Hy Fi PS 1

Better Buildings Through Biology? Review: Now We See Now.

Recently I received a small, thick book from Monacelli Press with the enigmatic title, Now We See Now. I like their publications so I immediately opened it and began to read. The book was by “The Living.” That didn’t register with me, as I didn’t know what sort of work “The Living” might do. Was it architecture?


Apparently the answer is yes. In our new age of bioengineering, all sorts of promising new avenues of research have emerged to renew better ways of making buildings. It turns out that Columbia professor David Benjamin and his firm—“The Living”—are pursuing some fascinating methods for harnessing biological processes, and advanced computer software, in order to design and fabricate things. Some of what they make is undoubtedly architecture, though their rhetoric suggests that they are uncomfortable with any kind of conventional description of what they do.


One of the promising aspects of bio-morphic design is the prospect of getting buildings that come closer to satisfying the most basic human needs and social requirements. Another is that designers could touch and come closer to the things they want to produce than is possible in our current system. Most architects sit behind computer screens and never see the buildings they design until the ribbon cutting ceremony, if then. They don’t dirty their hands collaborating with makers. That’s a problem, I think. I also agree with Benjamin that designers should be much more familiar with life sciences, including neuroscience, than they are in our current educational system.


But that’s where we part company. The research of “The Living” mistakes biological processes of cell generation and growth for the very different means by which humans make useful things. By starting with the blatantly false statement that “all buildings are living organisms” the premises behind Now We See Now are flawed. Buildings are like living things, and contain living things, as Francesco di Giorgio Martini confirmed during the early Renaissance. Humanism and classicism use the body and mind as the basis for all design, but rely on analogies and metaphors in order to do so. They do not mistakenly equate natural organisms with human-made artifacts, as Benjamin clearly does.



The Renaissance concept of natura naturans versus natura naturata distinguishes between the activities or processes of nature and the literal forms and organisms that we see in the natural world. That distinction is crucial in any form of art, craft or design endeavor and it exists in almost every work of architectural theory from Vitruvius to Gottfried Semper. When we forsook nature for machines as our model we got lost, leading to the baffling built environment that confronts us every day.


Indeed, it appears that most of what is produced in Benjamin’s laboratory is never touched by humans during its fabrication. Computers do most of the work, because Benjamin is a scientist and wants new evidence to guide his every move. To be sure, the computer can unlock the secrets of biological processes through algorithms, but that does not make those algorithms useful to designers. Likewise we can now study organisms in greater detail than ever before, but that does not mean their forms should be replicated or chemical processes adopted uncritically. Humans have been making shelters for themselves for millennia and generally those “shells” serve well for protection from the elements, as Stewart Brand notes in his wonderful book, How Buildings Learn.  


Several computer-based methods appear in Benjamin’s book, including “generative design,” as do some biologically driven production methods. The authors assume that this kind of investigation is new and hitherto unexplored by architects, when in fact we have been using all sorts of mathematical, geometric, and organic models for centuries, mostly to good effect. One good place to look for this is in George Hersey’s fascinating book, Architecture and Geometry in the Age of the Baroque. The mathematics is mind-bending and fun, and won’t be familiar to most architects or scientists today.


Now there may be some significant research here, but readers have no way of telling where it is amidst the high-flown rhetoric and tiny illustrations. There are so many typefaces, and different size fonts, that things get blurred when changing between one and another. 


Like many young firebrands, Benjamin assumes that by using strange and arcane terminology he can fool people into thinking he is doing something significant. Now there may be some significant research here, but readers have no way of telling where it is amidst the high-flown rhetoric and tiny illustrations. There are so many typefaces, and different size fonts, that things get blurred when changing between one and another. Because the book has very few page numbers, it’s hard to locate sections that purport to connect research with built projects. The contents are split roughly in half—why not simply place the research next to the project it supports?


That simple, practical way of thinking is not in this book. For example, these designers continue to believe, after decades of research refuting such claims, that they can use adjacency diagrams and statistical analysis of “user” preferences to design more satisfying environments for office workers. The new twist on this old saw is that blue mussels in the Hudson River “are highly sensitive and reactive to external environmental factors,” and can help to clean the water by filtering it through their systems. Like all organisms, these bivalves must ascertain the threats in their watery environment or they will die. Humans also sense threats using biological mechanisms. Our skin does a great job of regulating heat gain and heat loss, and we have noses that smell smog.


