Vibrant architecture: unleashing the radical creativity of 21st century materialism
Dr. Rachel Armstrong | January 17 2014
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“Architecture is making the occasional stone in the water. The world is making the water.” - Keller Easterling, 2012.
My work seeks a design theory – and principles of practice of 21st century matter – to inform a design philosophy that can deal with our Heraclitean reality - a world in continual flux. The material realm is associated with the figure of the nonhuman and therefore equated with an image of Nature. In this particular epoch, our greatest challenges relate to the unpredictable liveliness of our material world – a reality and phenomenon that is recognized as ‘climate change’, which refers to more than a set of empirical changes in environmental conditions that can be attributed to specific causes such as, climbing partial pressures of carbon dioxide, greater than average rainfall, reductions in biodiversity, the march northwards of tropical diseases, or apparent shifts in the earth’s magnetic poles – it also represents our cultural experience of materiality, which - from a phenomenological perspective - is not only extremely lively but is also no longer entirely naturalized. This relentlessly material phenomenon – may be called Millennial Nature, which differs from Koert van Mensvoort’s notions of ‘Next Nature’, in that it refers to an entire system of production and not just to its cultural products and expressions. So while Old Nature, a term coined by van Mensvoort to refer to aestheticised pre-millenial notions of Nature like Romanticism, may spontaneously produce tornadoes – which are the kind of nonhuman phenomenon that architects are typically called upon to design against and factor out of our lives - for example, Q4 Architects’ Tornado-Proof CORE House, for the American Institute of Architects Designing Recovery competition, is equipped with a virtually ‘indestructible’ inner concrete core - Millennial Nature offers a different kind of materiality that gives rise to energy producing manmade tornadoes such as, those produced by Louis Michaud. Or it creates dramas for storm chasers where tornadoes do battle with wind turbines. And although the Fukushima nuclear disaster was precipitated by a tsunami of shivers down the geothermal spine of the Pacific tectonic plate, its radioactive leakage into the Pacific Ocean is a codesigned act of environmental radiation, in which we’ve played a significant part.
Q4 Architects Tornado-Proof CORE House
Timothy Morton insists that we should divest Nature of its entrenched aestheticisms since they obscure and constrain its true materiality, but how do we - as Slavoj Žižek proposes – begin to embrace this material strangeness through an understanding of say, the continent sized toxic entanglements of plastics, wildlife and currents that constitute our Great Ocean Garbage Patches? How can we even begin to consider ‘hugging up’ these festering bodies as readily as Swampy might embrace a tree? Yet, not all of these bizarre encounters with Millennial Nature are shocking. When torrential rainfall burst the banks of the River Severn and water surged through the streets of Worcester this Christmas, graceful white birds paddled through the flooded town in a magnificent spectacle known as - Swangeddon.
Swans swimming down the street in Worcester, UK
So, Millennial Nature has a radically different materiality from Old Nature and may be distinguished by its profound technological and social transformations that promise new design opportunities. While Old Nature has always been restlessly unpredictable, our design attitudes have generally sought protection - by assuaging her fits of ill temper in appeasing the deities of a pre-industrial age. Or, since the Industrial Revolution, we have sought to create the illusion of environmental stability – through the construction of barriers, powerful machines and knowledge from scientific insights - that have enabled us to believe that we can understand, control and therefore conquer matter.
Thames Barrier, London, UK
Yet, in the late 20th century researchers such as, Rachel Carson and Edward O. Wilson also showed these very processes - that spawned the conglomerations of Le Corbusier’s “machines for living in” of our modern cities - are irreversibly destroying our environment. Global governments have responded with notions of ‘sustainable development’ where generations can meet their own needs without compromising the prosperity of subsequent generations. This commitment has intensified with the recent advent of megacities and with a global population set to hit 9 billion by the middle of this century according to the UN Population Division – the survival of our species is deeply entangled with the future of the built environment.
Today, businesses have learnt that sustainability is a better form of industrial practice that makes them even more money, without fundamentally changing the nature of their operations, and alongside them, sustainable architectures mirror this innovation inertia and continue to pay homage to a material world that is shaped by Old Nature and Enlightenment thinking.
