Design and biology: a unified laboratory

Educator and architect Maria Aiolova explains how architecture and planning in the future is likely to be practiced in a studio-laboratory hybrid like the one she's created.

In New York City, a small team of architecture practitioners and academics, biologists, urban planners and artists are participating in a new type of educational lab-studio that utilizes materials traditionally unconventional for design: various biological matter including live tissues, bacteria, trees and fungi. The One Lab School for Urban Ecology , organized in 2009 by architect Maria Aiolova, is based in the collaborative Metropolitan Exchange (MEx) Building in Brooklyn and offers workshops on synthetic biology, biomimetic urban planning, parametric scripting and the use of organisms to grow structures. This cooperative, a burgeoning Bio-Bauhaus of sorts, intends to unify several approaches and goals, leveraging expertise from staff at several organizations focused on education and ecology, including Terreform ONE, Genspace, the MIT Media Lab, Columbia University and the Yale School of Forestry. Although relatively young, the pioneering program fosters collaborations between design and the life sciences and promises to incubate the type of unorthodox approaches and innovations urgently needed in the age of climate crisis and natural resource scarcity. The program also offers a new entry point for non-specialists to contribute to scientific research and experiment with new, ecological design strategies and creates opportunities for design practice to expand into previously uncharted realms.
Top: MYCOFORM, Mycelia Amalgamation Methods for Urban Growth. Credits: Mitchell Joachim, Maria Aiolova, Oliver Medvedik, Dylan Butman, Greg Mulholland. Above: (detail) Mycoform Building Block, made from the mycelia of Reishi mushrooms, encased in recycled sheets of aluminum and compressed for strength, shown here as a potential building component.
Top: MYCOFORM, Mycelia Amalgamation Methods for Urban Growth. Credits: Mitchell Joachim, Maria Aiolova, Oliver Medvedik, Dylan Butman, Greg Mulholland. Above: (detail) Mycoform Building Block, made from the mycelia of Reishi mushrooms, encased in recycled sheets of aluminum and compressed for strength, shown here as a potential building component.
William Myers: Can you describe how the idea for the ONE Lab developed and how the program started?
Maria Aiolova:
ONE Lab was founded as a non-profit independent group concerned with research and education in the synthesis of design and technology. It began as a core of young architects, engineers, biologists, ecologists, robotics experts, industrial designers, urban agriculturists, physicists and media artists all seeking alternatives to traditional forms of teaching and professional practice. They included Mitchell Joachim, Oliver Medvedik, Ellen Jorgensen, Alex Felson, and Vito Acconci, among others. Through our interactions, we discovered the need for an interdisciplinary pedagogical zone, where students can freely inquire, discuss, conduct experiments and take actions that have a positive effect on the global community.

