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The announcement of Rio de Janeiro as the 2016 Olympic host city has placed Latin America on the
worlds stage. Now, for the rst 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 worlds population live in cities for the rst 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 Bogot, Enrique Pealosa.
Featured architects: Teddy Cruz, Urban-Think Tank, Jorge Juregui, Alejandro Echeverri,
MMBB and Alejandro Aravena.
Covers large-scale urban case studies, such as the revitalisation of Bogot and Medelln.
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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 connes of architecture. It is a multi-dimensional, amorphous category,
which is heavily inuenced 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 Grifths, Charles Holland, Sam Jacob, Charles Jencks
and Kester Rattenbury
Featured architects: ARM, Atelier Bow Wow, Crimson, CUP, FAT, FOA, douard
Franois, Terunobu Fujimori, Hild und K, Rem Koolhaas, John Kormelling,
muf, Valerio Olgiati
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 reect on the roots of the process and the way it shapes practices and
intellectual agendas, while helping dene 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 . No
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VOL 81, NO 2
ISSN 0003-8504
ISBN 978-0470-748282
Helen Castle
Neil Spiller and
Rachel Armstrong
Visual highlights of the issue
Its a Brand New Morning
Neil Spiller and
Rachel Armstrong
a6 Structure and the Synthesis of Life
Martin Hanczyc
| Dening New
Architectural Design
Principles with Living
Inorganic Materials
Leroy Cronin
Cronin pioneers a fundamentally
new approach to materials, scaling
up from the nanoscale.
Will Alsop
Denise Bratton
Paul Brislin
Mark Burry
Andr 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
y8 Soil and Protoplasm:
The Hylozoic Ground project
Philip Beesley and
Rachel Armstrong
o Authorship at Risk: The
Role of the Architect
Dan Slavinsky
|| Dream a Little Dream
Mark Morris
o An Architectural Chemistry
Omar Khan
6o Protocells: The Universal Solvent
Neil Spiller
68 How Protocells Can Make
Stuff Much More Interesting
Rachel Armstrong
ro6 Back to the Future
Paul Preissner
rra Line Array: Protocells as
Dynamic Structure
IwamotoScott Architecture
(Lisa Iwamoto)
raa AVATAR and the Politics of
Protocell Architecture
Nic Clear
Bettering Biology?
Bill Watts
roo Proto-Design: Architectures
Primordial Soup and the Quest
for Units of Synthetic Life
Neri Oxman
Oxman explores how material properties
are a potent intermediary for the built
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Front cover: Neil Spiller, Baroness Filaments:
Communicating Vessels, Fordwich, Kent,
2008. Neil Spiller
Inside front cover: Concept CHK Design
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 Reexive
Architecture, 2002. Whereas Neils issues on cyberspace encouraged us in the
Nets 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, articial cell systems that self-reproduce and maintain
themselves. This might be a tomorrows world that is being pregured, but it is
rmly 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 scientic 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? Shouldnt 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 scientic opportunities. The current tool kit
and limited palette of materials may just not be sufcient 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, NovemberDecember 1995
In Spillers rst 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 articial 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 inuential
Bartlett teaching unit, Unit 19, and in 2004 founded the Advanced Virtual and
Technological Architecture Research Group (AVATAR). AVATARs 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,
lm, 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 rst architect to write in any detail about nanotechnology,
as well as one of the rst to speculate on reexive 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 co-
written 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 qualications in general practice, a multimedia producer, a
science-ction 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 articial 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
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
groups research at the molecular scale.
Leroy Cronin
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 articial 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 Beesleys Hylozoic Ground installation is a textile matrix that is
responsive to its environment and to human touch.
Protocells on glass bres
Hanczyc at the Institute of Physics and
Chemistry at the University of Southern
Denmark is creating simple protocells.
Here with aid of uorescent light and
a powerful microscope he makes them
visible to the bare eye.
Martin Hanczyc G
Gravity Screens, Center for Architecture
and Situated Technologies, Department of
Architecture, University at Buffalo, New
York, 200910
Chemistrys 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.
D Omar Khan
Hylozoic Ground installation, Canadian
Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2010
A live textile matrix that provides a new model
for a synthetic but evolutionary ecology.
Philip Beesley G
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 Debords
psychogeography and Bernard Tschumis
spatial and programmatic sequences, protocell
architecture suggests the creation of open and
inclusive synthetic spaces that exist between
the virtual and the actual.
Nic Clear
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
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
architectures 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, owers, seeds, wings and shells) or through
parametric software make allusions to baroque folds, quilted
curtains and liquid ows. All this is merely the lipstick that
graces the gorillas 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 benecial 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.
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.
A protocell is the output of research programmes aimed
at the construction of a chemical life-like ensemble in the
form of an articial cell system that is able to self-maintain,
self-reproduce and potentially evolve.
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
scientic denitions. 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 conicting views
on what characterises this new technology and what it
actually means. Some declare that protocells do not yet
exist because they need to full three criteria to reach a
technical degree of life, which specically requires the
presence of a container, a metabolism and information.

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 rst fully articial 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 Venters laboratory earlier this year.

