Tissue and Genetic Engineering in Architecture and Design
Growing living buildings can be accomplished in different ways, entailing variables of size, speed, species, cost, technology, vulnerability, and ethics. For example, over the last few centuries, the Khasi tribe in Meghalaya, India, have coaxed the roots of ficus trees to grow into bridges over a local river. Roots and branches can just as easily be grown into the form of habitable structures, as imagined by Mitchell Joachim, Lara Greden, and Javier Arbona in their Fab Tree Hab (Figure 5.1). Curator William Myers included both of these examples in BioDesign: Nature, Science, Creativity (2012), along with other works of arborsculpture—baubotanik in German—shaped into architectural forms, and urban buildings constructed to allow plants to grow over their exteriors and roofs. While the arborsculpture approach is slow, quite inexpensive, and can be relatively unintrusive as far as human manipulation of other species, it clearly is not new, even in terms of being promoted by prominent designers. In 1970, counterculture guru Stewart Brand wrote, “Live dwellings? How soon? Houses of living vegetable tissue. The walls take up your CO2 and return oxygen. They grow or diminish to accommodate your family changes. Add a piece of the kitchen wall to the stew pot. House as friend. Dweller and dwelling domesticate each other. Society for the prevention of cruelty to structures.”
Brand clearly hopes the process of residing in a live shelter might help domesticate humans, who have a tendency to abuse other living creatures. This theme is also central to the work of artists Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, whose Victimless Leather two-inch-tall living “leather” jacket, created out of mouse cells using tissue engineering, was also featured in BioDesign. While the artists have created and shown this piece many times for different exhibitions, its 2008 version at the Museum of Modern Art’s Design and the Elastic Mind sparked much admiration and controversy. Partway into the exhibition, the coat’s sleeve started separating as cells grew out of control and clogged the system, so curator Paola Antonelli decided to pull the plug on the peristaltic pump and kill the coat. “Museum Kills Live Exhibit” stated the title of the New York Times coverage afterward; the story missed the obvious irony that the piece was thus no longer “victimless” (Plate 1).
Although a jacket is not architecture, nor a two-inch-tall anything habitable by humans, the work of Catts and Zurr has been elevated to the status of “prototype” by some generative architects who want to use advancing biotechnologies—particularly tissue and genetic engineering—to design and grow living buildings. For example, Marcos Cruz and Steve Pike at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London, for their coedited issue of AD, “Neoplasmatic Design” (2008), adopted “the broader definition of artists/researchers Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, for neoplasm as a ‘semi-living entity.’” In the issue, they ask, “How are designers going to understand design when it implies notions of programming, control, and maintenance of cellular structures that grow, evolve, and eventually mutate?” “Ultimately,” Cruz asserts, flesh-based designs such as Catts and Zurr’s work and the gamepods visualized in David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ “launch a very important debate on how we will face the prospect of a semi-living architecture.” For the most part, arborsculpture and “green” buildings with plants covering them do not interest generative architects. The former is likely too low-tech, requiring no “associative modeling” or computer automated manufacturing, although Fab Tree Hab would entail CAD/CAM design of the scaffold on which to shape the growth of the tree. The other approach of green walls or roofs perhaps seems too staid for the way it readily upholds the separation of nature and culture, with plants superficially covering an architectural structure. The rhetoric of generative architecture tends toward collapsing, not reifying, these boundaries. Both approaches may even be too botanical; Catts and Zurr’s work and tissue engineering of the sort discussed by generative architects, like the fleshy blobs that Cruz calls “Synthetic Neoplasms,” involve animal cells and tissues (Plate 12). There is no discussion by generative architects of whether a clientele exists that wants to live inside animalish structures. Regardless of the reasons for Catts and Zurr’s work being considered an architectural prototype, it is featured in books by generative architects and twice they have published in the primary journal promoting the movement, AD, in 2008 and 2013. Catts has lectured at the Bartlett School of Architecture at the invitation of Cruz, who asked him to explain how to use biotechnologies like tissue engineering to grow living architecture.
That architects continue to imagine the possibility of tissue-engineered living buildings reveals a number of rather embarrassing facts. First, it demonstrates either how shallowly they read Catts and Zurr’s own writings—even, apparently, the ones in architectural journals—or else, how blindly determined they are to overlook or not address the critique and numerous problems raised by the artists. These include problems of technological production, materiality, sterility, scale, and ethics. At the most basic level, they miss the very visible fact that tissue-engineered entities must grow inside glass jars in a sterile environment. Even the dome that Buckminster Fuller and Shoji Sadao envisioned placing over part of Manhattan in 1960 would not come close to meeting the necessary criteria for tissue-engineered architecture, which also requires a perfusion pump and nutrient fluid suited to scale. In this regard, usually exhibitions featuring Catts and Zurr’s work end with The Killing Ritual, which simply means that the work is removed from its sterile glass chamber and people are allowed to touch it. Touching is killing, for the bacteria on human hands so damages the tissue that it dies. Could one live in a building without touching it? People cannot be autoclaved before entering their homes. Dennis Dollens’s acknowledgment in text of the integral role of the bioreactor in tissue engineering is rare; most generative architects completely bypass this issue. Because most tissues grown for medical purposes are then implanted into a living body, often after growing for months inside a host organism that cultivates it, Dollens assumes something similar would have to happen for architecture: “For this dependent situation to change, for the possibility of an autonomous grown work, enormous medical, scientific, and engineering strides must be made so that the work’s tissue can become part of a pre-existing life system.” It is only within the context of a living body that animal tissue gains its full functionality, integrating into the body to be kept alive and healthy and to maintain its proper identity owing to epigenetic contextual cues. What existing organism, then, is of a size and kind to function as a host body to maintain tissue-engineered architecture, where the vasculature of the architectural form could integrate with the organism’s own?
This hurdle may be insurmountable by those dreaming of this future, prompting them to turn to alternative biotechnologies such as genetic engineering in order to bypass the bioreactor/scale/host–organism problems of tissue engineering. Genetic engineering (as distinct from synthetic biology) involves altering gene sequences in a particular organism’s genome with the intent of designing its form, function, or both; feasibility depends on many factors. Owing to the need for animals to develop inside a womb—no incubator or current technology can accomplish the same thing as a womb—engineering plants seem a more likely option. In 2008, Matthias Hollwich and Marc Kushner, of the New York–based architecture studio Hollwich Kushner, imagined something similar to this in their video Econic Design, also referred to as MEtreePOLIS (Figure 5.2). Rachel Armstrong the same year described “an ideal architecture” as “one that you can plant as a seed having programmed it with all the information it needs to grow itself in an environment where it can organically seek out and connect with the resources that it needs. Through its lifetime it would remain responsive to its surroundings and adjust according to the demands and needs of its human habitants,” though how this happens she does not state. “The architecture would be able to reproduce by cloning itself using a germ line structure that offers humans an opportunity to make any necessary genetic adjustments.” Like Brand, Armstrong imagines house as friend (or slave?) that submits itself for genetic alterations from its humans when it is cloning itself. “The end of the lifecycle of the architecture would come,” she predicts, “when it is no longer responsive to human activity,” like a tired toy, and “becomes an inert, skeletal structure, possibly decaying into the ecosystem to be recycled by its progeny.” Given that the pursuit of architectural “sustainability” is a primary motivator driving architects’ desires to grow living buildings, it is ironic that Armstrong thinks there is only a partial chance that they might decay to be recycled.
