Metabolic Materials as a Measure of Architectural Quality

April 22, 2010

By Rachel Armstrong

Between the 1830’s to 1840’s, the modern public health movement was started in Britain when Edwin Chadwick, advocate for the Poor Law, brought his vision of public health through sanitarianism into being through public works. This ultimately resulted in the construction of modern day water and sewage systems that set standards of urban infrastructure throughout the developed world.

Today we are facing a similar urban crisis of environment due to the consequences of living in industrial pollution for the last 150 years. This crisis, like the situation in the 1830’s, is directly related to our development and predilection for cities, which is only set to increase. Since the industrial revolution we have established a new relationship with technology that has prioritized the industrial landscape over the natural environment, leading to a toxic relationship between human activity and the land. City communities became increasingly distanced from access to farmable land. In these new urban environments technology brokered the domination of the elements, dumping its waste and efforts as pollutants into the surroundings in which machines were situated. Although farming communities were used to living in the same space as their animals, the toxic wastes that were the byproducts of machines began to make an irreversible impact on the health and living spaces of factory workers. This has led to microclimates within the urban context that are increasingly toxic as population density and high rises compete for space within the city. The subsequent exponential growth of industrialization continued belligerently to the noxious chemical landscapes that permeated the fabric of developing countries over the course of the 20-century, resulting in extensive chemical environmental damage that has given rise to global warming.

Global warming is a symptom of technological progress coupled with environmental belligerence and is facilitated by the industrial practices of capitalism. Combined, these drivers guarantee that by 2050 the world population will reach 9 billion with 70 percent of people living in cities.

Despite the desperate projections of inevitable changes in global temperature and weather patterns, coupled with environmental catastrophe and the loss of countless lives, a complete change in the way that our buildings are constructed, particularly with respect to the chemical impact they have on their surroundings, may be able to bring about lasting and remedial change to the health and ecology of cities.

Architecture is a technology of environments. Its primary role is in creating a synthetic skin around its human creators and inhabitants to optimize the immediate environment and exclude the hostile elements. Historically, the best materials have been inert and belligerent to the environment. This choice of materials from prehistory has set the standard for materials that we use in building practice today. It has caused the technological functions of our buildings to be very inwards looking, as we are most comfortable within a very narrow range of physiological parameters. Whilst we have extensively refined the technology of internal environments, we have neglected to develop the external surface of our buildings, which offer a direct interface with natural systems. Building exteriors are a unique opportunity to use a managed environment that covers 1.5 % of the earth’s surface, yet we have lacked an appropriate technology that can enable us to sustainably bridge the gap between artifice and nature.

The architectural Green movement proposes designs for a nostalgic, rather pantheistic, rural existence that is perceived to be more ‘healthy’ by bringing biology itself into the urban environment in the form of green walls, roofs and even farms. Within a metropolitan setting however, biological systems do not flourish unless they are lavished with energy and resource intensive support systems.

In an industrial age, biology has too many limitations to use in urban construction, and in order to create more life-like buildings, architects have looked for materials that can incorporate some of the drivers of biology. R. Buckminster Fuller supposed that these drivers were mathematical and looked to digital computing to explore generative forces; Antonio Gaudi explored the physical and chemical imperatives of materials that underpinned biological systems through his unique architectural style. To conduct his experiments Gaudi created a set of unique and individually crafted elemental forms by suspending clay in hanging cloths during the construction of La Sagrada Familia and let the physical forces of gravity shape the material. These self-organizing material imperatives were then used to generate his unique style of organic design. Unlike most architecture, which normally follows a top-down blueprint, Gaudi controversially assembled the architectural components using a bottom-up approach. He allowed the rules of gravity to generate the cathedral’s design rather than impose his own personal inclinations. This technique created a completely different look and feel to his architecture, which designers from all disciplines are still trying to reproduce today.

The question then arises whether it is possible to create a technology, material or structure that can bridge the gap between nature and artifice to connect our buildings to natural systems so that they are integrated with them. Indeed, the only way to produce genuinely sustainable architecture occurs with the advent of a direct, two-way connection between architecture and nature, rather than creating strategies that increase the separation between them.

In order to do this we need to find the right kind of language. Living systems are in constant dialogue with nature through sets of chemical reactions called metabolism, where one group of substances is transformed into another by using or producing energy. This is how living systems can sustainably make the most of local resources.

