• United States

Nature’s Metropolis

Experiments in design promise a better future for everyone, but only if they come with emancipatory politics to boot.

Our new issue, “Earth, Wind, & Fire,” is out now. Check out the table of contents and subscribe today!

This summer, an unusual structure grew outside the MoMA PS1 in Queens. The building is called Hy-Fi. Designed by architectural firm The Living, it consists of three circular towers a few stories tall. It resembles a lumpy set of industrial chimneys, or maybe a giant aorta — a little strange, in other words, if not particularly remarkable. Hy-Fi didn’t win the coveted MoMA spot for its looks, but for its substance: it’s made of mushrooms.

A video explaining the project imports historic significance to the apparently unassuming building in text overlaying a field of mushrooms growing in time-lapse: “If the 20th century was the century of physics … then the 21st century is widely seen to be the century of biology.” The Living, the video goes on to announce, is building a structure from “biological technologies” with the aim of creating a “new paradigm for design” — one that is self-assembling, industrial, and compostable.

Elsewhere, The Living proclaims itself to be “creating the architecture of the future” — in and of itself not a particularly noteworthy statement for a New York architectural firm straining for recognition. The particular future The Living envisions, however, is striking. Declaring its belief that cities and buildings are living, breathing organisms, The Living aims to create “living, breathing design ecosystems.” It’s not a metaphor.

Hy-Fi, and the vision of the city of the future it represents, sits at the intersection of two powerful fields — sustainable urbanism and biotechnology — with ambitions of reshaping not only cities, but the world.

Hy-Fi is composed of two kinds of bricks: organic ones grown from a combination of corn husks and mycelium, and reflective ones coated with a mirror film produced by the mega-manufacturer 3M. The organic bricks are supplied by a company called Ecovative, which produces what it describes as “disruptive material technologies” made from organic waste and mycelium, primarily for use in packaging materials and insulation designed to replace petroleum-based foams.

In — what else — a TED talk, cofounder Eben Bayer asks, “Are mushrooms the new plastic?” He touts the possibilities of combining mycelium with local materials — rice hulls in China, buckwheat hulls in Europe — and the vastly reduced energy and waste that come with using “nature’s recycling system.” Bayer goes on to explain that “the manufacturing process is our organism”: in Ecovative’s warehouse, trays of mushrooms sit in the dark, “quietly self-assembling materials.” After a few days, voilà: bricks.

The end result is a building that claims to be almost entirely compostable. When Hy-Fi is dismantled in September, the reflective bricks will be returned to 3M for more research, while the organic ones will be composted in a Queens community garden. Thus David Benjamin, the principal architect of Hy-Fi and The Living’s main visionary, describes the project as a “radical experiment” utilizing almost no energy and producing almost no carbon. Instead of extracting raw materials to build, it seeks to divert “the Earth’s natural carbon circle of growth, decay, and regrowth” into a structure that can eventually “be returned to its natural cycle.”

The Living’s ideas about the architecture of the future are thus tightly bound up with ideas about the future of the economy: as buildings and their cities become living things integrated into a “natural cycle,” the economy can become a continuously regenerating, self-sustaining loop rather than a unidirectional drain. Yet in crucial ways, this vision of the future economy doesn’t look so different from the old one. The parts that make up living buildings aren’t necessarily any less commodified than “dead” forms like lumber and coal.

Just as the scope of the metropolis stretches beyond city limits, urban politics are bound up not only in struggles over zoning or development, but in the resources that fuel city life and definitions of property and ownership that have evolved in the context of corporate labs and factory farms.

The question before us in the twenty-first century is: how to extend the much-touted right to the city to everyone — human and nonhuman inhabitants alike? Hy-Fi offers a glimpse, but the architecture of the future can’t do it alone. Reclaiming the city while simultaneously reinventing it will require challenges not only to the privatization of public space and rising real estate values, but to the privatization of life and protection of intellectual property rights.

Living Buildings

The Living is not, of course, alone in striving for a sustainable new architectural paradigm. Green building design has been warmly embraced by the private and public sectors, architecture high and low. New York’s Bank of America Tower is platinum LEED-certified, while a growing number of state and federal agencies require new buildings to meet LEED standards. Living greenery itself is creeping beyond rooftops and backyards as “vertical gardens” become increasingly popular: London’s Edgware Road tube station, for example, features a “living wall” of fourteen thousand plants, claiming to both beautify the city and reduce particulate matter pollution produced by traffic fumes.

Though the capacity of living things to build complex structures has long been marveled at, biomimicry, in which artists and engineers purport to learn from nature, has become increasingly sophisticated in recent years. Architectural algorithms mimic the patterns of bone growth and silkworm cocoons; termite mounds and cacti provide models for internal cooling and circulation.

