Q&A: David Benjamin

Pioneering architect and teacher David Benjamin tinkers at the crossroads of design and biology, exploring the possibilities of both mimicking and literally harnessing life to create dynamic, responsive structures. He has orchestrated research workshops for his graduate students and initiated interdisciplinary collaborations with scientists and software developers. David is interested in synthetic biology in particular: a branch of the field closely linked with engineering that involves piecing together bits of DNA like Legos to perform specialized functions. He speculates that research in this area will significantly impact architectural practice in the coming decades and could eventually become as historically significant as the industrial revolution was.

David teaches at the Columbia GSAPP (Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation) and is co-founder of The Living, a firm dedicated to creating architecture that is both interactive and responsive to environment conditions. His innovative work includes Living Light, a permanent, illuminated pavilion in Seoul that visually reports changes in air quality, and Amphibious Architecture, a floating installation in New York’s East River that enabled participants to communicate with fish and learn about water pollution.

ArchBioSynth-01Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP) students Jayson Walker and Sarah Carpenter conduct an experiment at Genspace, a community bio lab in New York City.

William Myers: What are the sources of your interest in linking science and architecture?

David Benjamin: I’ve found that collaboration across disciplines is helpful to break out of old patterns of thinking. It turns out that most innovation comes from someone outside the direct field of research.

As an undergraduate at Harvard, I majored in social studies, which was an interdisciplinary program. Then I worked at a start-up software company alongside designers, engineers, computer scientists, and “human factors” experts.  By the time I started studying architecture, I already considered it to be a perfect field for interdisciplinary and collaborative projects.

My interest in science, and particularly in synthetic biology, is a natural extension of The Living, an architecture firm that I started with my friend and collaborator Soo-in Yang.  Our firm explores various ways to bring architecture to life, and recent developments in biology may allow this to become literal.

If the 20th century was the century of physics, then the 21st century is widely seen to be the century of biology. Biology already leads the sciences in terms of budgets, workforce, and innovation. Genetic modification accounts for 3% of G.D.P. in the U.S., and it is growing quickly—for comparison, construction accounts for 4% of G.D.P.

So as an experimental architect interested in new ideas and innovations, I have been studying synthetic biology for several years. Recently I started a collaborative research initiative at Columbia GSAPP that involves the intersection of architecture, synthetic biology, and computer science. I have been teaching design workshops at Columbia about these topics, and also, as part of the Synthetic Aesthetics Project—an international, NSF-funded residency that has selected six pairs of scientist-designer collaborators—I am working on applied research with Plant Biologist Fernan Federici and the Jim Haseloff Lab at the University of Cambridge, U.K.

ArchBioSynth-02As it becomes possible to design cells as tiny, self-replicating computers, new forms of data processing and storage may emerge, such as embedding computing invisibly in our lakes and reservoirs. Cloud computing will become river computing. (Mike Robitz, Architecture Bio-Synthesis Class, Columbia GSAPP)

WM: Do you foresee architecture students being required to study biology or synthetic biology in the near future? If so, to what do you attribute this development?

DB: Synthetic biology is a new approach to engineering based on manipulating DNA and establishing a database of standardized biological parts.The biological parts can be assembled in different ways for different applications—similar to how electrical parts like transistors and capacitors can be assembled in different ways to create different electrical circuits. This kind of framework is called an abstraction hierarchy, and it is very powerful because it should allow some people to design biological parts while other people design biological devices and systems.

The vision is that someday soon architects—and other non-specialists—will be able to design new biological devices and systems without needing to understand the detailed molecular behavior of the biological parts.

In addition, biological technologies have been advancing at an incredible speed.The price of sequencing and synthesizing DNA has been dropping by 50% every 18 months, in a trend similar to Moore’s Law for computer processors. It’s already possible to buy a desktop DNA printer which basically allows you to compose a computer file with a sequence of bases—a sequence of the A, C, T, and G of genetic code—and then 3D-print the biological part right in your own studio. This is biological fabrication as an extension of digital fabrication. And these advances are already leading to garage biology, which may trigger an explosion in innovation similar to what happened with garage computing. We may be at a transformative moment similar to the moment in the ‘70s when Apple Computer started in a garage in Silicon Valley.

So I think it’s exciting and also probably inevitable for architects to learn about synthetic biology and add these technologies to their palette of design tools.

WM: You recently taught a graduate class last fall in which students proposed ways harness synthetic biology in designs; can you describe a few of these student projects?

DB: The students in this course had no prior experience with synthetic biology, but they came up with some amazing applications. One started with new technology for turning protocells into tiny, self-replicating computers.  He designed a hypothetical system for inserting data into cells and then extracting it later. The zeros and ones of digital code became the A, T, C, and G of DNA code. The division of cells became simple logic gates. The student then imagined how this new bio computation might lead to rivers and lakes that are essentially hard drives—or “wet drives”—for storing massive amounts of redundant, encrypted data.