Specifically they design:
• For environmental constancy.
• For permanence.
• At equilibrium.
• For object hierarchies.
• For dryness.
• With inert materials.
My background is in the biomedical sciences. I have a long-standing interest in the processes that may have shaped the origins of life – in other words, the way that inert systems and materials become lively. Living systems possess a set of qualities that offer something potentially valuable to contemporary architecture in that they possess tactics that deal with constant change and uncertainty. In keeping with Morton’s call for ecological forms of development that are not just another form of progressive modernism, the technologies of ‘life’ may offer a different kind of production platform that liberates architectural design from machine-centred solutions. According to Gilbert Simondon, machines deal with totalizing programs and cybernetics systems deal with interaction and adaptation. Yet ‘living technologies’, a term that was coined by the Initiative for Science Society and Policy at the Southern University of Denmark, possess an additional and unique set of characteristics that engage in acts of radical transformation that are enabled by metabolism.
Specifically living systems design:
• For environmental change.
• For persistence.
• At far from equilibrium.
• Through assemblages of heterogeneous bodies.
• For wetness.
• With lively materials.
Jane Bennett’s notion of ‘vibrant matter’ embodies a form of materiality that is not naïve and draws from the philosophical pillars of language, objects and systems. It approximates realism and phenomenology through a discourse that is native to process philosophy, which includes voices such as, Henri Bergson and Alfred North Whitehead. Specifically, the term ‘vibrant’ conveys the notion of agentized materialism, which, in keeping with Latour’s notion of entanglements of actors that characterize Actor Network Theory, aims to increase the status of the material world without diminishing the role of humanity. Indeed, vibrant matter has much in common with embodied forms of living technology.
In developing a design philosophy that represents principles of practice of 21st century matter, nonhuman interests must be engaged so that materials themselves may directly influence the discourse and possibilities – perhaps even in surprising ways. My research has identified an experimental model, ‘dissipative structures’, as examples of vibrant matter, through which such conversations can be demonstrated and tested. They are simultaneously objects, since they possess structure - yet also embody process as their integrity is maintained by a continual flow of atoms and energy.
Dissipative structures self-assemble from basic ingredients and exhibit striking, lifelike properties that can deal with architectural programs, such as those outlined by Bernard Tschumi that entangle ‘space, event and movement’. They also possess unique architectural characteristics that are encapsulated by Mark Morris’ notion of “miniature thinking” where the “collective” organization of agents with qualities unique to their scale, can link the small and large worlds in a dynamic temporal relationship that invokes the fantastic and uncanny – through scalar fantasy and alchemical lore.
The Bütschli system, which is formed by adding strong alkali to a field of olive oil, has been most extensively used in my research as a model dissipative system that embodies key characteristics of vibrant matter, can be seen with the naked eye and manipulated at the human scale using natural computing techniques.
Natural computing is a term inspired by Alan Turing’s interest in the computational properties of natural systems and comprises an overlapping set of practices that span from modeling biological systems to looking at the performance of dynamic materials. Within this field a set of approaches are applied than could be used to shape the performance of the Bütschli system in a technological capacity, to conduct a set of design experiments that formed the chemical ‘organs’ of the Hylozoic Ground installation by Philip Beesley exhibited at the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale and also the ‘protopearls’ of Vibrant Venice, which proposes to accrete an artificial limestone reef under the city’s foundations.
