Making the Geo-Biological Turn. Alive/En Vie. Aux Frontières du Design, at Espace EDF, Paris

Architecture may no longer function as a sump of resource consumption but rather as a site of production for useful substances such as food, biofuels or precipitates that enable materials to self-repair. 
The sterile, inert surfaces of our modern cities provide a site and an opportunity for transformation of architectural design practice — to generate a common life-sustaining project aimed at the production of urban soil in which other systems can thrive.

A collective exhibition at Espace EDF (also known as EDF Foundation), Paris 7th arrondissement, explores the nuanced relationship between nature and architecture, industrial design, and art. The title: Alive/En Vie, aux frontières du design. From Philip Beesley, Rachel Armstrong, Vincent Fournier to EcoLogicStudio, Terreform One, Botanical Fabrication, CITA, and Carole Collet, to only limit to these participants.
First, the thematic behind this exhibition our changing notion of nature.
The Radiant Soil | Philip Beesley | installation view at the Espace EDF, Paris, 2013

I decided to focus on the architectural part of the exhibition letting other but very interesting projects voluntarily aside. A first point about this exhibition we can formulate is that these projects want to confirm that our relationship, which has long being ambiguous, if not conflictual, is changing, and that the boundary between the engineering system and the natural system is becoming finer. It is obvious that these tensions, caused by unpredictable disturbances we cite at length — and we will merely sum up into categories: the world's mutation, genetic modification, climate control, on the one hand, climatic, ecological uncertainties, on the other hand —, have forced us to reconsider our approach to nature, "to reconsider the divide between Nature and Culture" (Next Nature, Actar Editorial, 2012). The 35th issue of Volume, an issue entitled Everything Under Control that addresses the relation between synthetic biology and architecture, fast-emerging technology and architecture, states that we are reconsidering our relationship with the ecosystem, or, what we have already noticed two decades ago and that becomes more relevant, the increasing awareness of environmental crisis. Indeed architects, designers, and engineers study nature as means to problem-form unstable contexts that pose the climatic-ecological-engineering system.
The Radiant Soil | Philip Beesley | installation view at the Espace EDF, Paris, 2013

