not simply rely on high-technology fixes, or predict apocalypse.

Nic Clear, Protocell Architecture 02 [Networks], 1200 x 600 print on lightbox, 2010 Architecture needs to move away from the massive tectonics of building, and to be reimagined as a network of information and experience. Drawing upon Guy Debord’s psychogeography and Bernard Tschumi’s spatial and programmatic sequences, Protocell Architecture suggests the creation of open and inclusive ‘synthetic’ spaces that exist between the virtual and the actual.


Towards a Protocell Architecture Central to the AVATAR philosophy is that architecture should be visionary; indeed, it should be utopian. However AVATAR’s collaborators are not naive idealists and are fully aware of the historical critiques of utopias.15 AVATAR calls for architects to radically rethink what they are doing and why, and Protocell Architecture is an important step in challenging existing architectural models and outcomes. AVATAR’s conception of Protocell Architecture is predicated on a number of simple principles. The first is that Protocell Architecture embraces bottom-up strategies that adapt local techniques and materials in providing a simple and sustainable material infrastructure. However, such structures would be linked into global information networks and use the power of those networks to transfer, develop and promote ideas beyond the immediate locality. A second principle would require us to change our relationship to the spaces we inhabit, since those spaces would no longer be inert and static. In effect we would be creating spaces that are living, or at the very least life-like; they would be synthetic spaces with augmented and embedded technologies, and with the implementation of artificial intelligence some would even be considered sentient. A third principle would necessitate questioning the very role of the architect and the building ‘professions’. The current organisational system of the building industry uses a very hierarchical structure. Protocell Architecture would be much more horizontal; the role of the architect would be more of an enabler and an activist whose role is to develop and communicate ideas collaboratively. Due to the implementation of open-source ideas, traditional ideas of authorship and copyright would be challenged. A fourth principle: of Protocell Architecture would involve a completely different conception of time in developing projects; short-termism needs to be reconsidered. While the issues of poverty, environmental devastation and social injustice in the global South do require immediate action – action that is quite conspicuously not being delivered – there is a greater need to have a longer global vision and one that is based on social justice. This leads to the final principle, that Protocell Architecture would need to be based on a qualitative rather than a quantitative value system, where greater concern was given to the type of society that we are trying to create rather than to simply producing more stuff, for it is clear that any development that does not have at its heart the need for greater levels of social justice, cohesion and equality is going to perpetuate the problems of the current system. The approach to Protocell Architecture outlined here is perhaps less literal than the approach taken by others on this issue. The actual mechanisms of using protocells to create

possible architectures are not of central importance, though their potential as a building material is significant. What is of great interest is the way that the concepts surrounding the development of Protocell Architecture can be used to challenge traditional notions of architectural production and offer alternatives for thinking about how we develop and produce architectural ideas that do not simply rely on hightechnology fixes, or predict apocalypse. The year 2008 was significant in human history as it was the first year that more than half the world’s population were living in cities.16 The future of our planet depends on how we deal with the built environment. Architecture, if it is to survive in any meaningful sense, must develop coherent strategies to promote development with finite resources and infinite possibilities. 1 Notes 1. Ivan Chtcheglov, ‘Formulary For A New Urbanism’, in Ken Knabb (ed), Situationist Anthology, Bureau of Public Secrets (Berkeley, CA), 1981, p 1. 2. Tony Judt, Ill Fares The Land, Allen Lane (London), 2010, p 1. 3. Advanced Virtual And Technological Architectural Research (AVATAR) was founded by Professor Neil Spiller at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, in 2004. Examples of AVATAR’s research can be found at Nic Clear has been a leading member of AVATAR since its inception. 4. Dave Hickey, quoted in Stan Allen Essays, Practice: Architecture, Technique and Representation, G+B Arts, 2000, p xiii. 5. Neil Spiller often uses the example that protocells are like a ‘salad dressing’. 6. Whereas complexity in architecture is often seen in terms of ‘formal’ complexity, largely predicated on shape-making. 7. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, ‘Introduction: Rhizome’, A Thousand Plateaus, Athlone Press (London), 1987, pp 3–25. 8. See Dennis Meadows, Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers and William W Behrens III, The Limits to Growth: A Report to the Club of Rome, Universe Books (New York), 1972. 9. Tim Jackson, Prosperity Without Growth, Earthscan (London), 2009. 10. ‘Nanobots called foglets that can manipulate image and sound waves will bring the morphing of virtual reality to the real world.’ Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near, Gerald Duckworth & Co (London), 2005. 11. Adapting the term from Deleuze and Guattari’s description of Kafka’s literature, see Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, University of Minnesota Press (Minnesota, MN), 1986. 12. The Linux operating system is the best example of software developed through open-source collaboration. 13. The original conception of auteur theory was developed in film criticism around the Cahiers du Cinema magazine in the 1950s. 14. Ernest Mandel, Late Capitalism, Humanities Press (London), 1975. Mandel describes late capitalism as existing from the 1950s representing a third phase of capitalism; it is a concept used by Fredric Jameson in Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Verso (London), 1990. 15. See Neil Spiller, Visionary Architecture: Blueprints of the Modern Imagination, Thames and Hudson (London), 2006, and Nic Clear, 1 Architectures of the Near Future, Vol 79, No 5, September/October 2009. 16. See ‘World Population Prospects: The 2007 Revision, Highlights’, Working Paper No ESA/P/WP 205, UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations (New York), p 2. Online at. esa/population/publications/wup2007. Text © 2011 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Images © Nic Clear