This chapter therefore explores the multiple ironies present in the literature in generative architecture on growing living buildings, beginning with the ironies and critiques initially raised by Catts and Zurr. It examines the application of current technologies of tissue and genetic engineering for architectural purposes in order to demonstrate the infeasibility and impracticality of generative architects’ visions. Part of its critique stems from architects’ reliance on what historian of science David Depew calls “digital tropology,” the idea that organisms are just digital printouts from a designed DNA chain. Another part of its critique is due to the complexity of biological systems with regard to new knowledge of morphogenesis and gene regulation through epigenetic mechanisms with implications for the difficulty of control and design of the form and function of cells, tissues, organs, and organisms, in relation to the environment. Although the new gene-editing technology known as CRISPR/Cas9 (from clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, with Cas9 being a derivative associated protein) is revolutionizing the method, relative accuracy, and cost of genetic engineering, editing DNA alters only one part—albeit an important one—of a very complex interconnected system. And part just comes from common sense. For example, Cruz and Pike use the word “bioterrorism” in one sentence, and in the very next they lament that “architecture continues to be seen as fundamentally removed from such phenomena.” They then introduce their guest-edited issue on “Neoplasmatic Design” as arguing in favor of a future with “neo-biological” “semi-living” architecture. Alternately, Cruz devotes pages to imagining medical surgical procedures as a new design technique for altering aesthetics in this type of architecture, but gives barely a single sentence to the much more obvious and serious point that living buildings would require medical interventions for injury and disease, not just “facelifts” and plastic surgery. Given these most basic commonsense critiques in addition to many others, why are generative architects promoting growing living buildings and what are the effects of their pronouncements? The chapter concludes with some thoughts to these questions.
Tissue Engineering in Architecture
Just a few years after scientists Robert Langer and Joseph Vacanti published the article that initiated the field of tissue engineering in medicine in 1993 and the Vacanti brothers grew a cartilage ear on the back of a mouse, Catts and Zurr founded the Tissue Culture and Art Project. Catts was finishing his graduate degree in product design, seeking to implement more “sustainable modes of production.” But as he explored the possibilities of tissue engineering for use in design, he and Zurr decided that the best strategy to expose the “very profound ethical and epistemological issues” that the technology presented, especially outside the context of medicine, would be to work as artists rather than as designers; they carried this mind-set into the founding of SymbioticA, their lab and artist residency program at the University of Western Australia in Perth. From the very outset, then, they have been critical of the role of design in alliance with a competitive capitalism and industrial mass production in promoting consumerism and ecological destruction. Yet, owing to the unease they felt in manipulating animal cells and tissues, rather than embrace and promote tissue engineering as a sustainable design material for living products, they chose the road of contestation.
In 2000, they were appointed research fellows at one of the leading research sites in the field, the Tissue Engineering and Organ Fabrication Laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital of the Harvard Medical School. Here they created their first works that were displayed alive outside of a scientific laboratory at the Ars Electronica exhibition. During that year, they produced living works in the forms of worry dolls (McCoy Cell Line) and pig wings (pig bone marrow stem cells differentiated into bone tissue). They became the first to grow in vitro meat using prenatal sheep muscle cells in Tissue Engineered Steak No. 1 (2000). These initial works matured into a “series of works that dealt, with much irony,” Catts and Zurr wrote in AD in 2008, “with the ‘technologically mediated victimless utopia’ that involved the creation of tissue-engineered in vitro meat and leather,” the latter referring to Disembodied Cuisine (2003) and Victimless Leather (2004–8).
Thus, in 2005 when Dennis Dollens, instructor in the Genetic Architectures doctoral program at the Escuela Arquitectura (ESARQ) at the International University of Catalunya in Barcelona, first discussed Catts and Zurr’s Pig Wings Project in his book Digital–Botanic Architecture, he was an early promoter of their work as an architectural prototype. In his book, which is also one of the early works in the body of literature for generative architecture, he writes, “The Pig Wings Project . . . comes closest to modeling a biologically-grown prototypical architecture.” Catts had just been interviewed for a New York Times piece, and his comment that “these entities we create might become our naturalish companions, our machines, and even our dwellings” caught Dollens’s attention. Dollens emailed him and published excerpts of their exchange in his book. Their conversation revealed that the biggest problem facing tissue engineers wanting to create “large-scale” tissues was that of “internal plumbing,” meaning the need for vascular tissue inside of other tissue to function as a circulatory system to impart nourishment and remove wastes.
Years later, “large-scale” is actually still very small when the production method is tissue engineering. At the time, Catts and Zurr were using the standard “top-down” process, which entailed seeding living cells onto a handcrafted scaffold made from “biodegradable/bioabsorbable polymers,” including polyglycolic acid (PGA), polylactic-co-glycolic acid (PLGA), and poly-4-hydroxybutyrate (P4HB); polylactic acid (PLA) is a common scaffold medium now. The cells proliferate over the scaffold while the scaffold slowly biodegrades inside a sterile bioreactor, which regularly moves in order to impart mechanical forces into the tissue that it needs to experience. Motion also both freshens the contact location of liquid nutrients that diffuse through the tissues and removes the wastes that compile on the exterior of the tissue. Diffusion of oxygen and nutrients only occurs through a maximum depth of one hundred to two hundred micrometers, a distance that limits the thickness of grown tissue. However, more recent innovations in processes of tissue engineering can simulate or create vascular tissues for purposes of circulation. For example, some researchers have used very creative methods to make voids through a tissue that can function as hollow tubes for fluid transmission. One used a “sacrificial” “sugar” or carbohydrate glass that was removed after its insertion; another used a thick gel that later turned to liquid and drained out. Another current technique, printing onto perfusion chips rather than seeding a scaffold, permits thicknesses up to or greater than one centimeter, which David Kolesky and colleagues refer to as “thick vascular tissues.” Thus, in the eleven years since the problem of “internal plumbing” was brought to architects’ attention by Catts—with scientists in the meantime constantly working on this problem—thickness is possible only to the scale of Catts and Zurr’s small living leather jackets.