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
Rachel Armstrong, Protocell Preparation, Center
for Fundamental Living Technology, University
of Southern Denmark, Odense, 2010
top: Protocells created by the Btschli
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 articial 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 scientic objective, since
this terminology does not convey empirically executable data
that can be objectively quantied through scientic research
methods or technologies. Ellington argues that matter
simply needs to be sufciently interesting to warrant further
exploration without reference to a variety of non-empirical
value systems that are implicit in the current debates around
the denition of life.
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 dene 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 rst 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 conned 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 dened
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 simplied set of organic and inorganic chemicals
see the Protocell Manifesto on pp 2425 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 Hanczycs
protocell technology (pp 2633) is composed of a dynamic oil
droplet in water, while Leroy Cronins iChell (pp 3443), another
Protocells are the transition stage towards
the creation of fully articial cells using
a bottom-up approach to their assembly,
and are an essential part of the discovery of
living processes rather than the goal.
above: Protocells created by the Btschli
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.
top: The protocells at six weeks old.
Crystalline deposits at the oil/water
interface resemble aspects of the
mineralisation process seen in bone.
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 rst formalised by Charles Darwin
(180982) 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 nal
result. This nal result is therefore dependent, or
contingent, upon everything that came before the
un-erasable and determining signature of history.
SJ Gould, Wonderful Life, 1989
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 Linnus (170778), Antonie Philips van
Leeuwenhoek (16321723) 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 449). Omar Khan urges the need for an architectural
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.
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 509). 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 607), 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 6877).
An example of the implementation of these new materials in
architectural practice is provided in Philip Beesleys Hylozoic
Ground project (pp 7889), and Dan Slavinsky examines the
novel forms that result from these moist architectures through
a new grammar of protocell ornament (pp 909).
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 1005). 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
10611). Lisa Iwamoto views protocells as environmental
lters and architectural drivers that create new possibilities for
sustainable design interventions (pp 11221), and Nic Clear
looks at the opportunities that the ambiguous technology
of protocells presents in a broader context, reecting on a
timeline for change in architectural practice (pp 1227).
The implications of protocell technology are far-
reaching 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
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 Sol, Andrea Munteanu, Carlos Rodriguez-Caso and Javier Maca,
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 526.
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.
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 ask possess the same
internal metabolism.
opposite bottom right: Iron- and calcium
salt-based structures produced by Btschli
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 Btschli 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.
1 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.
2 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.
3 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.
4 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 reect and
interpret the full spectrum of the processes they encounter
in the real world.
5 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 specic 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.
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.
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.
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 rm 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.
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
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
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
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,
1725 Photographs by Rachel Armstrong, 2010;
p 16 Neil Spiller
26 26
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 bottom-
up synthetic biology and why a clear
analogy can be made between architecture
and the self-assembling protocell.
Martin Hanczyc
Synthetic protocell
above: A protocell-type structure produced
through the self-assembly of different lipid
molecules. Different uorescent 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
uorescent 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.
27 27
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 denition of synthetic
biology put forth by Stephane Ludec in 1914:
Just as synthetic chemistry began with the articial
formation of the simplest organic products, so biological
synthesis must content itself at rst 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.
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.
They are articial 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.
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 sufcient 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, 1954
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, 1966
When the appropriate macromolecule has been formed,
the nal and crucial stage, leading to a primitive
organism, would then be one of self-assembly.
Sidney Fox, 1968
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.

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 bre. 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.

28 28
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.
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 environment
with its future action inuenced 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 ve different chemicals, making it
economical and easy to produce; thus protocell technology may
form the basis for new smart materials
applicable to the future
of architectural design.
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.
29 29
Self-assembly of oil droplets around
a cloth bre
opposite: An optically clear solution
turns turbid over time as the self-
assembly 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).
30 330 3
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 uorescent 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.
31 31
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, signicant progress
can be made both through normal scientic 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.
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 scientic 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 ow 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
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
through chemical communication.
The protocell is also able to interact with and modify more
complex environments such as protocells on glass bres. 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.
In order to create synthetic living systems, the systems
must be open with respect to the inux and outow 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
ow 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
The ow 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?
32 32
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.
Protocells on glass bres
above: Light emitting from the uorescent
protocells (bright spots) illuminates the
glass-bre landscape. The protocells are
able to move and interact in this highly
structured three-dimensional environment.
The dimension of the imaged eld by
microscope is 1 x 1 millimetres (0.039 x
0.039 inches).
33 33
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 38790.
3. MM Hanczyc, SM Fujikawa and JW Szostak, Experimental Models of
Primitive Cellular Compartments: Encapsulation, Growth and Division,
Science 302, 2003, pp 61822.
4. G Wald, The Origin of Life, Scientic American, 1954, pp 4553.
5. J Lederberg, Current Topics in Developmental Biology, Vol 1, 1966, pp
6. SW Fox, Self-Assembly of the Protocell from a Self-Ordered Polymer,
Journal of Scientic & Industrial Research 27, 1968, pp 26774.
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 318.
8. FG Varela, HR Maturana and R Uribe, Autopoiesis: The Organization of
Living Systems, its Characterization and a Model, BioSystems, 5, 1974, pp
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 938691.
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,
Articial Life 16, 2010, pp 23343.
12. MM Hanczyc and T Ikegami, Protocells as Smart Agents for Architectural
Design, Technoetic Arts Journal, Vol 7.2, 2009, pp 11720.
13. T Toyota, N Maru, MM Hanczyc, T Ikegami and T Sugawara, Self-
Propelled Oil Droplets Consuming Fuel Surfactant, Journal of the American
Chemical Society 131 (14), 2009, pp 501213.
14. R Armstrong, Living Buildings: Plectic Systems Architecture, Technoetic
Arts Journal, op cit, pp 7994.
15. T Ikegami and MM Hanczyc, The Search for a First Cell Under the
Maximalism Design Principle, Technoetic Arts Journal, op cit, pp 15364.
Text 2011 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Images: pp 26-8, 30, 33 Martin Hanczyc,
ProtoLife Sri; pp 29, 32 Martin Hanczyc, FLinT
Leroy Cronin
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 reects 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.
Leroy Cronin, Inorganic Cells, Cronin
Group, University of Glasgow, 2010
Grid of iChells arranged so that inter-
chellular communication is possible,
allowing the exchange of information and
chemicals. The iChells here are around
0.05 millimetres in diameter.
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
scientically 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 reective
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 energy-
efcient 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 dene
this new approach, the group proposes exploiting a new class of
nanoscale inorganic molecules that can be recongured to allow
the fabrication of scalable new building materials and systems
that can emulate living systems (based upon inorganic cellular
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 structure
with living inorganic
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.

