Geeks bearing Bio-architectural gifts: The Living's Molecular Sustainability

Myco-digital architecture meets synthetic biology in New York's experimental studio, The Living. Here, founder David Benjamin discusses their mycelium brick installation Hy-Fi, the Mussel Choir and other of The Living's off off-kilter projects

The name David Benjamin and his colleagues chose for their architectural studio doesn't conform to the norms of architectural titles. No single names up there in lights; Fosters, Grimshaws, nor double names sounding like a firm of lawyers or accountants; DillerScofidio, FeildenClegg, FeildenFowles, or first name surname; Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid. Nor for that matter is it connected to a artisanal building or making reference; Assemble, We Made This, Public Works.

No, David Benjamin's studio is called, with declamatory vigour, The Living. If architecture's theological parameters included name titles, The Living would be serious blasphemy. More serious a transgression than London's :00. I can't think of another architectural practice with a moniker anything like this. But then, it isn't rocket science to see, in Benjamin's words, that "The Living are not part of the mainstream sustainable architecture world." As it is, rocket science is so 20th century.

The Airbus Partition Wall project

In another kitchen, however, that of Silicon Valley, Google, Big Data and Web 4.0, a name like The Living makes apt sense. This is Wired Nation territory, and The Living are one of those creatures straddling the line between architecture and digital life, and also, as it happens, sustainability. Founded by Benjamin in 2007, a glance through their project’s portfolio conveys the impression that they are before the fall, the pre-2008 crash, when computational architecture was all the rage. Benjamin is from and The Living are a New York based outfit, working in partnership with and out of Autodesk’s offices. Benjamin is an architect and is spoken of in the same – or related – breath(s) as Neri Oxman, Neil Gershenfeld, and Natalie Jeremijenko, the East Coast Bio-Digerati for whom the mix of construction design, algorithms and Biology in the service of a non-doctrinaire sustainability only dimly recognisable to the green mainframe. Benjamin characterises this as ‘expanding the definition of architecture’ but another slant is that The Living is but an architectural expression of the Biotech research sector. Certainly, much of their work is closer to the revolutions in the Biotechnology Labs on both sides of the States, from Synthetic Biology to Programmable Matter, than it is too much that is recognisably architectural.

This is completely different terrain to the traditional hallmarks of sustainability. One strand derives from the GM revolution and the active materials that The Living and their colleagues are playing around with, the likes of nanomaterials spliced and gene edited in hi tech Bio-labs. While the Living’s material basis may be living it is profoundly at odds with what passes for orthodox – from Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace or Sierra Club type organic food and agriculture – green. This is more like molecular and gene spliced sustainability.

So, The Living’s repertoire of projects includes airplane design - a partition wall, for the Airbus A320, which publicity and press state reduced material use by half, a mussel sourced pollution alert art-technology in the Manhattan East river, a collaboration with Bjork for her MoMA exhibition installation, and more recently, a sustainable testing rig at Princeton. All done in the way of The Living, biologically and Big Data informed.

Hy-Fi party night – Photo The Living
The Embodied Computation Lab in Stanford’s Architecture dept

If you have come across The Living’s work though, it is most likely to have been Hy-Fi that’s crossed your path, albeit more likely than not virtually. That is unless you happened to be in Queens, NY the summer of 2014. It was there that a 13 metre high mycelium brick tower rose up in PSI Brooklyn, New York MoMA’s downtown avant-art satellite. Images of the hydra headed chimney cylinders quickly went viral, bouncing round the web and registering with younger generation communities across different networks and persuasions.

Since that summer The Living have continued to develop their niche zone with the Embodied Computation Lab – completed in 2017 – their largest permanent architectural intervention to date.

