Brave New Decade – Part 2

By Joan Sullivan

Following up on last month’s post about Rachel Armstrong, the polymath professor of Experimental Architecture at Newcastle University and coordinator of the multi-country Living Architecture project, I want to take a closer look at the role of artists in this metabolic design project. By definition collaborative and trans-disciplinary, Living Architecture aims to cut our umbilical dependence on fossil fuels by re-introducing microbes back into our homes, our buildings and our cities.

Lamenting that “waste materials do not have a high cultural status” in our society, Armstrong explained in an email that “modern design in the Reign of Hygiene regards microbes as ‘dirt’ to be eliminated by wipe-clean ceramics and household cleaning products.” 

But according to Armstrong, “This attitude needs to be turned around if there is to be meaningful uptake and sustained adoption of systems like Living Architecture that deal with our wastes.” To change the public’s negative view of human and household waste, the Living Architecture project collaborates with artists and architectural designers to “imagine the choreography between humans and microbes.” 

“Waste materials do not have a high cultural status.”

Rachel Armstrong

For those who need a quick intro, here’s how Armstrong described living architecture in a recent interview :

Very simply, living architecture is about constructing spaces that possess some of the properties of living things. I see “living” as also inhabiting, so an environment that enriches the quality of living inside it. Not necessarily by being alive or living itself but by creating the possibility of flourishing and happiness – augmenting positive encounters. So “living” is really the modes of inhabitation within a space as much as it is a technology that connect the structures and choreography to the much broader environment and ecology in which the architecture is situated.

The video below illustrates one of the many possible applications of living architecture: replacing interior wall partitions in our bathrooms and kitchens with self-contained microbial “living walls” that could transform liquid human waste (urine and grey water) into usable products such as electricity, biomass, oxygen and polished water. The latter would be recycled back into our toilets, sinks and showers to reduce overall household water consumption.

To some, this may seem like science fiction. To me, living architecture is the kind of radical transformative thinking required to help us survive – and thrive – in the Anthropocene. Living architecture is part of a rapidly evolving global design renaissance that is demonstrating, in so many exciting ways, the critical importance of a healthy and diverse microbiome in all aspects of our lives: inside our bodies as well as within our clothinghomes and built environments

Living architecture can also be viewed as part of a much broader trend towards regenerative, cradle-to-cradle, circular design in which the concept of waste is eliminated across all industries. No more end-of-life planned obsolescence products to be disposed of in landfills. A circular economy is restorative and regenerative by design; all waste products are viewed as valuable nutrients or assets to be re-used and upcycled to create or fertilize something else. According to architect William McDonough, co-author of Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, “In nature, the ‘waste’ of one system becomes food for another. Everything can be designed to be disassembled and safely returned to the soil as biological nutrients, or re-utilized as high quality materials for new products, as technical nutrients without contamination.” 

In 2019, Rachel Armstrong and her Living Architecture colleagues received an EU Innovation Fund grant to develop a biodigital prototype to change cultural responses to human waste and the presence of microbes in our homes. The Active Living Infrastructure: Controlled Environment (ALICE) project is a collaboration between Newcastle University, the University of West of England and Translating Nature. ALICE will design interactive digital interface cubicles for exhibition at biennials and arts festivals where audiences can see their own waste (urine) transformed by microbial fuel cells into off-grid carbon-free electricity to charge mobile devices or light LEDs.

“ALICE is a first-generation biodigital hardware and user experience that translates the activity of microbes into meaningful encounters with human audiences, establishing a trans-species communication platform,” Armstrong explained in an email exchange. “ALICE is a significant step towards engaging with a microbial era. Using low-power electronics and artificial intelligence, ALICE will generate meaningful outputs that can be translated by data artists into a high-quality user experience.”

Dr. Julie Freeman is ALICE’s lead data artist. Co-founder of Translating Nature, Freeman is a prolific digital artist, curator and TED Senior Fellow, with a PhD in computer science. (“Defining Data as an Art Material” is the title of her PhD thesis at Queen Mary University of London.) Freeman will help design ALICE’s digital interface to generate real-time data-driven graphical animations that will allow audiences to interact and “converse” with microbes. Ultimately, these animations will catalyze constructive conversations about the future of sustainability in homes and public buildings, as well as the lifestyle changes implicit in adopting this brave new generation of utilities.

A graphical visual display of the bacterial “inner life” of ALICE, downloaded from Newcastle University

One of the main challenges for Living Architecture (and other forms of metabolic design) is the perceived “unpalatability” of microbes as a design substrate, for designers as well as the general public. According to Armstrong, “Involving artists and architectural designers creates novel, high quality socio-spatial experiences that drive the appropriation of new technologies by end-users and are catalytic in cultural adoption.” 

To increase the visibility and social acceptance of “living technology”, Armstrong and her Living Architecture colleagues share the results of their work widely in both scientific and artistic venues. The latter include major installations at the Venice Art and Architecture Biennales, the Tallinn Architecture Biennale, the Trondheim Art Biennale, and the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, among others.

In 2019, London’s Whitechapel Gallery paired Rachel Armstrong with the artist Cécile B. Evans for the experiential Is This Tomorrow? exhibit. Their collaboration, a first, resulted in the enigmatic installation “999 years 13sqm (the future belongs to ghosts)” which was powered by microbial fuel cells developed by the Living Architecture project (see video below).

According to a review in the Evening Standard, Armstrong and Evans’ installation challenged audiences to consider “a third way between utopia and dystopia – the energy of living microbes rather than the dead, which make up fossil fuels.” 

Throughout this and my previous post, you will have noticed that the key word associated with living architecture is “collaboration.” Armstrong clearly shines when she is working across multiple disciplines simultaneously with her diverse network of colleagues. I found this brilliant quote from It’s Nice That which illustrates just how radical and transformative collaboration can be when used to solve third millennium challenges. When asked about the role of architects in the 21st century, Armstrong explained, humbly:

The 21st-century architect is not going to be the kind of iconic genius designer who makes the perfect form. It’s not going to be all about an individual ego. We’re seeing that also with things like the Nobel Prizes. These are not one-person, egotistic enterprises. These are communities of creatives. The role of the designer is not at the peak of the hierarchy. It’s further down on the infrastructure, it’s actually creating the conditions for events, forms of livability, and experiences of spaces. So, in fact, we are taking ourselves out of the role of God and actually becoming part of the soil of the city.

Amen.

(Top image: Rachel Armstrong and Cécile B. Evan’s installation “999 years 13sqm (the future belongs to ghosts)” at Whitechapel Gallery’s Is This Tomorrow 2019 exhibit. All images from the Living Architecture project reprinted with permission by Rachel Armstrong.)

This article is part of the Renewable Energy series.

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Joan Sullivan is a Canadian photographer focused on the energy transition. Her renewable energy photographs have been exhibited in group and solo shows in Canada, the UK and Italy. She is currently working on a documentary film and photo book about Canada’s energy transition. In her monthly column for Artists and Climate Change, Joan shines a light on global artists, designers and architects experimenting with renewable energy as an emerging art form. You can find Joan on TwitterVisura and Ello.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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