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 ltration systems to clean the local
atmosphere. The key aspect here is that not only biological
principles would be at work; we could also dene 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.

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 dened 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
37 77
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.
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 ow of liquid. The
tube diameter is around 0.001 millimetres
and itself is capable of owing 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 airwater interface in a
beaker of chemicals.
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.
fabrication system whereby crystals of inorganic mineral are
refabricated into tubular architectures many thousands of
microns long, with well-dened paths and with tube diameters
of only around 10 microns. These self-growing architectures
extremely interesting since they can respond to the physical and
chemical environment; they can grow as bres with vast aspect
ratios, and have a well-dened 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 articial inorganic
living technology. Although the benets are clear, there are
also dangers that the technology will be misunderstood, abused
or have a negative environmental impact (the most signicant
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 denition 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 specication 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
articial 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
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.
42 42 42
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 congurable and can range
from 0.01 to 10 millimetres.
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.
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 inexible as before, but instead an adaptive, living,
morphologically transient space that could develop over
time in a profoundly more exible 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
1. D-L Long and L Cronin, Towards Polyoxometalate-Integrated Nano
Systems, Chemistry A European Journal, Vol 12, 2006, pp 3698706.
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
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 5566.
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 4752.
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 83689.
6. HN Miras, GJT Cooper, D-L Long, H Bgge, A Mller, C Streb and L Cronin,
Unveiling the Transient Template in the Self-Assembly of a Molecular Oxide
Nano-Wheel, Science, Vol 327, 2010, pp 724.
Text 2011 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Images Leroy Cronin, The University of
Glasgow, 2010
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 benet 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
specication for the materials and the design brief would be
presented as the evolutionary tness 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 tness 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 functionaesthetic aspect is equally intriguing. Self-
healing 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
JJ Grandville ( Jean Ignace Isidore Grard)
The Dragon

Grandvilles fantasy of the microscopic is equal parts terrible and

humorous. The protocell deserves similar treatment.
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.
Mark Morris
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 nds safe harbour in the minute. Gaston
Bachelard makes much of this partnership in The Poetics of Space
where he describes the efcacy 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.
This theme of domination has to do with condence and
creativity when imagining the small-scaled. Bachelard stipulates
that this intellectual pleasure is rooted to one end of the scale
spectrum, citing ones 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.
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 sufce 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.
This point of view opens up Bachelards 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 lm, 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 nds 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:
Richard Fleischer,
Fantastic Voyage
lm still, 20th Century Fox,
The Proteus runs into trouble along its bodily journey. The lm was
extraordinary in terms of cinematography and lavish set production to
achieve the scale effects.
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
Grant: Wait a minute! They cant shrink me.
General Carter: Our miniaturizer can shrink anything.
Grant: But I dont want to be miniaturized!
General Carter: Its just for an hour.
Grant: Not even for a minute!
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 lm ends with the group
escaping through an eye, expelled in a teardrop, just in time. In
the novel, Asimov corrected the lms misstep in leaving the
wrecked Proteus, which would, presumably, also return to full
scale and kill the scientist, behind in the body.
The submarines 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:
articial, indenitely powered, locomotive. By virtue of its on-
board computer, it also holds memory. The Proteus is introduced
to the scientists body in an injected saline solution, just as a
protocell might be. When the laser is damaged, the crew rebuild
it using the ships radio parts; so the ship had the ability, if not
to self-replicate, to mutate and adapt. The crew function as
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 Simpsons 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 micro-
cultures 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 nger
slipped. The story surely takes some inspiration from Theodore
Sturgeons award-winning 1941 novelette, The Microcosmic
Sturgeons 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 benets claiming their innovations as
his own, merely scaling them up. Architecture is part of these
narratives ability to represent culture and link the small-
and 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 protocells 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?
Bernard Picart
Aristeus Compels Proteus to Reveal his Oracles
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.
Contemporary artists like Willard Wigan and Nicola 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 it between unaided vision and magnication 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 denition about tiny
creatures and fairy worlds, but their smallness culminates with
stories like Tom Thumb or Thumbelina where the effort is to
dwindle human gures to a size where they can interact with
small animals as full-scale surrogates; mice for horses and so
on. Swifts Lilliput is exceptional for its architectural focus, the
city described in rich detail with specic dimensions. Leaving
the visible behind, there are several possibilities from Dr Suesss
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 Midi-
chlorians 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 scientic or
technical discovery, there must be some cultural preparation for
it. For example, the architecture critic Mark Cousins refers to
Claude Mellans Veil of St Veronica (1649) as an artistic conceit
as being a harbinger of photography by centuries.
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.
JJ Grandville
The Creator Blowing Bubbles

