Villagers in remote Cherrapunji India build footbridges by training root tendrils from trees that are members of the banyan family to span rocky gullies and gorges. The living bridges can reach 30 meters. They're permanent and strong enough for 50 people to cross at a time.
The root bridges of Cherrapunji are a primitive example of living architecture, using nature and bio-mechanisms to design and build without relying on traditional industrial, machine-manufactured processes. Living architecture offers a bold, futuristic vision that sounds like science fiction but according to the author is a fresh idea that despite many challenges is eminently workable, and represents a practical way to reclaim and sustain our environment.
"Living Architecture" is Armstrong's blueprint for attaining that new, audacious vision.
In order to grasp the concept of living architecture, you need to understand "protocells," which are the building blocks of the new living materials and methodologies that might supplement and even supplant existing design and manufacturing methods.
Protocells are not living molecules. They don't contain DNA and can't reproduce. But they can be "created" by combining natural chemicals and substances (oil mixed with an alkaline solution, for example) and they do have properties such as the ability to organize themselves into microstructures. They exhibit behaviors such as movement and sensitivity to biological or chemical elements and light, for example.
In a big "What-If" Armstrong asks what if we could employ to protocell principles to stabilize one of the "most ferociously unstable" places on the planet - Venice, which is crumbling from the corrosive effects of being assaulted for three centuries by the forces of nature.
Armstrong suggests using protocell technology to shape the natural processes taking place in Venice to reclaim the ancient city-state. It is theoretically and most likely practically possible to mix up a protocell stew using natural agents that would be used to grow a vast limestone reef that would serve as a permanent foundation to support the city. Light-sensitive protocell colonies could be created to gradually petrify the wooden pilings, which would then slow the city from sinking into the soft mud on which it sits.
Using Venice as an example is one of the more easy to understand explanations of how living architecture might reclaim and reshape our world and offer a new paradigm for how we think about the way we design and build. It's one of many examples Armstrong calls upon in her T.E.D. essay.
This is by no means an easy read. It feels as if she's presenting at a conference, lecturing to colleagues who know exactly what's she's talking about. But just because it's a slog doesn't mean it's not worth the time. It's a provocative essay that causes you to pause and think: what if what Armstrong presents as a new vision might actually be realized.