How Living Technologies Could Reclaim Venice

Living technologies are sensitive to the environment around them, and could go some way to preventing the impact that some technology has on our environment. Here, Dr Rachel Armstrong[1. Dr Rachel Armstrong is Senior Lecturer, Research & Enterprise and Co-Director of AVATAR (Advanced Virtual and Technological Architectural Research) in Architecture & Synthetic Biology at The The University of Greenwich. She is a Senior TED Fellow, and Visiting Research Assistant at the Center for Fundamental Living Technology, Department of Physics and Chemistry, University of Southern Denmark. Her research investigates a new approach to building materials called ‘living architecture,’ that suggests it is possible for our buildings to share some of the properties of living systems.], Senior TED fellow and speaker at Virtual Futures 2.0’11 explains more about her work in living technologies and its potential applications. Could further investigation and research in this area aid in protecting the Italian city of Venice from the elements?

I am currently designing living technologies that are sensitive to the environment and may prevent or even correct the negative impact that modern technology has on our surroundings. They are Living Technologies and are made of different kinds of materials to the hard, dry, cool metals that make up our modern machines. Instead they are soft, wet and warm to the touch.

An example of one kind of Living Technology is a smart paint that can trap carbon dioxide of the surface of our buildings and convert the gas into a solid substance like limestone. The idea is to form a protective layer or ‘shell’ around our homes that would have an additional knock on benefit of mopping up the carbon dioxide and binding it in a ‘paint’ but we would also burn less fossil fuel to heat our better insulated homes.

Additionally these technologies could be used on the roofs of our cities, like solar panels, to harvest and produce energy in the form of liquid fuel rather than electricity – rather like the green leaves of plants do – as an alternative to cutting down trees or burning fossil fuels.

Another example would be to sustainably reclaim Venice – not by using mechanical gates to stop the tide advancing and which threaten to disturb the wildlife – but to grow an artificial limestone reef underneath it and stop the city sinking into the soft mud on which its foundations are built – and do so in a way that respects its non-human inhabitants.

Venice is situated in northeastern Italy where the Po delta meets the Venice lagoon off the Adriatic Sea. It was built on the soft delta soils in the harshest environment on earth, the shoreline, where the fabric of the buildings are repeatedly battered by the elements, flooded by the periodic aqua alta and desiccated by the sun. This ferociously unstable environment poses an insurmountable set of conditions for materials that are effectively inert. On a geological timescale it is worth remembering the tempestuous forces of nature eventually subsume mountains. Venice has weathered its environment for three centuries and its unique buildings are already being actively eroded. Walking along the waterways reveals buildings that have literally been digested into dust fragments which has led to all kinds of acts of architectural desperation, where fist-sized holes in the wall are plugged up with concrete, rubble, rubbish and even chewing gum.

The traditional architectural approach to meeting the challenges of hostile environments is to create the most effective possible barrier between nature and human activity, using durable and inert materials. Although this has worked sufficiently effectively for human development, on an evolutionary timescale this is not how the most resilient structures persist.

Along the edges of the waterways is an indigenous system that is able to respond to the constant challenges of a hostile environment. Biological residents such as algae, shellfish and bacteria have claimed a construction process within this harsh terrain as their own, accreting, secreting, remoulding and sculpting the materials of their surroundings to create microenvironments that are suited to their needs. Although the individual life spans of organisms are short, from the perspective of persistence, living systems have been around for four and a half billion years. Uniquely, life is able to respond to continual changes in the environment in a flexible and robust manner that gives rise to evolutionary change over large timescales.

Whilst these biological systems are undirected they behave like an unruly garden, finding opportunities to extend into new territories and vigorously pursuing easily accessible sources of nutrients. Consequently, from a human perspective the presence of biological systems in the waterways poses a threat to the longevity to the integrity of the architecture. Yet if the element of chance could be removed from the actions of these resilient, adaptive and evolving populations and the processes guided to engage in synthetic activities that could enhance and reinforce the fabric of Venice then the city could effectively acquire a means of patrolling the damage caused at the shoreline and responding to it through biological mechanisms.

A propositional project to sustainably reclaim the city of Venice was proposed by using protocell technology and Synthetic Biology. Light sensitive protocells would be needed so that they would move away from the light in the canals and move towards the darkened foundations of the city that rest on woodpiles, which support the weight of the city over a relatively small weight bearing area.

Protocells have already been engineered in the laboratory to vigorously respond to a light stimulus so it is possible that the energized technology would be able to move against currents and chemical gradients. Once the protocells had reached the woodpiles, a second metabolism would be activated to use dissolved carbon dioxide and create insoluble crystalline skins from minerals in the water. These would be accreted on the woodpiles and gradually petrify them. Over time and with monitoring, an artificial limestone reef would be created jointly by the indigenous marine life such as barnacles and clams. These natural organisms would make use of the bioavailable minerals produced by the protocells and contribute to the synthesis of the reef.

The greatly expanded area over which the weight of the city was spread would help attenuate the city from sinking. The longevity of the historic city would be extended by literally equipping it with the ability to engage in a struggle for survival against the elements by giving it a technology that conferred life-like properties on it. Additionally the protocell technology would provide other important benefits such as, carbon dioxide fixation, adsorption of pollutants, providing new niches for the local marine ecology and which are symbiotic with and beneficial to established environmental systems.

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. The development of different species of protocells with programmable metabolisms suggests that an entirely new approach to the production of architecture is possible.


Reproduced with the permission of the Knowledge Centre, University of Warwick

Photography by Andy Miah