No image comes closer to the iconography of protocell creation. Note

the inclusion of the she-devil gure as co-author.
Vilhelm Pedersen

The smaller side of fairy tales; rarely do they

tread beyond this size dynamic.
Claude Mellan
The Veil of St Veronica

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
architectures association with the sensibility of the uncanny,
speculating on the unhomely as a modern architectural
The hotel in Stephen Kings The Shining
is host
to ghosts, but is itself (its spaces and surfaces) possessed of
malevolent intelligence. The walls seem to shift colour and
ow with blood, windows block out sunlight, electric lights
icker, doors seal shut; all anticipated capabilities of smart
materials. Michael Crightons Prey
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 Miyazakis Howls 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 Rohes 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 cultures anticipation of that technologys effects evidenced by
surrogate and speculative cultural production (painting, writing
and so on), it must be recognised that there is some preguring
of protocell architecture in hand, mostly in the category of
fantasy narratives including science ction. 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 rear-
view mirror and, most importantly, one that implicates more
architects who are most happy visualising the visualisable. 1
.. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space [La potique de lespace,
1958], trans Maria Jolas, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1994, p
a. Ibid, p 163.
. Ibid, p 150.
. Fantastic Voyage, Director Richard Fleischer, Twentieth Century
Fox, 1966.
. Theodore Sturgeon, The Microscopic God, Astounding Science
Fiction, Street and Smith (New York), April 1941.
6. Claude Lvi-Strauss, The Savage Mind, Weideneld and
Nicolson (London), 1966, p 23.
,. Mark Cousins, Public lecture, Architectural Association, 26
October 2001.
. See Anthony Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the
Modern Unhomely, MIT Press (Cambridge, MA), 1992.
. See Stephen King, The Shining, Doubleday (New York), 1977.
.c. 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
JJ Grandville
Gulliver discovers Laputa, the city on the ying island

Here, there and everywhere, a whole city materialises and oats away
leaving us to wonder. Like Lilliput, Laputa is meticulously described
by Jonathan Swift in Gullivers Travels (1726).
Omar Khan
Protocell technology has a precedent in the innovative use of plastic in the 1960s,
when chemistry rst 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.
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.
Omar Khan, Gravity Screens, Center for
Architecture and Situated Technologies,
Department of Architecture, University at
Buffalo, New York, 200910
opposite: Detail of the connections
between the different layers of hard and
soft rubber.
In a special 1960 issue of Progressive
Architecture devoted to plastics,
H Kriegers concluding article Future:
Role of the Chemist forecast a signicant
contribution from chemistry in the future of
architecture. While it lamented the chemists
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.

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 articially
made. Architects were well accustomed
to working within the xed 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 specic
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 inuence on the architectural
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).
imaginary has therefore come through the
fascinating performativity of its products
and the molecular structures that make
them possible. Crystals, uids, plastics and
rubbers all demonstrate mutable and evolving
properties that emerge out of well-dened
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),
recognised two characteristics of a responsive
architecture. The rst was what he termed
soft, referring to the architectures
material and information substructures.
Soft materials, like inatable 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 architectures 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
Hilbertzs cybertecture provides one of the
clearest conceptual frameworks for such a
chemical architecture.
Hilbertzs 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 reected in current 3-D fabrication
technologies like fused deposition, stereo-
lithography and laser sintering, but their
role within a holistic design framework is
currently not as well articulated.
Hilbertzs 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.
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, uids,
plastics and rubbers all
demonstrate mutable
and evolving properties
that emerge out of
well-dened and easily
describable molecular
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

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.
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.
Soft and Elastic: The Chemistry of
Responsive Materials
The Center for Architecture and Situated
Technologies at the University at Buffalo
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
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 projects 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.
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: Unlleted surface. A fully
connected screen using the same plywood
cells goes from at to twisted in response
to moisture. A detail of the screen shows
how multiple connections are subsumed in
the overall pattern.
Gravity Screens (200910) explores the elastic
potential of synthetic rubbers for architectural
surfaces. Elastomers exhibit two unique properties
that are relevant for adaptable constructions.
Omar Khan, Gravity Screens, Center for
Architecture and Situated Technologies,
Department of Architecture, University at
Buffalo, New York, 200910
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.
below: Elasticity studies of different
screen types that explore their formal
transformation from at 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 (200910) explores
the elastic potential of synthetic rubbers for
architectural surfaces. Elastomers exhibit
two unique properties that are relevant for
adaptable constructions. The rst is non-
linear elasticity which pertains to rubbers
capacity for extreme deformation without
material failure. The second is hyper-
elasticity which describes its ability to return
to its original shape after stretching. In
order to modulate rubbers 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 rubbers 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 signicance 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 dened responsive
architecture since Cedric Prices Fun Palace
of 1965, requires multiple moving parts
with complicated connections and energy-
consuming machines to operate them.
Chemistrys 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
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 signicantly, 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 98103.
5. Ibid, p 99.
6. Ibid, p 100.
7. Hilbertz presents the example of the spiders web
which is formed by changing the quantity and quality of
glandular secretion relative to the webs 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 quantiable
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.

Here hold out your hand. He had the
test tube poised over her hand. Palm
up, stupid.
Is it safe?
Its better than safe.
Jazir opened the tube and poured out
a large globule.
Its horrible.
A sllght burning sensation. It soon
No I mean its greasy. And oh
It tickles!
From Jeff Noon, Nymphomation,
1997, p 142

Wetware, Architecture and Bespoke
For centuries the simple rule for making
highly nished architecture or products has
been to make it somewhere other than from
its point of use the medieval masons yards,
the baroque sculptors 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
products 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 setting-
out 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
quantiable 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-specic lacking in
difference and ghting 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 nely honed, yet is
fecund, highly sensitive and safe.
Living Technology
Allow me. Jazir picked up a syringe,
which he lled with the blurb juice off
Daisys palm.
Now, watch He dragged Daisy
over to his bedroom door.
You wanted me to open the door,
right? OK, try the door.
Its locked. You locked it
Jazir shoved the syringe into the
keyhole. He pressed the plunger. Give
it ten seconds
Try it. Go on.
Daisy looked at Jazir like hed gone
mad, a clear possibility. Then she
turned the doorknob. It swung open,
nice and easy
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
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.