During an 80 minute coffee conversation with Benjamin in the cavernous, entirely unwindowed, and comprehensively soulless ExCell Building, during 2018’s EcoBuild Expo binge – he flew from New York for less than 24 hours turnaround – we discussed several of The Living’s projects, even as, towards the end of the conversation, he began asking about the quickest way to get to Heathrow. Small and wiry, Benjamin exudes East Coast computer tech sector. But the sustainability isn’t feigned: “There sure are some dire problems” he says, when Climate Change enters the conversation. But as indicated his is a very different take on the environmental to the norm, as bracing as it is for those uncomfortable with the grand experiments of improving nature through genetic modification, synthetic biology and related new biological frontiers, a vision which can also feel a mite creepy.

We began by discussing the relatively recent Embodied Computation Lab (ECL), and its use of engineered timber: glulam and also salvaged wood found on New York building sites, together considerably more traditional sustainable material than mushrooms as a key building block, although was already aware of how the project wasn’t as simple as such a traditional interpretation might view it. As Benjamin sees it, the ECL “asks the question of ‘what is it like to design with embodied energy?’” Although the ECL functions essentially as a teched up architectural Fab Lab, equipped with hi tech kit for student and faculty research, fabrication and robotics, sitting in a discreet corner of Princeton University’s architectural faculty, the glulam frame is the result of Benjamin and colleagues asking what the architectural expectation is over the next five to thirty years. “What will buildings be like by 2050?”’ Benjamin asks rhetorically.

The lab is already being pored over by a microscope, drilling through the energy layers. Collecting data, using machine learning and data analytics to run the numbers, and provide clues to optimising embodied performance of structures, construction and buildings.  “This is a lens through which we can explore how we might use embodied materials in the future. One third of the materials used over the next thirty years will have been demolished” he adds, pointing to the pragmatic potential of The Living’s research involvement, marrying robotics, machine learning and sand-blasting.

The sand-blasted surface of the glulam and salvaged timber at the Embodied Computation Lab

Along with embedded sensors, researchers can explore the buildings energy use in real time. Robotics and other digital kit provide the tech for automated construction research, geothermal wells, energy harnessing, and experimental roof and walls. Together the research lab aims to prepare the way for buildings of the future.

There has already been research during ECL’s construction, showcasing generative design, machine learning and robotic upcycling highlighting the façade comprising reclaimed materials, principally 960 salvaged scaffolding boards – recovered from sites across NYC. Investigating, the majority, though apparently not all the boards – “we couldn’t look at all the boards” – The Living honed in on the knots, warping and cracking in the salvaged wood. Analysing the boards thermal performance, and the role of the knots in the boards, micro-qualities such as the wood’s contours insulation performance, for instance, the effect of trapped air within the contours and grain of the wood. Heat transfer over and across the rough surfaces of wood is usually assumed to be constant. But here, the algorithm’s developed began to not only recognise the knots in the boards, but as the number of boards analysed increased, and where and how air pockets and other variables influenced the insulation performance. A unique 3D topography of the salvaged façade – each building block – was modelled using Apple software, and machine learning was again used to generate a design which optimised the knots thermal insulation potential.

Graphic of the sand-blasting generative design I

A much more manual approach was applied than previously part of the Living’s practice, the labs robot’s sand-blasted the generative design into the boards. Each time the process ran a new board, the new information added to the machine learning. A CNC sand-blaster refined the forms within the wood.

Graphic of the sand-blasting generative design II

For Benjamin the robotics experiment for the ECL’s reclaimed façade is “an example of embodied computation and machine learning” circa 2017, “combining with the tools of architecture.” The project creates not so much a strange new architecture, but rather novel sustainability processes, which may or may not trigger wider applicability, but are undeniably thought provoking and bring a story to the venture. Like Hooke Park’s Robotic Woodchip Shed, or the GramzioKohler Sequential Roof at the ETHZ’s recently completed Arch_Tec_Lab you can’t help wonder if this Robotic Blasting experiment leads anywhere substantive – and for all the thermal energy efficiencies uncovered by running the numbers, if it doesn’t, you’re left begging the question of whether the embodied energy of the research outstripped the savings.

