Rachel Armstrong – A curious explorer building the living interior to a worldship

By Alok Soni|23rd Sep 2013
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Rachel Armstrong is a senior TED Fellow and Co-Director of AVATAR (Advanced Virtual and Technological Architectural Research) and, above all, one of the most enthusiastic innovators I've ever met. Three years back, I heard her for the first time, and witnessed the phenomenal work linking science fiction and reality in the field of architecture. Today, she is a sustainability innovator who investigates a new approach to building materials called ‘living architecture,’ that suggests it is possible for our buildings to share some of the properties of living systems. In pursuit of knowing her as a person, and sharing her inspirations, ideology and innovations with young innovators across the globe, I got in touch with her recently on email. Let's take a deep-dive into the life of Rachel Armstrong in her own words:

Rachel Armstrong
Rachel Armstrong

Beginning with her childhood memories, Rachel recalls, “My earliest memories are from when I was about five years old, out in the back garden, getting covered in mud. Soil and the creatures that lived in it and wanted to work with this ‘fabric’ to make things with, fascinated me. So, I made mud pies and little environments so that the creatures could get along better together with each other. I was not very skilled at this and my creatures did not survive very long as I added too much water and salt to their homes. However, this is where my passion for designing and engineering with natural systems started and in many ways, I can happily say that my childhood dream has come true”.

“It is important to find the right community to keep these ideas alive”

AVATAR was established in 2004 to explore the impacts of advanced combined technologies on the built environment. Rachel is a project leader for Persephone, which is responsible for the construction of a giant natural computer to support the interstellar crew and constitutes an alternative kind of nature that is native to the worldship. Persephone is not just a thought experiment, it also builds models and prototypes to address real world challenges such as, resource shortages in our megacities.

Since an altogether different level of ideology and thinking processes are required to support such research work, Rachel’s thoughts are highly based on ‘Inpossible’ method which provides a framework on thinking that we can use to take risks and explore challenges when we cannot predict the outcomes. In her own words, “This may help us find alternative ways of addressing extremely complex challenges such as, how we might ‘save’ the city of Venice from being ravaged by the elements, or how we might design a new kind of Nature for the living interior of a worldship.”

Flying City
Flying City

To understand the above mentioned research and outlined processes one can refer to the Future Venice project, which aims to grow an artificial limestone reef under the city of Venice using an urban-scale natural computer. One of the most challenging questions for Rachel is to find out how to design across generations since the tools and technologies which are needed to work on the project do not yet readily exist. Some of these may take more than a generation to build.

Combining Architecture and Biotechnology

Rachel believes that any technology that has a meaningful effect on our lives, needs to be operable at the human scale. Because of her lifelong interest in designing and engineering with living materials she wanted to see if it is possible to work with biotechnology on an architectural scale. She mentions, “If it is possible to achieve this then we may be able to build our world in new ways. Perhaps, for example, we might grow our buildings in ways that have a positive impact on the environment rather than assembling them as a hierarchy of objects using machines that are associated with negative ecological impacts.”

“Life is much richer for all our differences”


ADHylozoic20

Explaining the challenges for such an uphill task Rachel mentions, “Since society and industry have a habit of coming down hard on ideas that don’t have a clear pathway to their resolution, it is important to find the right community to keep these ideas alive.”Rachel considers herself very lucky in that she has never suffered terrible hardship or prejudice on account of her gender. Talking about the challenges being a woman she mentions, “I enjoy being a woman. However, I do realize that not everyone is so lucky as I am and I do not seek to trivialize the reality that many women do not get equal opportunities as men. I believe that when discrimination occurs on any grounds that it is a great shame and a loss to everyone. Life is much richer for all our differences. We should embrace and nurture them.”

Rachel believes that motivation comes from within for her, “I wake up every day realizing that I am living my childhood dream. Every day is an exciting, fulfilling adventure because of this!”

“Technology is the way our minds are embodied in the process of problem solving”

Recalling one of the experiences from India about technology and innovation, Rachel narrates, “I believe that technology is the way our minds are embodied in the process of problem solving. A community whose innovative capacity made the biggest impression on me was Anandgram, which is about 11 km outside of Pune. The people who lived there and had suffered from the stigmata of leprosy infection, used very low tech technology to rebuild their lives – from changing the mechanical advantage of machinery, to using cooking utensils with long handles, to tying up the front of their feet with leather straps that stopped them from developing traumatic ulcers and making wax moulds to give form to sunken noses. All of these innovations were a very creative and human expression of our ingenuity. They did not pander to be the ‘best’ or ‘most fashionable’ but had an honesty and integrity that was humbling.”

“Whether we like it or not, we are part of a global society”

Speaking about different geographies, Rachel mentions, “Asia and Europe share similar challenges in facing powerful dominant trends,which may not have the best possible impacts locally on communities. For example, as a generalization - the shift of labour to the East has caused socioeconomic changes in Europe where what it means to be ‘working class’ has changed from low paid manual work, to being in receipt of state benefits. On the other hand the rapid growth in population in Asia exceeds that in Europe. The challenge is of course, how megacity growth is managed since the move from rural communities to urban environments is more rapid than it is possible to build infrastructures that enable people to have a basic standard of living.

In terms of markets, the greater population in Asia is a huge opportunity for all corporations across all areas of business. Europe is forging active alliances with Asia to explore possible opportunities for new enterprise.”

“I cannot guarantee that this will make you money – but will bring wealth through other value systems”

World Orbit Final
World Orbit Final

Rachel considers herself an explorer with an insatiable curiosity for the living world. In other words, she can take a deeply humanistic view of nature without losing sight of the importance of our nonhuman relationships. Talking of future, Rachel has the following parting thought to share:

Think Black Sky – beyond the 3-5 year product cycles that keep us in a perpetual ‘now’ and develop your work around long-term visions that positively shape our shared future. I cannot guarantee that this will make you money – but will bring wealth through other value systems.”

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