On the one side we are facing a set of issues — population growth, urban expansion, financial mutation; climatic, ecological issues, water, food and resource shortages; — on the other side, we will be benefiting from advances in technology, genetics, biology, robotics and cybernetics. These challenges are evident in this exhibition. Philip Beesley and his project the Radiant Soil, an impressive meshwork installation suspended from the ceiling. If you are already familiar with Beesley's research on evolutionary ecology, material agency, fabrication, robotics, and their relation to user, an approach he defines as "responsive architecture", the Radiant Soil will remind you Hylozoid series, a massive, physically interactive installation he has been developing since 2007. Here, with the Radiant Soil, Beesley pursues his research on the linkage of the biological, the ecological and the artificial. Robotic, chemistry and prototypical architecture are central to this installation. Thus, according to Beesley,
[t]he word 'soil' might speak quietly of secure mass and compression and resource for framing human territory, but this contemporary soil seethes with a myriad of seeded viscera, miniscule fragments gathering and efflorescing, redolent with chorusing oceans of growth to come. The soil covers, and retreats. Soil consumes space, erasing and consuming daily circumstance within its unspeakably silent, primal fertility. The ambivalence latent within soil makes it a monstrous doppleganger for architecture.
Put it the simplest way: soil is seen "as a kind of standing reserve." (Seth Denizen in discussion with Etienne Turpin, Organs Everywhere, issue 4).
In an article Soil and protoplasm: The Hylozoic ground project he co-wrote with Rachel Armstrong, he denotes soil as
made of structurally repetitive organic and inorganic material that possess heterogeneous properties. Similar to the complex assemblies of tissues and organs in living systems, soil contains functions that are supported by an orchestrated variety of cells. The various elements of a soil matrix are spatially arranged in a way that provides suitable surfaces for self-organising and evolving biochemical exchanges. The chemistries self-regulate and interact and they confer the various molecular species with behaviors of living systems such as growth and sensitivity to their surroundings.
In a time of scarcity, the accelerating speed of material change will be modifying the relation to soil. As Seth Denizen stated (Making the Geologic Now, Punctum Books, 2012),
[t]he world becomes defined not by a time, but by a speed. This is the point at which the world can no longer be merely an extension of our own, a difference in degree, but rather something which takes on a difference in kind: another sea, another wind, another world at right angles to our own.
The parallel with Seth Denizen's research on soil can be explained with this sharing statement regarding shift in the material conditions of our society (Etienne Turpin in conversation with Seth Denizen, in Organs Everywhere, issue 4; Martin Heidegger, "The Question Concerning Technology," in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. Thus, as Denizen says,  
There is absolutely nothing of human habitation on the planet that does not, at some point, pass through the soil because, and this is very important to understand, the soil is the filter through which all material production must pass.
The Radiant Soil is made up of inert materials and a 'living' technology composed of adaptive chemistry — organic 'protocell' technology, inorganic 'protocell' technology and inorganic chemical cell (iChells) membranes:
interlinking clouds of industrial design biomimetic components of polymer, metal and glass, arranged in suspended filter layers contain a near-living carbon-capture metabolism. Frond-clusters fitted with shape-memory alloy mechanisms react to viewers as they approach, flexing and setting off bursts of light that stimulate the protocells and trigger chains of motion that ripple throughout the environment. Scent-emitting glands attract viewers and encourage interaction with the system, providing stimulus that increases air circulation and protocell formation.
Or an immersive environment defined as an evolutionary system of a synthetic ecology; A geotextile mesh that interfaces with the visitors. The Radiant Soil is made up with proximity sensors that detect movement and respond with motions. A particular point here is the concept of interface that makes architecture act as enabler. A concept related to this idea of adaptive capacity, adaptability, or… responsiveness that characterize Beesley's design research. In a discussion with Omar Khan for the fourth issue of the editorial project Situated Technologies Pamphlets, Beesley argued: "I like to think of these material exchanges as being the first stages of metabolic interactions where living functions might take root within the matrix." Or thinking architecture as facilitator to link the user and its environment to a certain extent. But this also raises the question of vulnerability, of fragility of architecture, as Beesley stated in his discussion with Omar Khan, and I will add, more broadly of the engineering system. It is however important not to understand vulnerability as negative, but as creative force for architecture to deploy new opportunities to building, as well as to thinking. As Omar Khan forthrightly writes, "fragility provides a strategy for allowing an architectural structure to embrace multiple openings in the fact of its own demise."
Overall, the Radiant Soil tries to bridge these opposed world of the man-made and the natural. It also attempts to reveal the transition from a distinction between born and made to a distinction between controlled and beyond control.
Fab Tree Hab Village | Terreform One | installation view at the Espace EDF, Paris, 2013

Collaborating with nature is the starting point of projects of Terreform One, and of EcoLogic Studio. Terreform One, first, with Fab Tree Hab Village, a project consisting of the ecological design of a prefabricated home humanity, poses a double question, that of fabricating, and that of material agency. In an essay entitled Hackerspaces and the act of making published in the 35th issue of Volume Magazine, Mitchell Joachim invites us to reconsider two points, among the four axes developing in his essay, the act of making and the relationship between material and biodesign. The act of making first. Taking hackers and their spaces, he called hackerspaces, he states that the particularity of hackerspaces is their innovative quasi-professional methods and practices that "generate areas that connect unobvious cross-disciplinary activities." In so doing, this sharing space allows for an "understanding of invention" and generates an interface "that emphasizes open source knowledge through sharing." These fast-emerging technologies, he mentioned in his text, desktop 3D printing/additive manufacturing, biohacking, urban farm/food production, open source design, Do-It-Yourself (DIY) fabrication, scripting/freeware, Arduino electronics, crowd-sourcing, alternate energy strategies, and citizen science, are changing the way we fabricate objects, and in a very nearing future the way we fabricate buildings. The second point well illustrated in his Fab Tree Hab Village is the reconsideration of material agency. Like Philip Beesley, as has been said above, Joachim explores actual material conditions but the comparison stops here. Joachim is interested in synthetic biology, genetics, and other biological disciplines. According to him, 
[a]pplying the tools of synthetic biology, alongside other biological disciplines, such as micro-biology and medical tissue engineering, will allow us to create products that are a hundred percent organic, with minimal waste and energy expenditure.
Fab Tree Hab Village, and another project in this exhibition, Gen2Seat, are examples of Terreform One's research whose aim is
to use grown materials to reshape the way people think about manufacturing products genetic engineering.
This is what Terreform One calls biodesign, a "field of design that incorporates living organisms in the creation of new materials and products that can enhance our living." Biodesign can be a similar approach to protocell, a research defended by Philip Beesley and artificial-life chemistry researcher Rachel Armstrong, whose project Saving Venice is also presented in this exhibition. Biodesign, Mitchell Joachim writes in Volume, denotes a "field of design that incorporates living organisms in the creation of new materials and products that can enhance our living." 
Hortus.Paris: The Machinic Harvest | EcoLogicStudio | installation view at the Espace EDF, Paris, 2013

