Rachel Armstrong, PhD is Headline Speaker for RIBA-USA's Program at Chicago Architecture Biennial

The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) USA will bring attendees of the Chicago Architecture Biennial to unusual experiences via a public lecture about “the idea that modern architecture designs for equilibrium – while Nature itself produces structures that are at far from equilibrium” in Chicago’s Fair Lady yacht. Rachel Armstrong, PhD, a Professor of Experimental Architecture at the Department of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, Newcastle University will deliver the keynote presentation in Liquid Happening: A Living Architecture Ball presented in partnership with the Chicago Architecture Biennial. Here’s a background of her upcoming lecture on Sunday, October 18, 2015 at 5:30pm. Get your tickets here: http://bit.ly/livingarchball

Rachel Armstrong PhD

Water is the driver of Nature… it is never at rest until it unites with the sea … it is the expansion and humour of all vital bodies. Without it nothing retains its form.” Leonardo da Vinci.

(by Rachel Armstrong, PhD)

The pioneering invitation to deliver a talk on Chicago’s Fair Lady Yacht is not only the first RIBA lecture outside of an auditorium or function room, but also the first time I have spoken in such a venue. This is particularly poignant since my research proposes the possibilities of architectures that embody the properties of living things, like movement. So, it is thrilling to explore the possibilities of delivering a talk on a platform that also embodies this idea though traveling through landscape – particularly one that is itself so highly dynamic as that which frames the Chicago River.


Like the floating theatres that were popular in Venice in the seventeenth century, the Yacht as venue can also be considered as an atlas of the world and a cosmological view through which reality can be re-written through the idea of the world – or a city – as a stage. This particular journey is one that makes a transition from a static view of reality to a dynamic one.


While in the seventeenth century advances in stage machinery and design transformed the idea of theatre into the perfect dramatic instrument and an intellectual and imaginative model for understanding the world in all its aspects – in the 21st century these changes are in our understanding of ‘ecology’, climate change and systems thinking.

Intertwining technology, music and verse as new kind of epic production, and alternative to opera the floating theatres opened up a whole new portfolio of special effects. The stories of deities, saints, serfs, rulers and idiots – in many different settings – of historical splendor, pastoral humility, ships of fools, the construction of emptiness, or urban realism – and domain of human action – politics, art, sculpture, morality and metaphysics – could be told through the technologically assisted performance of mythological marvels, miracles and cosmological journeys.


Likewise, in the 21st century our understanding of systems, ecologies and natural computing now provide alternative narratives and outcomes in which perhaps we can re-write the extinction scenarios proposed by the Anthropocene – told through the great 6th extinction – and generate new ones that speak of an ongoingness possible in an Ecological Era – where histories and futures are recomposed – not through a single, overall design – but through a whole range of interactions between many different kinds of participating bodies.


During the evening we will reflect on the kind of spectacle that Nature’s great epic might present should we find alternative ways of working in partnership with it.


My talk is based on the idea that modern architecture designs for equilibrium – while Nature itself produces structures that are at far from equilibrium. In other words, we design for stasis – while the world is a highly dynamic structure. Such a mismatch creates dissonance between our ambitions for architecture with the actual impacts that these traditional forms of building produce. My proposal then is that using a simple reframing of the material realm through the lens of living materials (which are not at equilibrium) that we may develop a better toolset for the construction of architecture that is designed and engineered through the practice of ‘natural computing.’


Leonardo da Vinci called rivers the blood of the Earth and commented on how their channels through deltas – where the river splits into tributaries and covers huge tracts of land – resembled the veins of the human body.  He provided the first documentation of flowing water being more than unstructured and chaotic but capable of producing persistent recognizable structures.  Da Vinci regarded his drawings not as forms of representation but as kinds of experiment in which ideas were interrogated. He wrote about many characteristics of how rivers were created through sedimentation and erosion. He proposed how they could produce meanders and sand ripples on the riverbed. He even discussed the water cycle in which evaporating water from the sea fell again as rain on high ground to be returned to the ocean.


Da Vinci even drew aerial pictures of river networks and drew up a scheme to redirect the flow of the Arno River away from Pisa that deprived the city of its water supply so it could be delivered into the hands of the Florentines.

Our greatest cities are built on the very landscapes that fascinated Da Vinci – New York, Tokyo, Mumbai, Rio da Janeiro, New Mexico, London, Babylon, Paris, Venice and Chicago – which all have powerful rivers flowing through them, that derive sustenance from rich deltas.


This is no coincidence. Deltas are sites of material flow that actively replenish soils with nutrients that flow down to the coast from inland mountains fields and valleys, process these substances and then remove waste into a larger filtering system that we recognize as our seas and oceans.