So, in two well-funded projects these designers use “generative design” and environmental sensors to produce architecture that can at best be called banal. Their 2017 offices for AutoDesk in Toronto are so full of design clichés that they would not pass a first year interior design course, even after 10,000 iterations in their computer models. Seating groups face potted plants; desks and lights are cast about like pick up sticks; color accents are dull and lifeless in a sea of off-white furniture. Like Google, AutoDesk apparently believes that more “algorithmic design” produces better environments, but it obviously depends on what kind of algorithms are used, and how they connect to real, practical problems.  


An exciting, if not yet practical, example of biologically-driven product design is the use of chemical and biophysical processes in the making of new things. Hydroponic gardeners and aquaculture farmers have been doing this for years. Benjamin’s team got some notoriety in New York by making “bricks” from a replication process used by mushrooms and other simple micro-organisms. Such a “mycological” growing model is simple and cheap. When the architects had masons and architecture students at PS1 in Queens build with these bricks, they were able to construct a tube-like structure in three weeks with only a few on site changes. Unfortunately, the bricks won’t support a roof, and are easily damaged, a fact that doesn’t seem to bother the designers. It’s true that sometimes far-reaching ideas take a long time to gestate. Robert LeRicolais had his Penn students building “least material” models to test structural theories during the 1960s that were not used until quite recently. Let’s give Benjamin a pat on the back and the benefit of the doubt here.



The Embodied Computation Lab, at Princeton.


It is harder to praise their recently completed Embodied Computation Laboratory at Princeton University, which looks a lot like a high-tech garage. Elaborate testing and manufacturing processes were employed just to fabricate a lot of simple wood components, and the plan of the building is nothing more than an auto repair shop: big machines come in at one end, get changed in some way, and emerge different at the other end. The building it replaced was a repurposed stable. The only difference between the two is that one building cost the university nothing and the other cost a lot, even though some of its wood was “recycled.”


Let’s talk about wood and recycling, because I deal with wood conservation and re-use of barn frames in my work. Old wood loses its ability to stay together over time—the lignin between the straw-like layers of cellulose breaks down. The better the wood, and the older the trees it came from, the better its chance of staying together, because the grain is tighter. When Benjamin went to New York to get pieces of old wood scaffolding he was procuring inferior wood, with poor integrity, to somehow analyze and process in a “new” way. If he understood wood as a craftsman does, he would not have chosen this kind of wood as a siding material. There is plenty of better wood available in sawmills and recycling facilities that might have cost a few pennies more to procure, but the cost of rehabilitation would have been far less.


To make things even more complicated, and perhaps provide his computer engineers with more to do, the team analyzed the scaffold boards for variations in grain pattern. You can do this with your eyes, as furniture makers do, but that would not have been scientific. They then, in a puzzling move, decided sand blast the boards. Anyone familiar with wood, or brick, or other common materials knows that sandblasting destroys the integrity of the surface, especially its resistance to moisture. The boards are almost certain to fall apart soon, unless they are coated every year with an expensive sealant. Good siding, taken from a historic barn, will last for decades with almost no maintenance but paint or stain. It must be overlapped to shed water, which these architects failed to do with their advance-technology boards. This kind of warped logic drives what Benjamin’s laboratory does, as it does in a lot of other contemporary architects’ offices.


One last thing can be noted about “The Living.” They ignore any lessons from past builders, or people, or other living things that used their ingenuity to make good places in which to live and work.  Like beavers and termites, people have grown their houses for thousands of years in an organic way, as I noted in my book, The Vintage House (written with Gordon Bock). Heuristics or “rules of thumb” have guided people, steadily and surely, throughout history, and nothing suggests that will change. But this book informs us that “In any field, rules of thumb close down our curiosity. They signal to us that we no longer need to ask questions. They create blind spots.” Like so many statements in this puzzling book, this one is false, and can be disproved by reading recent research on cognition, or looking through articles in the journal, Design Studies, which uses peer-reviewed science to examine many questions relevant to architecture.  


To make matters worse, Now We See Now has been designed to obscure any understanding of goals, methods or anything else resembling a narrative. There is no apparent order to the material, though one can be discovered after an hour or so of careful perusal. Even the subject and authorship are incomprehensible on first reading. Though from the outside it looks like a hardcover book, inside it looks more like the cluttered desk of a mad scientist. It isn’t made with purpose, or care, or craft.


I could suggest that Mr. Benjamin go “back to the drawing board” before he publishes more research, but I doubt he has ever used one, or ever will.


Featured image: Hy-Fi, an organic brick structure, designed by David Benjamin of The Living, as part of MoMA PS 1’s Young Architects Program.  


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