A New Spatial Contract
for Multi-Species Architecture
Microbes are everywhere.
Invisible to the human eye, they live in the air, within the walls, and on even the cleanest of surfaces.
The human body has more microbial cells than human cells.
Although a few types of bacteria and viruses can make us sick, many other types actually defend us and limit the effect of the harmful ones.
Bacteria in the human gut help us digest food. Viral DNA in humans helps us process and store memories.
From this perspective, each of us is a metropolis teaming with life.
And like the residents of the city that contribute to its culture and make it run, the microbes of the human body contribute to its vitality and give it energy and personality.
Microbes help make us who we are.
As you read this description, you will shed 2.5 million bacteria, breathing them out and shedding them from your skin and hair.
Most of them will die. And the ones that survive in our typical architectural environments tend to be the ones that have antibiotic resistance and enhanced virulence—the ones that are most harmful to humans.
Yet in environments with high diversity of microbial life, the harmful organisms tend to be outweighed and mitigated by the benign ones.
What if we could change our architectural environments to be better hosts for a diversity of microbes and to decrease the amount of harmful ones?
In this vision of the future, architecture could include spaces for both humans and microbes.
Buildings could be designed as microbial environments.
Rooms could have different microclimates for many types of microbes.
Equipment for ventilation, heating, and cooling could be supplemented by microbial reservoirs.
Materials could be sponges—textured, porous, and organic, with infinite surface area.
A bio-receptive material like luffa could be designed to catch and host microbes with tiny cavities of different sizes and shapes that create different pockets of shade, temperature, moisture, air flow, and nutrients.
With walls of bio-receptive material, architecture becomes a cloud to nourish humans and in turn, buildings become stewards for the microbiome.
Just as a healthy gut microbiome promotes our individual health, a healthy urban microbiome might promote our collective health.
And a new kind of living architecture might involve probiotic buildings.
A holobiont is a collection of diverse species living symbiotically, each contributing to the well-being of the whole.
The humans, microbes, and other organisms in the holobiont are mutually supportive.
In this way, we are all made of each other.
This gives us a new way of thinking about multi-species architecture.
In the future, buildings with porous surfaces could behave like our skin and gut and support colonies of microbes tuned to create healthy spaces organically and inexpensively.
These buildings might look very different than the ones we currently inhabit, opening doors to new ways of thinking about how we live and how our cities are organized.
Humans are the microbes of the city.
And with microbes—as with humans—diversity is the key to well-being.
To design for diversity is to design for living together, and to design for our collective future.
Virtually at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021
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