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Synthetic Natures

Winka Dubbeldam

Synthetic Natures
By Winka Dubbeldam -

“Imagine an architect looking at the subnatures of a city: a cloud of smoke, a pool of mud, a pile of debris. He or she might see such things as emblematic of mismanagement, abandonment, or catastrophe […]”

David Gissen – Subnature: Architecture’s Other Environments (2009)

 Living on the globe di Ezio Blasetti © Ezio Blasetti, courtesy dell’autore

The distinction between what is natural and what is human-made, which has informed the distinction between the “wild” and the cultured for centuries, has become blurred. So, what is natural and what is artificial in the Anthropocene era? As the Anthropocene is defined by human activity as the dominant influence on climate and the environment, “nature” or the wild has become increasingly scarce and the man-made has taken over. That same Anthropocene has an ever-increasing devastating influence on the climate and the environment.

The human struggle to contain systems running out of control, species going extinct, and catastrophic effects impacting our safety, has thrown our idea of “home” into a fundamental crisis.
Luis Barragán describes in his 1980 Laureate Acceptance Speech what the wild then still could hold: “I suddenly discovered, to my astonishment, small secret green valleys the shepherds call them ‘jewels’ surrounded and enclosed by the most fantastic, capricious rock formations wrought on soft, melted rock by the onslaught of powerful prehistoric winds. The unexpected discovery of these ‘jewels’ gave me a sensation similar to the one experienced when, having walked through a dark and narrow tunnel of the Alhambra, I suddenly emerged into the serene, silent and solitary ‘Patio of the Myrtles’ hidden in the entrails of that ancient palace. Somehow I had the feeling that it enclosed what a perfect garden no matter its size should enclose: nothing less than the entire Universe”.
This kind of untouched, idyllic beauty is becoming increasingly rare. At this time, nearly 50% of the US population, an estimated 150 million, live in areas that do not meet federal air quality standards. Passenger vehicles and heavy-duty trucks are a major source of overall pollution, which includes ozone, particulate matter, and other smog-forming emissions. Particulate matter is singlehandedly responsible for up to 30,000 premature deaths each year. In 2013, transportation contributed more than half of the carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides, and almost a quarter of the hydrocarbons emitted into our air.1 According to the latest World Health Organization (WHO) report, 8 million people die every year globally because of air pollution.

A shocking realization, but perhaps that fact should not be considered entirely as a negative, as David Gissen suggests in Subnature. Here he proposes to take on the less favorable natures (subnatures) such as weeds, smoke, mud, debris: “Perhaps this hypothetical architect considers these strange forms of nature as a material endemic to architecture and cities, as opposed to an aberration that must be consolidated, removed or dismissed”.2 On the contrary he suggests buildings incorporate these subnatures, rather than only dealing with the “proper natures” that merely produce more technologically orientated structures.
It should also be said that the Anthropocene’s technological advances have forced and accelerated the rate of architectural innovation. These two realties, annihilation and mutuality, which on the surface appear to be antithetical, will be further investigated here. Could they be somehow connected in the near future, creating strange objects, new synthetic hybrid natures, in a symbiotic, opportunistic relationship that benefits both organic and inorganic beings?

Casa-studio di Luis Barragán, Città del Messico, Messico, 1948 © Winka Dubbeldam

Anthropocene

The Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London estimates 1780 to be the start date for the Anthropocene, which was the moment that the steam engine was invented. Originally used for mining, steam engines as early as 1800 were also driving steamboats and steam trains instigating mass transport as we know it. Steam locomotives were gradually superseded by electric and diesel locomotives, with railways fully converting to electric and diesel power beginning in the late 1930s, marking the start of fossil fuel depletion, major pollution and climate change.

The United States was long considered the world’s biggest polluter in terms of carbon dioxide and other greenhouses gases, but China has moved into the top spot, according to the Global Carbon Project 2020. The consequences of pollution are also astronomically expensive: some economists and climate scientists have calculated that climate change could cost the United States the equivalent of nearly 4% of its gross domestic product a year by 2100. Four percent is likely a conservative estimate; it leaves out consequential costs like damages from drought, floods and climate migration. The annual US cost of flooding today is over $32 billion nationwide; flooding has cost US taxpayers more than $850 billion since 2000 and is responsible for ⅔ of the cost from all natural disasters.

Fiori mutanti pubblicati dall’utente san_kaido su Twitter il 27 marzo 2015

Mutants and Monsters

However: we also find strange beauty in the Anthropocene, unexpected side effects and alternate symbiotic relationships occur. Events such as the 2011 Earthquake in the Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, which caused the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant to melt down, were found to have caused new plant forms and/or mutations. Fields of flowers suddenly appeared to have elaborately contorted shapes, often elongated and doubling in shape.