Yet these are the very systems that we destroy when we build cities out of inert materials for their Vitruvian qualities – solid, useful, beautiful. By using concrete and tar macadam to freeze the soils processes, our living filters of water, we not only imprison their dynamism but also smother the life that they contain. By covering our city surfaces with impermeable substances we starve them of oxygen and reduce their capacity to support new life and recycle old material through natural composting processes.


Instead these natural cycles are carried out away from the heart of cities so that disequilibrium in the regenerative, sustainable infrastructures of life are distorted and even completely disrupted.


But what if we could find ways in changing this relationship whereby our cities not only promote the dynamic systems on which they are constructed but also contribute to their fluorisihing by filtering water and regenerating the production of new earths?

How might such a thing take place?


My talk is a tale of two cities – Venice and Chicago – that both have incredible stories to tell of their relationship with water, soil and waste.


But first it is necessary to establish the conditions for design and engineering that allow us to make a transition from designing and engineering static, inert architectures, to growing more organic, responsive ones.


Third millennial transitions

We are in the midst of a transition from an industrial to an ecological paradigm of practice.


This is not as simple as making a substitution of an object-centered view of reality and supplanting it with process, complexity, networks and nonlinearity. Rather, it involves constructing a framework for understanding a world in continual flux that is navigated by many overlapping models of thought. This brings about paradoxes in the way that we work and solve complex challenges. The role of design in this quagmire of choices is to provide navigational avatars that can deal with inevitable inconsistencies when these models overlap, so that we may shape new values and forge new cultural practices.


At the heart of this transition is the appreciation that the world is in constant flux and that the matter from which it is formed – is lively. Responding to grand global challenges such as, climate change, increasing population density and the sustainability of cities, architects and designers have been looking for new ways of working with a whole range of strategies to counter the net effects of global scale, intensive industrial practices that are effectively reverse-terraforming our planet. Insights from the origins of life sciences point towards new opportunities in design thinking. Its quest is invested in the transition from inert to living matter – a complete reversal of the industrial paradigm.


Experimental architecture

The discipline of experimental architecture, my field of research, arises from the height of the modern age where avant-garde architects such as Peter Cook and Lebbeus Woods, sought to liberate communities from the top-down, atomic-scale control of modern science. While these architects appreciated that modern cities were incredibly efficient, they were also oppressive. They therefore explored new ways of making and living – that could accommodate people’s idiosyncrasies and so, restore their creative freedoms. My work develops the ideas of Cook and Woods into the laboratory where alternative architectural ideas are prototyped and experimentally tested as models and installations.


Venice as laboratory

Much of my experimental work has been conducted within the city of Venice. It’s an ancient city that was founded between 9 and 12th centuries and was established using the latest technologies that required land drainage by the digging of canals and the use of wood piles to shore up the building foundations. Venice still does not have a formal sewage system.


Today, the city may be read as an instrument in the landscape that records natural events through its material interactions between the manmade structures and the biological systems that are clustered at the shoreline. Additionally, the aqueous infrastructure of Venice provides a unique reading of a city that is dealing with constant changes at the coastal zone and is a highly dynamic site particularly as the city is subjected to increasingly frequent flooding events called the acqua alta.


The longer-term survival of the city is considered at risk and has become a UNESCO world heritage site that is awaiting the final completion of floodgates (MOSE gates) that are anticipated to hold back the advancing tide.


Natural computing

To enable this transition from a city engaged with Vitruvian qualities to one that can work alongside the forces of Nature, I have been working with an emerging portfolio of design strategies within the field of natural computing to exemplify these approaches. Natural computing is a term that has been inspired by Alan Turing’s interest in the technological potential of the natural world and consists of a range of overlapping scientific practices that range from the computer modeling of biological systems to working with programmable matter.


When it is applied to the material realm, natural computing offers a different kind of computing and philosophy of design practice, which I am experimentally exploring through the discipline of experimental architecture.


Rather than being based on a system of production that prioritizes objects, natural computing examines the performance of naturally occurring dissipative structures.