No 2


To be frank, I cannot see the point of inventing and engineering protocells. This is not based on a fear of the unknown. Why would you, however, want to try to invent something like that when you have biology, which is such a beautifully engineered selfassembly system that is all around you. The idea is sound. But why start from scratch when there are so many highly developed and elegant models in nature? I do agree, though, that we need a change from our society’s current paradigm of resource use.

Is there a danger that in inventing protocells we are turning away too quickly from nature’s own ‘beautifully engineered self-assembly system’? Bill Watts, a partner at Max Fordham Consulting Engineers, asks us to take another look at the possibilities of biology for creating a wholly sustainable architecture that takes its aesthetic prompts from natural forms. First let us wallow in the benefits that human endeavour has given us. One imagines that the author and most of the readers of this article want for very little and life is generally free of discomfort. Food, shelter and transport are taken for granted. The stresses of life are generally limited to mental anxieties rather than physical discomfort. This has been brought about by learning and technology. It is all being


undertaken by the same brain that humans had about 200,000 years ago.1 It is fair to say that the rate of progress has accelerated in pace over the past few hundred years in which we have moved from the horse and cart to the aeroplane; from word of mouth or letters to instant global communication. Humans have only very recently in their time on earth got their act together. Humans have always been good at using intelligence to exploit the resources in the environment we find ourselves in, and do it fast. The extinction of large wild mammals on continents coincided with the arrival of humans who, presumably, had a big part to play in this. More recently this can be seen at sea, where our hunting technology has been working and decimating its way down the size of animal from whales to large fish to smaller fish. We are now farming fish and feeding them with Antarctic krill, which are at the base of the local food chain. Our ability to outcompete the local predators of krill will mean that those animals higher up the food chain will lose out.2 Fossil fuels were the most recent – in terms of the history of humans – big find, and we are busy using these up with the same enthusiasm as we hunted whales. This cheap source of energy has driven our technological advances and allowed us to exploit other minerals in a similar manner. There is now talk of ‘peak energy’, and ‘peak resources’ suggesting that we may be running out of these resources.3 Also, there are about a sixth of the world’s population who are ‘undernourished’ and four-fifths who are not living in the world’s wealthy societies who would not recognise the rather smug view of the world the article began with. They do not share these benefits and are wanting physical comforts.4 Conferring the Western lifestyle as currently constituted on the whole of humanity will simply use up the resources more quickly. There is discussion about when these things will start to run out – in 50 years, perhaps 150 years or even 1,000 years – but logic tells us that a finite resource will run out.

Living root bridge, Cherrapunji, Northeast India below and overleaf: These living bridges, in one of the wettest places on earth, are made by the local Khasi tribes from the roots of the Ficus elastica (rubber) tree which produces a series of secondary roots from higher up its trunk.