Hylozoic-Ground installation by Philip Beesley
These investigations informed a set of design principles that informed a manifesto for ‘vibrant architecture’ that stands ‘against’ mechanical objects in the production of architecture and advocates the fabrication of post natural fabrics - to keep the creative possibilities open and evolving. The manifesto insights were based on observations made during the design experiments where ‘assemblage’ formation was shaped by natural computing techniques. Assemblage is a term that originates from Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s notion of ‘agencement’, which refers to specific groupings of ‘actants’, or empowered bodies. These were operationalized during the design experiments to constitute a meta-technology, which could horizontally couple actants together – across heterogeneous groupings to form new tools and technical objects. Assemblage technology could be applied to address specific design challenges such as, ‘fixing’ carbon dioxide from solution, using natural computing programs, which shape their chemical context and physical infrastructure through time and space. The outputs of assemblage technologies are highly complex and varied and best described by Matt Lee’s notion of ‘oceanic ontology’, which produces maps of complex systems, rather than descriptions of its theories. Indeed, the vibrant architectures that are produced by these complex entanglements are not buildings but various species of post-natural ecologies, which may be thought of as designed manifestations of Millennial Nature.
MANIFESTO AGAINST MECHANICAL OBJECTS: FOR VIBRANT ARCHITECTURE
- My quest is to invite the nonhuman world to codesign ‘vibrant architecture’ through a shared, agile engagement with matter.
- Vibrant architecture does not make its propositions through abstractions or representations - but by embracing the relentless materiality of the natural world – through ecological living materials (ELT).
- There are no models of vibrant architecture in the same way that no one organism is a model of another. Progeny may episodically spring from the fundamental programs of dividing and expanding space.
- Vibrant architecture is neither made nor born but must be coaxed into being. It is forged by a love of change, not consistency, and never tires of its own strangeness. It is compelled to grow, transform and propagate in relentless variations within its rhythmic networks.
- Vibrant architecture is an entanglement of object, process and language. Its formal rules are low-level ‘pre-natural’, chemical programs. It merges elemental infrastructures with matter in periodic exchanges, which can be fine-tuned at higher levels of organization. Ultimately vibrant architecture resists the mathematics of ‘natural law’ and swerves with the idiosyncratic laws of quantum physics to revel in its uniqueness
- Vibrant architecture exhibits the same kind of rhythm that enabled Mendeleev to deduce the periodic table, compelled Henri Lefebvre to propose ‘no less than a new scientific method’ and inspires the musical score of the universe.
- Vibrant architecture is in tune with its radically changing existence landscape, which sympathises with the sharps and flats of the textile symphony that it is immersed in.
- Vibrant architecture does not cling to the rippled underbelly of universal time but has directionality and travels with the warp and the weft in its slipstream. It deflects Newton’s apple from oscillating in its geometric course through the arrow of time – denying reversibility in the system. There is no ‘going back’.
- Vibrant architecture does not pay homage to the aestheticisms of ‘old’ Nature. It does not sing reassuring Jolly Green sustainability songs - yet it is deeply entangled with the natural world and thrives on the side effects of human existence.
- Vibrant architecture is empowered by its multitudinous assemblages and infrastructures to thrive in even the most hostile environments, infiltrating inaccessible terrains.
- Vibrant architecture does not hanker for a time before our chemical industrial landscapes, plasticinating seas and choking skies but regards them as new landscapes of abundance from which primordial chemical communities might spring into bloom with artificial biologies, which until this point - have never existed.
- Vibrant architecture is a transformer that does not find an adversary in the machine, but couples horizontally with them and swallows them whole. Their progeny proliferates as rhizomes of vibrant networks that transmute industrial deserts into vast metabolic fabrics of increasingly lively landscapes, which bloom with co-evolutionary acts of transformation.
- The surging systems and knotted materials of vibrant architecture swell with our own communities and become entangled with our habits. They thrive amongst us, in even the most densely packed domains, as codesigners of our proximate spaces.
- Vibrant architecture does not exist in the future but explores our unevenly distributed present.
- The delicate elemental fabrics of vibrant architecture reveal the mutual understanding between human design and material possibility – where architects set the conditions for a diversity of infrastructures that infiltrate and vibrate alongside the rhythms of our unstable earth.
- Vibrant architecture does not propose to save the world but to enrich our spatial encounters with it by augmenting its material potency.
- You see, vibrant architecture is not about making a building at all – but in establishing the codesignership between humans and nonhumans, through the production of synthetic ecologies and post natural landscapes – which become our living fabric.