Dissipative structures

Dissipative structures allow us to move from a design world that is based on objects at equilibrium towards one at non-equilibrium – which is characteristic of dynamic natural systems, and life itself. These are real structures that arise spontaneously in nature across a range of scales such as, crystals, tornadoes and galaxies. While not all dissipative systems meet the technical qualifications of ‘life’ – all ‘life’ is a dissipative process. Those systems that are not given the full status of being truly alive are of great interest in the design process as a set of tactics that may increase the probability of life-promoting events. Potentially, when these spatialised material exchanges reach a certain degree of complexity, lifelike events may even be inevitable. Such substances sound mysterious, or even fictitious, but we can recognize them in everyday materials such as soils – on which all terrestrial life is founded. Soils represent an alternative material organizing system than is used in our design processes today. Rather than being purified, homogenized and constrained within bounded spaces, they are open, messy and highly heterogeneous. This is of extreme interest in identifying processes that increase the liveliness of space and even raise the threshold of events that may spontaneously produce ‘life’ within a specific environment.


A series of design-led laboratory experiments demonstrate how such discursive systems may be constructed and provide a point of reference for thinking about how environments that support lively events – as opposed to designing life as a set of objects – may be approached as a way of producing ‘artificial’ soils that underpin fertile terrains, in which the probability of life is increased, using a set of simple techniques.

Super soils

This photograph is taken in the chemistry outreach laboratory at Newcastle University, where I work. We are asking ‘what is a soil’ by reading the patterns made by the movement of minerals through activated gel scaffoldings. The theory of this investigation is that our soils do not need to be naturalistic but can be augmented and designed to perform specific functions.


The Hylozoic Ground installation

This is a collaboration with architect Philip Beesley and engineer Rob Gorbet, which was shown at the Venice 2010 Architecture Biennale. The work explores how we can scale the chemical processes in soils to architectural dimensions so that people can inhabit them.

Here, programmable chemistries are converged with a cybernetic scaffolding – to produce a technological soil-like framework that can be likened to being inside a giant nose. The spaces in the gallery are the sinuses and the active chemistries are smart snot glands. They can record your presence by smelling and tasting carbon dioxide on your breath, to make tiny crystal sculptures the size of your little fingertip.


Future Venice

This photograph show previous work on a project called Future Venice, which has been about growing a chemically programmable soil-like structure to the dimensions of the city. Using dynamic droplets to build an artificial reef around the wooden foundations – we may broaden its base and slow it’s sinking into the mud.


Future Venice 2

Here is a drawing of the Future Venice 2 project, a collaboration with IDEA Laboratory and Artwise curators for the 56th Venice Biennale. We are looking at how soils may be produced from problematic and abundant materials in the Venice lagoon – to form a new island for the city.


Using a laboratory setting we asked if it is possible for the algae and microplastics that pollute the waterways, to form a biofilm together.


The idea is that if we fold this combined material into the ground, we may end up with a new land mass as well as a useful material, like a functional earth, to invest in the needs of future generations. Think of how chalk is made from the tiny skeletons of sea creatures.


Hanging Gardens of Medusa

This is photograph of The Hanging Gardens of Medusa, a collaboration with Nebula Sciences and takes the form of a tiered laboratory garden. It contains hardy cacti on one level and artificial lifelike droplets in another. It was launched into the stratosphere to ask questions about what is needed from the technological performance of soils to support these different life forms – in extreme conditions, so that we may learn how to settle new worlds.


Experimental Architecture can help us prototype different kinds of questions to meet new millennial challenges through designing material flow by developing ways of enabling material flow to become part of the choreography of space. Yet, the kinds of places that emerge out of these experiments and laboratories are not industrial – but living cities.


What are living cities like?

Living cities are forged from fertile earth. They are situated in watery, flowing landscapes. They sound more like a stomach than a cacophony of engines. They smells like a body – not oil refineries. Yet these are not mud huts, or primitive habitats – but rich environments that celebrate the poetry of life. They are warm to the touch and shockingly bio diverse. In fact, they could be accused of having ‘too much’ life.


By applying the practices of experimental architecture to construct architectural laboratories and conducting experiments – that aim to ask the right questions of our millennial challenges by exceeding the limits our modern chemistry laboratories and even our stratosphere we may be able to go ‘beyond’ Vitruvian industrial platforms and the hierarchical ordering of inert systems.


Chicago as a living city

The incredible dynamic landscape in which the city of Chicago is situated has many resonances with the city of Venice. Its relationship with delta soils, industrial pollution of sediment, changing marine wildlife and contamination of water systems with effluent has equivalents in the history of the ancient Italian city. In many ways the kinds of events that Venice has experienced with the erosion of building foundations, constant battle with water tables and a healthy relationship with the body of water and soils are exactly the kinds of issues that can be interrogated using an experimental architecture toolset. Venice also offers real visualizations of the kinds of material effects and events that Chicago may encounter over the next hundred years – biological encrustations, weathering of materials and the constant struggle with changing water levels.