The reading of these phenomena varies. While the majority of biologists feel that evolution largely proceeds at a slow and steady pace, another school of thought accepts this reading in general, but adds the occasional radical mutant that upsets the norm. Another more drastic and notable reading was observed by a geneticist named Richard Goldschmidt, who sees this new form of evolution as radical mutants, he calls them “Hopeful Monsters”,3 in reference to a concept from evolutionary biology. These flowers, as per evolutionary biology simply gradually changed over time, and went through a form of fasciation, also known as cresting. Mutants, vascular plants with this relatively rare condition of abnormal growth in which the growing tip, which normally is concentrated around a single point and produces approximately cylindrical tissue, instead becomes elongated perpendicularly to the direction of growth, producing flattened, ribbon-like, crested (or “cristate”), or elaborately contorted tissue. Fasciation may also cause plant parts, and flowers to increase in weight and volume in some instances. Fasciation knows no geographical climatic, or ecological limits among vascular plants. They are all equally impacted, but especially the rose, legume, sunflower, dandelion, snapdragons and cactus families are sensitive to fasciation.

Goldschmidt’s thought is that these mutants, the “Hopeful Monsters” as he calls them, might be really important in adaptation and the creation of new species. Important to note here is that he accepts the mutants as the new normal, and his research focuses on the opportunities found here.

Asian Games Park, Archi-Tectonics, Hangzhou, Zhejiang, Cina 2022

Synthetic Natures/New Hybrids

Going back to the initial premise that the Anthropocene’s technological advances have compelled and accelerated architectural innovation, could the fasciation of these mutant flowers be an indicator of what the future holds? Could these Hopeful Monsters thus be a useful paradigm for the way forward for architecture, incorporating the mutant rather than obsessing over the image of idyllic nature?

History teaches us that major technological inventions, such as the 1930s introduction of the car, the 1960s invention of mass media, and of course the 1990s invention of the home computer and the internet accelerated architecture into “super-talls” and morphed cities into megalopolises. This had consequences. Architects today find themselves in a huge dilemma; the buildings designed and homes created based on these techno-centric paradigms are no longer the havens of human comfort and safety they were intended to be, but actually the source of a large share of the global annual pollution, as 40% of human-made carbon emissions comes from construction and building materials alone. Not only that; buildings are also often more polluted on the interior then on the exterior. This requires a drastic change in attitude and needs a re-invention of what architecture is and what its agency can be, both for human occupancy and for the surrounding city.

Asian Games Park, Archi-Tectonics, Hangzhou, Zhejiang, Cina 2022 © Lin Zexu

Synthetic Natures

In this next wave of the Anthropocene where climate change and environmental challenges threaten our and other species’ existence, architecture needs to transform into a pro-active productive system, a body that has agency on its environment. It needs to learn/adapt and hybridize. Rather than simply applying vegetation on otherwise inert structures, buildings themselves will need to learn from nature’s intelligence, by hybridization and symbiotic relationships with natural systems. These systems will learn to adopt plant intelligence and start to generate mutually beneficent, self-sustaining habitats and environments. Buildings with agency can create positive feedback by, for example, absorbing carbon and emitting oxygen to their environment, and cleaning and filtering air and water. As Gissen writes: “By actively reflecting on the alienating material of the social natural environment, we might as a profession arrive at a truly radical and alternative concept of the environment for the contemporary architect”.4

Our recently completed design for the 47-ha Eco Park in Hangzhou, China (THE PLAN 137), with seven buildings among which two stadiums, produces such synthetic natures and mutant structures. With a strict government stipulation for an 85% park it was quite the challenge to place the required seven buildings in the landscape. Only the two hybrid stadiums could be visible, the other five buildings had to be morphed into landscape formations with slivers of glass giving light and air. Even the shopping mall was re-thought as a green valley with glass pavilions, a “Valley Village Mall” that dips under road and river that bisect the park, and reconnects the two sections in one fluid sweep.

Our “zero-earth-strategy” re-uses excavated earth from wetlands and the Valley Village to create a hilly landscape that effectively dampens city sounds and creates a calm serene park landscape. The 64,160-sq. m combined green roofs acts as an agent of environmental change, it releases 83,408 kg of O2 and absorbs 114,846 kg of CO2 per year. The park design also implements a sponge city model by incorporating new wetlands, islands in the river and porous pavement enhancing hydrology, and re-introduces local vegetation to help restore the natural biome. The river snakes through the site, passing over the Valley Village as an aqueduct, forming a crucial part of the wetland systems, mitigating stormwater runoff and offsetting the impact of newly built areas. It also doubles as a kayaking route and creates a scenic element overlooked by the hills and the Valley Village Mall. Islands in the river generate a quicker current, naturally oxygenating and cleaning the water.

Asian Games Park, Archi-Tectonics, Hangzhou, Zhejiang, Cina 2022 © Men Ge, Courtesy of Archi-Tectonics

Mutants

By understanding the stadium fundamentally as a hybrid structure that also functions as a concert hall/event space for Hangzhou after the Asian Games, the building has transformed the park into a constantly evolving, active urban participant, rather than creating a static, representative object that would become a white elephant after the two-week Games. A dynamic hybrid structure was created by intersecting two double curved ellipses that create overlapping spaces connecting the interiors and the interior and exterior.
The result is a highly adaptable set of volumes that can seamlessly convert to event-space after the games. The two intersecting ellipsoids – wobbly discs – are offset, creating an optimization of adaptability, overlaps that connect and disconnect, allowing for its hybrid nature to be fully expressed, while creating an oblong bowl that merges arena and amphitheater seating schemes, producing the distinctive, dynamic, asymmetric shape.