Neil Spiller, Communicating Vessels, Sturry and Fordwich, Kent, and
distributed input and output sites elsewhere including Paris and Rome, 19982010
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 reexive inputs, outputs and symbolism.
The status of the outputs and inputs is always in ux and often choreographed by chance.
Specically, 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 owers, 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 ight 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 scientic
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 recongure 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 Duchamps The Bride
stripped bare by her bachelors, even The
Large Glass (191315), Max Ernsts 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.
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 bottomup formation of
the spherical lipid membrane. Contemporary
developments in the scientic 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.
of synthetic biological structures. Here they
are called the grease and are created by
a biotechnological factory called Little Soft
Machinery. Little Soft Machinery isnt 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.
Lets 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
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, unrened
state to a perfect and puried 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 Mans search for perfection of spirit.
Alchemy has been practised by many inuential 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
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 Knowledge
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, dont
you think? Jaz Vaz!
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 (193641), Paysage fautif
(Wayward or Faulty Landscape) (1946)
was a spurt of seminal uid on Astralon
backed with black satin.
Jeff Noon is much more explicit about
this connection. Ive found of these masses
[he calls them vaz but they could equally
be protocells] oating around. Sometimes
they ght 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.
The Communicating Vessels project
speculates on the protocell and other forms

Rachel Armstrong
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
articially 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.
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 asks
to produce a colourful landscape of
crystals at the oil/water interface that
gradually became petried over the
duration of the exhibition.
71 771 71
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 ll 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 xes 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 once-
malleable 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
Schrdinger (18871961) dened living matter as that which
actively avoids the decay into equilibrium (1944)
and occurs
when dynamic processes reach their lowest energy states when
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.
opposite: Two Btschli protocell asks
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.
below: Close-ups of the structure of the
Btschli protocells.
72 7
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
congurations 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 uid 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 space
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 context
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, articial fertilisers, maintenance,
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
benet 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 ow 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 inuence 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
73 33
different sets of instructions and regulatory pathways to those
systems that are orchestrated by DNA, the information-
processing system that typies 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 Btschli 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,
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.
opposite: These Btschli 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.
below: The chemistry of the ask and the
metabolism of the Btschli protocells are
inuenced 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.
75 5 775 75
. . . 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.
opposite: Close-ups of the structure of the
Btschli 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
ask. This protocell system xes 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 ask.
bottom: The protopearl asks 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 ask.
76 76
The group behaviour of protocell
interactions in the laboratory suggests
a radically different view of how living
systems could organise.
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 asks 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.
below right: Btschli 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: Btschli 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.
77 77
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 specic, 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, x 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 ne network of greyish-white laments starts to knit together
in the gel with the appearance of a spongy bone. The sun comes
out and the laments appear to be thickening deeper in the
hole, lling the darkest recesses rst 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 rmly 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
ll a greater or lesser volume as conditions change, the laments
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 laments that have been laid down by the rst
population. You add the solution over the gel base where it seeps
into its matrix and slowly, very slowly the laments 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
1. E Schrdinger, What is Life?, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge),
1944, p 70.
2. New Scientist, Water bears are rst animal to survive space vacuum;
survive-space-vacuum.html, accessed October 2010.
3. Rachel Armstrong, Living Buildings: Plectic Systems Architecture,
Technoetic Arts, Vol 7, No 2, 2009, pp 7994.
Text 2011 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Images Photographs by Rachel Armstrong, 2010
Philip Beesley
Rachel Armstrong
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 protocell incubator. Pulsing light
responds to visitors touching whisker-sensors
suspended below the glass asks. Protocell
formation is inuenced by small increments
of energy transmitted by the pulses.
Philip Beesley, Hylozoic Ground installation,
Canadian Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2010
Detail of glass ask containing the protocell
incubator, including oil stratum above and
diethyl phenyl phthalate below.
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
rst stages of self-renewing functions that might take root
within a future architecture. This environment, Canadas 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.
The rst of the
series was commissioned for the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
in 20078 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 environments ingredients,
inuence dynamic processes that respond to external presence,
and review these ongoing modications 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 soils 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,

Hylozoic Ground is an environment
organised as a textile matrix
supporting responsive actions and
living technologies, conceived as
the rst stages of self-renewing
functions that might take root
within a future architecture.
Articial 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.
Philip Beesley, Hydrozoic Soil: Mduse
Field, Recto-Verso Collaborative, Mduse
Centre, Quebec City, 2010
Filter layers are organised like
atmospheric weather systems within the
Hylozoic Soil environment.
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 ltering 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 asks, 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
uids 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 articial cells that share some of the
characteristics of natural living cells are arranged in a series
of embedded incubator asks. Bursts of light and vibration,
created by the responses of visitors standing within the
work, inuence the growth of the protocells, catalysing the
formation of vesicles and inducing secondary deposits of
benign materials. Sensors monitor the health of the growing
asks and give feedback that governs the behaviour of the
interactive system surrounding the viewer. The ux 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 articial 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.
These cells
therefore exhibit some of the properties of living systems, even if
not considered by researchers to be truly alive.
Articial 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 uxes 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).
Incubators nest in the responsive Hylozoic lter 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 inuence each others 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 rst laid and then
reshaped through resorption.
Carbon-capturing protopearls are also located within the
responsive Hylozoic lter layer, alternating with incubator
systems. These function as carbon-xing organs for the
Hylozoic soil matrix. Like biological organs, protopearl asks
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 asks 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 lter (to remove organic matter from the Venice
canal water) and a simple gravity-fed circulation system. The
asks reveal the presence of carbon dioxide and minerals in
the solution by creating material building blocks when their
specically designed metabolism comes into contact with
carbon dioxide. Carbonate crystals gather within the organ
asks 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
from the living functions demonstrated by protocells. Their
afnity 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 ne, 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 ow,
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 inuence. 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 environments soil matrix as tissue (incubators),
organs (protopearl asks, 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.