Shifting one’s approach to using recently developed methods of “bottom-up” bioprinting does not solve the problems of vasculature and scale, even though this alternate method sounds as if it aligns better with the methods and rhetoric of generative architects because of its reliance on CAD/CAM technologies and “bottom-up” “self-assembly.” Around 2000, scientists began using 3-D printers to print scaffolds onto which to seed cells (the “top-down” method), and by the mid-2000s “bioprinting” began in earnest when scientists began to fill emptied ink cartridges from color 3-D printers with different cell types and matrix materials in order to experiment with what was then called “direct cell writing.” Since then, a number of different bioprinting techniques have been invented, each with benefits and drawbacks. While inkjet printing is still used with high precision in cell placement location and high cell viability post-printing, it is relatively slow and works with low-viscosity liquid-based materials that do not hold up well in maintaining voids that are necessary for vasculature circulation. Extrusion-based bioprinting, while being less precise in cell placement and having lower cell viability post-printing (as the forces of extrusion can damage cellular phenotypes), is faster and better at printing thicker materials. These materials include decellularized extracellular matrix, a superb but costly material taken from a former organism’s tissues sans cells that maintains its epigenetic cues. It therefore is better for printing voids or porous constructs that can function as vasculature. For both types, the goal of bioprinting is to speed up the process of manufacturing a tissue or organ for transplant by putting the different cell types that tissues have in their correct positions at the outset, using the precision of digital design and manufacture. Although bioprinted tissues still require time in a sterile bioreactor and also months inside a host organism in order to join together into mature functional tissue with developed vasculature, because the cells are printed at the outset instead of dividing on a scaffold after seeding, weeks are saved after the printing process. The time is simply moved beforehand, since cell division still takes time; it is just done before printing rather than afterward.
Thus, in both “top-down” and “bottom-up” tissue engineering, scale is limited by the problem of vasculature as well as by the size of the bioreactor and host organism. Large bioreactors do exist; for example, the largest bioreactor capable of culturing cells in suspension has a volume of twenty cubic meters. Yet, this is used not for creating tissues that need to fuse together with the proper form and function, but rather for culturing cells for use in “labmeat,” which is similar to ground beef if cow cells are used. A “run” or “batch” of this size takes four to five weeks of culturing before being ready for chemical crosslinking to form “easily settling aggregates of cells” that can be pressed together and then ground into “minced meat.” Clearly, even this approach and scale is not compatible with what architects imagine, since both form and function are integral to architectural and organismal performance. Even if one could print tissue or organ or organism parts modularly in order to fit each part inside the limitations of the bioreactor or host organism, assembling them together after removal from host organisms would require yet another host for them to bond and mature together. This is very far-fetched, but architects like to use 3-D printers modularly and tissue engineers like to think architecturally—for example, imagining the body as a building where workers can repair any part as needed (Figure 5.3), or considering the extracellular matrix as the architectural scaffold for an organ. The latter was proposed by Doris Taylor and her team at the University of Minnesota, who in 2008 invented the process of whole organ decellularization. They removed the cells from a rat’s and a pig’s heart using a solution that left only the extracellular matrix remaining. They then seeded this “scaffold” or “framework” with new cells and, after a week of keeping the cells alive with a perfusion pump, the cells began to contract and the heart began to beat. They hope to use this process for human organ replacement, seeding decellularized matrices of pig organs with a person’s own cells in order to grow a personalized replacement organ.
Taylor’s approach reveals a number of very interesting factors at play in how tissue engineering has developed over the previous decade, including not only issues of tissue architecture but also the importance of epigenetic factors in maintaining cell and tissue identity, an issue that is only now beginning to be addressed. In “top-down” tissue engineering where a 3-D-printed scaffold is seeded with cells—be they stem cells or already differentiated cells—these include the shape or architecture of the scaffold itself and the material from which is it made, which is typically a synthetic biodegradable and bioabsorbable material. In the mid-2000s, Wei Sun’s laboratory at the Computer-Aided Tissue Engineering (CATE) laboratory at Drexel University began questioning the standard method of creating scaffolds in orthogonal grid patterns, which were commonly used regardless of the needed final shape of the tissue or organ which the tissue was intended to transplant. Sun teamed up with generative architects Mattias del Campo and Sandra Manninger of the Austrian architectural firm SPAN, who at the time were pursuing their doctoral degrees at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna under the directorship of architect and designer Greg Lynn. Del Campo and Manninger were interested in using their skills in digitally designing complex geometric architectures that could be used as scaffolds that are truer-to-form in tandem with a tissue engineer who could then help them explore the possibilities of using tissue technologies in architecture. They designed complex scaffold architectures and then sent the files to Sun, who 3-D printed them at CATE in 2006 (Figure 5.4).
Two years later, del Campo and Manninger spoke at the ACADIA conference about “Speculations on Tissue Engineering and Architecture,” where they explained their hope that in complex generative architecture, since the joints in complex curvilinear panel geometries pose the most difficult construction problems, that “possibilities within the realm of biological wet solutions inside the realm of tissue engineering” might exist. They imagine bridging “a gap of a joint with organic matter that can provide the same qualities as normal gaskets used in such cases,” and using bioprinting to fabricate “responsive components consisting of heterogeneous materials, each one with a specific quality and entirely sustainable.” These would be “ready to grow together as soon as they are on site and provided with the necessary nutrients,” with the “main problem” being “the problem of scale and the problem of access to the material.” They imagine that these building materials could be “able to regenerate . . . be responsive on [sic] environmental conditions . . . provide light by bioluminescence and they can die and decompose. They can transform carbon dioxide into oxygen.” As is hopefully clear, the problems are many more than they realize, since they fail to mention sterile glass enclosures, bioreactors, host organisms, connected vasculatures, epigenetic changes, and how cells or tissues would grow together on-site, in addition to scale, access to material, and death, the latter of which they note but, ironically, fail to consider an architectural problem. Additionally, most bioluminescence is so dim to human eyes even in darkness that many challenges face designers hoping to use it for anything other than mood lighting.
At the small scale, though, seeding a synthetic scaffold that at least has the proper tissue architecture, such as something like that designed by del Campo and Manninger for Sun, could possibly improve the time or results for achieving successful tissue function. This is because having correct cellular and tissue morphologies is crucial to their functionality. Even better, if one could use actual extracellular matrix rather than synthetic polymers as media in “bottom-up” bioprinting, as is possible with extrusion-based printers, then the proper epigenetic cues for particular tissue architectures with its different cellular identities would already be present. Since knowledge of what these epigenetic cues are in human tissues—much less, that of other organisms—is only now being researched through the National Institutes of Health Roadmap Epigenomics Mapping Consortium, Taylor’s approach to decellularizing whole organs offers an ingenious solution that to a significant degree skirts both problems of proper architecture and epigenetic factors, since the matrix form and functions are already intact. But the ethics and the appeal of using the organs of slaughtered animals for purposes other than medical organ adaptation and transplantation—say, to create care-needing, mortal, semi-living products or architectural gaskets—confounds. Is the appeal due to the presumed “sustainability,” as they state, of using living tissues for gaskets in a building that is already made of complex geometric panels—perhaps of titanium or ethylene tetrafluoroethylene? If so, this is tokenism at the very least. The allure more likely is the ability to control and utilize life through processes of industrial production, whether mass or customized. This pursuit depends on a conceptual reductionism of the complexity of living cells, tissue, and organisms into manageable, controllable, instrumentalizable parts. Such mental and capitalist constructs do not, though, affect the actualities of biological complexity.
