Sustainably Dependent: Bio-Architectural Living Spaces

                                                                                                                        Jennifer Johung


What if a thin film of agar, agarose, or phytogel, simultaneously pliable and solid, precarious and self-sufficient, and that folds and curves into a semi-transparent spatial membrane, could provide an architectural boundary between our bodies and our external environments? Not unlike a cellular membrane, with its selectively permeable bilayer and complex mechanisms for separating interior from exterior and for controlling what moves across its barrier, these biological polymers are currently being developed by the artist-architect-scientist Zbigniew Oksiuta on a micro to macro-scale. Negotiating external pressures and internal tensions in order to create dynamic spatial constructions out of liquid, jelly-like, and semi-rigid matter that, in turn, may fabricate plant tissues by synthesizing solar energy from their surroundings, Oksiuta’s ongoing research projects biologically generate living and self-reproducing architectural forms that are no longer distinct from the environment out of which they arise or from the entities housed within. 



Zbigniew Oksiuta, Spatial Gelatum, 2007


But what happens to these living tissues and fragments if they cannot be regenerated and reincorporated back into self-sustaining infrastructures and living systems, but rather fall away as by-products of various like-minded experiments? Oron Catt’s and Ionat Zurr’s 2007 NoArk is a Tissue Culture and Art research project that examines the taxonomical crisis induced by life forms and structures created through biotechnology and left without either categorization or a home. NoArk is a structural vessel designed to maintain and grow a conglomerate mass of living cells and tissues that originated from different organisms. This vessel serves as a surrogate body for a collection of living fragments, and is built out of cellular stock taken from tissue banks, laboratories, museums and other collections, which are then re-fit together into a newly living structure.



Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, NoArk, 2007


As these two recent trans-disciplinary experiments elucidate and problematize, the convergence of contemporary art and architecture with biotechnology has wielded a range of experiments that seek to catalyze, transform, challenge, reconfigure and/or reproduce living organisms and systems.We can now generate actually living spaces out of organically alive matter that are both internally self-organizing and dependent on their external surroundings, and that activate living systems that can be maintained over time. In light of these advances, how can we refigure our understanding of sustainable living spaces? Indeed, sustainability is the word of the day in the field of architecture, and accounts for developments in renewable energy and responsible material sourcing while also overlapping in a range of related areas such as landscaping, permaculture and farming. Across these practices, sustainability is oftentimes determined in association with living systems, so that as well as maintaining the life of the structure or site, sustainable architecture also functions in a life-like or bio-mimetic way. But what kind of alternative spatial structures, conditions, and programs are proposed when cells and tissue cultures are reformed into sustainable spatial frameworks? As biological matter becomes more visible, viable, and influential in the maintenance of structured space on a microscopic level, how does this affect our understanding and experience of the spatial structuring and organizing of sustainability on a macro-level? What kind of living spaces are we trying to sustain, how and why?


More broadly, a shift in the conceptualization and materialization of built forms has been underway for at least the last decade or two, so that architecture is no longer only conceived as an inanimate object but rather is designed and constructed according to what it does, or how it responds to its environmental situation while also anticipating its inhabitants’ changing needs. Participation within and movement through the subsequently enlivened built site has therefore impelled architectural theory and practice towards performance-oriented vocabularies, design concepts and methods of construction. Although contemporaneously termed, “performative architecture” arguably has roots in much earlier conceptualizations of a building’s responsive relationship to its users, dwellers, and landscape. Architectural historian Vincent Scully, for example, has linked formal attributes of Ancient Greek temples to the changing experiences of moving through the whole architectonic complex, inclusive of both structure and site.1 By focusing attention on the mutually constitutive relationship between a formal structure and its variable use, Scully activates the static building, conceiving of it instead as an embodied, living form that depends on human dwellers and users, and their desires, motivations, and demands. These participants act as mediators who continually construct and re-construct the links between the site and structure, while also revising their understanding of their spatial situation within the larger world. While Scully’s particular focus is on ritualized relationships between building and body, what remains at stake for contemporary architecture, in approaching a performance framework for design and use, is an understanding of building as both a spatial structure and as a temporal process of ongoing situation. 