The linking systems that form scaffolds for the bladders
and asks 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.

Pure, distilled spheres and pyramids from Platos 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
The organising nuclei that are scattered
throughout the Hylozoic environments soil matrix
as tissue (incubators), organs (protopearl asks,
traube membranes) and associated systems
(hygroscopic islands) offer a model of how
complexity and scale can be related.
Philip Beesley, Hylozoic Ground installation,
Canadian Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2010
below: Detail of lter layers. Suspended lter
clusters emit chained light pulses, catalysing
formations within protocell asks.
bottom: Light pulses pass between
protocell glass asks, following networked
communication paths.
below: Entry view. Flexing, breathing
meshworks populated by humidity-lled elds
of bladders and kinetic pores frame a tangled
series of small public gathering spaces.
bottom left: Protocell incubator system.
Ferrouid vesicles are suspended between
oil and diethyl phenyl phthalate liquid layers.
bottom right: Protopearl ask system.
Harmless, pearl-like carbonate deposits result
from the processing of Venice canal water by
protocells housed within the ask system.
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 lters driven by
shape-memory alloy mechanisms. Fields of
humidity-bearing bladders are suspended
above, and corrugated diagrid meshwork
canopies support the assembly.
bottom left: Extended traube cell system.
Extended traube cells would spread over
geotextile scaffolds in the next generation
of Hylozoic series.
below left: Slow ripples of movement
cascade out from lters and columns,
responding to electronic signals from
proximity and touch sensors embedded
within the system.
below right: Detail of lters, columns
and canopy system. Meshed networks of
lters suspended below hyperbolic skeletal
canopies are embedded with protocell
incubator asks. Trickling lagoon water
irrigates the system.
opposite: Light pulses pass through
neighbouring asks in waves. The asks
are surrounded by sieve-like fronds that
slowly draw air through the layer.
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 eforescing, redolent with chorusing oceans of
growth to come. Soils inexorable owering genesis of matter
building upon matter overwhelms and saturates space, riddling
voids and boiling and aming outwards. The ambivalence latent
within soil makes it a monstrous doppelgnger 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
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, Articial
Life 9, 2003, pp 267316.
4. Terence W Deacon, EmergenceThe Hole at the Wheels 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 11151.
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
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 lter layers. A traube cell is an articial,
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 asks and
exible tubing, owing 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 fullment 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 soils lumpen, sodden masses counter any
enlightened world of social construction. Soil desires collapse.
Soils inexorable infolding of matter within matter maximises
surface area and eliminates space, compacting interminably
Dan Slavinsky
Dan Slavinsky, In Arcadia at the End of
Time, Bartlett School of Architecture,
UCL, 200910
The perspective shows the broad sweep
of the park and the composition of its
architectural pieces, and vicariously the
spatial ows 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
with practical structural systems. As materials
become more exible, 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 inuential 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.
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 rst
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
scientic 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 scientic 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 air 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
innite number of ways. This innity 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.

Technology would no longer be used to create components
that divide the space (walls, oor slabs and so on) instead
technology will become the building. 1
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 Afnity, The Technoetic Arts Journal, op cit. p 193.
Dan Slavinsky, In Arcadia at the End of Time,
Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 200910
The proposal speculates on the possibility of a exible
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
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, 200910
The Bride of Denmark, the private pub in the basement of
No 9 Queen Annes Gate, London, under the former ofces
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 Annes 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 uidity of water, and becomes an
exercise in soft ornament and one of the
architectural centrepoints of the project.
Text 2011 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
Images Dan Slavinsky
Neri Oxman
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 dene her research.
Neri Oxman, Tropisms, Massachusetts
Institute of Technology (MIT), 2006
Design for an inatable 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 ination.
Questions regarding the units of digital design
have been at the centre of the discipline
since its inception.
From masonry bricks to
multidimensional voxels, architectural design
is possessed with the search for synthesis.
Motivated by new scientic 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 generation
and to the
emergence of life on earth, designers are now
seeking the synthetic design counterpart to
basic science.
Pertaining to a genes-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
In this approach, a units-based
strategy is commonly devised and encrypted
in order to correlate between forms 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
According to this approach, material
properties are considered intermediary
agents mediating environmental impetus
with material response,
such that
inanimate matter might contain the
information for its behaviour and evolution,
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-specic, light-refracting surface. All cells
are computed as a consistent tissue corresponding to
local conditions through the local manipulations of each
uniquely dened 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 macro-
scale prototypes by computing hypothetical physical
responses. An object-oriented nite element application
is used to determine material behaviour according to
assigned properties and performance such as stress,
strain, heat ow, 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 tissues spatial
texture in different ways. The resulting model is six-
dimensional and includes 2-D information (X, Y), out of
plane deformation (Z), elastic stress (S), strain (S) and
temperature ux (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.
not unlike protocells. This method assumes
complete synergy between geometry,
physical matter and energy.