There is also the concern that taking a resource from one convenient concentrated form and disposing of the waste product in the easiest way possible is not good for humanity. Burning oil and releasing the CO2 and other pollutants into the atmosphere is a clear example of this, but equally complex assemblies like a car or computer use many raw materials that are difficult to disassemble, and so dumping them in a landfill is the cheapest option. We are now considering how to make use of energy resources that are less finite than the fossilised biomass in the ground. The ultimate sources of this energy are nuclear fusion in the sun and fission in the earth, and the momentum of the moon’s orbit.5 Solar, either by direct radiation or indirectly

The tree’s roots are directed with betel-nut trunks that are sliced down the middle and hollowed out to create root-guidance systems. The root bridges, some of which are more than 30.5 metres (100 feet) long and take 10 to 15 years to become fully functional, are extraordinarily strong: some can support the weight of as many as 50 people at a time.

through wind and wave power, is by far the most universal and plentiful source of energy. Equally, recycling of materials will reduce the need to dig out more from the ground. This cradle-to-cradle view of resource usage in industrial society is a new paradigm that is not exploitative and lives in harmony with our planet. Laudable, but how do you get there? After the hunter-gatherer and slashand-burn existence, the next stage of human development was to control nature by enclosing it and manipulating it to the best of our abilities with agriculture. This settled existence allowed us to get organised and spend time thinking about and building technological societies. We are now at the beginning of a new stage of our relationship with nature where our

technology can be used to manipulate it much more and to our advantage. What can loosely be referred to as ‘nature’ is an incredibly well-engineered system of interlocking processes that makes use of solar energy and recycles everything. A plant will take CO2, water and a small amount of nutrients from the soil, and will construct itself using just the energy from the sun. The material plants create is used to feed the entire animal kingdom, and when all living things die they decompose and return the component parts of CO2, water and nutrients to the environment to be used again. Most human technology has been busy turning its back on nature and creating systems that positively keep it out. We do use its products, for instance wood and leather, but they are


Trees can grow to 100 metres (328 feet) or so. They can last for thousands of years. They connect to the ground with roots that grip it in a way that is far superior to a man-made pile. As vertical cantilevers they are ambitious structures dealing with substantial wind loadings.


dead. Buildings and living nature do not get on. There is no reason why we could not reverse this and make use of nature. What is the potential for using it to displace our current technology? Would we live like hobbits? To answer this one needs to think that it would be possible to make use of any feature available in nature and put it together in the same way that we currently use catalogues to choose materials and products to make buildings and other more complex products. The possibilities are well set out in the various ‘Life on Earth’ programmes on television that catalogue what nature does. They show how it configures itself to follow its own random evolutionary selection processes rather than how humans would organise it. This means a bit of imagination is required. Trees can grow to 100 metres (328 feet) or so. They can last for thousands of years. They connect to the ground with roots that grip it in a way that is far superior to a man-made pile. As vertical cantilevers they are ambitious structures dealing with substantial wind loadings. The net-to-gross accommodation areas in a tree are not good, but linking them together into a column grid will create a much stiffer structure with some space between to form a building. While the height of a tree is limited by its ability to draw water up its trunk rather than its structural integrity, a bit of engineering with some break tanks at intervals should allow us to design taller structures if we wish. Waiting a thousand years for a building would not be acceptable and some concentration of resources would be required. Just as one does not expect to

source all building materials from the site itself, one can grow components off site. Biomass grows at rates of 5 to 50 kilograms per square metre (11 to 110 pounds per 10.8 square feet) depending on what and where it is. One can imagine these components being grown in some facility and delivered to site in the living state. Once on site they can be grafted together to create the larger construction in a similar manner to the use of precast concrete panels. The potential building finishes available in nature are many and diverse. Fish scales, fur and feathers would be interesting. One might feel closer to home with the hardersurfaced versions of a calcium carbonate of a mollusc shell or the chitin of a crustacean. These come in a variety of colours and can include systems that change colour. Indeed, many animals actively control the patterns on their skins for camouflage or communication. We could do the same, but we would call them media walls. Light can be provided by bioluminescence, and movement by muscular activity. Heating, ventilation and cooling are all part of the homeostasis that living things have to organise to look after themselves. Some of the energy to drive the systems in a building may come from the sun falling on the site and being captured in photosynthesis and stored. This may not be sufficient for the needs of the building or its occupants, and both will require feeding with imported matter. The building will consume the inhabitants’ excrement and use it to help maintain itself. All this will require control, and the nervous systems that exist in all animals can do this very well.