Now, in step with advances in digital modeling and fabrication technologies, architects and theorists must ask again, to borrow David Leatherbarrow words: “In what ways does the building act?”2 As an actor, architecture is afforded temporality, motion, and even emotion, as buildings become successively conceptualized, generated and maintained as if they were bodies. But what makes an architectural body? In the 1990s, the American architect Greg Lynn was the first to incorporate animation and motion graphic software into the process of generating biomorphic structures, each that transforms and deforms according to a time-based system that calculates changing surface curvatures within a flexible set of parameters.3 With emphasis on keyframing, in which the mathematics of infinitely small intervals can simulate motion, Lynn’s structures dynamically and indeterminately evolve throughout the design process in ways that are not fully predictable, and thus seem to have a life of their own. For the Dutch architect Kas Oosterhuis, this kind of “building-body,” otherwise named as a “hyper-body,” identifies a well-balanced and self-sustaining structural integrity, composed of a continuous, semi-permeable, kinetic, interactive skin that makes no categorical distinctions between floor, wall, ceiling, or door, that bends exterior and interior spaces into and out of each other, and that reacts to both the surrounding environment and to various inhabitants.4 These networked relations unfold in time, are variable and flexible, and are programmed as such, but according to Oosterhuis, the uncertain conflations of digital and phenomenological bodies and skins are also potentially emotive, capable of accepting and exuding affective registers that may gesture towards unforeseen exigencies outlaid from responsive digital technologies.


Greg Lynn/FORM, Embryological Houses, 2000



Kas Oosterhuis/ONL, E-motive House, 2002


As these new paradigms of architecture attend to structural forms as processes occurring in time, in relation to bodies and sites, and instilled with motion and affect, buildings become ever more life-like. While digital and interactive technologies can make structures do something, unmooring both material and conceptual fixity, when aligned with biological infrastructures and systems, another burgeoning field of biomimetic architecture is enlivened through either its imitation of, or its affiliation with, organic processes already occurring within living bodies and across the natural environment; such an “inherent human affinity” with the natural world has also been termed as “biophilic” by sustainable designer and social ecologist, Stephen Kellert.5 Among a wide range of recent biomimetic design explorations that can be incorporated into larger architectural structures, Thomas and Ana Moore and Devins Gust have studied a leaf’s ability to capture energy in order to make a molecular-sized solar cell. Jeffrey Brinker has mimicked the abalone's self-assembly process to create an extraordinarily tough optically-clear glass. J. Herbert Waite has examined the blue mussel that attaches itself to rocks, so as to develop an adhesive that can stick underwater. Peter Steinberg has created a compound that mimics red algae’s ability to keep bacteria from landing on surfaces by interrupting their communication signals with a compound called furanone.6 And on the examples go. With nature as the design model, to be mimicked in form, process, and eco-systemic relations, architecture can, as Janine Benyus argues, “begin to do what all well-adapted organisms have learned to do, which is to create conditions conducive to life.”7


But what if architecture didn’t only approximate, respond to, imitate or support life, and instead was actually living, or semi-living? We can only speak of life comparatively, according to phenomena that distinguish living organisms and systems from non-living, inorganic matter. Although there is no unequivocal definition of life, living entities share common characteristics. They are self-sustaining and homeostatic. They grow, move, metabolize, transform, reproduce, respond, communicate, have complex organizational infrastructures that evolve over generations, adapting to changing external environments and emerging with new functional abilities. Scientists first began to explain life in the 18th and 19th centuries in terms of these material characteristics and physical laws. While philosophical and scientific materialists believed that every entity and force could be explained in physio-chemical terms, a strong contingent of vitalists saw life as something incalculable, nature as indeterminate, and organic matter as something that always escapes full prediction, qualification and control. By the mid-20th century however, as biochemistry developed as a field in its own right, with the subsequent discovery of self-replicating DNA, and in line with efforts at gene sequencing and the mapping of the human genome, the question of life was addressed again primarily in terms of cells, their components and the interactions that maintain living entities through messages, programs, codes, and instructions relayed and followed. Across the centuries and into the new one, these ever-changing meanings are revisited particularly when technological developments challenge us to retool our expectations of how, and how long, we might continue to live. 