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.
systems assume that each and every cell
comprising the whole is in constant ux 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 denition
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 dened units comprise within
the scope of illustrated experiments the
simplest method for achieving bottom-up
design. These units are parametrically dened
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 inate and
deate 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 dened 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 eld problem.
When inverted, these analytical tools
may be put into synthetic purposes of form
generation. Mesh-free methods can then be
viewed as continuous elds 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 articial 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.
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 at 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 unit
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 denition
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 nd the formula to
describe matter as generative. To do this,
they must rst 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
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 1229.
2. Philip P Wiener (ed), Spontaneous Generation,
Dictionary of the History of Ideas, Charles Scribners
Sons (New York), 1973.
3. C Zimmer, Origins: On the Origin of Eukaryotes,
Science 325 (5941), August 2009, pp 6668.
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
8.The human bone is a great example illustrating the
integration of growth, analysis and remodelling as an
integrated process.
9. A maxel is dened as a physical voxel. See Material-
Based Design Computation, op cit.
Text 2011 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Images Neri Oxman
106 106
Paul Preissner
107 107
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.
108 108
There is something fascinating
about science. One gets
such wholesale returns of
conjecture out of such a triing
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 calcication 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
gured out how to deal with its looks (and
a number of us architects have decided
we like it!), because we have been goong
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 scientic and articial-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.
109 109
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.
110 110
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
buildings expression, which results in an
arrangement of variety, but an absence of
visceral difference.
Homogeneous Homogeneity Paris
top: The militant manner in which
each building and identity replicates
the other produces a recognisable yet
imperceptible sensation.
City Strategies: Older Zurich
opposite left: Each city, regardless of age,
now offers enormous possibilities for visual
City Strategies: Newer Tokyo
opposite right: Through symbiotic
relationships to the contemporary
cityscape, proto-effects can offer stark
feelings resonant of otherwise soulless
111 111
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 havent 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, reecting backwards towards the
shapes of the future. 1
Text 2011 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Images Paul Preissner/Paul
Preissner Architects
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 (rst 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
decit 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 nd they are organised into
two types of the same thing: visually
homogeneous, regardless of individual
Lisa Iwamoto
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IwamotoScott Architecture, Line Array, 2010
opposite: Overall view of protocell
below: Detail view showing aggregation of
protocells along lines of structure.
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 self-
organising structural matrix. In particular, the
project speculates on how materials might
behave morphologically to varying surface
geometries in a uid and responsive manner.
Structure depends on the
interdependency of geometry and material.
Historically, architects have employed
geometrically dened 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.
IwamotoScotts previous work examined
how to produce such synthetic results from
intentionally contradictory criteria. Voussoir
Cloud (2008) inverted the conventional
material denition 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 conguration of the whole.
Structure depends on the
interdependency of geometry
and material. Historically,
architects have employed
geometrically dened elements
such as vaults, domes, thin
shells, tensile membranes and
cable nets to unite surface
structure with material.
Like lines of magnetic force, structural forces nd 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
recongure to accommodate the revised surface stresses.
IwamotoScott Architecture, Edgar Street
Towers, Greenwich South Vision Study,
New York, 2009
opposite: Street-level view of eastwest
street passage and bre-optic core.
below: Detail of the atrium structure and
terrariums for the Edgar Street Towers.
IwamotoScott Architecture, Line Array, 2010
below: Rened line deformation according
to structural nite element analysis.
opposite top: Initial line deformation
according to changing vault geometry,
surface and supports.
opposite centre: Vault taxonomies. opposite bottom: Preliminary cell study.
In a similar fashion, Line Array leverages
such computational techniques to organise
cellular modules in a uctuating, as needed
basis. Using the principle of magnetic elds
to generate its formal and material logic, the
cells act similarly to iron shavings in three-
dimensional force-eld visualisations. They
respond with simple attraction at the micro-
scale that corresponds to forces at the macro-
scale. Like lines of magnetic force, structural
forces nd 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 recongure 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 dened 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 denition of the cell is drawn
from crystalline geometry whose three-
dimensional aggregation varies from densely
packed to a loose lattice. The cells create
oriented areas of beam-like thickness, taut
surfaces and ruptures. The nal 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 recongurable by nature, and
it is this malleable character that suggests
the possibility of continual reformation such
that the surface itself becomes a uctuating,
non-static entity. The architectural
connection between protocells and form
are described here largely to suggest the
potental for many others. 1
Text 2011 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Images Courtesy
IwamotoScott Architecture
Detail view showing aggregation of
protocells along lines of structure.
Nic Clear
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
Spillers 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 eld 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
Ivan Chtcheglov, Formulary For a New
Urbanism, 1953
We know what things cost but have no idea what
they are worth.
Tony Judt, Ill Fares The Land, 2010
AVATARs 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.
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 ction and ction science.
Protocell architecture seeks to speculate on the ideas and
research initiated in articial 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 scientic
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.
Apart from wondering exactly what Hickey means by
work, this is a very useful denition. 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,
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.
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 Flix Guattari may have
favoured the rhizome as their epistemological model,

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 x 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 innite growth
with nite resources;
indeed, some commentators have
even questioned whether growth is in fact an essential
component of our society.
Despite the apocalyptic nature
of some current planetary predictions, it is also clear
that technological development and, in particular, the
development of articial 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
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 benets
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.
A key issue not addressed by Kurzweil concerns the
political and social distribution of these technologies and
whether such advances will benet all people or be the
reserve of a relatively small minority; previous technological
revolutions have been, and still are, to the benet 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