London’s Gherkin, designed by Norman Foster, takes its distinctive exterior pattern from the skin of a sea sponge, while the self-proclaimed “iconic” design for a building aiming to be the world’s tallest, to be located in Wuhan, China, is based on the root structure of a mangrove tree. The latter building will boast solar panels, rainwater harvesting, and filtration systems for cleaning local air and water, among other environmentally oriented features.

Nature is inspiring not only new kinds of buildings, but new building methods: engineers at Harvard, for example, have developed a team of building robots inspired by termites, in a method known as swarm construction. “Robotic construction crew needs no foreman,” proclaims one headline — as opposed to human workers, who presumably still need a boss.

Some are going still further, seeking to incorporate the biological itself into their structures. The Living’s David Benjamin has elsewhere described his architectural practice as reliant on “human-cell collaboration”: rather than providing inspiration, muselike, nature here provides tools, materials, and even something like labor. In merging architecture and the burgeoning field of synthetic biology, Benjamin and other bioarchitects seek to drastically upend conventional ideas of what construction entails.

Self-proclaimed sustainability innovator Rachel Armstrong, for example, describes blueprints, industrial manufacturing, and construction using teams of workers as “Victorian technologies.” In place of such outdated practices, she proposes the use of “bottom-up construction methods” that replace inert materials with living ones. In her version of the architecture of the future, buildings would have the physiological capabilities to process nutrients, break down waste, self-repair, and interact with their environments.

Mitchell Joachim, a professor of architecture at New York University and copresident of the architecture design group Terreform ONE, has proposed constructing buildings via a venerable process known as pleaching, in which vines are grafted together into living structures. More fantastically, he’s also grown a prototype of an “in vitro meat habitat” from 3-D printed pig cells.

Such visions are about as far as can be imagined from the archetypal gray Soviet housing block, evoking instead the kind of enchanted world found in Hayao Miyazaki’s films, where engines rumble like beasts and buildings trundle across the landscape. At their best, these urban fantasies are spectacular in their otherworldliness, experimenting with forms of societal organization in which not only human populations are recognized.

Benjamin, for example, is collaborating with the artist Natalie Jeremijenko on a project called Amphibious Architecture, which uses lighting to turn New York’s East River into an interactive public space reflecting fish activity and water quality, tracked using mussels as “bio-sensors.” He’s constructed a pavilion in Seoul that maps air quality through a spectacular display of LEDs; when people text the pavilion, it texts back with current air quality.

Such experiments may seem irrelevant or frivolous next to the daily struggles of so many to pay rent and stay alive in cities that are increasingly hostile to the working class. And indeed, they could amount to little more than fleeting moments of whimsy that do little to alleviate the struggles of city life, contributing instead to the continued gentrification of city centers as places for the rich to enjoy cultural and technological wonders while feeling secure in their eco-mindedness.

But biomimicry aspires to much more. The Living and others seek to transform systems that extend far beyond the level of the individual, the neighborhood, or even the city itself.

City Lab

City planners have long sought to bring order to the teeming life of the city. But new invocations of the “living city” take this even more literally, aiming not only to tame the traffic and crowds but to rationalize life itself in service of a more ecologically viable world. As Benjamin told Metropolis magazine, “our design involves working at vastly different scales simultaneously — from cultivating microscopic root structures that bind the bricks together, to redefining global supply chains of building materials.”

Supply chains, in particular, have long proved vexing for cities. Since at least the nineteenth century, modern cities have been seen as voracious consumers of resources drained from the ever-expanding hinterland, transforming the world beyond their limits to meet their needs, and heaving out waste in the process of converting resources into products for use elsewhere.

It’s only recently that city living has acquired an environmentally virtuous sheen. But of course, however walkable their neighborhood or local their produce, urban-dwellers continue to depend on a vast array of products sourced from what by now is a global hinterland.

It’s in recognition of this classic urban predicament that some are trying to figure out how the city can not only reduce its use of resources, but perhaps even generate some of its own. LEED certification and similar programs amount to little more than expensive greenwashing: like buses powered by natural gas instead of petroleum, they might be less bad than business as usual — although some LEED-certified buildings actually perform worse on sustainability measures than uncertified ones — but they still use huge quantities of material and energy.

Thus The Living and similarly-minded architects seek not simply to shrink their buildings’ ecological footprints, but to upend such measures of resource use by integrating their structures into ecosystems themselves. Joachim, for example, proclaims the “biological supremacy” of growing materials “from scratch”: instead of simply using sustainable or renewable materials, he asserts that his projects are “inventing a new material and fully integrating it into nature’s metabolism.”