In its efforts to reconstitute our qualifications of life, biotechnology sits at the intersection of computer science and biology, particularly if we follow Eugene Thacker’s articulation of a contemporary “biomedia” that is most prominently activated in the relationships between computer and genetic informatics. Designating the use of living organisms and materials to fabricate or modify both living and non-living entities, biotechnology now opens up the possibility of incorporating actually living units, structures, and processes into both the concept and construction of architecture, and indeed the field of sustainable architecture has been most receptive to such intersections.8 For Zbigniew Oksiuta, the future of architecture is biological; he develops living habitats out of biological polymers that act simultaneously as his construction material and design process. Originating from animal or plant tissues, his polymers consist of polynucleotides (DNA and RNA), polysaccharides (cellulose, starch, pectin, chitin, glycogen and agarose), and polypeptides (collagen and elastin)—all are chain macromolecules from naturally-occurring sources.9 Beginning as soft matter, and neither classified as liquids nor solids, these compounds can be easily formed as soft gelatins or may become hard and fragile as agar gels, as they transition eventually into more stable solid states. Oksiuta allows contingency and indeterminacy to take hold throughout the process of formation, observing transformations and subsequent deformations without interfering as the shapes begin to stabilize. In his series of Spatium Gelatum experiments, PVC balloons rotate the biological polymers in a liquid state, which in turn produce sphere-shaped forms. As the liquid continues to be mixed and cooled inside the balloons, the polymers begin to congeal as a membrane. The resulting architectures are biologically renewable and endlessly variable; soft and hard, transparent and opaque, differently colored, flavored and smelling versions have appeared in exhibitions at the International Furniture Fair in Cologne and the BWA Galleries of Contemporary Art of Poland in 2003, at the Venice Architectural Biennale in 2004, at Art Electronica, Linz in 2007, and at the Sk-Interfaces exhibition in Luxembourg in 2010.





Above and below: Zbigniew Oksiuta, Spatium Gelatum, 2004


Expanding his research into structural forms conjured as and through biological polymers, Oksiuta also works under water in an environment of relative weightlessness and neutral buoyancy, which affords an even larger range of membranes. His Isopycnic Systems, explored first in a Neutral Buoyancy Facility at the European Space Agency in Cologne in 2003, are liquid gelling polymers generated and sustained within liquid landscapes. Gels of a certain density are placed in water and amorphously float, pushed and pulled from all sides. Other liquid polymers are then introduced inside the burgeoning form to change its size and shape, creating various spaces and interiors. The entire floating structure is maintained by introducing liquids that have a lower density than the gel or the water inside the form.



Zbigniew Oksiuta, Isopycnic Systems, 2003


Both series of ongoing projects support Oksiuta’s most recent interest in creating three-dimensional living biological membranes that could act as architectural bioreactors capable of housing other living organisms on both a micro and macro-scale, and that internally reproduce the cells and tissues that make up the very structure. Breeding Spaces are polymer layers that are simultaneously spatial boundaries, shelters, and feeding grounds for the micro-organisms, plant tissues and cells that they hold. As Oksiuta describes: “The breeding process involves injecting plant cells into the interior of a form, in this way creating a kind of introverted biosphere. As the cells multiply on the walls and create stable tissue, the ‘bubble’ itself begins to self-degrade, thus facilitating the growth of autonomous plant objects.”10 The membrane therefore acts as scaffolding for the generation of matter that, in turn, maintains both the living membrane itself and the living entities within it. The exterior environment, interior spaces and the permeable boundary between are all inculcated into a biologically fabricated and fabricating system that uses the energy of the sun and the self-organizing tendencies of living matter to breed plant tissues and eventually plants, and to sustain their living conditions over time. The possibilities for Oksiuta are endless: “Since the biological membrane is an universal principle and forms the basis of each living system in the cosmos, it is conceivable in a great variety of consistencies and sizes, as a soft, gel-like or fluid object, the size of a cell, a pill, a fruit, a house or even biosphere. As a bioreactor, incubator or artificial placenta, it would become the new cradle of life and could in the future allow us to cultivate food, tools and shelters. It could even support us in settling the cosmos—it is a life form, thus, with a biological future.”11





Above and Below: Zbigniew Oksiuta, Breeding Spaces, 2007


While the associations between architectural and biological sustainability have been influenced by technological advances in such areas as tissue engineering and biochemical pathway identification, these crossovers are also inspired by a broader understanding of biological organisms, events, and evolution in terms of symbiosis and cooperation. Indeed, systems biology focuses on processes unfolding between seemingly distinct entities, rather than on their specific identification and labeling, therefore addressing wider mutual interactions and dependencies between organisms, their cellular components, and their environment. Relation and interaction are therefore key, and implicate a wider network within which living cells and organisms are generated and maintained.