These projects show us new environments and new thinking on man-made and natural systems. EcoLogicStudio with Hortus.Paris: The Machinic Harvest, invites us to pick a straw and blow air into the bioreactor tubes to feed the algae and grow the Hortus garden. The user then can scan the QR codes on the photo-bioreactors to learn about the various algal species. In so doing, the user becomes an active agent to this bio-technological environment.
Hortus.Paris: The Machinic Harvest | EcoLogicStudio | installation view at the Espace EDF, Paris, 2013
Hortus.Paris: The Machinic Harvest | EcoLogicStudio | installation view at the Espace EDF, Paris, 2013
Immatters | Ann-Kristin Abel | installation view at the Espace EDF, Paris, 2013

Two more projects from my selection are French designer Vincent Fournier's Post-Natural History and Rachel Armstrong's Saving Venice. Post-Natural History, first, consisting of a series of images in very large format in which he imagines animals synthetic-biologically programmed to maximize their adaptive capacity to a changing environment. This synthetic-biologically manipulation creates a very intelligent rabbit, a inorganic-sensitive fly, a mimetic lizard, a beetle with adaptive capacity that allows continuous tracking, a drought- and frost-resistant ibis, and a great grey owl with predator-resistant feathers. And… another fascinating project, as part of Post-Natural History, shown in this exhibition is this robotic agricultural drone, a drone capable of self-activating above 30°C to transport freshwater from rivers to dry remote agricultural areas.
Post-Natural History | Vincent Fournier | installation view at the Espace EDF, Paris, 2013

A common denominator to these works displayed at Espace EDF is a desire to understand the present by speculating, borrowing from an uncertain, unpredictable but emergent futures by producing objects, ideas, systems that do not exist in the present. These genetic-manipulated animals of course do not exist but let us speculate about living species with adaptive capacities to an environment in mutation. The agricultural drone, then, illustrates the growing interest in UAV technology. While UAV raises policy, legal and ethical issues, there is room for specific uses of UAV technology outside military technologies as Vincent Fournier suggests with his agricultural drone. Liam Young, co-founder of Tomorrows Thoughts Today, states that the physical environment is dissolving, leaving a mainly mobile, nomadic infrastructure. A recent article, on the Daily Beast, notes that the agricultural sector can expect to benefit from drones: "Every farmer will benefit. [Drones] will allow small farmers to [farm] economically and it will allow large farmers to acquire data when they want it." Indeed, drones offer a large range of possibilities for farmers such as steering water, pesticides to crops with precision. An example: Vincent Fournier's self-activating agricultural drone. Artists, architects, designers' unlimited imagination allows them to go beyond frontiers, explore new opportunities, design and fabricate new objects, new ideas that do not exist yet, but with a high certainty in a very near future.
Robotic Jellyfish Drone ı Post-Natural History | Vincent Fournier | installation view at the Espace EDF, Paris, 2013
Robotic Jellyfish Drone ı Post-Natural History | Vincent Fournier | installation view at the Espace EDF, Paris, 2013