Catts and Zurr are critical of what they refer to as “the instrumentalisation of life,” and they note the irony that “the further life is being instrumentalised, becoming a product for human manipulation, matter—whether living, semi-living, or non-living—is being attributed with vitality and agency.” This irony compounds another that pervades all their tissue-engineered pieces, whether attributed with the name “victimless” or not. In tissue-engineered “semi-living” entities, it is not just that the semi-living entity dies—that is, becomes a victim—when it stops having its fluids replaced or is removed from its sterile chamber, but rather that the fluid itself that is its nourishment comes from death. Most nutrient fluid used in tissue engineering consists of about 10 percent fetal calf serum (FCS, also called fetal bovine serum or FBS), which is extracted from pregnant cows just before slaughter through the insertion of a long needle through their body into the amniotic sac. Although serum-free nutrient fluids exist, they are costly and cells do not grow as quickly or effectively in them; therefore, until these conditions change and a serum-free fluid is adopted by the industry, tissue engineering is intimately connected with the cattle industry.
Therefore, claims of tissue-engineered products being “sustainable” or “animal-free” are quite likely misleading. When journalists claim for the production of “synthetic meat” (“labmeat”) that “they also do not need to slaughter any cows,” and misled ethicists then proclaim that it “stops cruelty for animals” and “is better for the environment. . . . It gets the ethical two thumbs up,” they are misspeaking or speaking of which they do not know. Similarly, if one were to wear a coat produced through processes of tissue engineering, one would not be making a more sustainable choice than if one wore a leather jacket for which only one cow, and not also her baby, needs to die. So long as nutrient fluid contains FCS, this is true whether one chooses a coat that is “semi-living”—assuming one could be made at the scale of a human body and kept from dying on contact—or one that is biofabricated but dead. For example, Modern Meadow in New York may have been developing biofabricated leather products from cultured bovine cells grown in a sterile incubator or bioreactor like “labmeat,” but then pressed and bonded into “leather” instead of being cooked. In 2015, Suzanne Lee, the company’s founder, gave Daniel Grushkin, cofounder of Genspace in New York, a tour of the lab and showed him that they were growing bovine cells. Lee collaborates with Gabor and Andras Forgacs, two of the founders of the company Organovo, a leading tissue and organ bioprinting company in San Diego. While the Modern Meadow website then claimed that they were creating “animal-free” leather without “animals,” if they are still using bovine cells and tissue culture processes with nutrient media containing FCS, then their products are not “animal-free” and they are not “unlocking the capabilities of nature to solve our biggest sustainability challenges.” Since 2017, however, the company is now using synthetic biology to engineer yeast cells to make collagen, from which they are creating their new material Zoa.
In addition to the instrumentalization of life, Catts and Zurr also are opposed to the use of digital tropology and the “genohype” and “DNA mania” on which it is based. “Life is not a coded program,” they write, “and we are not our DNA.” They clearly state that DNA on its own outside of a cell cannot produce anything. Even Craig Venter’s creation in 2010 of the “first self-replicating synthetic bacterial cell,” they point out, relied on a preexisting bacterial cell into which synthetic DNA was inserted. Creating a cell from scratch, much less an organism, is something that protocell researchers have been trying to do for decades. The difficulties of creating viable tissues at “larger scales” even from conglomerations of cells using tissue engineering show how exponentially difficult the dream of creating a “bottom-up” organism from self-organizing molecules is. Yet, this is just the vision hyped by nanotech researcher Paul Rothemund, whose DNA Origami (2007) that created happy faces from synthesized DNA was included in MoMA’s Design and the Elastic Mind exhibition as an example of the beginning of design by “self-organization” and “self-assembly.” In his TED talk “Casting Spells with DNA,” Rothemund stated, “What we really want to do in the end is to learn how to program self-assembly, so we can build anything, right?” It is as if digital algorithms are the means by which molecules bind and life occurs. “We want to be able to build technological artifacts that are maybe good for the world.” (Maybe? Perhaps he means if not good for the world, then good for capitalism?) “We want to learn how to build biological artifacts like people and whales and trees,” he asserts, conflating living beings of all sorts with products. “And if it is the case that we can reach that level of complexity—if our ability to program molecules gets to be that good—then that will be truly magic.” Catts and Zurr’s Pig Wings Project and Victimless Leather, which Antonelli killed, were just behind the partitions from Rothemund’s work in the exhibition. There, they were being promoted as design, not art, that will help us “take a more responsible attitude toward our environment and curb our destructive consumerism.” This is yet another of the ironies, one that was certainly not apparent at the MoMA exhibition: that Catts and Zurr oppose “DNA mania,” understand the crucial importance of the cell, and deeply respect the autonomy of other living entities, but that Rothemund seems to think that by programming molecules of which he focuses on DNA, we will be able to build “biological artifacts like people.”
Finally, Zurr and Catts early on in their work and publications made it very clear, in their article “Are the Semi-Living Semi-Good or Semi-Evil?” (2003), that the exploitation of living or semi-living beings under the context of capitalist profit-taking and political ideologies of fear based upon “othering” those different from oneself makes them uneasy. “Though looking at the level of compassion to living systems of our own species from different ethnicities, religions, races and class,” during times of “increased suspicion and intolerance,” “we are worried in regard to these new lives,” they write. “The form and the application of our newly acquired knowledge will be determined by the prevailing ideologies that develop and control the technology. . . . When the manipulation of life takes place in an atmosphere of conflict and profit-driven competition, the long-term results might be disquieting.” They correctly note that “Darwin’s writing on the origin of species stemmed from the economic theories that were developed in the late eighteenth century. Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, which was published in 1776, argues for a natural basis for poverty and the need for a free market as a model for progress and innovation.”
While Zurr and Catts acknowledge that the competitive theory of capitalism and evolution with survival of the fittest continues, in fact other possibilities exist as well, such as biologist Lynn Margulis’s theory of evolution by cooperation. “The nature of the explanations of the mechanisms governing evolutionary principles reflects the dominant ideologies of our society rather than some scientific truth,” they write. “The microbiologist Lynn Margulis . . . has offered an alternative emphasis in regard to the evolutionary process. She theorized that some of the greatest leaps in evolutionary development are caused as a result of cooperation and symbiotic relationships.” Her theory of endosymbiogenesis as the origin of eukaryotic cells from the merger and cooperation of two prokaryotic cells was in fact the source for their choice of the name SymbioticA. Rather than uphold the “othering” of humans and “other” forms of life or semi-life through instrumentalization and manipulation, they intend to promote cooperation and symbiotic relationships. “Can it be that the basic building blocks of our own bodies, hence the eukaryotic cell, is a result of symbiotic relations between two entities (different bacteria)? Can it be that the origins for our own functioning body are collaborations between the entities we consider to be our enemies?” they ask. The strong suggestion is that the answer is yes.