The idea that buildings and other seemingly inert objects can be integrated into the metabolism of the living world is part of a broader hope that human economies can be made less ecologically destructive. The concept of metabolism has become increasingly prominent in sustainable design in recent years; while it’s unlikely that many of those using the term are followers of the Marxist sociologist John Bellamy Foster, their concerns echo Foster’s emphasis on the “metabolic rift” driven between human society and nature by industrial production. Where Foster specifically pinpoints capitalism as the source of ecologically destructive practices, however, others think capitalism can be made sustainable if the metabolism problem can be overcome through technology and design.

In this view, cities should be situated not at the end of a linear flow of resources, but as nodes within a self-sustaining loop of recycling and renewing, wherein wastes emanating from one site can act as inputs for production in another. Industrial ecologists seek to close this loop by measuring resource flows and designing technological systems accordingly. The new crop of bio-urbanists seek to do something similar by modifying living organisms and designing living systems.

In another video produced by The Living, inspired by the famous film Powers of Ten, the camera zooms in on a tiny bacteria and out again to the pale blue dot of the Earth, explaining that contemporary designers work at “multiple scales simultaneously, from bacteria at a hundred-thousandth of a meter to the Earth at ten million meters.”

By engineering bacteria, it proclaims, we can engineer a “glucose-based economy” to replace our petroleum-based one. By this account, energy systems depend not on politics but on configurations of bacterial DNA. The architecture, the city, and the economy of the future will be made sustainable through biological tinkering — in particular, the kind done by synthetic biologists.

Building Life

The field of synthetic biology considers itself a construction industry: rather than design living buildings, its participants build living things. Synthetic biologists envision life as a technology that can be engineered like any other, arguing that biological functions are equivalent to mechanical ones. Thus cells become “nano-factories” and DNA a programming language; Stanford professor Drew Endy, a star of the field, describes the world as a “distributed manufacturing platform.”

Yet like any other working parts, biological functions need to be identified and standardized if they are to be used widely. The mainstream of the field emphasizes that DNA fragments — the building blocks of life — must be modularized and standardized so that they can be used widely to create new organisms and systems.

Synthetic biologists have christened these core components BioBricks; they are the equivalents of mechanical widgets. And as such, they are potentially subject to the same kinds of property regimes that govern other forms of technology. Indeed, almost by definition, the most fundamental elements of living things are understood by synthetic biologists as parts — parts that, like other technological components, might be patented and privatized.

To their credit, many synthetic biologists have recognized this as a potential problem. They explicitly state their rejection of the monopolistic model of biotech pioneered by the likes of Monsanto; they aim to pioneer not only scientific innovations, but social ones. In particular, Endy’s BioBricks Foundation promotes what he describes as open-source biology via the standardization of biological parts.

Other core institutions in the field, like the Registry of Standard Biological Parts and the International Open Facility Advancing Biotechnology (BIOFAB) likewise proclaim themselves to be open source. Thus historian of science Sophia Roosth describes the current system as a “‘moral economy’ of researchers dedicated to building, modifying, and exchanging these parts.” Benjamin, meanwhile, is working to develop principles and processes for open-source design.

Yet the existence of a moral economy doesn’t necessarily mean the absence of a commercial one. Whether applied to software, biology, or design, the open-source ethos doesn’t evince antagonism to private ownership. Most synthetic biologists, even those who support a scientific commons of open-access registries of parts, believe that any products or designs developed from these pieces can be privately owned. Indeed, champions of open-source biology tend to be more concerned with the effects of overly restrictive licensing — a phenomenon sometimes referred to as the tragedy of the anti-commons — on the development of new technologies than with the accessibility of end products to users.

The efforts of synthetic biologists to move toward a more sharing-oriented system should be taken seriously: the anthropologist Chris Kelty observes that open-source projects often operate as a form of political critique, one that expresses dissatisfaction with capitalism in its more rapacious forms. Yet as Kelty notes, “it is simply impossible to rely on a moral economy within a project of the scale of global biotechnology” — particularly given the past four decades of privatization and commercialization of intellectual property and scientific research, often driven specifically by the biotech industry.

Indeed, the rise of the contemporary American biotech industry is inseparable from the rise of neoliberalism. A biological century isn’t necessarily a neoliberal one — the dream of creating and modifying life forms for the benefit of humanity has a long history, spanning national borders and political persuasions. Yet the existing legal and political framework for biotech innovation and use was constructed in tandem with the drive to privatization of the seventies and eighties.

