LDF Design Junction Talks: An architectural approach to designing with biology

By Faber Futures

Natsai Audrey Chieza
Natsai Audrey Chieza, Founder Faber Futures.
Marcos Cruz, Programm Director Bio-ID, Bartlett School of Architecture
Marin Sawa, Research Associate at the Faculty of Engineering, Department of Chemical Engineering, Imperial College.
Carole Collet, Professor in Design for Sustainable Futures. CSM LVMH Director of Sustainable Innovation. Founder & Director of Design & Living Systems Lab.

As part of Design Junction 2018, London Design Festival, Carole Collet, founder of Design and Living Systems Lab chaired a discussion on designing with biology. Panellists Natsai Audrey Chieza, Marin Sawa, and Marcos Cruz all trained as architects, but they each deal with the living matter in fundamentally different ways. What does unify their thinking however, is an understanding that process design underpins outcome, and that process design happens both inside and outside of the design studio, with a wide array of stakeholders.

At Faber Futures we’ve long observed that designing systems, interfaces and interactions that integrate living organisms is a comfortable domain for architects working in the field of biodesign. Systems-thinking is inherent to architecture, resulting in an approach to biodesign that goes beyond questions of materiality, form and aesthetics. Since architects deal very directly with historical and social contexts, scale, environment, ecology, politics, regulatory frameworks, economics and material flows – all in close proximity to other technoscientific infrastructures – the question of designing with living systems cannot successfully be understood and tackled by placing emphasis on the resultant object or outcome alone. Instead, it is a process-driven endeavour operating both inside and outside of the creative studio.

We’ve spent this year crafting our thinking through Other Biological Futures in collaboration with Daisy Alexandra Ginsberg (also a trained architect), where together we frame how crucially, biodesign should be more deeply explored as an activity operating as the point where the social contingent meets with the technoscientific. In other words, designing with living systems is to make with life alongside historical and social contexts, scale, environment, ecology, politics, regulatory frameworks, economics and material flows – and again, in close proximity to other technoscientific infrastructures.

Thinking about this in practical terms given the scope of our mission at Faber futures (embedding design thinking in synthetic biology for sustainable futures), we have chosen to focus on the inflexion points that create innovation pathways for sustainable and equitable distribution of resources through biodesign actually feasible. As you’d imagine, there are multitudes of such inflexion points: some are as much about a shift in mindset at an organisational level (which of course can be designed), as they are about communicating how an emerging technology like synthetic biology can build confidence over our capacity to dis-invest in outdated modes of production and extraction. Much of our work at Faber Futures so far has been to identify those opportunities, treating them as feasibility studies that require the nurturing of relationships to co-design around shared goals with our collaborators. From microbial dyes that have programmable aesthetic qualities, negate pollution and significantly reduce textile-finishing water-use, to working with synthetic biology startups to enable an organisational shift in culture to one that understands and values design thinking upstream, process-design driven by context is a design strategy we place great emphasis on. In the studio, we sometimes refer to this as a kind of intensive administrative work with the sole purpose of creating the conditions to collectivise beautiful thinking and therefore beautiful making. While this remains the less visible and therefore acknowledged work, for us, it is a wholly necessary foundation to lay for the coming years.

For practitioners like Marcos who through his own practice and as programme director of The Bartlett School of Architecture’s Bio-Integrated Design at University College London, designing with living systems is as much as modelling the spatial and environmental dynamics that give rise to site-specific growth conditions now and in the age of a warming climate, as it as about the technical aspects of life-maintenance design for building envelopes. Designing a bioreceptive material surface that enables a responsive built environment might be a seemingly straightforward goal, but to get there is a site-specific enquiry that reveals all the aforementioned complex hierarchies of how stuff and place get made.

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