The Future of ArchItecture


This is a vital change that will occur in architectural practice necessary to respond to the anticipated worldwide migration of people into cities. The speed at which this demographic shift is likely to take place calls for the creation of architectures and their associated infrastructures that are capable of accommodating more people as well as being able to adapt to rapid changes in the way that public space is used.

By 2050 around two thirds of us will be living in megacities, which are ‘endless’ urban environments that span many hundreds of kilometers and house over 10 million densely packed people. This unruly process results in environments whose life support systems simply cannot support the number of people they serve. Nor does the way that current architectures are built enable them to adapt to the continual changes made by the constantly altering demands of residents.

Consequently megacities pose a significant threat to the lives of millions of people already through slums, crime, pollution, traffic congestion, homelessness, and waste and resource management issues.  The biggest challenge currently facing architects and urban planners is how to transform existing buildings into fit for purpose spaces. Currently old buildings are torn down to replace them with new ones from scratch that may be more ergonomically designed in terms of their carbon footprint but at the price of historic aspects of developing cities.

Upgrading existing architectures, or retrofitting, is considered an unattractive design proposition for many architects. Yet current architectural practice is firmly entrenched in fossil fuel burning industrial technologies, reflected in its contribution to our carbon footprint, topping the list of environmental offenders at a shocking forty percent.

It seems somewhat improbable to suggest that future sustainable development could be achieved through an architectural approach that requires architects to use urban materials abundantly. Yet, a new kind of technology is emerging that will characterize the twenty first century with the potential to change the impact that making a building has on the environment. ‘Living technology’ possesses some of the properties of living systems without being alive.

Notably, living technology includes a range of species of life-like materials that belong to a new field of science called synthetic biology, which is described as the ‘rational’ engineering of living systems. The tools of synthetic biology enable us to integrate nature into our environment in a way that previously was not possible and can perform useful work differently to industrial machines.

Living materias use a wide range of ‘fuels’ and produce a large variety of ‘waste’ products unlike machines, which can be architecturally useful. Living materials thrive when faced with complex situations and are innately robust, flexible and respond continually to real time environmental changes. The integration of living technology with architectural design practice can make a positive impact on the development of cities where building fabrics are active, responsive and adaptable. The strategic use of these new materials could even reverse the impact of making a new building and result in a positive impact on the environment.

Examples of these new materials are ‘protocells’, chemically programmable agents that are fuelled by the chemistry of oil and water, designed by chemist Martin Hanczyc. They are able to move around, sense and modify their environment and even communicate with each other in a way that can only be described as ‘living.’ Protocells can also undergo complex reactions, some of which are architectural.

Protocells are fuelled by the chemical energy that naturally exists at the oil-water interface and can be directed by selecting a particular internal chemical program, which they use to detect chemical cues from the environment. All of this is done without any DNA, which is the information processing system used by biology and yet they are able to create skins, shells and microstructures as a result of their chemical interactions.

For example, protocells can produce a carbonate shell from carbon dioxide dissolved in water and the material possesses additional biological-like properties as it develops, such as sensitivity to the local environment. This material is being developed into a ‘smart’ paint that is capable of growth and self-repair.

An architectural proposition to explore the unique properties of protocells speculates on the possibility of growing an artificial limestone reef under Venice. This approach that may help sustainably reclaim the city by slowing its sinking into the soft delta soils. Living technology provides an alternative approach to proposed industrial solutions such as, the Moses project, which is a series of 78 mechanical gates designed to prevent the aqua alta (high tides) from destroying Venice. This solution has been met with opposition from environmentalists who are concerned about the epic impact that the mechanical system will have on the local marine ecology.

 Living technology also has the potential to transform the chemical ecology of cities into dynamic and restorative where buildings are recycled in situ rather than destroyed and replaced. The digestion and reconstruction of existing buildings through smart chemical processes suggests that future cities will be hotbeds of extreme recycling of existing buildings that will open up new spaces that are fit for purpose and responsive to the changing environment in which they exist.

A current collaboration with Astudio architects and the AVATAR research group at the University of Greenwich is developing a scheme where whole buildings are recycled in situ leaving the structural frames of steel and concrete in place, whilst adapting higher ‘branches’ into fit for purpose spaces that are then recladded with living technologies. These exterior panels provide environmentally remedial functions using living technologies such as, algae bioreactor facades.

These aqueous vertical gardens can remove carbon dioxide that is bubbled into the aquariums through vents to produce useful biodiesel that can be used to supplement the fuel consumption of the building. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of living technology is that its design and regulation is already part of our cultural history through the practice of agriculture, and gardening so living buildings will be cultivated and shaped rather than mechanically controlled. Their complex surfaces and biological-like textiles will provide futuristic gardens to bring an augmented experience of nature into the heart of cities that is able to respond to human activities, to the seasons and even to the longer scale variations in global climate.

The protocell is a non-biological agent with life-like properties yet exhibits living characteristics. It uses general chemistry rather than DNA as its information programming system. This programming provides protocells with an active ‘metabolism’ and can therefore be instructed to make different kinds of materials. These ‘metabolic materials’ are a form of living technology may constitute a new portfolio of urban materials such as, building coatings that swell in flood water protecting existing buildings as well as self-healing materials.
Rachel Armstrong
Rachel Armstrong is Co-Director of AVATAR (Advanced Virtual and Technological Architectural Research) in Architecture & Synthetic Biology at The School of Architecture & Construction, University of Greenwich, London, a Senior TED Fellow, and Visiting Research Assistant at the Center for Fundamental Living Technology, Department of Physics and Chemistry, University of Southern Denmark.