Biology has created its own relatively universal energy system and a method of information storage, retrieval and self-assembly. On this elegant, complete and universal set of building blocks is an amazing catalogue of manifestations of its technology that are there to be used.

Human-created technology requires a great deal of information to be created, stored, processed and acted upon. Language, writing, printing and computers have accelerated the progress of this ability. It allows individuals to contribute to producing a very complex outcome, like an aeroplane. However, this knowledge and information is fragile and can be easily lost through lack of use. Computers have, in a way, made this worse by allowing everything to be stored, creating a blizzard of information in which knowledge can be hidden and lost. We are finding how humans are limited in their interaction with these superhuman memories. It may be that our intervention is not required to make use of all this information and that the self-replicating machines take over. But this would not take us towards a sustainable use of resources, as we have designed the machines to rely on a range of materials that are likely to run out. Biology has created its own relatively universal energy system and a method of information storage, retrieval and self-assembly. On this elegant, complete and universal set of building blocks is an amazing catalogue of manifestations of its technology that are there to be used. To recreate this complexity from scratch would be mad. However, we do need to understand how to make full use of such tools – as we did when we started to manipulate nature with agriculture. We have sequenced genomes, which is like reading a language you do not understand. There is not a manual on how to make the code work. But it is there to be cracked and the level of understanding needed to write the manual is happening in medical laboratories around the world. The drive is on to discover the means of correcting living systems in our bodies when they (rarely) go wrong. The imperative to find answers to control cancer and degenerative


nervous diseases such as Parkinson’s will lead us to a greater understanding of how life is controlled and how we can intervene to take over that control.6 It may well be artists who drive the enquiring minds of biologists into this field in, for example, producing artificial muscle or bioluminescent moss. What has not been said so far is that this will all be achieved by our manipulation of genetic material to create our own forms of life. This is not without its dangers as rampant DNA and new life forms can create very big problems for existing species, not least ourselves.7 However, to ignore this would be turning our backs on an ability to live with the cradle-to-cradle brief that I believe we need to set ourselves. As humans we create useful things like sharp stones, steam and nuclear power, and figure out how to use them as safely as our society requires. I do not see why we cannot do this with genetic engineering. Finally, as this is an architectural publication, I would like to explore how biological buildings would change the current aesthetic. We have grown up with straight lines that are easier for us to draw, calculate, construct, and make and fit together. Nature can do straight lines, but it optimises structures to minimise the use of resources in a way that human engineers would find very hard to design or, indeed, make. Only now do computers enable us to do the sort of finite element analysis required, but construction would be difficult with current techniques. As such, I think curves would be the norm – more Gaudí than Le Corbusier – but it would not necessarily be Middle Earth. In conclusion we are living in a readymade self-assembly technology that we are just starting to get to grips with. Why do we need to create another one? If protocell technology is not simply biology, in my view it should be. 1

Tree roots The base of the tree shows the size of the major roots that supported it. The minor roots have not been preserved, but the photos illustrate how little structure is required in the ground to support the substantial tree above.

The knurled nature of the roots will grip the ground rather than use the dead weight of a concrete footing or the friction on the side of a comparatively smooth pile.


Sally lightfoot crab (Grapsus grapsus) The chitin exoskeleton of the Sally lightfoot crab indicates the range of colourways available for a hard-wearing finish that could be used for, say, walls and sanitaryware.

Notes 1. Evidence suggests that our species originated 200,000 years ago when we all had a common ancestor: see releases/2008/04/080424130710.htm. 2. For the general situation of the world’s fish stocks, see the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO): en/stocks.pdp. Aquaculture is filling the gap in fisheries but these farmed fish also need feeding: see www.fao. org/newsroom/en/news/2006/1000383/index.html. The Antarctic krill population is now being threatened to satisfy the demand for farmed fish food and taking away the base of the natural food chain for local animals: www. 3. For a peak oil primer see: primer.php. For a wider view see Richard Heinberg, Peak Everything, New Society Publishers (Gabriola Island, BC), 2007. These describe how we have peaked in our discovery of new sources for resources and that it will follow that in time the total production of these raw materials will also fall. 4 .The FAO report on food insecurity sets out that close to a billion people out of the six billion in the world are ‘undernourished’ ( en/). However, nearly five billion of the six billion live in countries with per capita GDPs a third that of developed Western countries. This is illustrated in a McKinsey graph dating from 2002: see wfryer/148281788/. 5. The sun is heated by nuclear fusion, the reaction that occurs in a hydrogen bomb and one that physicists have been trying to recreate for a number of years in a more useful fashion as a source of energy: see articles/nuclear-fusion-in-the-sun.html. The energy from the sun is used directly to drive biological photosynthesis


