What if our buildings were living entities that morphed in response to environmental conditions? Could façades adjust to air-pollution levels? Could we grow our own building materials to reduce toxins and carbon footprints? Such are the questions driving the work of David Benjamin, co-founder of the New York–based firm The Living and director of the Living Architecture Lab at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (GSAPP). eco-structure spoke with Benjamin about the intersection of biology, technology, and architecture, and what it might mean for the future of sustainable design.
Your work takes a different approach to the relationship between the environment and architecture, where the environment becomes an architectural element rather than something that is influenced by architecture. What sparked this exploration?
Over the past several years, we’ve explored a variety of different ways to use the processes and flows of the natural environment to bring architecture to life. Some of our early experiments involved things like physical sensors and microcontrollers, and buildings that adapted over time in response to their context or environment. Recently, we’ve been working more directly with actual living biological systems.
But what ties this together is that throughout the development of our projects, we’ve been very interested in and attuned to the ways that the environment might become an active collaborator in the design process, rather than something to be suppressed or shut out of the building. If we think about the processes and flows of the natural environment, they’re mind-blowing. They can be very complex, efficient, intelligent, and creative, so why not try to work with these processes and flows rather than against them?
[The spark] was partially the mix of new possibilities of technologies combined with our desire to do experimental scenarios that seemed underexplored. It started out with the idea that physical sensors and computers were becoming smaller and cheaper and well-networked, and literally disappearing into the built environment. That possibility and those technologies made it really tantalizing for us to explore what this might mean for the future of buildings. What if buildings could literally respond in real time to a complex amount of conditions in their environment?