Developing design principles to inform our encounters with vibrant matter have brought many challenges since at the start of my research. When I began my research assemblage technology did not yet ‘exist’ as a technological production platform. Indeed, there were few precedents – most of them originating from 19th century origins of life experiments in the work of ‘gentlemen’ scientists such as, Ferdinand Runge, Moritz Traube and Otto Bütschli. It was therefore necessary to use speculative methods in the design experiments since the technology is emerging and incompletely characterised. Additionally, the outputs of assemblage technology respond to soft forms of control and have to be coerced and persuaded, rather than commanded. Their outputs are therefore probabilistic, resist traditional classification systems and may even be regarded as producing Latour’s notion of ‘post-epistemological’ phenomena. Assemblage technology is at the earliest stages of its development and promises to be a powerful integrating platform that increases our choices – rather than proposes totalizing solutions. This requires a different approach to design challenges since humans become codesigners, not sole authors in these creative, materially empowered collaborations.
Despite the challenges posed by an emerging technological platform, working with vibrant matter provided valuable insights into the nature of materiality in the 21st century that was potent enough to consider what a pertinent design theory and principles of practice for 21st century matter might be that could deal with the unstable and technological character of Millennial Nature and provoke new architectural design opportunities. Specifically, the lively and technological properties of the material realm may be applied in the construction of spatial programs as ‘vibrant architecture’, which are expressed through the production of post natural fabrics and synthetic ecologies.
Yet, vibrant architectures are not static edifices but maintain their liveliness through metabolic processes, so they may continue to couple with others actants, bodies and networks of material flows, to transform their surroundings, rather than consume them. They are therefore are consistent with Morton’s notion of an ‘ecological’ practice, where we learn how it is possible to design with metabolic processes in ways that do not try to mimic tactics that are native to mechanical systems. But, from a pragmatic perspective, I do not want to over promote the potential of ‘vibrant architecture’ to transform the future of architectural design, nor do I want to propose that it is an architectural ‘fix’ - for does not propose to save us from the contrary predicament of Millennial Nature, which is continually constructing surprising new material encounters. Rather, in its current form vibrant architecture may simply increase the portfolio of strategies through which we may (re)negotiate our own ecological survival.
Yet, from an idealistic viewpoint, vibrant architecture proposes to completely change the developmental platform that underpins this millennial wave of human expansion. It utterly rejects the austere view of sustainability as a continuation of the ‘war on matter’ that was begun during the Industrial Revolution. Vibrant architecture looks to the technologies of life as its allies, to sever our mechanical umbilical cord so we can make a transition towards an ecological existence that is grounded on 21st century materialism and elemental infrastructures. Indeed, lifelike materials offer something potentially revolutionary to architectural design by liberating the radical creativity of the material realm and catalyzing many different kinds of couplings with Millennial Nature. These potent hybrid bodies may continue to combine with others in ways that transform, rather than consume our surroundings. Of course, humans may play a part in these manifold metamorphoses by unleashing the shocking fertility of the material realm through the production of vibrant architectures. In this way, we may resist the relentless march of industrial machines that are unrepentantly reverse-terraforming the Earth.
At this critical juncture in our existence, we cannot accept the glut of economic taboos, political inertia, conceptual blind spots and social platitudes that prevent us from rewriting our shared future as one of mutual survival. Instead we must urgently seize this moment and produce vibrant architectures to prompt an immediate (re)imagining of our world, notions of life, community and what it means to be human at a time of ecological crisis – so that we can set free the creative powers of our partners in (co)existence and facilitate their inexorable evolution.
Vibrant architecture therefore declares a new technological era - the age of Millennial Nature - to catalyze the production of post natural fabrics and bring forth ecological paradigms to shape our fertile futures.
About the Author
Dr. 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 2010 Senior TED Fellow, and Visiting Research Assistant at the Center for Fundamental Living Technology, Department of Physics and Chemistry, University of Southern Denmark. She completed clinical training at the John Radcliffe Medical School at Oxford in 1991, and has a PhD in Architecture from University College London.