The Mussel Choir lighting up the Brooklyn Bridge

If, for Benjamin, The Living is, as he says, about “wanting to reframe and redesign sustainability, imagined by biology, then the ECL is sustainability recast and re-imagined by generative design and machine learning. Much more explicitly biological is the super-slow burn Pier 35 EcoPark Brooklyn project and its Mussel Choir, part of a major waterfront redevelopment initiated by the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) with NY architects, SHoP for ecological park and habitat provision on the East River Esplanade and its neighbour Pier 35. Originated back in 2004, ex-pat Australian artist Natalie Jeremijenko and Benjamin’s The Living were introduced into the mix in 2007, first experimenting with what was originally dubbed Amphibious Architecture, a temporary network of sensor carrying buoys picking up and transmitting information and stories on the health and state of the watery deeps, on and around this segment of Manhattan’s East river, part of the salt water tidal estuary.

By 2012 a permanent version of Amphibious Architecture was in the works, just as Hurricane Sandy crashed into Manhattan’s coastline, both knocking back the EcoPark and Pier 35 redevelopment by years and underscoring the urgency of the ultimately practical ideas Jerimijenko and Benjamin were pursuing. By then, the sensor-heavy buoys had been augmented by a troop of mussels, which as the rivery water ebbed and flowed opened and closed their mussel shells, a biological response to the level and type of pollutants in the water. An array of technologies, from magnets and Hall-effect sensors, transducers changing alongside those in the magnetic field, pick up the shells movements, which then is converted into a piece of sound sculpture, care of software, broadcasting acoustic dimensions such as pitch and tempo. This is very much par for the course for Jeremijenko, who has developed a reputation for brilliant if wacked out and off-kilter systems arts projects.

Mussel Choir tech at the ready

For Benjamin teaming up with the Australian artist-scientist seems to have been a big moment, so soon into getting The Living up and running. “It was amazing to do all that work with Natalie Jerimenjenko. She brings so many interesting ideas and things to the table. As well as always bringing something very unique, Natalie introduced me to the art world, she was the interface and communication.”

“It was an inspiring collaboration for me” he says. It also fused well with The Living’s digital biology agenda. Fusing natural intelligence with artificial intelligence is one new frontier, Benjamin proffered. “The combination will allow a lot of new things.”

“These are natural systems which have evolved over thousands of millions of years,” he added, adding how the “tiny mussel factories are experiments with biological manufacturing and fabrication. They’re tiny mussel factories, the building blocks of actual cities. “

While the experiments continued and a version was shown at the Venice Art Biennale in 2013, EcoPark and Pier 35 were mired in delays and the project has stalled, and even though the project looked as if it’d be opening in 2017 for quite a while, the date came and went, and the city is still waiting.


Hy Fi fying high

By contrast Hy-Fi came, went, and is today, several years on, long gone. Winner of MoMA’s Young architects programme in 2014, Hy-Fi went up after a winter of preparation the same summer at MoMA’s associate Brooklyn art centre, PS1. Looking not unlike an alien’s leg’s gone awry, the cylindrical shapes are nothing if not biomorphic, fat limbs growing out and into each other and rising up skyward. On clear nights the stars can be seen through the three open circular funnels.

If the form was striking, Hy-Fi’s materials caught the imagination. The sculpture is comprised of ten thousand bricks made from natural materials, but not old school natural materials: timber, straw or mud. No, these are comparatively exotica of the natural materials world; compressed mushroom roots blended with corn stover (essentially corn waste.)

Benjamin had come across a young eco-company in upstate New York, Ecovative – now Ecovative Design - and with colleagues visited early in 2014, after hearing about the compostable bricks when they won the 2013 Buckminster Fuller Design Science Challenge Award that autumn. A few weeks after the visit he called back wanting to go ahead.