Strange intersections and bulges occur along the structure’s double curved shapes, where brass shingled surfaces intersect with steel and glass diagrid rings. These bulges not only express the mutant character of the building, but also add identity and character to this strange object, making recognizable that this is a neighborhood participatory social condenser. The inner bowl’s hybrid seating configuration makes it possible to adapt the central viewing layout preferred for sporting events into an asymmetric, stage-centered configuration for performances. The double curved inner bowl is entirely clad in locally sourced bamboo with recessed LED lighting. A central skylight with a light diffuser below creates indirect daylighting and blends technologically-generated forms with renewable materials that offer a warm and inviting environment.

The building also ties into the surrounding nature; cooling water is extracted from newly reconstituted wetlands, and energy is preserved by only cooling the seats of the viewers while enhancing natural ventilation through upper openable vent windows and the central skylight. The building is literally breathing in and out.

 

Future Mutants

Not only is “synthetic natures” a term used here to look at the purposeful symbiotic merging of nature with building structures, but also how these new life forms (species) can alter buildings and material ecologies, drastically reducing the buildings’ environmental impact and altogether re-defining architecture as being an instrumental part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Kent H. Redford and William M. Adams in their book Strange Natures, look at what is natural and what is artificial in the Anthropocene. They state: “The tools of synthetic biology are changing the way we answer that question. Gene editing technology is already transforming the agriculture and biotechnology industries. What happens if synthetic biology is also used in conservation to control invasive species, fight wildlife disease, or even bring extinct species back from the dead?”.5 They postulate a groundbreaking examination of the implications of synthetic biology for biodiversity conservation, and the protection of natural species. However, the focus here is not only on how to conserve nature, but on the creation of new hybrids that form symbiotic alignments between organisms and matter, where matter takes on organic qualities and therefore has a more significant agency on its environment. One of these new hybrids is created by incorporating mycelium, the growing of mushroom “bricks”, where mycelium, the fibrous roots of a mushroom, is combined with straw or some other agricultural waste and allowed to grow. Typically, it grows for up to two weeks, and in order to halt the ongoing growth, it is then fired in an oven or treated to remove the fungus to stabilize the brick. The benefit of mycelium is that it is carbon neutral and durable, the material can be self-repairing and self-healing; the living fungus can grow together to form a stable structure, and if incurred damage can self-repair. Another huge benefit is of course that we can prevent the over 40% of human-made carbon emissions that is the result of construction and building materials.

Another symbiotic option is the relatively new algae and glass façade. In their article on microalgae bio-reactive façades, Maryam Talaei, Mohammadjavad Mahdavinejad and Rahman Azari state: “Algae convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into oxygen, heat, and biomass. The integration of microalgae, as a photobioreactor-based source of biofuel, with buildings, has the potential to transform high-performance architecture”. 6 Instead of vegetation growing up the façade, here algae façades create natural shading and insulation, convert light into heat and biomass by a photosynthesis process, producing energy for the building, while lowering its carbon footprint. The algae façade also creates ambient light, insulates the space and shimmers in the dark. Plants can also be mutated to accelerate their productive symbiotic aspects. As indoor air is actually two to five times as contaminated as outdoor air: where substances such as chemical-based cleaners and air fresheners along with furniture coated with glues, paints and fire-retardants can pollute indoor air and contribute to poor health over the long term. In nature we find the spectacular air-cleaning properties of a species of succulents called Echeveria, that can improve air quality and absorb toxic chemicals from common household products. NASA’s Clean Air Study found that they are able of removing 87% of volatile organic compounds (VOC). They do this through photosynthesizing via the Crassulacean acid metabolism, allowing a higher uptake of CO2 making them great indoor air-purifying plants. Their storage capability is based on the structure of their tissue; succulents provide morphological and phylogenetic diversity. This can be accelerated, their mutation can further increase the
air-purifying quality, ultimately creating a hyper version of their toxic absorption capacities. These new cultivars have such unique, highly effective traits that NASA is looking into creating plant-based air filtering in their spaceships.

In the near future we can “grow” new construction materials with ever more intelligent behaviors. These materials then are self-healing, carbon absorbing, and potentially strengthening the structures as they grow, sealing gaps between components, and creating continuous biomorphic surfaces. In the future city where buildings are designed to grow and lower the carbon footprint rather than adding to it, the human race might have a possible chance of not only surviving, but symbiotically living with these synthetic natures as “home”.

 

1. See www.ucsusa.org/resources/vehicles-air-pollution-human-health
2. David Gissen, Subnature: Architecture’s Other Environments (Princeton NJ, USA: Princeton Press, 2009), 210
3. See www.ahopefulmonster.blogspot.com/2013/11/thanks-for-finding-this-page-is-first.html
4. Gissen, Subnature, 210
5. Kent H. Redford and William M. Adams, Strange Natures – Conservation in the Era of Synthetic Biology (New Haven CT, USA: Yale University Press, 2021)
6. See www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S2352710219300841

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