Neoplasmatic Design

NEOPLASMATIC DESIGN: Design Experimentation with Bio-technological constructs in architecture.

The rapid development of innovative technological approaches in the realms of biology, microbiology, bio-technology, medicine and surgery are becoming of immense significance to architecture, demanding our attention due to their inevitable cultural, aesthetic and technical implications. The research on Neoplasmatic Design investigates the impact of these emerging and progressive biological advances upon architectural and design practice. It presents the current groundswell of experiments and creations that utilise design as a method to explore and manipulate actual biological material. A notion of design is emerging in which interdisciplinary work methodologies, traded between physicians, biologists and engineers, as well as artists and designers are increasingly occurring, giving rise to hybrid technologies, new materiality and hitherto unimaginable potentially living forms. The results of these conditions, defined as 'neoplasmatic', are partly designed object and partly living material. The line between the natural and the artificial is progressively blurred. More than derived from scaled-up analogies between biological conditions (cellular structures) and larger scale constructs (architecture), as commonly expressed in much contemporary bio-architectural work, Neoplasmatic Design implies ‘semi-living’ entities that require completely new definitions. In this context, the expression Neoplasmatic Design is to be considered a concept that is continuously developing, embracing a variety of experiments that cannot be understood as a cohesive and coherent body of work. The projects and art works that are emerging, more than being organisms (a term historically determined by distinctly functional overtones) or assemblages (typically digitally-driven geometric systems), are bio-technological constructs that, at times, appear more like living beings.

Neoplasmatism stands in the light of a phenomenon that could be referred to as the biologicalisation of our world. We are constantly exposed to main-stream media coverage of biology related themes and encounter them continually. Terminology such as genetic engineering, cloning, transgenics, pharmaceutical design, plastic surgery and bio-terrorism, are but a few phrases that now form the common language of our society. Yet architecture continues to be seen as fundamentally removed from such phenomena, particularly when it is understood as a discipline exclusively concerned with the built environment. Neoplasmatic Design acknowledges the considerable value of previous publications, such as David Pearson’s New Organic Architecture (2001), Günther Feuerstein’s Biomorphic Architecture (2002), Deborah Gans’ and Zehra Kuz’s The Organic Approach to Architecture (2003), Javier Senosiasin’s Bio-Architecture (2003), and Michael Hensel, Achim Menges and Michael Weinstock’s Morphogenetic Design (2004, 2006), but differentiates and deviates from the content of such publications. Its position is critically different; it investigates an emergent territory that explores contemporary biological practices and their implications for the field of architecture.

Biological and natural principles have been used as a model for architecture in a variety of manners. In what the Austrian architectural historian Feuerstein entitled biomorphic architecture, anthropomorphic principles have long been applied to buildings, supposedly establishing a formal link between nature and architecture. Le Corbusier and many of his followers, for example, suggested that a building functioned like an organism and therefore could be organised to comply with similar laws to those that regulate living systems. D’Arcy Thompson’s familiar, seminal book On Growth and Form possesses immense resonance for generations of architects. Buckminster Fuller, Frei Otto, Eero Saarinen and many besides, studied biological phenomena in morphological terms and applied the principles as a means to develop new structural and formal systems. Aside from architecture and engineering, numerous other scientific fields have engaged with biological issues, including aerodynamics, hydrodynamics, biomechanics, and immunotronics. In the latter field, scientists are offering new answers for artificial immune systems, attempting to apply principles found in biology to create computer hardware that can repair or evolve new functional parts when needed. Biotechnology, including disciplines such as genetics, molecular biology, biochemistry, embryology and cell biology, as well as chemical engineering, information technology, and robotics, is the area in which developments possess, for better or worse, the highest potential for changing the way we understand life. A number of animal species have been cloned, the human genome has been sequenced, as has the genome of a number of other species. Furthermore, the availability of transgenic organisms denotes a hybridising trend within biology. It is hardly surprising that so many practitioners from different fields are entering biological and medical research laboratories with the purpose of utilising the available knowledge within the realm of their own disciplines. A number of artists have explored the potential aesthetic impact of employing imagery created by medical or laboratory equipment, or even utilising their own body as an instrument of art. Biology and medicine has in these cases become a new plastic medium. Plastic surgery, endoscopy, colonoscopy, and echography are being used as tools for artistic expression, hence presenting a non-Cartesian approach to biology and medicine. But it is the increasing possibility of planning and designing new living conditions that is creating the biggest challenge for all implicated professions, none more so than designers.

Perhaps most relevant for all work in this emergent field is what the author Kevin Kelly entitled the condition of being ‘neo-biological’. His commentary, although more than a decade old, remains important because it offers a broader picture of how our physical surroundings will become increasingly infused with ‘principles of bio-logic’, merging ‘engineered technology and unrestrained nature until the two [will] become indistinguishable’. Kelly envisaged that ‘in the coming neo-biological era, … there might be a world of mutating buildings, living silicon polymers, software programs evolving offline, adaptable cars, rooms stuffed with coevolutionary furniture, gnatbots for cleaning, manufactured biological viruses that cure your illnesses, neural jacks, cyborgian body parts, designer food crops, simulated personalities, and a vast ecology of computing devices in constant flux.’ But however plausible such descriptions may be, Neoplasmatic Design does not purport to put forward a complete vision of the future, wherein architecture is fully replaced by neo-biological conditions, but rather an evolving scenario in which pre-existent, more traditional surroundings will be infiltrated by it, creating new hybrids and composite living environments.