A small start-up company which had emerged out of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, upstate New York in the 2000’s. Ecovative focus has been lab-based Bio-materials. In 2007 Ecovative took one natural process, how mycelium, the fungal rooting structures of mushrooms, grow a super-strong webbed root system when mixed with vegetable matter. Place in moulds and within a week the two bio-materials have bonded together, solidifying to create a strong, weight carrying material. Sustainability-wise there is an perplexing – at least from an old school Human 1.0 slant – convergence between Genetic Modification and other Biotech adaptation of natural, indeed agricultural materials, with veganism and animal welfare activism. With mushroom packaging you don’t pollute the planet with plastics, while with GM vegan bacon you don’t send animals to the abattoir. Part of the Ecovative pitch is to this Gen Zed sustainability vision.

Up until Benjamin’s visit, Ecovative were using their process to make bio-packaging but apparently took up the challenge of myco-bricks with enthusiasm. For the bricks the company used corn stalks mixed into the mycelium held in moulds. As Ecovative hadn’t developed bricks for structures before, research was intensive, particularly looking at the strength and safety potential of building a tower out of mycelium bricks. “There was a lot of testing,” states Benjamin. The research was carried out by Arup’s materials testing labs” They were certified to resist 75 mph hurricane winds.”


Ecovative's mycelium bricks at different stages of preparation – Photos left and centre Ecovative/The Living and right in MoMA's collection

Looks like a mushroom?…. Mycelium Foundry One – Photo Ecovative

“There is a micro-shape and a macro-shape to the bricks, the massing of the structure, and the bricks were different on the tower’s outer skin to the inside sheltering space.

The outer layer needed to be waterproof, with an uncuttable skin which would require considerable work in the research and testing phase. “There were fitting and stacking problems, - every brick had to sit over a layer of 2 inches. It was difficult to realise without an algorithmic model.”

It worked out though, and Hy-Fi was a hit once installed and opened at PSI. The press photos show what look like ecstatic rave-like roof parties, where Hy-Fi fit right in. When it came to taking Hy-Fi down, one of the big attractions was that the Bio-based materials, were ‘designed to disappear,’ the bricks turning into a fertile mulch and returning to the soil, helping feed a New York tree programme with a rich compost.

So far, there hasn’t been a single, let alone a flurry of further, mushroom brick structures. But he thinks its time is coming. “I’m convinced that mycelium could be a manufacturing platform” says Benjamin, and research and development continues with Ecovative, who won a £7 ($9.1) million DARPA Living Materials Award in 2017.


The world is ready, thinks Benjamin. Or at least readier. A “more organic, more living and more dynamic” sensibility is in the air. “Industry is readier for it. It is clean, universal, works in cityscapes. 80/90% of population, if you give them a mycelium brick, are okay about it being genetically modified. They love the idea, maybe don’t like the texture, aesthetics, smell or something – and a small proportion don’t care.”

“What does it mean when you put mushrooms and building into the world?” he asks, leaving any answer hanging in the wind.

Work on mycelium materials projects continues, “in the most relevant way.” There are a few applications, which he’s looking at placing in exhibition contexts, as well as ways to bring the material back to life after the brick drying process kills the mycelium material – self healing. When the stalks are cut they can heal back and bond back together. This is the GM terrain, cutting and pasting genetic code, improving on nature. They are looking at manufacturing genetically created starch, manufactured with artificial machinery, further strange – and artificial – fruit of the Biotech revolution.

Ecovative are also evolving. These days Ecovative Design, in October 2019 they took production a stage further announcing the Mycelium Foundry One, a 35,000 m2 research and bio-production facility in Green Island, close to Albany in upstate New York. Mycelium Foundry One produces packaging, including MycoCompositeTM and food including the GM vegan bacon.

One can see something of where this is going, this charged co-evolution of humans, machines and non-humans, carbon and digital intelligence and the spectra of synthetically reproduced Bio-materials – one line of research enquiry glosses the field; bacterial cellulose, a substrate for fabric or leather, enhancing, as Benjamin describes it, the frontiers of synthetic materials.

For anyone wondering, with The Living you need look no further for proof that sustainability and the brave new world is here ….

ol – an old piece, but interesting still.