Another student started with new genetically engineered yeast and microalgae that convert sugar and sunlight into fuel, without drilling or non-renewable hydrocarbons. By using synthetic biology to redesign the functionality of these cells, the new systems generate around 80% less carbon than existing fuels. So the student designed an incredible new fuel cycle, working on vastly different scales at the same time, from DNA with a radius of about a billionth of a meter, to the earth with a circumference of 40 million meters—that’s 16 powers of ten in a single design project! The student imagined new desktop devices, new vehicles, new factories and buildings, new agricultural landscapes, and new natural and synthetic ecosystems.


This creation of a new system of biofuel—with 80% less carbon emissions than petroleum fuel—involves design at multiple scales simultaneously, from DNA with a radius of about a billionth of a meter to the planet with a circumference of 40 million meters. (Nathan Smith, Bio Oil Workshop, Columbia GSAPP) Click to view full size.

WM: You recently compared the rise of synthetic biology to the development of software and suggested this made it important for architects to get involved early. Can you explain?

DB: Architects have a tendency to adopt technologies late in their development cycles, after the features and overall frameworks are set and frozen.This can limit design possibilities, and I think we are seeing this now as architects wrestle with modeling and simulation software that was developed by and for other fields.

In synthetic biology, the standards, protocols, and applications have not yet been fixed, and I think this is a perfect moment for architects to get involved and contribute to the discussion.

ArchBioSynth-06As biological technologies become more available, Do-It-Yourself inventors may engineer algae to create car grilles and catalytic converters that suck carbon from the air as you drive. (Nathan Smith, Bio Oil Workshop, Columbia GSAPP) Click to view full size.

WM: Can you describe your initiative to build a registry of applications for synthetic biology?

DB: While architects may not yet be able to conduct advanced synthetic biology experiments, they are already well trained to imagine potential applications for new technologies—including their impact on buildings, environment, public space, and culture.  So in my research and classes at Columbia GSAPP, we have been building a Registry of Synthetic Biology Applications to design and catalog potential projects that use synthetic biology. Drew Endy, one of the leading spokespeople for synthetic biology, suggested this catalog might also be considered a registry of problems or a registry of puzzles.

We imagine that our registry might be a companion to the MIT’s incredible Registry of Standard Biological Parts, which already catalogs and characterizes sequences of DNA known to perform specific biological functions. Biology students and professionals already draw on this Registry of Parts when they are designing new biological machines.  We hope that one day they might also draw on our Registry of Applications. In theory, scientists and designers and students could review the Registry of Applications for interesting problems to solve, and review the Registry of Parts for relevant building blocks to create the solution.

ArchBioSynth-07Old factories and power plants may be updated with new mechanical and biological machines and to create clean fuel. (Mark Paz, Architecture Bio-Synthesis Class, Columbia GSAPP)

WM: There is increasing interest in ‘bio-materials’ that can be grown or manipulated using biological processes. Can this be done reliably and functionally yet, or is this still a far way off?

DB: For new medicines and fuels created with synthetic biology, there are already a handful of new products that are functional and robust. Right now scaling up for industrial-scale production is a challenge, but many people think we will see these problems solved within the next several years.

So for new building materials created with synthetic biology, I think the limiting factors will be our imagination and our financial investment. If we can imagine incredible new building materials based on known biological functions, and if we can find the money to invest in their development, then we should be able to manufacture and integrate them into our architecture.

ArchBioSynth-08It may be possible to use biological systems as design tools, extracting complex behaviors from cells and applying them to architecture, but in this scientist-designer collaboration, researchers are aware of the limits of translation, and are attempting to identify exactly where scaling up might break down. (Synthetic Aesthetics Project, Fernan Federici from Jim Haseloff Lab at University of Cambridge UK, and David Benjamin from Living Architecture Lab at Columbia GSAPP)

WM: What projects are you focusing on in the near future?

DB: The field is wide open and right now there are amazing opportunities to re-think the design of everything. I have just started working with a large software company to explore the intersection of architecture, synthetic biology, and computation.  We are looking to advance the use of software tools in synthetic biology, and we think this might help both experienced synthetic biologists and non-expert designers—architects, artists, material scientists, computer scientists, and all types of students—to improve their capacity to design with biology.

William Myers is writing a book about the growing overlap between design and biology. He also manages licensing initiatives for The Museum of Modern Art and is a visiting instructor at Hunter College. He’s a recent graduate of the new MFA program in Design Criticism at New York’s School of Visual Arts.

The Living, the architecture firm that David Benjamin co-founded, were runners-up in the Next Generation Design Competition twice — in 2005 for their project Living Glass, and in 2006 for River Glow.

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