While my talk does not propose any grand formal solutions for contemporary Chicago, I anticipate to work with RIBA/USA, with students and professionals in the city to construct new ‘natural computing’ toolsets. These may help us collectively construct prototypes of new possible architectures such as, an ice computer that periodically produces the rare event of ice flowers, in the Chicago water as well as revealing the elemental torsions of air, water and light around the river. Such toolsets that may include culturing microorganisms and shellfish to understand existing material relationships and how they may be shaped by design programs, may help citizens understand what it could mean for Chicago to make a transition from an industrial to a ‘living’ city – one that is in harmony with its water, waste and soils.


Ice computer

The ice computer is an example of natural computing. It works on the principles of water freezing under different conditions. It’s outputs are based on a current concept of ‘extreme luxury’ which is a term used to describe rare experiences that cannot be bought but need to be encountered under certain conditions. Under ideal conditions the ice computer proposes to generate ice flowers, a rare condensation of humidity, depth of water, presence of organisms, concentration of impurities and ambient temperature that produce an efflorescent flourishing of ice crystal florets. These are occasionally encountered under polar conditions. The ice computer increases the probability of ice crystals being formed in Chicago by provides the conditions in which they are more probable through surfaces that are of different depths that will variably freeze in the Chicago winter. The outputs of the ice computer are twofold. It produces an ice crystal display that can be read by observers to relate to environmental conditions such as temperature and the quality of the ice formation e.g. crystal size or pattern formations. In parallel, it also produces images of the water, wind and light that are shaping the environments and makes them visible by the distortion of the images see through its reflecting surface, which is black and usually deployed in architecture to generate mirror images of environments. The ice computer however is also a visualization interface that allows observers to see mostly unobserved environmental forces.


Distortions of the interface are illustrated in this photograph that shows how differential patterning of a reflecting surface can produce highly complex patterns. This is an image of tarmacadam that is covered by a thin surface of water, which is reflecting light through different depths. With an ice computer, the materiality of this surface is also changing in response to the ambient temperature forming and dissolving ice islands. Ultimately the ice computer is a visually rich interface that allows us to think of the dynamic nature of our landscape and the effects that subtle changes in material properties can produce in such lively environments.



Both Venice and Chicago offer a site and platform for further interrogation and exploration of the kinds of concepts that allow us to build along with natural systems as our partner. By using new toolsets for shaping architectural and environmental events within the city it may be possible to experience new kinds of architectures that have completely different kinds of impacts on our planet e.g. increase the fertility of a landscape by cleaning water and soils. At some point it may even be possible to say that in order to regenerate a failing landscape that it is necessary to build living architectures using natural computing techniques.


To make radically different kinds of impacts in our urban environments we need to unleash our imaginations and begin to see the relationships and overlaps between different disciplines, cities and the landscapes in which new innovation opportunities exist. To unleash this potential we need audacious ideas that will give us optimism, so we can reclaim the 21st century as the age of environmentally engaged architectural practice.


The Ice Computer installation team:

Rachel Armstrong

Lira Luis

James Karl Fischer

Mike Wright

Eugenio Megna

Jose Bonilla

William Vivians

Sam Nam


Rachel Armstrong, PhD, is Professor of Experimental Architecture at the Department of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, Newcastle University. She is also a 2010 Senior TED Fellow who is establishing an alternative approach to sustainability that couples with the computational properties of the natural world to develop a 21st century production platform for the built environment, which she calls ‘living’ architecture. Rachel has been frequently recognised as being a pioneer. She has recently been added to the 2014 Citizens of the Next Century List, by Future-ish, listed on the Wired 2013 Smart List, is one of the 2013 ICON 50 and described as one of the ten people in the UK that may shape the UK’s recovery by Director Magazine in 2012. In the same year she was nominated as one of the most inspiring top nine women by Chick Chip magazine and featured by BBC Focus Magazine’s in 2011 in ‘ideas that could change the world’.

About the Chicago Architecture Biennial

The Chicago Architecture Biennial seeks to convene the world’s leading practitioners, theorists, and commentators in the field of architecture and urbanism to explore, debate, and demonstrate the significance of architecture to contemporary society.

About the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) USA

RIBA-USA represents the professional, educational and regional interests of the RIBA-USA Chapters and members of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) resident in the United States of America. RIBA-USA Inc is a US registered 501(c)(3) tax exempt Non-Profit Corporation. Typically the members have trained at UK recognized schools of architecture. Many are US citizens, while others have become citizens, and live in all the 50 US States. RIBA-USA was founded to respond to their special professional interests and provides an important link between RIBA in London and the bustle of professional life in the US.


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