Genetic Engineering in Architecture
Many of Catts and Zurr’s concerns and critiques are equally relevant to practices of genetic engineering and genetically engineered architecture even if the technological hurdles are different. Standard genetic engineering alters gene sequences of an organism’s genome either through the addition or removal of DNA using various methods, in order to produce desired alterations to what otherwise functions as generally the same organism. In other words, one is not completely repurposing the organism to function solely as a “workhorse” or “chassis” just to produce a chemical, as is the intent in much synthetic biology. In the recent past, choice of method has depended on whether the organism being engineered is a bacterium, plant, or animal, although now, CRISPR/Cas9 is able to be used for any organism. As the changed genome occurs inside of a single cell to result in an adult organism if it is a plant or an animal, the engineered cell must undergo the process of morphogenesis and growth. Hence, it is common to use stem cells for this process if it is an animal, but since many plant cells are totipotent, almost any plant cell can be used to regenerate an entire plant. If one has the DNA sequence one wants to insert by removing it from another genome including (usually) the desired gene(s) as well as a promoter and terminator for each to mark its transcription, it can be inserted into a cell’s cytoplasm using a plasmid or into a cell’s nucleus using a viral vector or microinjection. These methods come with greater or lesser precision as to where the genetic material is actually placed. Even with CRISPR/Cas9, although the locational accuracy for gene placement is greatly improved since the binding site for the target gene is clearly specified, studies have shown both on-target and off-target activity. Enough off-target placement occurs that one review from 2016 states, “It would seem inappropriate to suggest that the CRISPR/Cas9 platform per se is specific or non-specific” in its locational accuracy, although in general its relative accuracy surpasses that of the previous approaches. Since genome architecture matters, including the tightness of a chromosome’s coiling owing to chromatin, histones, and whether methylation is present, placement can affect whether the gene will function as intended; it often does not. To this end, the same review notes that future studies of CRISPR/Cas9 are “required to understand how chromatin structure and sequence context contribute to target site accessibility, as well as on-target and off-target site recognition.” It also mentions using data from ENCODE—the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements, an ongoing study decoding intergenic DNA in different species—and the need for increased data on epigenomes in order to improve methods of genetic engineering toward desired results. This shows the beginnings of acknowledgment in the genetic engineering community of the challenges posed by biological systems complexity.
Thus far, these technical hurdles and the theoretical and methodological implications of this new knowledge have not affected architects’ pronouncements in favor of genetically engineered architecture and urbanism. As Hollwich stated in 2009, actual realization of these futuristic architectural visions—no matter how detailed or difficult—is the purview of scientists and engineers. Engineers, after all, lauded the ten-minute video Econic Design: A New Paradigm for Architecture (2008) that Hollwich, Kushner, and Hollwich’s architecture students at the University of Pennsylvania created in one week for a competition sponsored by the History Channel to offer innovative visions for the future city of Atlanta. The video won the IBM Engineering Innovation award and was featured on both the History Channel and at the 2008 TED conference, whose motto is “Ideas Worth Spreading.” Early on, the video establishes the current oil crisis that is prompting a search for high-tech alternative energy solutions. It then walks viewers through the scientific and technological innovations of the next century that culminate in the first urban “biogrid”: MEtreePOLIS—Atlanta in 2108—“the city of the future.” Genetically engineered kudzu vines take Atlanta “off the grid” (Figure 5.2). They both clean the air by replacing carbon dioxide with oxygen through the process of photosynthesis and serve as “power plants,” as the energy from this process is harvested to power the city. The vines therefore offer a “twofer” solution to the current environmental problem that buildings consume 48 percent of the United States’ electricity and contribute a similar percentage of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, a situation whose urgency has prompted recent debates in state and federal congresses across the nation.
Hollwich and Kushner take turns narrating Econic Design, their voices matter-of-factly directing us to their vision of a biotech future that at the outset harks back to an idealized, primitive past. “Historically, humanity used to be in harmony with nature,” they tell us, admitting that “in our industrial age, we abused nature. Today,” however, “we try to create harmony through sustainability. Even as the weather changes, and worldwide resources are depleted, we predict that society won’t change its lifestyle to be in harmony with the environment, but rather we will use technology to change nature to be in tune with us.” Their sequence begins in 2006 with the scientific publication of “the first complete DNA sequencing of a tree,” then shifts to university architectural laboratories that, between 2015 and 2022, develop “econic design” techniques that integrate genetic engineering into architecture, turning it into an “ecological performer.” Architectural researchers learn how to grow structures, implement living technologies, use structural materials as nutrients and vice versa, and simulate ecosystems. In 2046, “scientists at MIT” conducting cross-disciplinary research “integrate a photosynthetic protein with a solid-state electronic device, effectively turning [genetically] modified plants into electricity producers.” Less than twenty years later, the “National Office of Genomic Research, in collaboration with national universities, patents DNA-manipulated trees that produce consumable electricity. They call them ‘power plants’ and begin prototype installation nationwide. After five years of growth, the manipulated kudzu vines provide 80 percent of buildings’ energy needs.” In the interim (2052), “eight years earlier than predicted,” “the Arctic Ocean is free of ice”; in 2073, “one hundred years after the oil crisis, OPEC declares worldwide fossil fuel reserves depleted.” Planners in Los Angeles—the quintessential city of the automobile and endless expansion of the sprawling urban grid—take the lead by implementing the “sequential erosion of street infrastructure to be replaced by a single layer of [genetically] enhanced bio-renewable moss.” By 2098, U.S. cities adopt a “natural growth building code that follows the organic model of forests,” depicted with actual footage of a real forest at sunset that appears to be superimposed with smog and tinted yellow. The next and final stage jumps ahead ten years to 2108, when kudzu “power plants” have overtaken and obliterated all evidence of actual nature—perhaps better described as “unenhanced” or “first nature”—and the city of Atlanta becomes entirely a “simulated ecosystem.” In honor of this accomplishment, the city renames itself “MEtreePOLIS.”
