Interview with Rachel Armstrong

As part of our preview of Hylozoic Ground, the Canadian Pavilion in Venice, we interview the London-based scientist and TED fellow Rachel Armstrong.

You've been called a creative scientist, a polymath, an architect. How would you describe your work and what you do?
I call myself a living architectural designer but I'm also a synthetic biologist. I believe in the fundamental creativity of science as a way of developing new ways of being and living now and in the future.
I'm working in a field of design research that is beyond biomimicry. It's not copying biology or doing the Buckminster Fuller thing – this is using physics and chemistry in a very material way.

What was your first interaction with architecture, or at least architectural process within biology?
It was important to me to work not with single bodies – as most scientists do - but with the whole environment. That's why my attention was drawn to architecture as the place where careful design and creativity could have the biggest impact.
I spent 18 months looking for the right project and the right opportunity. I researched intensively and came across a new technology called a protocell.
It was at the end of 2008 and what I saw was a little fatty droplet whizzing around in a dish. The cell sheds its cell – making a basic building block and I realised it was a combination between a design tool and a biological agent. Because it combined these two aspects I was passionate about I wanted to explore its potential in architectural design. I hunted down the scientist that was developing the technology in a completely different direction, and I insisted that I worked with him.

What is a protocell, exactly?
The protocell itself is really like an operating system. It's like a delivery platform, a container in which you can put chemical information and you can distribute those chemicals in space and time and get a completely different output. If they behave differently it was because of subtle changes in the environment. So I see that they start to be sculpted, as a result of the complex environmental changes happening around them. I've got a tool that can model something and I can influence it by changing the environmental conditions. What we need to do next is change the scale. If I used an automated distribution system such as a 3D printer or even a sprinkler I can release little chemical agents on the scale of metres into an environment and they'd all behave differently. We haven't scaled up the experiments to that stage yet, but that's the plan.

How did you come across the architect Philip Beesley and what was your role in the development of Hyzoid - the Canadian Pavilion?
We came across each other though the Bartlett School of Architecture. Philip was one of the first architects to work with artificial lifeforms. The forms that he was using were cybernetic systems so he wanted to work with another kind of artificial life which was these chemical systems. We discussed the potential of the system and how to position my protocells within in Philip's framework. We did it in Denmark and New Mexico. There were all very successful so we scaled up again to work with the material at the Venice Biennale.

What are the biological-architectural systems that you will be using in Venice?
There are three drivers we use that are all based on the chemistry and interfaces between oil and water and that's such a powerful chemical interaction that you can drive a lot of reactions.
One is based on an incubator which is like an embryonic protocell which is changing over time for three months. I did that by slowing down the protocell process and give it a simple metabolism using inorganic salts. The result is a bit like growing a shell around an oil droplet. The second one is about 'eating' carbon dioxide and turning it into a carbonate. These are little glass oysters with pearls growing within them. The third is the chemical cells that are extending using another organic matrix, a gel-like structure to support the weight of the stretched organic membrane. These systems will grow to about a metre long.

What are the real-world possibilities of these? For example, the carbon dioxide or the deposits of material?
Well, I've been looking at the potential for enabling surfaces to have a dynamic relationship with the environment. We know that these materials have living properties and we can give them a metabolism that allows them to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. So at the moment we're developing a paint that can absorb certainly at least 1/5 of its own weight in carbon dioxide when it is applied to the surface. People have asked if it's possible to remove carbon dioxide from the coal industry. The answer is, potentially yes. We need to develop and explore the technology. It's a very early stage.

How confident can you be about what will happen to the materials?
Some people think if you have the basic materials they can do anything. Well, they can't. They're constrained within the chemistry and the physics of the molecule that you use. So even though they're complex, they have a relatively limited range of outcomes - it's a bit like cooking. You can't control every bubble in your cake, but you know if you put certain ingredients together you'll get a cake. You don't have a push-button control, you do know to some degree what the outcome is going to be. Sometimes you get it completely wrong and you get a biscuit.

Are there any ethical questions related to this work? What does design mean if you have an agent that has authorship?
The material isn't actually alive. It gives us an exploratory terrain to start to understand what it actually means to work socially, ethically from a design perspective, culturally with living systems. I think we actually need this intermediary step before we do what J Craig Ventor is attempting to do and create an artificial life. I think we will at some point create an artificial life and I think that the stable ones will be built will be self-assembling systems that grow from the bottom up.
One of the things I'd say about using architectural agents is that have a certain degree of autonomy. It makes the architect important. The architect has to have a vision about why they're using that agent –you have to have an understanding so within the degree of experience you know qualitatively the kinds of outcomes that are possible using this agent.

Is there a relationship between the developments in parametric architectural design, which uses environmental factors to create forms and designs which respond to the environment, and the potential for your own work?
I think that's a good question. There is a trend where we're looking at how information is embodied and what kinds of technology enable us to start exchanging information between different media. The relationship between parametric and any kind of digital data and the agent is a very intriguing one.
We need a manufacturing platform for the protocells. Essentially digital data will drive the 'birthing' of these protocells because they can't burst on their own. Whatever programme goes into making that digital data will influence the birth of the protocell.
The cells can be engineered to be responsive to light. So any digital programme that can create a light-effect matrix will have an impact on the chemistry. We can put design-handles on these little agents so they can be sensitive to magnetic fields or colour change. There are lots of different triggers that we can put into these basic sets of chemistry. That can respond to other information sets other than chemistry. They respond to physical phenomena.

The possibilities of cells that generate materials have excited a lot of people in the field. I read some proposals to build on Mars or the Moon. What have been the most interesting or compelling ideas you've received?
They do tend to inspire people to think outside of the usual set of technologies that they would apply to problems. The idea of using protocells on reduce-gravity flights is a good one. Could they build on the moon? We don't know. It's a really interesting proposition because we do need to observe the dynamics of protocells in reduce gravity. So if anyone's got a space mission that they want to pop 10,000 protocells on then we'd be happy to lend them a hand!
What's amazing about it is because it's a different kind of technology it's opened up people's imaginations. I'm excited about that, I want everybody to own protocell. It's not like an Apple, it doesn't have a brand platform. If you can think of a solution within your sphere of practice that protocells appear to have a contribution then go for it. We'd be happy to hear from you.

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