Using a common language based on the chemical exchange of metabolism, it may be possible to develop interfaces that are able to respond directly to variations in the environment. Materials that are native to urban environments would be able to participate in flows of chemical information, which would constitute native synthetic ecologies that uniquely function within the context of the city landscape. Chemical systems that could thrive in these conditions could potentially be designed to maintain the health of the environment and process urban metabolites to improve the health and well being of its human inhabitants in a comparable way to rural systems.

My research investigates the potential use and implications of a new group of materials in architectural design that may prove to bridge this divide between inanimate and living matter. These materials are referred to as Living Technology (Bedau, 2009) and possess some of the unique properties of living systems. I am particularly interested in the potential of these materials to respond to unpredictable situations by having a material flexibility for when they do.

Using a minimal set of initial conditions, we assemble primitive chemical systems to form the building blocks of new materials and create prototype systems that inhabit a twilight zone of biology. These materials are born from generative chemical forces and may be thought of as a form of ‘bottom-up’ synthetic biology or, ‘wet’ artificial life. When these new materials interface with biological systems, they share a common chemical and physical language based on connectivity, energy transformation and information flow.

The particular system that I am working on is called the protocell. These are chemically programmable agents that are based on the chemistry of oil and water. Protocells 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.

Protocell building a solid structure as a function of its metabolism in response to local environmental conditions.

Protocells use chemical energy that naturally exists at the oil-water interface and possess an internal chemical program that they compare with chemical cues from the environment. All of this is done without any DNA, which is the information processing system used by biology. Yet, the process by which protocells create skins and solid materials is incredibly biological, being remarkably reminiscent of the way that corals or tubeworms secrete their shells.

Because the protocell uses general chemistry as its information programming system, this can be changed and engineered to make skins, shells and microstructures using different kinds of materials. This could constitute a new portfolio of urban materials, such as building coatings that protect buildings against flood water, footpaths that rise according to water levels and materials that have self-healing properties. Protocells can also make a chemical change within the landscape of a microenvironment. This could be regarded as a form of chemical environmental remediation that is able to change chemistry locally in an environment, underpinning a generation of fundamentally sustainable urban systems that are native to their metropolitan environments. Applications are materials that have a symbiotic relationship with existing architecture, such as paints that can metabolically fix carbon dioxide, solar panels that produce biofuels from urban carbon dioxide and claddings that produce water in desert situations.

One protocell system that I have been working on is able to produce a limestone-like shell from carbon dioxide dissolved in water. This Living Technology can be designed to produce solid materials with biological-like properties, such as growth, self-repair and sensitivity to the local environment.

Protocell making a skin of limestone-like product on its surface, fixing carbon dioxide as a consequence of its metabolism.

In order to demonstrate the potential of the technology in an architectural setting, we designed a project to employ the unique properties of protocells. In our experiment we challenged ourselves to grow an artificial limestone reef under the city of Venice to sustainably reclaim it from its tempestuous relationship with the sea. We collaborated with the architecture firm GMJ to create visualizations to explore possible outcomes (FutureVenice, online). In this scheme, we programmed the protocells to move away from the light in the canals – light aversion being a property that has been observed in the laboratory. The protocells would consequently move towards the darkened foundations under the city where they gradually petrify the woodpiles. With time and monitoring, an artificial limestone reef would help spread the point load of the city, redistributing the city’s weight on the soft land underneath as well as offering new niches to the marine ecology. In this way, the architectural intervention connects the marine environment directly to the city through living processes.

Venice sustainably reclaimed by an artificial limestone reef under its foundations, which spreads the point load of the weight of the city over the underlying soft delta soils and prevents the city sinking further.

New living technologies such as protocells help us imagine how it may be possible to construct buildings differently; more importantly, protocells have the potential to change the relationship that exists at the heart of the building industry, namely the negative impact of making a building on the environment. With living technologies it may be possible for us to create architectures with a positive impact on natural systems, which in turn look out for us in a very architectural way, such as removing carbon dioxide or other pollutants from the environment. Living Technology will be symbiotic with existing architecture, will regulate and maintain the health of our living space and provide our first line of defence against an unpredictable world.


Bedau, M., (2009) Living Technology Today and Tomorrow, Special Issue: Living Buildings: Plectic Systems Architecture, Technoetic Arts A Journal of Speculative Research, Volume 7, Number 2, Intellect Books, pp.199-206
Future Venice (online) website, available at: (accessed February 2010)

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