For Eugene Thacker, systems biology and network theory share common genealogies, overlapping conceptually as well as technically, as both are mobilized by computational and networked technologies. In fact, as Thacker reminds us, beginning the late 1950s Ludwig con Bertalanffy sought to articulate common patterns of organization across disparate systems and to frame these patterns in terms of a “general systems theory”; Bertalanffy chose biological processes, such as cellular metabolism, membrane permeability, and morphogenesis as his case studies. All are self-organizing and self-regulating open systems that operate by constantly interacting with their surroundings and consistently exchanging matter and energy over time, as opposed to closed systems that remain distinct from their environment.12 By returning to Bertalanffy, Thacker pinpoints an underlying tension implicit in systems theory between processes of identification and processes of relational interaction. “A first step in any system-based approach,” writes Thacker, “is to articulate the system, that is, to demarcate a boundary. The second step is to complexify the first step by articulating the components and relationships that constitute that boundary. The tension that systems biology brings to the fore is whether this second step may in some sense fold back on the first, making the first step of identification biologically irrelevant.”13 What drives a general system is therefore recursive; in demarcating identifiable things via boundaries, we articulate relationships, which in turn remark the boundaries that identify things. However, in recognition of open biological systems, we might want to revise the direction and emphases of these demarcations, by determining temporary relationships in order to then propose boundaries that in turn constitute and reconstitute relationality.


From systems biology, we learn to pay closest attention to the interactions that catalyze living processes and that alternately vary and maintain the definition, function, and purpose of all manner of living entities. Biologist Lynn Margulis is credited with demonstrating that large evolutionary events in the history of life can occur as two or more seemingly differentiated things merge and cooperate, across small and large scales, and towards specific purposes. In the late 1960s, she began to formulate her theory of “endosymbiosis,” which emphasizes the interdependent and cooperative existence of multiple organisms. Margulis believes that the organs within a cell, or organelles, were once free-living single-cell organisms that were engulfed by a host cell. The fusion of these two cell bodies also marks a fused purpose; Margulis proposes that the endosymbiont, living within the body of its host, evolved into an organelle over time, performing specialized functions that contribute to total cell function and survival. The process by which such symbiosis occurs therefore complicates a clear determination of boundary relations, and challenges us to decipher the uneven mechanisms of collaboration while questioning individually autonomous agency, as self-sustaining entities merge in favor of the sustainability of a cooperative purpose. Although at first met by skepticism by the mainstream scientific community, her endosymbiotic theory is now widely accepted and has even catalyzed current understandings of human genome composition. Rather than focusing on independent mutation and evolutionary selection, Margulis has consistently over the course of her career forwarded symbiotic relationships between all levels of organisms, from different phyla to different kingdoms, as the force that drives, varies, and sustains life.14 Symbiotic relations generate boundaries to be dissipated and regenerated over time, so that the determination of discretely contained entities, and the borders between, are increasingly obscured.


Yet as architectural conventions will tell us perhaps most convincingly, identifiable boundaries between autonomous beings and things are still both conceptually and materially relevant, if less so biologically. But what are we trying to sustain: the boundaries, the beings and things they hold, or the relations between them and us? While questions like these persist, there are other concerns that arise when those boundaries, things, and relations alike are not only living, but are sustaining each other as living. As cells and tissue cultures become regenerating systems and spatial structures on a minute scale, ongoing art-architecture-science projects like Oksiuta’s urge us to consider more expansively what it means to live within something that is itself living—in other words, to understand the sustained life of architecture in terms of the life, as well as the death, of body and matter. In doing so, we must move from considering the kinds of living and habitable spaces we are trying to sustain, to contemplating how we might want to be structurally sustained by those spaces. If our living bodies are housed within living spaces, then who or what is sustaining whom? How are these acts occurring, and for how long?