Photographed here on the Galapagos Islands, the crab is found along the rocky coasts of subtropical and tropical America, Chile and Africa, and gets its name from its agility and fast pace. It feeds on algae, molluscs and other crustaceans.

to provide heat and power solar panels. The heat from the sun also creates the ‘weather’ that is the water cycle that in turn leads to rain and hydropower and convection cells that create wind and wave power. The earth’s core is kept warm by a fission reaction similar to that of current nuclear power stations and it has been proposed that the core could be used as a power source: news/2008/080515/full/news.2008.822.html. The orbit of the moon creates the asymmetrical gravitational pull that moves the world’s bodies of water around, creating tides. This energy can be captured in tidal stream turbines. The following school classnotes provide a good illustrative reference on tides: page/12336669/Class-Notes-and-Topics. 6. Medicine is about fixing living things when they go wrong. Until recently this has been about being a skilled construction worker – a plumber, carpenter, seamstress etc – and a bit of reasoned trial and error when it comes to taking drugs. We are now beginning to understand how the genetic code is interpreted, to enable the failure in reading it to be addressed and the code to be modified to cure the disease. The US-sponsored Human Genome Project sets out the issues on its website: Human_Genome/medicine/medicine/shtml. 7. Genetic warfare has always occurred in nature. Viruses are as old as any other living organism. However, in the hands of inventive mankind, new systems can be created very quickly without waiting for evolution. This is being treated seriously by the British Medical Association: thisweekssciencequestions.weaponstechnology. Text © 2011 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Images: p 128 © Bill Watts; p 129 © Timonthy Allen/Getty Images; p 130 © Pallava Bagla/Corbis; p 133 © Anna Watts; p 134 © Steve Allen/Science Photo Library


Philip Beesley is a professor in the School of Architecture at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, and creates immersive, responsive environments. His projects feature interactive kinetic systems that use dense arrays of microprocessors, sensors and actuator systems arranged within lightweight ‘textile’ structures. These environments pursue distributed emotional consciousness within synthetic and near-living systems. His current Hylozoic Ground project, developed in collaboration with mechatronics engineer Rob Gorbet and experimental designer Rachel Armstrong, was the Canadian entry at the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale.

in projects at multiple scales and in a variety of contexts consisting of full-scale fabrications, museum installations and exhibitions, theoretical proposals, competitions and commissioned design projects. The practice’s work has been published widely nationally and internationally. Iwamoto is author of Digital Fabrications: Architectural and Material Techniques (2009) published by Princeton Architectural Press as part of its Architecture Briefs series. She is an associate professor in the Department of Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, where her research focuses on digital and material techniques for architecture.

Nic Clear is a qualified architect, teaches at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, and is a member of the AVATAR research group. He ran his own company, Clear Space, for many years before setting up the now defunct General Lighting and Power whose work covered everything from architecture to pop promos and from advertising campaigns to art installations. He spends his time writing fiction and making drawings and films.

Omar Khan is an architect and Chair at the Department of Architecture at the University at Buffalo. His work spans the disciplines of architecture, installation/performance art and digital media. His research investigates the role of pervasive media and computing for designing responsive architecture and environments. This has followed different strategies including augmenting environments with sensing and actuating technologies, rethinking material substrates and assemblies, and theorising ways to develop mutualist relationships between people and their built environment. He is a co-editor of the Situated Technologies Pamphlet series published by the Architectural League of New York and a director at the Center for Architecture and Situated Technologies at the University at Buffalo. He is also co-principal at the design firm Liminal Projects.

