Inside Rensselaer
* Introducing Students to “Biological Architecture”

Architecture student Christine Koch displays her project titled “Biological Meets Mechanical.”

Introducing Students to “Biological Architecture”
In the simplest definition, a building is a membrane, encapsulating a space for human living, says Zbigniew Oksiuta, a clinical professor of architecture at Rensselaer. So why not a living membrane, he asks? In his first semester here, Oksiuta introduced his students to biological architecture, a futuristic marriage of biotechnology and architecture.

“Just now, because of achievements in gene technology and nanotechnology, we have for the first time the opportunity to read in DNA, and in the near future, to write in DNA,” Oksiuta said. “We could create objects, spaces for living, which would be biological. It’s a huge challenge and it’s ripe to do this now and here.”

Oksiuta’s vision of biological architecture stretches from the not-so-distant — truly green facades and living spaces that are themselves living — to extraterrestrial “Space Garden” habitats. His work includes installations, films, and objects exploring bio-architecture concepts and materials. A native of Poland, Oksiuta studied at the Department of Architecture at Warsaw Technical University, and the Department History of Art, at Technical University, in Aachen, Germany, and has exhibited widely in Europe.

“Architects talk about a green façade, a vertical garden —what if the façade really is not a dead wall, but a biological skin and really living, like a leaf, or a new soil which produces food for us?” Oksiuta said. “It’s important to establish a vision which is maybe not realistic right now, but has potential for the future. I think it’s very soon.”

“Professor Oksiuta’s research is profoundly important to our discipline in that it targets specific organic material that can mined as next-generation building components,” said Evan Douglis, dean of architecture. “What’s so exciting about having him as part of our faculty is that, as far as I know, he is one of the very few researchers in the world examining biological material as an alternate building block for our profession. It’s simply cutting-edge work with the potential of global impact.”

Materials research, Oksiuta said, is “the first step,” and in his spring Human Habitats studio, Oksiuta and 10 undergraduate students investigated the potential of gelatin, each using different techniques to prepare original structures. Oksiuta said gelatin and other biological polymers give architects “a new language to work in.” But first they must learn to speak in that language.

“It’s not a material we know: a wood or stone or iron that you can cut and put it together,” Oksiuta said. “You have to learn to observe the biolotical matter and processes of self-organization within it. All living organisms are unstable, but in the long term of life, this instability is very good.”

Students experimented with gelatin as a building block by coating it inside or outside of inflatable forms, reinforcing gelatin structures with metal, and mixing gelatin with soap to create lasting bubbles.

They also, through select writings, studied the larger theoretical and technological implications of bio-architecture. For most, it was their first exposure to biological architecture, Oksiuta said.

This fall Oksiuta plans a second step by using gelatin structures as “a scaffold” to grow algae or bacteria. Oksiuta is currently seeking interdisciplinary research partners throughout the university interested in collaboration based upon a similar commitment to responding to the challenges of our time.

“I see here a huge opportunity to connect disciplines — bio-art, biotechnology, nanotechnology, developing new living spaces,” Oksiuta said. “It’s always very good for students to know what’s happening in other departments. They exchange visions. That is my hope. There is big potential.”
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Inside Rensselaer
Volume 4, Number 11, June 18, 2010
©2010 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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