Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Bioengineering + Design

Joanna Aizenberg via Harvard Magazine
Like tiny flowers, micro-florets created in Joanna Aizenberg’s lab open and close in response to changes in environmental moisture. These structures, their action controlled by a hydrogel “muscle,” can be used to catch and release tiny particles.

In the latest issue of Harvard Magazine there is an article about the exciting new field of bioengineering which is being explored in an incredible multidisciplinary directive at Harvard University. Bioengineering is “the application of engineering principles and techniques to address problems in biology and medicine” and is a synthetic practice bridging the fields of biology, medicine, engineering, physics, materials science, chemistry, and computer science. In the article’s intro bioengineering achievements include
constructing an artificial liver, altering bacteria to make hydrogen fuel directly from sunlight, [and] determining how the geometry of damaged heart cells leads to coronary disasters.
Notoriously absent from the list of schools and disciplines involved in these new pursuits is the Graduate School of Design (GSD) and the disciplines of architecture, landscape architecture and urban planning and design. I feel that this is a loss, particularly for architecture, but also for bioengineering. In this post I will offer some thoughts of why I think this.

Interdisciplinary collaboration is one of the promises of attending the GSD, particularly among the three disciplines which operate under the school’s academic umbrella. Unfortunately this promise does not extend much beyond the walls of the school. This is not entirely the school’s fault—it is endemic to both the Harvard graduate system and of architecture and design schools in general I believe (in my eight years of design education at both Georgia Tech and the GSD I had only two classes which afforded opportunities for design collaboration outside the normative ‘design’ disciplines). But while I attended the GSD I had one opportunity for this type of collaboration between the GSD and the SEAS in a studio taught by Sheila Kennedy as part of her Portable Light Project. And it was great. The collaboration between architects and engineers from the SEAS forced us all out of our comfort zones into thinking about design and applied technologies in ways we had not before.
The article in Harvard Magazine discusses how combining biology and engineering it combines ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sciences; the former is focused on quantification and prediction while the latter is focused on description. Architecture can benefit from both of these approaches and provide something unique at the same time.
So from a pedagogical perspective it would be very exciting for the students. This new form of creative collaboration would offer a new approach to both emerging and already familiar problems. It also represents the increasing complexity and convergence of design, science, and engineering disciplines and the need to find new forms of practice to confront the full range of topics that architecture and urbanism must contend with today. So it prepares architects who are well equipped for the collaborative forms of practice required today.


As I have mentioned before, architecture has always been a mimetic practice. Biomimicry has become a hot topic among architects (as well as engineers) and is represented by an attention to biological forms and processes, exhibited by such firms as Emergence and Biothing, among others. Getting involved in the new interdisciplinary field of bioengineering would place architects directly alongside other fields also exploring these interests. People like Joanna Aizenberg, a materials scientist developing new materials inspired by biology. One of her explorations is the development of a “nanofur” whose hair-like projections change properties in response to humidity. According to the Harvard Magazine article, “the ability to change in response to the environment is one of the properties that make biological materials more useful than artificial ones.”
Computer scientist Radhika Nagpal is also inspired by biology. She looks to “understand living processes and then looks for ways to apply those guiding principles to the design of computer systems and programmable structures that have the properties of living organisms.” In a similar vein, scientists like Edward O. Wilson demonstrate that there is a lot to learn about our own civilization and our cities by examining the social organization of other living organisms such as ants.
Both of these explorations could be invaluable to architecture, and in fact there are plenty of architects who are studying these same things. So why are we not being more proactive in working directly with these other disciplines exploring the same issues, developing applications for this work in architecture and urbanism?

At the same time, I think that teaming up with the emerging bioengineering field can inspire us to move beyond mere biomimicry into something even more interesting and productive. Rather than merely mimicking the forms of biology and nature, if we could synthesize architecture, biology, and engineering the possibilities are endless. Pamela Silver has been investigating ways to engineer organisms to produce useful elements, such as hydrogen fuel. “By redesigning bacteria to produce hydrogen or other useful elements from the sunlight, she would like to turn them into ‘living solar panels.’” Iwamoto Scott’s Jellyfish House is an architectural example of how we could use bioengineering technologies to rethink the relationship between architecture, engineering, and environmental/natural systems. The possibilities are endless.
Iwamoto Scott - Jellyfish House


Moving beyond biomimicry might also bring us closer to the type of Cyborg Urbanisation proffered by Matthew Gandy, an urban geographer with the Royal Academy of Arts in the UK. Matthew Gandy states that “If a cyborg is a ‘hybrid of machine and organism’ then ‘urban infrastructures can be conceptualised as a series of inter-connecting life-support systems’. By blurring the boundary between body and machine, as well as nature and culture, the concept of cyborg offers insights into the ‘networks that enable bodies to function in the modern city’ and how we might understand wider processes of urbanisation.” In Gandy’s lecture last year at the GSD he described our progressive understandings of the metropolis—the organic metaphors we used in the late 19th Century to the mechanical metaphors we used in the early 20th Century, and claims that understanding the city as a cyborg offers a new vocabulary for understanding urbanization. The work of many bioengineers, fusing organic and technological sciences, could deepen our understanding of what Cyborg Urbanisation is and its potential.

In the end the question that would probably need to be answered for people to want to invest in this type of collaboration is why is it necessary, what is there to gain from the joining of design and bioengineering? Material science, social organization, transcalar engineering, biomimicry, these are but a few of the potential areas of research that designers could benefit from by joining the interdisciplinary field of bioengineering. Creative approaches to problem solving, the development of new areas for research and application of materials and processes, a history of combining ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sciences, the opportunity to think about bioengineering at larger scale of application and influence, and an invested interest in environmental and social concerns are things that architects could bring to the table. Most importantly, it is hard, in my opinion, to distinguish between the biological, social, and environmental influences on the world, on cities, and on individuals—they are all intricately interwoven. Doesn’t it behoove us to all work together?


Courtney said...

Sorry, my previous comment posted too early! Thanks for these fascinating comments. While I was writing the Harvard Magazine piece I attended a talk by Joanna Aizenberg at the GSD that brought some of her scientific work to the realm of design. I also discussed Nagpal's research and others with my husband, an architect, and saw many ways the two disciplines connected. It would be wonderful to see some of these possibilities realized.
--Courtney Humphries

Dave Brown said...

Hi Courtney,
It's an honor to have you respond to my humble blog!
Thank you for you fascinating article--it was extremely inspiring and thought provoking and I could not help but respond to what seemed like an unfortunate oversight on the part of the GSD and the SEAS. I did not know that Joanna Aizenberg had spoken at the GSD though and am glad to hear it--I will have to look for her lecture on the GSD Webcasts site.
And I definitely agree with your last comment!
Thanks, DB

namhenderson said...

I find the concept of cyborg within the context of city infrastructure and urbanisation very interesting. Not so thrilled about how the concept as described in the link end sof "focusing" on Foucauldian and Marxists conceptualizations.
But it is a neat/new appropriation of an old term for discussing ideas of city as living machine/creature.

Dave Brown said...

Nam- i tend to agree with you. The academic density of Gandy's proposal complicates it somewhat. I still have trouble understanding it. But it is still a provocative way to rethink the relationship been infrastructure and the city.

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