Finally, Rachel Armstrong, who collaborates with Philip Beesley on the Radiant Soil, also shows her latest research on Venice, a research entitled Saving VeniceHer installation consists of a medium-scale computer visualization of the Venice Reef, a collaboration with Christian Kerrigan, and a jar full of protocell oil droplets. In her latest short book Living Architecture: How Synthetic Biology Can Remark Our Cities and Reshape Our Lives, Armstrong discusses possibilities of living technology in redefining materials and fabrication. It is difficult to sum up Armstrong's take into one sentence, but to put it simply, Armstrong encourages a constant dialogue between cities and their surroundings
Saving Venice | Rachel Armstrong in collaboration with Christian Kerrigan | installation view at the Espace EDF, Paris, 2013

She also invites architects, engineers and designers in reconsidering their discipline by integrating adaptive, soft and responsive structures, ecologically artificial systems. Saving Venice explores capacities of new materials described as 'living technology'. Take protocell oil droplets, or dynamic oil in water droplets, this chemically-based technology is capable of moving around their environment, modifying it and allowing complex behaviors. Armstrong argues that these protocells "can be 'programmed' chemically to achieve particular outcomes."
Protocells can therefore produce a limestone like substance and artificially extend the development of this material (created by the accretion of the skeletons of tiny marine organisms), which can continue to grow, self-repair and even respond to changes in the environment.
In this context, these chemistry-based materials can work like primitive metabolisms. The aim is clear: with protocell technology, as has been said, Armstrong posits a redefinition of new architectural design, material and manufacturing principles with 'living' inorganic technology that possess adaptive capacities to respond to internal and external factors. It is certain, she notes in an article published in Next Nature, that protocell technology however is as part of a large range of possibilities to problem-form fragile environments such as Venice:
The issues involved with the reclamation of Venice are complex and this particular protocell-based approach addresses just one aspect of a large range of factors that threaten the continued survival of the city. However, other metabolic materials besides the protocell technology may have further potential to address other significant issues in this multifactorial situation, such as the very pressing problem of rising damp in the fabric of Venice's buildings where functional 'seaweed wraps' may be able to extract water from waterlogged traditional building materials and attenuate the ongoing significant damage caused by this process.
What I retain here beyond the synthetic-biologically charge of these projects, is the transformation of architecture throughout new design protocols, materials, and fabrication. Architecture is capable of self-modifying in accordance with changing contexts. But what is certain is that this transformation requires new tools, new design and manufacturing protocols, new engagement. And a shifting role of the architect. As Mitchell writes in Volume magazine, "the profession has to restructure its investigative goals, particularly assuming a balance and responsibility of giving aspirants a sufficiently bona fide command of environmental studies and adaptable technologies." Or a new but adaptive business model. Allow me for suggesting that in regard with these projects at Espace EDF, architecture is progressively incorporating contingency. Architecture attempts to reveal positive, creative forces from vulnerable conditions. It is not merely focus on building and site. On the contrary, architecture is becoming an interface with its surrounding, more scalable, responsive with its environment.
Saving Venice | Rachel Armstrong | installation view at the Espace EDF, Paris, 2013

As a last point, allow me for expressing some regret about the exhibition. The overall exhibition, however, fails because of a lack of curatorial consistency. When dealing with topics like this one, synthetic biology and design, it is a very difficult task to avoid pitfalls that could lead to a catalogue of projects and a lack of meaning. Indeed this requires a certain distance with the general topic or the formulation of a problematic that constructs a dialogue between the works, and between the works and the viewers. It seems to me that while Alive/En vie encapsulates an overview on synthetic biology and design, the absence of a clear problematic however weakens this exhibition. Put it simply, the exhibition lacks of consistency, a coherent meaning that would have gone beyond the simple topic of synthetic biology. This is the disappointing part of this exhibition. Curating exhibition cannot merely show or display a work, an idea. It requires a dynamic that generates meaning, new understanding of what is being represented.

Through 1 September 2013
Alive/En Vie: Aux frontières du design
Espace EDF, 6 rue Récamier, 75007 Paris. 

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