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 signicant 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 scientic
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
However, such tactics have been taken up within
other spheres of cultural and political life. Central to open-
source 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,
exhibitions and publications, AVATAR is inviting
collaboration and actively looking for partnerships. Through
its own particular version of auteur theory,
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 efcient with resources and to utilise
technological developments more effectively to enable us,
as citizens, to ourish. 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.
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 specic
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 dened 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 nite resources, the development of machine
intelligence and the collaborative possibilities of open-
source 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.
Nic Clear, Protocell Architecture 01 [Form],
1200 x 600 print on lightbox, 2010
Architectural form is xed by the material
limitations of its construction techniques.
Following Max Ernsts decalcomania and
Situationist bricolage techniques, Protocell
Architecture imagines spaces that could be
literally grown, printed or found.
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 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 Debords
psychogeography and Bernard Tschumis
spatial and programmatic sequences, Protocell
Architecture suggests the creation of open and
inclusive synthetic spaces that exist between
the virtual and the actual.
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 xes, or
predict apocalypse.
Towards a Protocell Architecture
Central to the AVATAR philosophy is that architecture
should be visionary; indeed, it should be utopian. However
AVATARs collaborators are not naive idealists and are fully
aware of the historical critiques of utopias.
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.
AVATARs conception of Protocell Architecture is
predicated on a number of simple principles. The rst 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 articial
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 nal 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 signicant. 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 xes, or predict apocalypse.
The year 2008 was signicant in human history as it
was the rst year that more than half the worlds population
were living in cities.
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 nite resources and
innite possibilities. 1
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 AVATARs 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
6. Whereas complexity in architecture is often seen in terms of formal
complexity, largely predicated on shape-making.
7. Gilles Deleuze and Flix Guattari, Introduction: Rhizome, A Thousand
Plateaus, Athlone Press (London), 1987, pp 325.
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 Guattaris description of Kafkas
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 lm
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
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.
Text 2011 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Images Nic Clear
Is there a danger that in inventing protocells we are
turning away too quickly from natures 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.
Bill Watts
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 self-
assembly 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
societys current paradigm of resource use.
undertaken by the same brain that humans
had about 200,000 years ago.
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 nd 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 sh
to smaller sh. We are now farming sh 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.

Fossil fuels were the most recent in
terms of the history of humans big nd,
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.
Also, there
are about a sixth of the worlds population
who are undernourished and four-fths who
are not living in the worlds wealthy societies
who would not recognise the rather smug
view of the world the article began with.
They do not share these benets and are
wanting physical comforts.
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 nite
resource will run out.
First let us wallow in the benets
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
11 111111
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 CO

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 difcult
to disassemble, and so dumping them in a
landll is the cheapest option.
We are now considering how to make use
of energy resources that are less nite than
the fossilised biomass in the ground. The
ultimate sources of this energy are nuclear
fusion in the sun and ssion in the earth,
and the momentum of the moons orbit.

Solar, either by direct radiation or indirectly
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 slash-
and-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 CO
, 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 CO
, 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
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.
The trees 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.
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
congures 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 nishes available
in nature are many and diverse. Fish scales,
fur and feathers would be interesting. One
might feel closer to home with the harder-
surfaced 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 camouage 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
sufcient 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.
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
nding 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 nd
answers to control cancer and degenerative
nervous diseases such as Parkinsons will
lead us to a greater understanding of how life
is controlled and how we can intervene to
take over that control.
It may well be artists
who drive the enquiring minds of biologists
into this eld in, for example, producing
articial 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.
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 gure
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
t together. Nature can do straight lines,
but it optimises structures to minimise
the use of resources in a way that human
engineers would nd very hard to design
or, indeed, make. Only now do computers
enable us to do the sort of nite element
analysis required, but construction would be
difcult with current techniques. As such,
I think curves would be the norm more
Gaud than Le Corbusier but it would not
necessarily be Middle Earth.
In conclusion we are living in a ready-
made 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
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.
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.
1. Evidence suggests that our species originated
200,000 years ago when we all had a
common ancestor: see
2. For the general situation of the worlds sh stocks, see
the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization
en/stocks.pdp. Aquaculture is lling the gap in sheries
but these farmed sh 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 sh 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 ve 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
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
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 earths core is
kept warm by a ssion 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 worlds 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:
6. Medicine is about xing 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 modied to cure the
disease. The US-sponsored Human Genome Project sets out
the issues on its website:
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
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
Sally lightfoot crab (Grapsus grapsus)
The chitin exoskeleton of the Sally lightfoot
crab indicates the range of colourways
available for a hard-wearing nish
that could be used for, say, walls and
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.
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.
Nic Clear is a qualied 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 ction and making drawings and lms.
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 bachelors 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
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
practices 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.
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 rm Liminal Projects.
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 museums permanent collection.
Her work has also been shown at the Museum
of Science (Boston, MA), the FRAC Collection
(Orlans, 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 ofce 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 prole
through a recognised uvre 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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What is Architectural Design?
Founded in .c, Architectural Design (2) is an inuential and
prestigious publication. It combines the currency and topicality of a
newsstand journal with the rigour and production qualities of a book.
With an almost unrivalled reputation worldwide, it is consistently at
the forefront of cultural thought and design.
Each title of 2 is edited by an invited guest-editor, who is an
international expert in the eld. Renowned for being at the leading
edge of design and new technologies, 2 also covers themes as diverse
as: architectural history, the environment, interior design, landscape
architecture and urban design.
Provocative and inspirational, 2 inspires theoretical, creative and
technological advances. It questions the outcome of technical
innovations as well as the far-reaching social, cultural and
environmental challenges that present themselves today.
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Contributors include:
Martin Hanczyc
Leroy Cronin
Mark Morris
Architects include:
Nic Clear
Paul Preissner
Omar Khan
Dan Slavinsky
Philip Beesley
Neri Oxman
Topics include:
new smart
biological materials
carbon capture
urbanism and sustainability
architectural ecologies
ethics and politics
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 articial
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 rst 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.