“Sustainably Dependent: Bio-Architectural Living Spaces”

Issue 5, March 2011: http://www.worldpicturejournal.com/WP_5/Johung.html

Sustaining architectural life is currently sutured not only conceptually, but also materially, to processes of sustaining human life.  In fact in recent years, the convergence of contemporary architecture with biotechnology has wielded a range of experiments that seek to catalyze, transform, challenge, reconfigure and/or reproduce living organisms and systems on a cellular level.  These intersections between architectural and biological sustainability have been inspired and influenced by particular technological advances in such areas as gene mapping and protein pathway identification, but also by a broader understanding of biological evolution in terms of symbiosis and cooperation.  Indeed, this kind of  “systems biology” emphasizes processes occurring between genes, rather than their specific labeling, and addresses wider mutual interactions and dependencies between organisms, their cellular components, and their environment.

We can now reproduce an actually living spatial structure out of organically alive matter that is both internally self-organizing and dependent on its external surroundings, and that also activates newly living systems that can be maintained over time.  But what are these living spaces ideally holding and housing, enduring and maintaining – and to what end? As cells and tissue cultures are reformed into sustainable systems and spatial structures on a minute scale, these experiments urge us to consider more expansively what it means to live within something that is itself living – in other words, to understand the sustained life of architecture in terms of the life, and thus the death, of the body.  In light of biotechnical advances that translate sustainable living processes into structural frameworks with ever more competency, how are we to refigure our embodied understanding and experience of inhabiting space?  To follow this line of thought, we must move from asking what kinds of living spaces – both alive and habitable – we are trying to sustain, to how we might want to be spatially and structurally sustained, and for how long.

In order to explore these questions, I focus on two recent projects that construct living spaces out of biological matter that house other biological matter on a micro-scale – projects that suggest a practice that I am calling “bio-architecture.” Oron Catt’s and Ionat Zurr’s NoArk (2007) is a Tissues Culture and Art research project that examines the taxonomical crisis induced by life forms created through biotechnology.  NoArk takes the form of an experimental vessel designed to maintain and grow a mass of living cells and tissues that originated from different organisms.  This vessel serves as a surrogate body for a collection of living fragments, and is built out of cellular stock taken from tissue banks, laboratories, museums and other collections, which are re-fit together in a techno-scientific living structure.  In addition, I look at Zbigniew Oksiuta’s Breeding Spaces (2007), which is an ongoing project that uses biological polymers and their processes of self-organization and internal tension in order to create dynamic spatial structures out of fluid membranes that, in turn, take up and synthesize matter and energy from their surroundings. Breeding Spaces attempts to generate structural forms in which the borders separating internal and external spaces are not a foreign body made of neutral materials, but are rather an immanent element of the whole structure.

“Take Two: Learning from Second Life”

Journal of Urban and Extra-Urban Studies, Volume 1: Issue 1

This paper explores the fully virtualized Internet world of Second Life, where space is experienced interactively as the continual reconstruction of instantaneous passages undertaken by digitally-rendered avatars.  Second Life users have primarily focused on the specific articulation of their avatars that are capable of teleporting instantly from place to place. Although the careful attention to bodily construction has rendered the design of spatial sites almost negligible, this trend seems to be changing, as architects and urban planners begin to re-imagine the infinite possibilities of constructing within virtual space. I focus on two sets of projects within Second Life, both undertaken in 2007 and both that insist upon temporary, unstable, and changing forms of spatial situation and planning. First, I consider the designs of Stockholm-based LOL Architects, the world’s largest virtual architecture office, which include Magnus Nilson’s wearable Yurt++, Alpar Asztalos’ parasitical structures that momentarily latch onto existing virtual properties, and Erik Andren’s instant rooms that appear when avatars enter and disappear when they leave. In addition, I examine the four winning designs from the First Annual Architecture and Design Competition in Second Life, which are a cloud that can be inhabited, a virtual museum, an interactive sound-scape, and a palace of discarded objects. I ask how these experiments and interactions undertaken virtually can be imported back into real-world scenarios and physically material spaces. Yet even if Second Life’s spatial structures and programs cannot be re-interpreted materially for first life scenarios and experiences, I propose that Second Life’s symbolic function reveals a socially embedded practice, not only focused on how spaces are constructed and used, but also on how bodies are to be perceived and legitimatized, which can in turn challenge us to identify social-spatial continuities and discontinuities occurring in our first lives.