To augment our recalibrated distinctions between living bodies and living structural matter, The Tissue Culture and Art (TC&A) project, NoArk, addresses the pressing phenomenon of biotechnologically extended and extendable living forms. Co-founded by Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, TC&A has been exploring the use of tissues and tissue technologies as artistic media since 1996, and as of 2000 the project has become the primary component of SymbioticA, an Art and Science Collaborative Research Laboratory at the University of Western Australia. In 2007, Catts and Zurr developed their self-described “vessel for neo/sub life” in order to respond to the growing mass of disassociated and fragmented living tissues and cells, or sub-life, already existing in the thousands of tons across pharmacological and biological research centers. As these institutions continue to modify living organisms or recombine cell-lines and tissues, a large amount of undistinguishable, unclassifiable “sub” living forms are excised and rendered useless; NoArk attempts both to reconstitute these fragments into new forms of “neo life” and to provide the conditions for those transformations to continue to occur, thus also acting as a bioreactor. Catts and Zurr have described the various biomasses that grow inside NoArk as “semi living” organisms, since they originate from tissue samples, and yet they have no living parentage or indeed kinship, no lineage of relationality or site of belonging. Within the bioreactor, however, the “sub-life neo-organisms” become re-incorporated into newly self-organizing and sustaining systems. In its exhibited form, NoArk consists of separate transparent containers housing collections of dead and preserved animal and plant tissues and specimens, as well as the support systems and technologies necessary to both sustain and to re-synthesize life. 





Above and below: Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, NoArk, 2007


In Catts and Zurr’s words: “We created the Tissue Culture & Art Project (TC&A) in 1996 mainly as a way to define this category of life and, at the same time, as an attempt to destabilize some of the rooted perceptions of the classification of living beings. We see TC&A, and our other attempts to grow aspects of the extended body, as an amalgamation of the extended human phenotype—a disembodied body that is unified in living fragments, and an ontological device for re-examining current taxonomies and hierarchical perceptions of life.”15 NoArk provides shelter and life support for the parts and units, as well as systems and interactions, that precariously and tenuously expand not only the definition but also significantly the experience of life. But not everything remains alive; not everything survives, even within this biological incubator. And we might not want it to. Alongside processes explored for sustaining life then, we must also allow for death, or the finitude that is implicit, although not actualized, in the generation and fabrication of life-like entities and boundaries, relations and architectures. Countering the impulse to keep things and beings alive indeterminately, the death of tissues, bodies and structures are integral to the activities of sustainability. In fact, programmed cell death, or apoptosis, is advantageous and necessary for the sustainability of multi-cellular organisms; for without such signals for death, uncontrolled cell proliferation results, as is the case with cancer. Sustainability of the system, therefore, incorporates the death of its components. Within the precarious co-mingling of structural and biological infrastructures, as we examine the living entities, spaces and systems we want to sustain, and as we acknowledge those that we already guard against death, we also must consider the boundaries, spaces, and relations that we let, or that we should let, die. 


So far, my own effort has been to sustain the practice of questioning life and to expand the sites and stakes of asking. Yet if we look another way at the determinations of life, one that has already been historically prefigured as antithetical to mechanistic paradigms across both science and philosophy, then perhaps we can turn with new emphases towards the expectations of sustainability across all kind of living architectures, at the risk of rendering many of these questions and expectations irrelevant. Arising in contrast to the chemical identifications, physical definitions and properties of living matter explored from the 18th century to the present, the concept of vitalism attributes an inexplicable, non-material force to the activities of life. Unlike those who ascribed a spiritual soul to life’s incalculability, twentieth-century critical modern vitalists sought to honor scientific developments while also acknowledging the indeterminate nature of living things.


Henri Bergson named this enigmatic life force that escapes full control and definition: élan vital. In Creative Evolution, published in French in 1907 and translated into English in 1910, Bergson envisions life and matter as not perfectly distinct, but rather as tendencies that exist in relation to each other, and that lean towards activity and passivity, respectively. Matter is never inert or stable, while life is always in the process of becoming, as it “appeals to some inner directing principle”; this is élan vital, “the tremendous internal push…the impulse which thrusts life into the world.”16 This generative force or productive impetus is multi-directional, diverse, uncontained and unpredictable; it manifolds and flourishes disassociatively between and amongst beings and things and injects indeterminism as foundational element of any kind of material formation. Bergson’s élan vital does not exist prior to, nor is it planned before, its enactment through, within, and in transition with living forms and living activities that are always already in process. Taken up again by Gilles Deleuze at the end of the 20th century, élan vital is direction without a goal, ignition towards but without an end. For Deleuze, this creative force with which, from which, and through which life emerges does not belong to nor can it be defined alongside organic or inorganic matter; it renders these distinctions between beginning and end, among form, process, direction and action undecidable, indiscernible, and irrelevant.17


