Rachel Armstrong talks to Danielle Rago

Photography by John Leslie

Reimagining the city while challenging traditional architectural conventions, British scientist and architect Rachel Armstrong has invented a new practice that aligns our contemporary cities with evolving ecosystems typically found in nature. Armstrong’s book, Living Architecture: How Synthetic Biology Can Remake Our Cities and Reshape Our Lives explores the city of the future as much as the contemporary city. Examining and reconsidering how to achieve truly sustainable development for the built environment, Armstrong looks to biology as well as current practice to form the basis of her compelling argument for a city that is activated by living architectural systems – one of the defining characteristics of contemporary culture.

DANIELLE RAGO How did your interest in living architecture systems emerge and how have you developed it into a theory of architectural practice?
RACHEL ARMSTRONG My interest in living architecture comes from a childhood ambition to work with the creativity in nature. I wanted to find ways of designing with natural processes and studied medicine as the science of “synthetic biology”. When considering Darwin’s principles of how environments impact on creatures, and vice versa, I began to wonder whether we (as living creatures) should inhabit dead spaces? The homes and cities we live in are nothing like nature’s architecture – soils – which regenerate, reconstruct and nurture the creatures that make them home. Our living spaces create barriers between the dynamic qualities of natural systems and insulate us from them. Because of the speed, intensity and materiality of current urban development and its negative environmental impacts, I wanted to find out if there was any other way to create environments that performed differently to our industrial approach, e.g. had the regenerative qualities of soils. Coming from a scientific background, I wanted to investigate this question experimentally so I began to search for agents (or technologies) that could operate in a life-like manner but were not programmed by DNA. Martin Hanczyc and Takashi Ikegami’s presentation on “protocells”, at an artificial life conference in Winchester, in 2008, and their striking video of a droplet wriggling free from a chemical “skin” appeared as a literal and metaphorical birth of a new kind of chemical technology with living potential. Since 2008, I have been working with these structures to develop properties of these droplets into a form that could be used in an architectural context.

DR Nature has been omnipresent within architectural theory since 1775 when Laugier’s seminal text, An Essay on Architecture, argued the ideal principles of architecture were to be found in nature. For Laugier, nature was more representational in an aesthetic way, while you seem to be more interested in mirroring nature through the recreation of ecological systems. Can you elaborate on this?
RA My work is based on an investigation and exploration of materials with life-like properties. Since the mid-’90s, architectural practice has become increasingly concerned with software as producing architectural ideas, which has created a distance between ideas and their embodiment. Natural encounters, being disembodied from their materiality, have therefore engaged notions of representation and a metaphorical connection with the natural world. The principles of architectural construction are based on industrial forms of manufacturing and construction and my work aims to provide an alternative method of working with the material world. Consequently, I have changed the framing of architecture from a mechanical/Cartesian perspective (parametrics and cybernetics) to a complex systems worldview. In a complex, embodied system networks, materials exchanges and metabolism are the drivers of the work. So my work engages with nature in its context and is entangled, not isolated from it as an object.


DR Through carefully examined case studies you depict how practitioners are currently working in this way on the micro-scale, whether demonstrated through a building’s facade à la Patrick Blanc at the Musée du quai Branly in Paris or via art installation, such as Hylozoic Ground at the 2010 Venice Architecture biennale. How can these living architecture systems be applied to larger scale projects and developments?
RA These require a collaborative approach to design practice. Scaling up is a challenge and each project needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis. Hylozoic Ground was scaled by increasing the droplet size of the protocells (which also slowed them down so they lasted the three-month duration of the installation) and also by distributing them in clusters, in vials and containers throughout the matrix and reconnecting them through interactions with the cybernetic systems based on a neural network designed by Rob Gorbet and operating with its effectors that included LEDs and vigorous movement. 

DR In the text you often reference the need to change our preconceptions of what architecture is and what our expectations are regarding what it can or should do. Who is responsible for this and how are these ideas being mediated to a larger public?
RA In my view, this responsibility lies with architectural schools and with the R&D groups within professional practices. For example, Richard Hyams at Astudio encourages qualified architects to extend their practice as continual professional development and bring their research back into real world projects wherever possible. This is vital also for educating and challenging clients and not just to be satisfied with pandering to their preconceptions of architecture. Professional architectural bodies should also be developing and supporting avant-garde ideas and practices not as an academic theoretical-historical perspective but as part of design practice too. I would like to see design as research gather more academic status and be incorporated into professional practices, not just kept separate as academic and therefore impractical inquiries.


DR These principles, of course, applied to buildings challenge our requirements for what buildings should do or can do. How can these industry criteria work alongside living architecture systems in the future?
RA I have absolutely no difficulty whatsoever with architecture producing more efficient machines that are less environmentally damaging than established modes of production. Indeed, it is essential to reduce energy and resource consumption so that we produce less toxic waste and buy time to develop the principles for a new form of human development that does not exclusively rely on machines. My issue with the mechanical paradigm is that conservation and energy efficiently is not alone enough to create a new platform for human development in which human expansion is good for the environment, not bad for it. Living architecture offers an alternative, non-mechanical approach to dealing with challenges that works on a different set of principles to the ones we currently use – and I hope that “living architecture” is one of many different approaches that develop conceptual and practical toolsets for dealing with our 21st-century challenges. However, because of the early technological stage of living architecture, it will inevitably need to be introduced into the urban environment as a symbiotic strategy that can work alongside established practices.

DR Looking beyond new buildings and, rather, at cities, how can your research be applied to preservation? In Japan and New York, both recently affected by major storms, how could preparation for impending climate change take place in the short, and long-term?
RA The unique quality of “living technologies” – which need to be supported by elemental infrastructures within the built environment if they are to thrive – is that, being fundamentally composed of assemblages, they can assimilate other “unlike” systems into their ecology. This fundamental flexibility is inbuilt into the technology and therefore living technologies have the robustness, flexibility and resilience shared by living systems – these are not unlimited qualities – but like in my “Japan 2060” story , the limits of resilience also promote creativity and empower “actors” (various agents involved in the production and experience of architecture) with the capacity to deal with changing contexts. This degree of embodied flexibility is beyond the capacities of machines. In this sense, living technologies can be nested inside mechanical systems where they can transform their impacts into biospherically connected outcomes. Ultimately, mechanical systems will be subsumed into complex ones as a subset of the potential of this alternate framing.

DR You’re known for the promotion of interdisciplinary between the arts and sciences. Through your research, we can reevaluate how we think about the built environment on both the local and global scale. Can you talk about its effect on the architectural and urban design profession?
RA We are at the beginning at the start of an exciting new technological age. While the biggest opportunities for prosperity this century reside in the incessant flow of virtual fabrics such as, data, communications and energy, our greatest challenges reside in their material counterparts. These complex material shifts are spontaneous and not designed with human intent. They are inherent to our unstable earth but have also been augmented by the material side effects of the modern age, manifesting as resource shortages, accumulation of waste, alterations in the chemistry of our gaseous and liquid oceans and rising iceberg-fuelled tides. The stresses and strains of 20th-century models of architecture that rely upon object hierarchies are evident within our cities where vital infrastructures struggle to keep pace with urban density, as people progressively move to our cities.

My work addresses the dualism of contemporary urban initiatives such as “smart cities” (machine) and “sustainability” (nature) by applying an integrated “icological” paradigm based on the principles of systems theory. This approach gives rise to the possibility of developing technological engagements with “vibrant matter” and “living technology” to produce potentially positive ecological impacts that are a synthesis of ecology and architectural design – which is not about making objects as buildings, but in constructing new natures.




  • Rachel Armstrong Talks to Danielle Rago