In what ways is the approach to instruction in the ONE Lab different from other design studios or workshops?
ONE Lab offers a new means of design inquiry where students will actively use the tools and technologies of the life sciences. In a period of a few weeks in the summer, the participants learn the basics of biotechnology, including genetic engineering, tissue culturing, and cloning; how to grow materials for design, including trees, plants and mushrooms; and they are introduced to computational scripting and modeling for controlled growth. Students have access to a bio-laboratory, specialized equipment and expertise. More importantly, we create an extremely charged interdisciplinary knowledge zone to facilitate free interaction and cross-pollination of ideas.
The familiar form of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, designed by Sejima + Nishizawa/SANAA, shown here reimagined, built using mushroom blocks.
The familiar form of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, designed by Sejima + Nishizawa/SANAA, shown here reimagined, built using mushroom blocks.
What type of students does the program attract, and what sort of projects have been produced?
ONE Lab participants range from design, science and art students to young and mid-career professionals from all around the world. They are attracted by the possibilities to experiment freely and break out of the silos of their own academic institutions or professional practices. The students are asked to rethink what is salubrious about the city, in both its forms and its life. Projects developed vary from movable urban farms and structural walls grown from living trees and mycelium to phytoremediation cells for filtering grey and black water and phosphorescent bacteria based paint.
One group of students started their own nonprofit organization that works with inner city residents in Chicago, teaching them how to construct movable farms and concentrate sunlight. Another student, Eduardo Mayoral, received this year's Holcium Award "Next Generation" for his project, Bioluminescent Devices for Zero-Electricity Lighting, which originated in our lab under the supervision of Dr. Oliver Medvedik.
Architecture schools have to comply with NAAB requirements, which are slow to change or adopt new trends. The study of biology and synthetic biology, on the other hand, is racing ahead and essential to bridging the gap between designers and the natural world.
Close-up image of mycelia, the vegetative part of a fungus, which can be hardened into rigid forms and is potentially usable for building components.
Close-up image of mycelia, the vegetative part of a fungus, which can be hardened into rigid forms and is potentially usable for building components.
Do you foresee architecture students being required to study biology or synthetic biology in the near future? If so, to what do you attribute this development?
I do, but that will take some time. Architecture schools have to comply with NAAB requirements, which are slow to change or adopt new trends. The study of biology and synthetic biology, on the other hand, is racing ahead and essential to bridging the gap between designers and the natural world. It also offers a wealth of new possibilities and creative solutions to the current global environmental crisis. Independent schools like ONE Lab have the ability to create a curriculum inclusive of biotechnology that enables us to address the significant problems of our time and open us up to the possibilities of self-sustenance, organic growth and perpetual change.
Maria Aiolova.
Maria Aiolova.
In what ways do you think the location of the program in the MEx Building influences the content or experience of the workshops for students?
The whole idea of ONE Lab was born in the Metropolitan Exchange (MEx) Building, which is comprised of an immensely diverse group of companies and individuals, but we have in common our creativity, productivity, and professionalism. We benefit from the inspiring energy and camaraderie of our shared spaces. Terreform ONE was the first architecture practice to build a biology lab which has evolved into educational infrastructure shared with Genspace, another nonprofit dedicated to providing wider access to biotechnology. For ONE Lab students, lab activity in such a setting is invaluable. Additionally, we never have to look far to recruit faculty—more than fifty percent of our instructors this summer were from MEx Building organizations.
Dr. Oliver Medvedik (left) with students in the shared laboratory space used by ONE Lab students.
Dr. Oliver Medvedik (left) with students in the shared laboratory space used by ONE Lab students.
If there were just one element of the urban form of New York City that you could change instantly and permanently, what would it be, and why?
New York is a city of water. I'd love to see the water and the waterfront of New York City become a truly exciting public space integrated with energy production, water cleansing, and habitat creation. Last summer, we ran a competition, Water as the Sixth Borough, focused on New York and its waterways, concentrating on recreational space, public transportation, local industry, and native environment in the city. So if I were King for a day, I would open all 600 miles of the waterfront to the public, create a soft edge, and implement some of the winning designs.
Fungi building blocks would be easy to grow, as they require only agriculture byproducts, 80F temperatures and humidity.
Fungi building blocks would be easy to grow, as they require only agriculture byproducts, 80F temperatures and humidity.
What projects, outside of the One Lab, are you focusing on now or in the near future?
We are working on turning ONE lab into a year-round school and a degree-granting institution. We are considering the options to do this independently or in conjunction with an established academic institution. We are also working on a Brooklyn Navy Yards project called 'Super Dock". Using the principles of industrial ecology, we propose that the underused dry docks become a vibrant manufacturing and incubator space, which will address community needs, public access, storm runoff, water filtration and rising currents.
ONE Prize winner <i>Parallel Networks,</i> by Ali Fard and Ghazal Jafari. This plan calls for a revitalization of the New York City waterfront, using an adaptable network of floating pods with various functions, from energy production and marine habitat creation to recreation. The ONE Prize challenged architects and planners to rethink New York City waterfronts as the 6th Borough.
ONE Prize winner Parallel Networks, by Ali Fard and Ghazal Jafari. This plan calls for a revitalization of the New York City waterfront, using an adaptable network of floating pods with various functions, from energy production and marine habitat creation to recreation. The ONE Prize challenged architects and planners to rethink New York City waterfronts as the 6th Borough.
William Myers teaches and writes about the history of design and architecture. His upcoming book Bio-Design will be published by Thames & Hudson in 2012.
Maria Aiolova is an architect and urban designer based in New York City. She co-founded Terreform ONE and Planetary ONE with Mitchell Joachim and directs the ONE Lab School for Urban Ecology and the One Prize Design and Science Award. Most recently, Maria was faculty at Pratt Institute, the Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Design and Parsons the New School for Design. She has been honored with the Viktor J. Papanek Social Design Award and Zumtobel Group Award for Sustainability and Humanity. Ms. Aiolova received her MAUD from Harvard University, B.Arch. from Wentworth IT, Dipl.-Ing. from the Technical University of Vienna, Austria and Sofia, Bulgaria.

Most recent

Latest on Domus

Read more
China Germany India Mexico, Central America and Caribbean Sri Lanka Korea icon-camera close icon-comments icon-down-sm icon-download icon-facebook icon-heart icon-heart icon-next-sm icon-next icon-pinterest icon-play icon-plus icon-prev-sm icon-prev Search icon-twitter icon-views icon-instagram