In 1980, the landmark US legal case Diamond v. Chakrabarty recognized intellectual property rights to living organisms, effectively opening the door to the modern biotech industry. Basic and applied research, public and private institutions, while never so distinct as those typologies suggest, have been increasingly intertwined in the wake of legislation like the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act, which effectively incentivizes the commercialization of academic research. As a result, individual researchers often have less control over what happens to their work than university technology licensing offices.

And while much of the field’s groundwork has been laid in university settings, the private sector is beginning to get involved. Some DIY “bio-hackers” have funded their projects via Kickstarter, while venture capitalists are exploring opportunities for investment in a growing number of synthetic bio startups.

And of course, where there are novel scientific developments, there’s the US military: DARPA’s Living Foundries program, which has funded Endy and others, states that its goal is to “leverage the unparalleled synthetic and functional capabilities of biology to create a revolutionary, biologically-based manufacturing platform to provide access to new materials, capabilities and manufacturing paradigms for the DoD and the Nation.”

In the face of such economic might, open-source projects, for all their righteous rhetoric and genuine good intentions, tend to run into difficulty in their efforts to create alternative regimes with the legal force to protect a reconstructed commons. And left unprotected, the scientific commons may simply serve to provide private companies with early-stage research.

However well-intentioned many of the scientists working in this arena may be, the plea to create an open-source biology for the benefit of all is largely an ethical one with little political or legal force. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to build a biology that’s truly for everyone — just that it will require a more concerted political effort, one that goes beyond the alternative economies of small groups to transform the political economy of contemporary biotechnology and the forms of property that underpin it.

Much of the current bio-enthusiasm, however, appears eager to eschew politics in favor of design, vague allusions to “raising awareness” notwithstanding. By this account, the future of the city — and, by extension, the world — will be determined not in the streets, but in the studio and the lab. Armstrong, for example, holds that “the real response to climate change is to create buildings that can heal the environment,” while Endy suggests that in response to problems like climate change, “maybe we should get really good at engineering matter.”

Joachim thinks that the US consumerist lifestyle is responsible for overconsumption of resources, but states that “we have to accept that we can’t change the American value system. Everyone wants to own property and have a sovereign or autonomous lifestyle. We have to react by innovating.”

Reinventing the Future City

Admittedly, current political prospects don’t exactly suggest that we’re on the way to dealing with overconsumption by transforming the American (read: capitalist) value system. But we still need design and politics rather than design as politics.

As always, the potential of synthetic biology, 3-D printing, and other new technologies to liberate us from labor, prevent catastrophic climate change, and deliver on a host of other promised social benefits will only be realized, banishing scarcity and drudgery, if social relations change accordingly.

In fact, these technologies have the potential to make things worse for working people: they suggest shifts in human labor and compensation ever more toward the forms designated intellectual, like design and engineering, and away from the traditionally working-class occupations of construction, building, and manufacturing — or, as some architects now call it, fabrication.

Decisions about these technologies — about how to organize the patterns of work and life they seek to disrupt, about which kinds of natures to preserve and create, about how to build future cities and economies — should be made publicly and democratically, rather than by small groups of scientists or corporations with an eye on a new space of accumulation.

And the potential for accumulation is vast.

The biotech industry is positioning itself to be the passage point for an ecologically sustainable future: the replacement of clunky old mechanical technologies with biological ones is proposed as a solution to everything from fossil-fuel use to food shortages. As the political theorist Melinda Cooper writes, “neoliberalism and the biotech industry share a common ambition to overcome the ecological and economic limits to growth associated with the end of industrial production, through a speculative reinvention of the future.”

Of course, it’s not the speculative reinvention of the future itself that’s the problem — it’s that only capitalists seem to be engaging in it. Some, perhaps most, of these architectural and biological dreams amount to little more than cutting-edge one-upmanship, vacuous hype, and good old-fashioned hucksterism coasting on the present wave of ecological concern and technological optimism. But to dismiss them as only the latest greenwashing fad or TED-talk fodder would be a shame — they present genuinely exciting possibilities.

The profusion of liberal and libertarian techno-utopianism in recent years can make it easy to forget that utopian socialist projects have long imagined a better world built from the combined abilities of humans, nature, and technology. We should imagine how visions of the city as a liberatory, lively, cosmopolitan space for people can be extended to include greater interaction with nonhuman nature. And we should insist that those relationships can have the same creative, playful elements that we prize so much in our human ones.

But without attention to social relations between humans as well, the ongoing stratification of the urban experience will continue unabated, as will the ecological damage wrought by modern cities.

Hy-Fi and its counterparts show that another city is possible, one built for the collective good of the many living things, both human and not, that call it home — but only if “radical experiments” in design come with the politics to match.