Leroy Cronin is the Gardiner Chair of Chemistry in the School of Chemistry at the University of Glasgow. He is an EPSRC Advanced Research Fellow, Royal Society-Wolfson Merit Award Holder and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He runs a research group at Glasgow with interests in synthetic chemistry and self-assembly, hybrid electronic materials and complex chemical systems which is tackling a range of blue-sky and applied problems in chemistry, from the origin of life to the design of new energy systems. Martin Hanczyc is an associate professor at the Institute of Physics and Chemistry and the centre for Fundamental Living Technology (FLinT) at the University of Southern Denmark. He is also an honorary senior lecturer at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL. He received a bachelor’s degree in biology from Pennsylvania State University, a doctorate in genetics from Yale University, and was a postdoctorate fellow under Jack Szostak at Harvard University. He has published in the area of protocells, complex systems, evolution and the origin of life in various journals including JACS and Science. He is developing novel synthetic chemical systems based on the properties of living systems. Lisa Iwamoto is a partner of IwamotoScott Architecture, a practice formed with Craig Scott. Committed to pursuing architecture as a form of applied design research, IwamotoScott engages

Mark Morris teaches architectural design and theory at Cornell University where he is Director of Graduate Studies in Architecture. Winner of an AIA Medal for Excellence in the Study of Architecture, he studied at Ohio State University and took his doctorate at the London Consortium. He has previously taught at the Bartlett, Architectural Association, and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His essays have featured in Frieze, Contemporary, Cabinet, 2, and Domus. He is the author of Models: Architecture and the Miniature ( John Wiley & Sons, 2006) and Automatic Architecture: Designs from the Fourth Dimension (University of North Carolina, 2006). His research focuses on architectural models, scale and questions of representation. Architect and designer Neri Oxman is the Sony Corporation Career Development Professor and Assistant Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at the MIT Media Lab where she directs the Mediated Matter research group. Her group explores how

digital design and fabrication technologies mediate between matter and environment to radically transform the design and construction of objects, buildings and systems. She received her PhD in design computation as a presidential fellow from MIT, where she developed the theory and practice of material-based design computation. Prior to MIT, she received her diploma from the Architectural Association (RIBA 2) after attending the Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology and the Department of Medical Sciences at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Her work has been exhibited at MoMA and is part of the museum’s permanent collection. Her work has also been shown at the Museum of Science (Boston, MA), the FRAC Collection (Orléans, France), and the 2010 Beijing Biennale. She has received numerous awards including a Graham Foundation Carter Manny Award, the International Earth Award for Future-Crucial Design and a METROPOLIS Next Generation Award. Paul Preissner is an architect and teacher. He received his undergraduate education in architecture from the University of Illinois and his masters in architecture from Columbia University in New York. He worked for Peter Eisenman, Philip Johnson and Skidmore, Owings & Merill before establishing his own office in 2006. He is an assistant professor and the coordinator of the Master of Architecture programme at the University of Illinois-Chicago. His practice has developed an international profile through a recognised œuvre of commissioned and competition projects, all of which explore design as a highly visual relationship with its audience. The work of his practice has been published and exhibited worldwide and is part of the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. Dan Slavinsky studied architecture at Nottingham University and then at the Bartlett, UCL. He is currently still exploring contemporary experimental architecture and working with MAKE Architects. Bill Watts is a consulting building services engineer. He has been a partner at Max Fordham Consulting Engineers since 1981 and has worked on a wide range of building types. He has written a number of articles and book chapters on sustainability in buildings. From an interest in running society without fossil fuels he is developing deployable insulation systems and biological buildings, and is getting energy monitoring into the national curriculum. He is a founding partner of the Sahara Forest Project.





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Contributors include: Martin Hanczyc Leroy Cronin Mark Morris Architects include: Nic Clear IwamotoScott Paul Preissner Omar Khan Dan Slavinsky Philip Beesley Neri Oxman Topics include: new smart biological materials surrealism ruins alchemy emergence carbon capture urbanism and sustainability architectural ecologies ethics and politics


PROTOCELL ARCHTECTURE Throughout the ages, architects have attempted to capture the essence of living systems as design inspiration. However, practitioners of the built environment have had to deal with a fundamental split between the artificial urban landscape and nature owing to a technological ‘gap’ that means architects have been unable to make effective use of biological systems in urban environments. This issue of 2 shows for the first time that contemporary architects can create and construct architectures that are bottom up, synthetically biological, green and have no recourse to shallow biomimicry. Synthetic biology will have as much impact on architecture as cyberspace has had – and probably more. Key to these amazing architectural innovations is the protocell.

AD 2011 Feb  

Architectural Design