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Black sky thinking

Debbi Evans
One day, Rachel Armstrong wants to build the living interior of a starship, starting with a new soil. And she's making progress

Soil is something Rachel Armstrong talks about a lot, but you won’t find her on Gardeners’ World. She speaks quickly and quietly, spinning a complex web of ideas from nature, philosophy, politics, technology and the body. It’s frequently difficult to keep up.

Her genre-bending work in living architecture is the result of this interdisciplinary thinking; she wowed the TED conference in 2009 with her ambitious plans to save Venice. What she devised then, in partnership with a team of biochemists, was the concept of a protocell. This is a chemically-programmable agent that could grow a structure of solid material, making it a potentially perfect remedy for the dissolving infrastructure beneath the floating city.

Crucially, there is no DNA involved in creating protocells, yet they mimic lifelike, biological behaviours. In Armstrong’s vision, these light-averse nodes would evolve into an artificial reef that, in addition to providing support for the sinking foundations, would also have a positive environmental impact by absorbing carbon.

Multiple disciplines, one big picture

As a dissatisfied GP, Rachel loved helping people but felt medicine too limiting a field to tackle all the big issues that fascinated her. “Ever since I was a child I’ve wanted to work with the very fabric of nature,” she says. Architecture, on the other hand, was naturally multidisciplinary. “I started by looking at the body and its relationship to technology, but got into architecture because it was about more than technology – there were all the cultural, aesthetic and social fabrics that really made life rich.”

Today she refers to her work as ‘Black Sky Thinking’ – a play on a corporate cliché that seeks to unearth insights and clarity in unusual places. It’s a toolkit and a philosophy for navigating the unknown in the hopes that humanity might lurch meaningfully forward in response to collective uncertainty. Science fiction author Neal Stephenson, whose 2011 essay for World Policy journal lamented the “innovation starvation” of a world caught up in social media addiction and reactionary news broadcasts, shares these views. Where, he wanted to know, are today’s really big ideas – the moon landings of this generation? While they might not deliver returns in the short term, big, far-fetched ideas capture the imagination. Without them, society stagnates.

Building a giant natural computer

This is why Rachel is hard at work on Project Persephone, part of the Icarus Interstellar initiative, whose goal is interstellar flight by the year 2100. Persephone is the living heart of its futuristic starship and, if all goes well, will be capable of sustaining life indefinitely. And if all really does go well, we’ll see benefits in our lifetime.

“Buckminster Fuller described Earth as a starship travelling through space, and if we take that literally then every city itself really should be a community that is based on conditions of thriving, of liveability, and of fertility. Our cities and our starships share common challenges: resource constraints, liveability and the health of an ecology. When we address those we start to create viable habitats. For cities to be genuinely sustainable they need to adapt and respond to changes in us and in our environment.”

Rachel imagines the interior of the Persephone as a “giant natural computer”, but there are challenges in making it function as a closed system (eg, one that will survive without any external assistance) – previous projects have struggled. “The Russian BIOS-3 project wasn’t a closed system – they ended up giving the participants meat and external resources.”

Hacking soils

Which brings us back to soils. To Rachel, they are the “chemical and physical systems that underpin the possibility of life, its ecological relationship and conditions for sustainability” – and so the perfect starting point for solving the challenge of interstellar survival. Soils die, Rachel says, but on Earth they have a number of ways of replenishing: taking nutrients from decaying organic matter, remineralisation and erosion.

“I don’t understand enough about how a soil can be designed. I’d also like to know whether we can design alternative soils to the ones we have on Earth.” She imagines little bursts of colourful algae dashing across the windows, or responding to the sound of music when you wake in the morning. In Rachel’s vision of the future, our relationship with organic materials will be completely transformed.

“In living sustainable cities we will need to understand that soils are purifying water, are tracking carbon, are providing homes to lots of micro-organisms that make rich, valuable substances. Even though it’s not alive, that soil will be as valuable a member of the household as our pets. And if you think that sounds ridiculous think about your iPhone or laptop – how much of your life is wrecked when you lose your phone?”

At the moment our relationships with design and technology are fairly abstracted. “We should be considering concepts like systems, flow and dynamic relationships’, Rachel says. “That way, we might be able to design buildings by imagining they have organs and physiologies, so our cities literally have metabolisms that connect with the biosphere.”

Living, breathing buildings

There are several examples of how this abstracted, theoretical approach has played out in architecture to date – Le Corbusier, for one, was a proponent of sanitised spaces. Yet there are a few examples of holistic, systems-led design based on a more complex biological understanding of what constitutes a community. That is, it’s about more than the people.

Attila Bodnar at Organica Water designs urban sewage plants disguised in beautiful landscaped gardens. There’s a café and – apparently – no smell. The ecological upside is twofold: the system does not require waste to be transported and it fertilises the space around it in a harmonious cycle.

“Sustainability has become too homogeneous an idea. We’re not machines, we’re ecologies. We have a biome – 90% of our cells are bacterial. A tree is as much a part of our breathing systems as our lungs are,” Rachel says.

The biological makeup of cities

Biomes get Rachel excited. She imagines that we’ll see “very specific microbiomes” emerge in different cities and districts as a result of sharing the same bacteria with neighbours (a product of similar diets, mostly). Isn’t there a question around travel, I wonder. People are more mobile than ever, so what does that do to native biomes? How hardy are they?

“It’s an important question,” Rachel concedes. “I would also like to know what a community microbiome looks like as the construction of a building goes up – and how does that change? This is what I mean about elevating the status of the non-human. We really haven’t looked to considering the many contributors that make up a community.” Then, her face lighting up, she adds, “They’ve been shown to be addictive, you know, biomes. People get withdrawal symptoms when they leave.”

Could you build a bio-ghetto?

This in itself raises all sorts of ethical questions. Should we be engineering environments to be addictive in the first place? Could they ever be engineered to, say, act as a biological ghetto, making sure one socioeconomic group doesn’t stray out of its designated zone? It feels silly even considering these notions, which are farfetched in the extreme.

It makes one realise that Rachel and her team have a tough job convincing more stringent rationalists, who might dismiss her approach as outlandish speculative fiction. The challenge is to show them that this is not necessarily a bad thing.

“If we can unleash our imaginations, then we’ll begin to see the relationships and overlaps between different disciplines. We need audacious ideas that will give us optimism, so we can reclaim the 21st century as the age of impossible thinking.

Photography by Ali Kepenek

Our cities and our starships share common challenges: resource constraints, liveability and the health of an ecology. When we address those we start to create viable habitats.



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