Ultimately, Neoplasmatic Design stands for the conviction that changes are occurring in architecture, which demand to be understood outside the traditional disciplinary boundaries. The prophecies put forward by Kevin Kelly and Steven Levy, as well as architects such as William Mitchell and Neil Spiller, have alerted us to the fact that architecture is undergoing profound changes and that architects are thus forced to rethink their parameters with regard to both professional practice and education. Not only the manner in which we understand our body and its place within its natural habitat, but also how architects are going to respond when buildings are hybridised with biological matter, creating semi-living systems of a rather unpredictable nature. How are designers going to understand design when it implies notions of programming, control, and maintenance of cellular structures that grow, evolve, and eventually mutate? In the advent of such potential developments our professional practice is being critically challenged, not just in terms of the tools we may employ, our expertise and body of knowledge and emerging interdisciplinary work methodologies, but also in terms of its aesthetic intent. Are we finally capable of escaping the constraints imposed by the long-standing heritage of the aesthetics of cleanliness that affected architecture so profoundly throughout the last century; enabling us to embrace notions of dirt, impurity and ugliness as part of contemporary architectural aesthetics?

The sustainable imperative so prevalent in current architectural practice, bears considerable relevance to neoplasmatic investigations, though by no means dictates constraints. Certain living materials offer consequential benefits in terms of sustainability and may well provide commercial motivation for research and development. However, whilst maintaining awareness of this potential, neoplasmatic constructs are concerned with broader parameters beyond the considerations described by ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’ terminology. A more pertinent question is whether our traditional vocabulary and language is still enough to express new environments that are potentially half grown and half manufactured. New terms mainly borrowed from biological and medical sciences are already being introduced, having wide reaching etymological implications upon architectural language. This includes the impact of morphogenesis, hydronacism, or homeostasis as terms that are changing the way in which we understand architecture; as Mitchell has astutely recognised, ‘as designers tentatively embrace concepts of emergence, self-organization, self-assembly, and self-replication, they start to sound like biologists.’ In this context, Oron Catts of The Tissue Culture and Art Project at SymbioticA continues to be a crucial figure in elaborating new vocabulary, articulating the potential of new ‘semi-living’ conditions, or ‘object-beings that evolve in partial life’.

Relevant written and created works proliferate in the Arts, particularly that considered contemporary Carnal Art, Cyber Art and, above all, Bio Art. This includes, among others, the work of Orlan (numerous surgical interventions to alter her own body), Stelarc (1/4 Scale Ear and Extra Ear, 1996, 2003-2007; Partial Head, 2005/06), Eduardo Kac (GFP Bunny, 2000; The Eighth Day, 2001; Move 36, 2002/04), The Tissue Culture and Art Project at SymbioticA (Semi-Living Worry Dolls, 2000; Pig Wings, 2000/01; MEART, 2002/03; Semi-Living Food: “Disembodied Cuisine”, 2003; Victimless Leather, 2004), Ken Rinaldo (Augmented Fish Reality, 2004), George Gessert (Genomic Art, 2001/06), Natalie Jeremijenko (One Tree, 2000), Marta de Menezes (Nature?, 2000; Nucleart, 2003), Adam Zaretsky (Transplant Sculpting, 2001), Rachel Chapman (Breathe, 2001) and the activist, artist and Critical Art Ensemble co-founder Steve Kurtz. In addition, extensive design investigations continue to take place within a particular strain of work produced in Unit 20 at the Bartlett School of Architecture UCL. The works of Minna Ala-Jaaski, Anders Christiansen, James Foster, Haroon Iqbal, Tobias Klein, Abdur Razzak, Andy Shaw, Stefanie Surjo, Samuel White, Graham Thompson, and, most of all, Steve Pike and Richard Beckett have been noteworthy. Furthermore, important explorations have been undertaken by Anthony Dunne in the MA Design Interactions Course at the Royal College of Art in London; by Hideyuki Yamashita in the Yamashita Lab at the Nagaoka Institute of Design in Japan; the Biology and the Built Environment  Center (BioBe) at the University of Oregon; the Centre for Architecture Science and Ecology (CASE) at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; the Textile Futures Research Centre at Central Saint Martins,
as well as specific exhibtions such as BioDesign (NewYork/Rotterdam) and This is Live (Paris/London).

The numerous proposed bio-technological constructs have been investigated through two differing yet complementary realms; the world of botanical matter and that of animal flesh. Both differ in technological complexity; the former being technically more accessible, with the embodied ecological and environmental benefits currently explored in architectural design, whilst the latter is undoubtedly more contentious, especially in ethical terms. Vital issues considered in Neoplasmatic Design are the role of design in a future increasingly affected by bio-technological advances (Dunne) and the implications of designing new semi-living or living conditions for architecture. How these issues are addressed and indeed engaged in the context of animal flesh (Cruz) and botanic matter (Sugawara, R&Sie(n), MAKE, VenhoevenCS, etc.). Furthermore, other pertinent themes are considered; how to control, maintain and support living conditions (Pike, Catts/Zurr). The role of design in the development and integration of apparatus, equipment, monitoring vessels, support systems and prosthetics that enable growth to occur in an architectural context is of significant relevance; a task typically accomplished by engineers rather than designers (Pike). Additionally, new minimal surface geometry is being developed for a while which has a key importance in creating a new green paradigm (KolMac). There are also new hybrid work methodologies and advanced visualisation and 3D modelling software in both medical sciences and architecture that are being utilised (Cruz). Finally, the significance of nanotechnological procedures and new biomaterials is relevant (Armstrong), along with the potential to facilitate the emergence of new aesthetics (Cook, Klein, Spiller, etc.); to some extent defined by the reconfigured language necessary to express semi-living architecture.

This text is based on the original introduction written by Marcos Cruz and Steve Pike for the AD-Neoplasmatic Design (Wiley 2008).