Besides Hollwich and Kushner’s brief video foray into genetically engineered urbanism, the primary generative architect promoting genetic engineering for architecture is Alberto Estévez. He began and directs what once was the Genetic Architectures doctoral program at ESARQ, Barcelona; now ESARQ offers a master’s program in Biodigital Architecture. Through this program and also through three books he has edited and published—Genetic Architectures (2003), Genetic Architectures II (2005), and Genetic Architectures III (2009)—Estévez is well known as the chief promoter of this goal. His books, however, include chapters by many famous generative architects, including among others Michael Weinstock, Evan Douglis, Karl Chu, François Roche, Bernard Cache, Michael Hensel, and Neil Leach. In 2003, he wrote, “Pure utopia or near reality? Buildings whose walls and ceilings grow with their own flesh and skin, or at least with plant textures, which genetics is able to develop, including shining heating coming through the veins delivering the oxygen necessary for breathing. There will be no need for painting and repainting the walls.” Referring to Austrian architect Adolf Loos’s utopic vision “of his wife’s bedroom space being covered in white hair,” he predicts that this “may be realizable with genetic architecture. If so, the manipulation would be a mere remake of nature, accomplished without sacrificing any animal,” he states, echoing claims of victimlessness that surround tissue-engineered architecture. “Just the opposite,” he continues, “by creating the animal! With no creature suffering because of the manipulation. Without obstacles to manipulation. With whatever forms, textures, and colors one may choose. Very long, silky hair in bright silver shades or in iridescent red.” Alternately, “with the already existing genetic techniques,” one can build “a real toadstool house, a tree house, a whale house,” he added in 2005. To be clear, he states, “We have to bear in mind, though, that we are not talking only about virtual reality. . . . Our reference is plain reality.”
In contrast to the strategy of sustainability put forward in Econic Design, Estévez unabashedly dismisses environmental concerns as passé, conservative, and “preservationist.” Referring to environmentalists of the 1970s and 1980s, he states, “The ecologist avant-garde was conservationist at the start of its eternal struggle, but throughout the last decade of the twentieth century there was an evolution and the subject has become more complex. At present, at the start of the twenty-first century, the avant-garde of ‘those who actively talk about the environment’ . . . have extended such an understanding of nature.” The current avant-garde, in which he groups himself, knows “that one can intervene in nature, work ‘with’ nature, work nature itself, obviously always to improve it, enrich it, and give it greater yield, without preservationist prejudices, that are now obsolete.” Earlier, in 2003, he had written, “The model’s name, Genetic Architecture, may be misleading, because it has nothing to do with traditional uses of the terms ecology, environment, context, caring for the environment, sustainability, and so on.” This is because “the new ecologic-environmental architectural design does not imply creating in nature but creating with nature. What is more, the new architect creates nature itself. Therefore, there is no point in being environmentally friendly since we are about to recreate the environment anew. . . . The architect of the future will no longer direct masons but genetic engineers.” Yet, despite his different strategy, his vision is similar to the narrative of Econic Design. Both depict the engineered world of the future completely replacing “first nature.” “If we apply genetic techniques to the Earth’s real vegetation, transforming it into habitable spaces,” Estévez writes, as if no “first-nature” habitable spaces would exist, “we could create a real, living, soft and furry ‘gencity,’ free for all genetic architecture growing throughout the planet. A continuous city, which could embrace the entire world with seamless vegetation,” presumably implying everything everywhere would be both urban and vegetated. He casts this as “an era where humans will be capable of effectively using 100 percent of the potential of what we call nature. . . . This is all that we have yet to achieve,” he concludes. “Committed architects have the gargantuan duty of improving the real world through architecture. We wish them strength and courage.”
Estévez strongly believes that his vision of genetic architecture is possible because he sees both generative architecture and genetic engineering with the blinders of digital topology. It is largely for this reason that the ESARQ Genetic Architectures website is so confusing, since the genetic and the digital are so conflated that one cannot easily ascertain what is being claimed. For example, the website states that their work “is related to the application of genetics to architecture, in an interdisciplinary way, from two points of view: a natural one, using the latest biological technology, and an artificial one, using the latest digital technology.” Yet, when I met Estévez in 2010 at the Association for Computer Aided Design in Architecture (ACADIA) conference in New York and asked him which genetic engineers he was working with, he said, “I need one. Do you know any?” Although their brochure claims that students have access to “a digital manufacturing laboratory and a genetics laboratory,” no genetics lab is listed on their website under the section “Labs.” Estévez does, however, in the 2009 book, include a photo of himself in the “Laboratory of Genetic Architecture,” which does show scientific equipment. Yet, neither the curriculum requirements nor the faculty nor the publications coming out of ESARQ reveal a serious biological laboratory–based component of research. This lack of clarity is compounded by Estévez’s claims that “the architect, as the geneticist, can now design the software, the DNA chain (artificial or natural), which will produce the built product by itself.” It is as if there are no material or systemic differences between scripting a “chain” of zeroes and ones in computer software to generate a building, and synthesizing a DNA molecular sequence that he thinks can produce a “built product by itself,” with no mention even of a cell. This is what Catts and Zurr refer to as “genohype” and “DNA mania.” Elsewhere Estévez states, “The architect has only to program the chain that will generate everything else.” He repeats, again, in slightly different terms, sounding a bit like Rothemund, “Today, one can go beyond the threshold and search at the level of molecular action, even transforming the genetic design, the programming chains that will later generate naturally alive elements automatically.”
Perhaps most clearly of all, it is as if he thinks that because both architecture and a DNA sequence, prior to being synthesized, can be described using binary code, that they are basically one and the same: “The only thing remaining is to link the ones and zeros of digital organicism with the ones and zeros that govern the DNA reorganization orders to get them to grow as live buildings: this would be the real cyber-eco fusion design.” In this, however, his is not too different from an assertion made by del Campo and Manninger concerning tissue-engineered architecture. They write that with regard to creating a tissue-engineered gasket to cover an architectural joint, that “provided the necessary porosity within the material it should be actually possible to close such a gap with organic material, and it is just a question of time till this idea is realized in small scale as a proof of concept. For this proof of concept it comes in handy, that tissue engineering and advanced architecture share some tools, such as 3D printing and advanced animation software.” It is as if, because a scaffold can be 3-D printed in a tissue-engineering lab from an architect-designed file, that this is almost viewed as sufficient to create the semi-living proof of concept: “To check the possibilities of communicating via 3D models, the authors sent digital data to the CATE Tissue Engineering Lab to be 3D printed in their lab.” Even if Sun were using the CAD/CAM approach of “bottom-up” bioprinting that uses no scaffold at all (he likely is now, since he pioneered direct cell writing in 2008), this is only the very beginning of the process of creating a viable semi-living tissue.
