Bio-Architecture and Material Ecology

Silk Pavilion , MIT Mediated Matter Group

Silk Pavilion, MIT Mediated Matter Group

Kevin Slavin, MIT Media Lab

Kevin Slavin, MIT Media Lab

Francois Roche,  I've Heard About

Francois Roche, I've Heard About


Carlos David Gonzales Uribe, MIT Media Lab,  Mediated Matter Group

Kevin Slavin, MIT Media Lab, Playful Systems

Francois Roche, New Territories


  1. Self Repairing Architecture
  2. Design as Future Making. Clive Dilnot's Essay Reasons to be Cheerful 1, 2, 3...* (Or why the artificial may yet save us)
  3. Neri Oxman. Material Ecology
  4. Next Nature


  1. Acadia Conference 2015 Website
  2. Francois Roche: New Territories
  4. Marcos Cruz Blog (Bartlett School of Architecture)
  5. The work of Alisa Andrasek at Biothing
  6. Neri Oxman's TedTalk March 2015


Material Ecology: "Material Ecology is an emerging field in design denoting informed relations between products, buildings, systems, and their environment (Oxman, 2010). Defined as the study and design of products and processes integrating environmentally aware computational form-generation and digital fabrication, the field operates at the intersection of Biology, Materials Science & Engineering, and Computer Science with emphasis on environmentally informed digital design and fabrication. With the advent of digital fabrication techniques and technologies, digital material representations such as voxels (3-D pixels) and maxels (a portmanteau of the words 'material' and 'voxel') have come to represent material ingredients, for instance in the context of additive manufacturing processes." (Ref)

Age of the Anthropocene: "The slice of Earth's history during which people have become a major geological force. Through mining activities alone, humans move more sediment than all the world's rivers combined. Homo sapiens has also warmed the planet, raised sea levels, eroded the ozone layer and acidified the oceans. Given the magnitude of these changes, many researchers propose that the Anthropocene represents a new division of geological time." (Ref)

Last year I wrote a Design Manifesto essay where I wrote:

In his paperReasons to be Cheerful, Clive Dilnot outlines human history as it relates to the artificial, and breaks it into three distinct epochs. Most notably is the “Age of the Artificial,” the period that we are currently living in, that Dilnot describes as the time when “the artificial and not nature is now the horizon, medium and determining condition of the world” (Dilnot). He describes climate change, namely global warming, as one of the “destructive historical markers” of the “Age of the Artificial” and suggests that we are now defined by the Anthropocene Age—the era where humans begin to impact the environment to such a degree that even the Earth’s geology is forever altered. This idea that our increasing dependency on and obsession with the artifice has directly resulted in a fundamental change of our planet’s ecosystem must dictate the direction that humanity moves toward into the 21st century. Thus, the primary axiom in the guiding principles of my design ideology is that, above all else, the ecology of the planet must be protected and sustained.


I argued in a subsequent essay that if humanity is to survive the environmental destruction that our current social and economic models are based upon, the only way forward is to make a radical change toward an “ecologically synergistic” social model.

Over the past year my focus on where best to implement the Ecological Synergy became centered on the built environment. Why? Because the practices (factories, pollution, mass production) of the industrial revolution have what has largely contributed to climate change. And steel—the symbol of the 20th century industrial revolution,  — is the foundation upon which the world’s largest cities are based. And perhaps because it is architects — who are using alternative materials and innovative design approaches — who are the most prominent figures today to rethink our “Artificial” world. One must only look at the 2015 Acadia (Association for Computer-Aided Design in Architecture) Conference description to see that the future of architecture is heavily rooted in reimagining the built environment:

Until recently, architecture’s proximity to environmental issues has been dominated principally by “sustainability” or “green” discourse, which not unlike the “functionalism” rhetoric of twentieth century modernism, privileges an arguably deterministic and thus parochial view of the discipline. The ACADIA 2015 conference, titled Computational Ecologies: Design in the Anthropocene, seeks to expand the topic of environmental discourse beyond purely practical issues of “performance” as a general means of engaging experimental contemporary design that explores aesthetic, conceptual, and even philosophical levels as well. In the context of such work, the discipline of architecture, conceived as both a technological and a cultural endeavor, becomes immersed in a much broader geophilosophical debate regarding the future of society and by extension the built environment in the age of the Anthropocene. 