A lesser-known contemporary of Bergson’s, the embryologist Hans Driesch made similar attempts to decipher and name life’s vital force. Initially put forth in his 1907-08 lecture series The Science and Philosophy of the Organism, Driesch’s notion of entelechy has recently been contextualized alongside Bergson’s concept élan vital by political theorist Jane Bennett. Borrowing the term from Aristotle for its articulation of a self-propelling impulse, Driesch’s entelechy formulates and arranges emergent possibilities before they become actualized within or as an organism; it is, in his words, “an agent sui generis, non-material and non-spatial, but acting into space, so to speak; an agent, however, that belongs to nature.”18 As such, it is inexplicably responsible for rendering the potentiality of life. According to Bennett: “Neither élan vital nor entelechy is reducible to the material and energetic forces that each inhabits and must enlist; both are agents in the sense of engaging in actions that are more than reflexes, instincts, or prefigured responses to stimuli; both have the generative power to produce, organize and enliven matter, though Driesch emphasizes the arranging and directing powers of the vital agent and Bergson accents its sparking and innovating capacities.”19 In opposition to mechanistic examinations of life, élan vital and entelechy are attempts to think the vitality of life as always escaping definition and quantification, and by extension both are at work inside and outside of all kinds of material realities: embodied to inert, organic to inorganic, alive to dead. 


Now as the natural sciences move away from determining stable underlying laws that might explain life and instead address an open field of dynamic interactions between biological structures and living systems, now as theoretical physics focuses on unpredictable and random waves, forces, energies and intensities, now as the mathematics of chaos and complexity considers ever-changing and interconnected material processes, a revised concept of vital materialism is reemerging, one that critically challenges the forceful culture-of-life movement. This new materialism, implicit but never fully claimed by critical modern vitalists, forwards an even bolder proposal: that matter is not only active, but that as an indeterminate and unstable force, impetus, relation or direction, matter also has agency, which has conventionally been ascribed exclusively to living humans. In their introduction to the recently edited volume on New Materialisms, Diana Coole and Samantha Frost argue: “the human species is being relocated within a natural environment whose material forces themselves manifest certain agentic capacities and in which the domain of unintended or unanticipated effects is considerably broadened. Matter is no longer imagined here as a massive, opaque plenitude but is constantly forming and reforming in unexpected ways.”20 In affirming matter’s own vital force whose activity and efficacy exceeds human action and purpose, materialism meets vitalism in order, to follow the call of Jane Bennett’s thinking, “to paint a positive ontology of vibrant matter…to dissipate the onto-theological binaries of life/matter, human/animal, will/determination, and inorganic/organic…to sketch a style of political analysis that can better account for the contributions of nonhuman actants.”21 By superceding fixed and discrete distinctions between the life and matter around and within us, we begin to reconsider not only the qualifications of life, but the status and impact of living objects, structures, and bodies within the material world, which architecture in its deepest conceptual iteration must continuously face and from which it is called upon protect us humans.


While biotechnology has most compellingly affected our re-attunement to life across cellular, human and eco-systemic scales, its partnership with architecture challenges us to re-determine how we are sustaining what kind of life, and more specifically how we are sustaining the spaces and structures that house and care for that life. Volleyed between vitalism and materialism, these reconsiderations lead us to find ways to sustain the indeterminate, consistently recalibrating dynamic of and amongst material formations. Sustainability can therefore be understood as a transitional process of life and death in which any sort of thing and being may emerge and re-emerge. But what does it take to sustain sustainability itself? What would it entail materially, as well as socially, ecologically, and politically to sustain the variable alignments and uneven partnerships through which all manner of living forms, biological to architectural, endure? This is something we cannot do through human intention, want or will alone. Instead, in order to sustain sustainability in its process of becoming we must trace, touch, and accept the actions, accidents, and motivations of nonhuman matter, the structuring of which has been the purview of architecture both before and after the incorporation of digital and biological technologies.