Neither Estévez nor del Campo and Manninger demonstrate in their publications much scientific knowledge at all about the processes they envision using in architecture. Estévez’s Genetic Barcelona Pavilion (2007) shows this clearly (Plate 13). Are we really supposed to believe that the fleshy substance that is overtaking the small model of this modernist architectural icon is not textured chicken breast propped up by toothpicks, but is actually tissue grown by Estévez and Maria Serer using either tissue-engineered or genetically engineered cell cultures? No cell type is identified; Estévez just describes it as a “soft and edible” genetic reformulation of Mies’s famous pavilion. As “genetic architecture,” it has very little structural form or function and clearly has not undergone morphogenesis of the developmental sort, which provides skeletal structures, among other things. This demonstrates a serious lack of ability to genetically manipulate living cells into useful architectural forms beyond a “neoplasmatic” blob that needs to be propped up by supports. If instead it is tissue-engineered tissue and is truly in an outdoor environment as shown, rather than in a sterile glass chamber that is not shown, then it is on its deathbed, destined soon for the cooktop or the trash.
Yet Estévez is undeterred from strongly stating the newfound power of the architect as geneticist: “An individual may create so much as an entire race, with an infinite number of small, automatized variations. . . . Architects, creators of races of buildings: that sounds good but strange, with connotations that have nothing to do with architecture.” While use of the phrase “races of building” may just be an awkward translation, the fact that he acknowledges that it carries “strange” “connotations” suggests it is not, and that it somehow associates a perception of human “racial” or ethnic difference with the creation of races of genetic architecture. Most other generative architects describe their offspring as families, species, or populations, not as races. Estévez does champion colonialism, imperialism, competition, and survival of the fittest in his writings as if these are evolutionarily instilled “natural” qualities, as is currently proposed by some evolutionary psychologists. For example, in his essay that he characterizes as a “First History of Genetic Architecture,” after recounting the architects he considers to be his historical predecessors, he describes a series of recent conflicts between architects battling to win competitions or secure their place in architectural history. “In the end, they are all still fights for survival,” he writes, “but ones which the human being establishes with ‘bridgeheads’ [referring most likely to an architectural success here, a building there, making a mark in history so to speak], without limiting himself to one single hunting ground, as the tiger does. . . . The same yearning that pulled us out of the caves leads us to have a deep-rooted imperialist instinct that if we do not control it, it will finish with our neighbor.” Although the language is unclear about whether the neighbor—other architects—triumphs or is done in, Estévez clearly asserts that he accepts having a “deep-rooted imperialist instinct,” which aligns with other pro-colonialist assertions he makes. In the same essay, he asserts that “the first person to dedicate their time to [creating genetic architecture], and who achieves it, will be the Christopher Columbus of the genetic New World. And as with the discovery of America, as it is not something that must be invented—it is simply a question of time and money—the only thing remaining is to find the corresponding Queen Isabella to concede their personal jewels for such an enterprise.” He repeats this idea often: “Nowadays the only obstacle is a matter of money”; “It is simply a question of finance.”
Given the ravages wrought on the world’s first peoples under colonialism over the previous few centuries, as well as the substantial body of literature about postcolonial theory, Estévez’s outspoken idolization of a Spanish colonial “hero” as the title to be placed on the first genetic architect comes across as either a poor choice strategically but honest, or else just uninformed. Yet, he is not alone in the context of generative architecture in promoting a competitive colonialist attitude as a fundamental necessity for use of genetic technologies in design. Pike, in his article “Manipulation and Control of Micro-Organic Matter in Architecture,” interprets the habits of microorganisms to form colonies as providing “metaphorical parallels with human colonization.” “The manner in which these micro-organisms colonise their environment, how they communicate, organize, and negotiate their territory, along with the mechanism and purpose they employ, provide metaphorical parallels with human colonization,” he writes. He seemingly misses the difference in agency between bacteria forming colonies themselves using “bottom-up” “self-organization,” as is often claimed by promoters of complexism, and humans, “top-down,” attacking and colonizing other human beings. To make this unpalatable metaphor based on a “morally sensitive issue” a bit more comfortable, Pike softens it with symbiosis and sustainability: “Valuable lessons regarding symbiotic relations and sustainable systems can be drawn, while touching on the morally sensitive issues of growth manipulation and behaviour control.” But without doubt, “the precedent for architects and designers to plunder nature as a resource is firmly established. . . . For the designer to utilize micro-organic material in a meaningful way, with any degree of achievable intent, it is imperative that the material may be manipulated and controlled, as for other traditionally available materials.” He continues, “This type of control can only be achieved within closed environments, sealed vessels with filtered transmission between the interior and external conditions. All components must be sterilized and only the desired organisms introduced.” Given his metaphor of how this process parallels human colonization, his writing harks back, perhaps unknowingly on his part, to the history of placing tribal peoples into the closed environments of reservations and even to their forced reproductive sterilization.
Colonialism is also referenced in Econic Design, although much more subtly and arguably from an oppositional stance. While the video on the surface rather glibly presents biotechnology wedded to architectural and urban design as a natural, environmentally friendly technofix to environmental problems created by Western expansion and industrialization, the narrative can also be read in reverse. The word “technofix” is frequently used by critics with historical consciousness who weigh the persistent, future-focused, utopian rhetoric delivered by those promoting and profiting from new technologies against the negative effects these technologies continue to produce in social, economic, and environmental domains. This latter view runs as an undercurrent in the video in the form of a counter-narrative that critiques the colonialist ideals and technological triumphalism that historically led to our current environmental predicament, with which the video opens.
The architects’ choice of kudzu for the “power plants” works double time in a metaphorical role that ultimately undoes the video’s unquestionably forward-progressing narrative. Kudzu is a highly invasive nonnative species first brought to the United States from Japan for the 1876 Philadelphia Sesquicentennial Exposition. In the 1930s, it was cultivated by Civilian Conservation Corps workers in the American South as a ground-covering solution intended to halt erosion during the Dust Bowl—erosion instigated in part by industrialized farming techniques. It is currently one of the most unwanted species in the United States for a number of reasons. First, it fails to succumb to the technofix of herbicides. Despite heavy chemical doses, it continues to grow at an inordinate rate of speed over the tops of trees and buildings, much like past colonial powers or contemporary “neocolonial” economic and gene-patenting strategies under globalization. Furthermore, it has huge root tubers that anchor it deep in the soil, an apt metaphor for Western anthropocentrism and imperialist ideologies. Rather than encouraging biodiversity and equality as global agribusiness, gene banks, and pharmaceutical companies working with genetic technologies claim, it subsumes other species completely and has produced “devastating environmental consequences.” Its cost, in lost crops and strategies of control, runs close to $500 million annually. The video’s imagery reinforces the damaging power of kudzu (Figure 5.2); steroid-studded kudzu vines rip at the vertical grid of twentieth-century skyscrapers, which often function as corporate headquarters. Like many nonnative species introduced through Western colonization and global trade that have overrun species native to local environments, genetically altered kudzu and “enhanced bio-renewable” moss threaten to totally consume “first nature” and the entire urban environment.
