"These are buildings in Venice being transformed into soils - where the water acts as a medium for the invasion of dry matter with life ... and results in the deterioration of the building but promotes flourishing micro communities of organisms." -Rachel Armstrong

Living Cities for the Third Millennium


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Rachel Armstrong
>Rachel Armstrong is a Professor of Experimental Architecture at the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, Newcastle University. She is a Rising Waters II Fellow with the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation (April-May 2016), TWOTY futurist 2015, Fellow of the British Interplanetary Society and a 2010 Senior TED Fellow. She takes an alternative approach to environmental design that couples the computational properties of the natural world with the productivity of soils. She calls the synthesis that occurs between these systems and their inhabitants “living” architecture. @livingarchitect.
We must allow ourselves to flourish again and crack a few austerity whalebones to make the transition from a culture that is paralyzed by reductive forms of governance that deal with industrial efficiencies, into productive ones that thrive on the mutual exchange and generosity between humans and the material world. This may be possible by transforming our cities into sites of rich soil production as a new way of thinking about sustainability where human habitation directly enhances the fertility of the planet.

Buckminster Fuller thought of our world as a closed-system spaceship that was able to provide all our needs. In 1960 Fuller proposed to put a giant, self-supporting geodesic dome over midtown Manhattan that modeled our world’s environmental systems. But is simply sealing a modern city off from the environment enough to catalyze its self-sustenance? My research looks at Fuller’s idea by taking a bottom up approach to constructing a sustainable environment for a city from scratch starting with its soils.

While we do not typically regard soils as technology today, they were certainly a technological fabric for agrarian communities. With the rise of settlements, soil was seen as a way to change the performance of land. Today we know so much about biology, chemistry, and ecosystems that our soils could be regarded as programmable organic operating systems. With experiments around soil and architecture, we can envision living city solutions to third millennium challenges.

Buildings in Venice transformng into soils. The the water acts as a medium for the invasion of dry matter with life and promotes flourishing micro communities of organisms.

Take for example, the research underway in the Future Venice project aimed to transform the materiality of a city using programmable droplets capable of building an artificial limestone reef around its foundations. Working with the marine life in the lagoon, the chemical droplets carry active ingredients that can be programmed to deposit minerals like calcium carbonate, which is a component of limestone. Responding to a simple set of chemical and physical cues, the droplets feed on waste from the city, follow the flow of water, and move away from the light-filled canals to find a darkened space where they go to make a bio concrete. This substance, a kind of smart marine soil partly formed by pollutants in the lagoon, creates a protective, responsive material accretion around the shoreline that seals the vulnerable wooden piles from the air and prevents decomposition. This could mitigate the city’s labor intensive and costly maintenance needs and allow for infrastructural evolution without the need for constant human intervention.

Future Venice 2 further explored the questions of programming the soil-like matrixes of the lagoon to work with the culture and resources in the city. This particular experiment was hosted within the “Vita Vitale” exhibition, as collaboration between IDEA Laboratory and Artwise curators, which was part of the 56th Venice Biennale. We asked whether programmable soils could be produced from problematic and abundant materials in the waterways that could trap toxic matter and transform them into complex new substrates.

To test whether we could alter the environmental impacts of plastics by combining them with other fabrics or transform plastics into other more useful materials, we collected waste plastics from a beach clean up and incubated them in a series of eight tanks within the exhibition space with native biofilms harvested from the city. Microorganisms attached to the plastics in half of the tanks, showing that Venice biofilms could potentially be used to mop up destructive microplastics. Further testing is being conducted in how this composite fabric may be removed from the water and processed into useful products.

Other ongoing experimentation by Sound Channel, a consortium with a 44-year lease on the small Adriatic island of Obonjan, explores soil’s different impacts in different cultural contexts in partnership with international universities such as Newcastle University and NGOs like Edenlab and WasteAid UK. A key objective is to return the island to the Croatian city of Sibenik in better ecological condition than it was found. The challenges of waste, soil fertility, and erosion will be formally mapped and modeled. Soil fertility improvement will be accomplished through the uptake of small/medium scale technologies new to the community and rural context such as: small scale aerobic and anaerobic digestion, small scale in-vessel composting, vermiculture, and traditional community composting techniques.

To facilitate uptake of these leading edge technologies by new markets, artistic researchers will work with the scientific and technical teams to develop a multi-faceted platform of creative events and activities for local and international audiences. Together with sustainability experts and event promoters, they will pioneer new approaches that enable visitors to explore their own attitudes and values towards compost/soil-making processes through storytelling techniques which will engage with the story of life, the mythology of the island, the challenge of human settlements and founding communities and their (technological) relationship with land fertility and organic recycling systems.

more buildings transforming into soils

The kinds of places that emerge from these diverse new laboratories are not industrial, but living cities. Within living cities we have the capacity to produce an alternative set of values that are a counterpoint to industrial evaluation systems being centred on the idea of land fertility, rather than efficiency, as the measure of success:

Land as Multi-dimensional Space: Instead of regarding urban space as bounded two-dimensional plots that belong to landowners, we can value city spaces as permeable, multi-dimensional spaces open to communities and which promote fertility by facilitating the movement of matter through humans and nonhumans which thrive on openness, community, and exchange.

Technology of Nature: Nature can link many bodies together through the shared language of physics and chemistry so that environmental and technological forces work synergistically, rather than in opposition, constantly transforming matter into substances with high biotic value, which differentially shape space and provide forms of currency.

Metabolic Economy: In cities, we can think of Nature’s productivity as urban metabolism that is entangled with human activity and regarded as a metropolitan-scale economy.

Fertility as Value: The amount of matter that we exchange and transform within an urban space could determine its value, which could increase in any site by harnessing bioprocessing activities such as, composting, or food and energy production.

Nonhuman Investors: Our living spaces are not exclusively human and require the investment of the nonhuman world. We could therefore define sustainable societies by local, open agreements that shape the myriad of material exchanges in our urban spaces in ways that enable the participating systems to thrive and evolve alongside us.

Consumers Become Producers: In a metabolic economy power is gained by the transformation of resources through the technology of Nature, which we could use as a kind of currency. Value re-adjustments within urban spaces based on these materials may therefore change the density of resource distribution networks and also the way that human-occupied spaces are inhabited.

Ethical Exchange: We could base the cultural, moral and ethical systems of a community on communities that are as diverse as ecosystems and therefore have competing needs and practices. It is essential that the forums and conversations between many different peoples and creatures cohabiting within cities exist and that we make decisions around these exchanges to empower people.  

By constructing laboratories and conducting experiments that ask searching questions of our millennial challenges we may be able to facilitate the conditions for bottom-up innovation that leverages the potency of the natural realm and generates a counterpoint to industrial values of resource economies and systems efficiencies. We may witness platforms that address the issue of liveability within specific contexts that respond to cultural context rather than operating through homogenising global paradigms.

This ambition will require collaborators characterized by diversity of practices that increase environmental fertility from effective composting processes to the construction of designer soil fabrics. When incorporated into city life, they will offer an alternative platform for human development. Ultimately the “living city” becomes part of  – not separate from – the production of new kinds of Nature that are life-promoting and pluralistic.