Projected into the future while also facing inevitable material transformations, living bodies and living structures sustain each other through ongoing acts of heterogeneous cooperation, interrelation, care, and symbiosis. Architecture, for its part, must act to continuously readjust the delicate ways in which material systems are generated, kept alive and are allowed to die through their inculcation and implication within other material systems, across organic and inorganic, animate and inanimate, forceful and passive reverberations of life. By acknowledging the contingent ways in which these acts propel forth and unpredictably perform, we can approach a certain vitality of sustainability in terms of the incalculable dependencies through which living architectural spaces and boundaries both intend and tend to the living matter within, between, and outside of them. If we acknowledge that biologically living entities, inorganic substances, and inanimate structures cannot be held so far apart from each other, cannot be completely bound or contained, that all are tendencies and intensities that socially, politically, ecologically and affectively move and transform themselves and each other, then we might require a different purpose from architecture. We might also recognize that architectural formations operate not so very differently from the permeable borders sustained within our own bodies, and that these nonetheless defining walls are sustaining us as we are sustaining them. Indeed, in a significant ontological sense, we have always been living inside of living, actant, and agentic assemblages and systems of beings and things, and they inside of us.22 Architecture is yet another a living and dying membrane, providing an additional permeable and complex system of separation, relation, protection and care within which our bodies live and die, for us to uphold and in order for us to be held, for however long.


Jennifer Johung is Assistant Professor in the Department of Art History at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee and Director of the Art History Gallery. Her book, Replacing Home: From Primordial Hut to Digital Network in Contemporary Art, is forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press in Fall 2011. 



Special thanks to Tessa Johung for talking through the science with me, for helping me organize these thoughts, and whose like-mindedness is inspiring.


1 Vincent Scully, The Earth, The Temple, The Gods: Greek Sacred Architecture (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979).

2 David Leatherbarrow, “Architecture’s Unscripted Performance,” Performative Architecture: Beyond Instrumentality, ed. Branko Kolarevic and Ali M. Malkawi (New York: Spon Press, 2005), 7.

3 Greg Lynn, Animate Form (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999).

4 Kas Oosterhuis, Hyperbodies, Towards an E-motive Architecture (Basel: Birkhauser, 2003).

5 Stephen R. Kellert, “Dimensions, Elements, and Attributes of Biophilic Design,” Biophilic Design, ed. Stephen R. Kellert, Judith H. Heerwagen, and Martin L. Mador (New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons, 2008), 3.

6 For more examples:

7 Janine Benyus, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature (New York: Harper Collins, 1997).

8 Eugene Thacker, Biomedia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), 2.

9 Zbigniew Oksiuta, “Biological Habitat: Developing Living Spaces,” Sk-Interfaces, ed. Jens Hauser (Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press and FACT, 2008), 135.

10 Oksiuta 137.

11 Oksiuta 140.

12 Thacker, Biomedia, 149.

13 Thacker, Biomedia, 161.

14 Lynn Margulis, Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution (New York: Basic Books, 1998).

15 Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, “Bitesize Lecture with SymbioticA,”

16 Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution, trans. Arthur Mitchell (New York: Dover, 1998), 76, 132.

17 Gilles Deleuze, Bergsonism, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (New York: Zone Books, 1991).

18 Hans Driesch, The History and Theory of Vitalism, trans. C.K. Ogden (London: Macmillan, 1914), 204.

19 Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 80.

20 Diana Coole and Samatha Frost, “Introducing the New Materialism,” New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics, ed. Coole and Frost (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 10.

21 Bennett x.

22 Drawing on semiotics, Bruno Latour uses the term “actant” to articulate a source or force of action, whether human or material.  See Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: On Actor-Network Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).  I borrow “assemblage,” as Bennett does as well, from Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of a heterogeneous collections of things, directions, and effects. As they write, in A Thousand Plateaus: “there are lines of articulation or segmentarity, strata and territories; but also lines of flight, movements of deterritorialization and destratification. Comparative rates of flow on these lines produce phenomena of relative slowness and viscosity, or, on the contrary, of acceleration and rupture.  All this, lines and measurable speeds constitutes an assemblage.” Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 3-4.