The architects’ rhetorical descriptions of kudzu’s effects bolster this interpretation of a critical metaphorical counter-narrative in the video. Kudzu “feeds off the historic fabric” so that “the old forms and traces of the past become part of a growing organism.” “Through this combination,” they state, “the past is updated and preserved,” yet their imagery shows it in the process of being destroyed—the grid is, in fact, being torn down and replaced by a dubious “biogrid,” a concept that functions as an oxymoron. “The surviving twentieth-century buildings,” ostensibly those that won out in the cultural struggle of survival of the fittest before genetically engineered kudzu appeared on the scene at least, “have adapted to the biogrid and survive off the energy it provides,” assimilating themselves to economic domination and the trickles it provides. Does their term “biogrid” refer to the kudzu, which grows in anything but a grid-like pattern, or rather to the so-called rational ordering and control of nature by Western scientists, architects, and urban planners, symbolized by both the Jeffersonian grid and genetic engineering, which has become so endemic and so pervasive as to become invasive?
As Zurr and Catts astutely note and these excerpts and readings demonstrate, the ways in which one interprets the manipulation of life stems from the ideologies one accepts. This holds regardless of whether one sees the world anthropocentrically, perhaps through the lens of capitalism and survival of the fittest interpreted by Spencer and Darwin into evolutionary theory, or one promotes multispecies equality, makes a conscious choice to do one’s best not to exploit “the other,” and chooses Margulis’s evolutionary theory of cooperation and symbiosis. “In many ways we are not smarter than a cell or bacteria,” Zurr and Catts write, “and we can learn about our behaviour from the building blocks of our own bodies. The use of collaborative colonies of cells outside of a body is epistemologically and ethically a very relevant artistic expression which forces us to look at human civilization and its shifting rhetoric from an alternative position.” Referring to their own work, they state that “learning about communicative cells in a new ‘unnatural’ environment is like shining a mirror at our own behaviours.”
Such self-conscious reflection is largely absent from discourses of generative and genetic architecture, even though Catts and Zurr’s work offers the identified prototype. For example, Cruz and Pike in their introduction to Catts and Zurr’s article in AD describe the work of SymbioticA as “crucial in testing new phenomena and elaborating new vocabulary that articulates the potential of new ‘semi-living’ conditions, or ‘object-beings that evolve in partial life.’” They describe the contribution of their article as being about “how to control, maintain and support living conditions.” Yet, in the article, Catts and Zurr state that “the Tissue Culture and Art Project (TC&A) was set up in 1996 to explore, develop, and critique the use of tissue technologies for artistic ends,” and even more so, for design ends. “There is still the major question should we go down this path? This question led to a succession of artistic research projects . . . and a series of works that dealt, with much irony, with the ‘technologically mediated victimless utopia’ that involved the creation of tissue-engineered in-vitro meat and leather.” Finally, they declare, “the intention is not to provide yet another consumer product, but rather to raise questions about the exploitation of other living beings.” Yet, five years later, since architects continued to invite them to come explain how to grow living buildings, they published in AD again. This time, they stated that
although the initial idea of the semi-livings came from a design perspective, we pursued it as artists in the belief that this position will enable us to question, critique, and problematise the instrumentalisation and objectification of the semi-living beings created. As artists, we hope that we have a different “contract” with society—we ought to provoke, question, and reveal hypocrisies through different tactics: whether aesthetic, absurd/ironic, or subtle confrontation. Making our audience uneasy is an outcome of our own uneasiness, perusing the very things that make us uncomfortable. All we propose to offer are contestable future scenarios that are different from the canon of the contemporary trajectories.
Toward a Living Architecture?
Zurr and Catts acknowledge that “humans are accumulating better control” over technologies associated with evolutionary biological processes, “though not necessarily a better understanding of the long-term results of such interventions.” While Zurr and Catts’s work is primarily focused on enhancing critical thinking and deep understanding, the architects who want to grow living buildings using biotechnologies seem more intent on hoping that funding will arrive to overcome the technological hurdles. Although artist Eduardo Kac and others have used genetic engineering to cause organisms to glow green when exposed to ultraviolet light by adding the gene for the creation of green fluorescing protein (GFP) into their genome, this is only the most superficial example of genetically engineering animals for design purposes. Architectural visions of furry rooms, presumably of a size suitable for human habitation, imply a scale beyond that of most animals that have evolved on this earth, apart from perhaps the dinosaurs. Plants are the largest organisms on earth and the strongest against gravitational forces owing to their production and integration of lignin. If an animal–plant hybrid is imagined by architects to be the solution that solves both problems of scale and aesthetics—assuming there is a clientele that wants this—architects need to realize how fundamentally different plants and animals are; such is the stuff of science fiction. Even within one organism’s genome, engineering a specific quality is a hit-or-miss affair because of the complexity of interactions across many different scales—from the organism with its environment to the ways in which chemicals from those interactions affect epigenetic responses and gene regulation throughout different parts of a body. This complexity of interactions does not just occur at one temporal or spatial point but at all times of development, beginning with morphogenesis, when the complex switches of homeobox gene functioning—when, where, how long they are turned on or off—can establish radically different trajectories of development.
Given these hurdles and the fact that other, worthier problems merit the time, money, and efforts of scientists and architects, why pursue genetic architecture at all when we already have plants that are suitable for shaping into architecture using arborsculpture? Is the allure of a living “sustainable” house that extracts carbon dioxide from the air and returns oxygen—read plant, not animal—really so strong that it trumps problems of architectural disease, death, and bioterrorism, with the economic fallout and loss of shelter that those circumstances imply, especially on the urban scale? Pablo Picasso said, decades ago, “Imagine a house built of flesh—it wouldn’t last long.” The allure is not making arborsculpted living shelters, since if it were, we would already be making them. Arborsculpture is not being taught at schools featuring generative or genetic architecture. Rather, it seems the allure is to control, manipulate, and instrumentalize life using the most recent computational technologies, for the anthropocentric boost, for the potential profits it proffers, for the cultivation of one’s status as avant-garde within one’s discipline.
If architects do not understand the science, and if architecture students and the interested public do not know that their professors or architects do not understand the science, then these visions promoting growing living buildings using biotechnology can dupe those who also do not understand the science into thinking that creating architecture using biotechnology is imminently viable, “sustainable,” and “victimless” when it is not. That the ideas are promoted through a “potent . . . heady mix of projects, with no real differentiation being made between the visionary, speculative, and built” (as editor Helen Castle said of the “Neoplasmatic Design” issue) further compounds the problem of clear understanding. Many of the projects done under the name of “speculative design,” “critical design,” or “design for debate” begun by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby at the Royal College of Art in the mid-2000s (some were included in “Neoplasmatic Design”) tend more to promote the envisioned technologies as inevitable than to actually question the need for them at all. Promoting growing living buildings through biotechnology primarily functions as an avant-garde architectural fetish built on the misconceptions of digital tropology that distracts aspiring architects from the more important work of addressing our current environmental crisis, to which the discipline and practice of architecture has significantly contributed.