The “future of society” is indeed what is at risk here if we neglect to identify alternative modes of living and designing. We simply can’t afford any other avenue.

Neri Oxman is the head of the Mediated Matter group at the MIT Media Lab. In her 2015 TedTalk, Oxman says that we must now look not to “nature inspired design” but “design inspired nature.” Further she argues that we are now in a time when we, humans, must “mother nature.” In the context of Dilnot’s assertion that we are now fully immersed in the “Age of the Artificial,” Oxman’s call to “mother nature” feels like the right approach. Is it not our responisibility to care for that which we have destroyed? The on-line blog turned book, Next Nature offers a subtly different argument saying that in the Age of the Anthropocene we humans must “radically” shift our view of nature, which has historically been naïve. Next Nature argue that we must leverage our technology to become “catalysts of evolution.” Rather than mothering nature perhaps we must partner with nature, as I have suggested, toward a Synergistic Ecology. How can our impetus to design our world serve as a launching point to create a better future?

Oxman’s answer is through Material Ecology — which is “an emerging field in design denoting informed relations between products, buildings, systems, and their environment. Defined as the study and design of products and processes integrating environmentally aware computational form-generation and digital fabrication…” I find Oxman’s work undeniably interesting. I see her Silk Pavilion, for example, as an important precedent in merging biological fabrication and digital fabrication to create impressive architectural models of the future of the built environment. Her designs are both aesthetically beautiful and evocative of a wondrous future. But is her Material Ecology enough? Can this research make real change, now?

Francois Roche is another contemporary architect and could be described as  “fringe” or “punk-rock.” His ideas about the field of architecture and the implications for society border on that of an activist as he “seeks to articulate the contradictions of architecture” (Wikipedia). In I’ve Heard About he writes  “the urban form no longer depends on the arbitrary decisions or control over its emergence exercised by a few, but rather the ensemble of its individual contingencies. It simultaneously subsumes premises, consequences and the ensemble of induced perturbations, in a ceaseless interaction. Its laws are consubstantial with the place itself, with no work of memory.”

In my conversations with him this week, he urged me to think more broadly about what all of this work is really for. He asked that I consider the dichotomy of making work to be shown at an architecture conference where hundreds of people will get on planes, adding to the CO2 levels in the atmosphere, where they will be wearing Prada suits to sit in an ivory-tower and discuss the meaning and potential impact of a project? How can we “force the territories of discourse to move” to “offend the status quo”? How can we reveal the “vulgarity” of society, the “ugly parts” that we don’t want to see, that get swept away from our eyes?   

Which leads me the question: is the ecology movement in design and architecture too focused on aesthetics? Is it not the role of architecture, by design, to make things beautiful? And will more beautiful objects, even if made using innovative techniques in bio-engineering/fabrication/design, create the social discourse that is required to create long-lasting, radical change? If the point of all of this research is to deliver humanity safely from the Age of the Anthropocene, then, to be emotionally moved to take action do we need to look at our own detritus?

I also spoke this week with Kevin Slavin who runs the Playful Systems lab at the MIT Media Lab. While Slavin’s world-view is also deeply rooted in the realities of the Age of the Anthropocene, he is distinctly more optimistic than Roche. His current research focuses on the microbiome and looks toward revealing the impact that the micro world has on the macro world, especially as it relates to the built environment. He seeks to answer the question: How do the microbes that live in our city impact human behavior, disease, and even the social order?

At the start of this blog post I referenced my Design Manifesto, which demands, primarily, Ecology Above All Else. However, also in my manifesto is the notion of Design to Inspire. While I agree with Roche that it is important that my work question the status quo and “disrupt,” I don’t believe that fear is the way to move humanity, rather I believe it is inspiration that will. Slavin’s research offers promising insight into the connections between the micro and macro—the fractal nature of our universe. This, in my view, could inspire people. We, humans and microbes, are all on this “spaceship earth” together. Only by working together will we survive.


Understanding the relationship between the microbiome and the built environment will give us a deeper understanding of human behavior. How does the microbiome in a large, industrial city differ from that of a rural environment?