Would you wear a jacket grown from bacteria? Get a tattoo digitally printed on your skin using stem cell technology? How about sip on a plastic cup made possible by the electrochemical wonders of human waste? This futuristic, faintly unsettling collision of biology and design is the subject of William Myers’ Bio Design: Nature + Science + Creativity, a lush, 288-page tome that works as both high-minded eye candy and environmental battle cry. If Bio Design has a fault, though, it’s that the book is all too sanguine about the prospects of a marriage between biology and design, and about the latter’s ability to tame the former to suit its needs.
Myers is a New York-based freelance writer (and contributor to this newspaper). His premise in Bio Design is that designers and architects have drawn inspiration from biology since the days of Lalique and Mucha. Only recently, though, have advances in biotechnology—advances that the late Steve Jobs called “the biggest innovations of the twenty-first century,” as the back of the book helpfully notes—given designers the tools to fold real live organisms into their work. It is now theoretically possible to cross trees with glow-in-the-dark jellyfish genes, creating organic street lamps. It’s possible to use sand and bacteria to grow a Great Wall-style bulwark against the spread of the Sahara desert, and to transform E. coli into the digital data stores of tomorrow. It’s even possible to whip up a mood-enhancing mousse from a diner’s own blood.
These sorts of things aren’t just the lofty ideas of a few designers-turned-mad scientists. In Myers’ telling, they’re key to righting centuries of environmental wrongs. “The 20th century did not demand as dramatic a transformation as that which the 21st century appears to require,” he writes. “Building with bacteria and other organisms is simultaneously becoming a technological possibility and a necessity.”
As evidence, he compiles an impressive kaleidoscope of projects, each lusciously—almost pornographically—illustrated. Many of these images will be familiar to readers who feast regularly on design blogs, but that doesn’t detract from the power of seeing them all in one place, a vibrant petri dish of our bio-connected future.
Myers is a deft, often-thoughtful guide. He has an unobtrusive writing style that eschews the “gee whiz!” response that bleeding-edge design typically inspires. He also acknowledges that biodesign faces significant economic and political hurdles and must be accompanied by new regulations and financial incentives to reach its potential. But there’s a question he does not address, except in passing: Is biodesign good design?
Courtesy Nelson Kon; Courtesy Alberto T. Estevez; Courtesy Ferdinand Ludwig & Cornelius Hackenbracht
If it’s as urgent as Myers suggests, it damn well better be. Maybe it’s too soon to say. A lot of the featured projects are in the conceptual or prototype phase. Others occupy the looser precincts of art and thus don’t hew to the usual design standards. But I would’ve liked some consideration of the projects’ individual merits beyond the boilerplate I can find on Designboom. Are they functional? Affordable? Lasting? The earth-saving credentials of biodesign won’t matter a jot if it doesn’t meet these, and other, criteria.
Take the Baubotanik Tower, a 29-foot-tall green building that architects at the University of Stuttgart engineered out |of living trees. But the plants require a (not very green) steel-tube scaffold to grow. And it will be five to 10 years before the design is, in Myers’ words, “fully functional.” I have no idea whether that means it will be habitable or merely stable enough to not collapse. The project is an intriguing demonstration of our potential to integrate the natural world into the built environment. But is it the future?
Myers in general seems complacent about the uncertainties of biodesign, as if they were somehow external to the endeavor of imbuing the lifeless with life. He insists that the benefits outweigh the “unintended consequences”—a pat conclusion that isn’t borne out by even recent attempts at bringing biology to heel.
Recently, Scientific American ran an article about a woman in her late 60s who went to the doctor complaining of swelling and an odd clicking sound in her eye. Turns out she had bone fragments growing in her face. She’d forked over $20,000 for an untested cosmetic procedure in which the doctor isolated adult stem cells from her abdominal fat and injected them into her face, with a dermal filler, making the stem cells ossify. You could call the result an anomaly—one of those “unintended consequences” Myers warns about. But you could also say that it was perfectly natural. The history of humans bending biology to their whims is a history of unintended consequences. In the 1970s, biologists tried to control a weed out West by importing an enemy insect. But the insect didn’t do its job and instead caused an unexpected surge in the population of deer mice, which carry hantavirus, a disease that can kill people.
Clearly, biology is not always well understood. It’s wildly unpredictable. And just because something is, or derives from, life, doesn’t guarantee that it will protect the environment—or us. One of the most impressive innovations described in the book is a brick made by combining sand, bacteria, and a solution of calcium chloride and urea to create a green alternative to standard kiln-fired bricks. But the process generates ammonia, a toxic byproduct and “a considerable obstacle,” as Myers himself admits. Bio Design offers an excellent introduction to a promising new design discipline. Yet to say, at this early stage, that the field is necessary to our future is a judgment that should be viewed with as much skepticism as the notion that you can inject your belly into your eyes and look 20 again.