a black and white visualization of the Living's installation

David Benjamin’s Venice Biennale Installation Makes the Case for Probiotic Living

While some experts seek to protect us from pathogens, others argue that we must learn to live with microbes.

New York architecture studio The Living combines speculation and realization through prototypes that intersect technology, cultural history, material research, biology, and environmental science. Helmed by founder and principal David Benjamin, the firm articulates its practice through the multifaceted framework of biocomputing, bio-sensing, and bio-manufacturing to promote rapid innovation, mitigate uncertainty, and develop new methodologies. 

The Living’s latest endeavor advocates a probiotic-versus-antibiotic approach to architecture and design. Mounted at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale and as the COVID-19 pandemic persists, the “Alive” installation suggests that certain types of bacteria are actually good for our overall health, facilitating digestion and bolstering immunity. 

“We know that the human body has more microbial cells than human cells and that microbes are all around us, in the air, within the walls, and on every surface,” Benjamin says. “Contrary to what we might have thought in the past, many bacteria and viruses actually help keep humans healthy. Benign microbes outnumber the harmful ones and tend to kill them off. So with this in mind, we might transform the way we think about design.”

The Living's installation
“Alive” proposes architecture that supports diverse microbial communities through varying texture, light, and airflow. Structures made of textured, organic material provide macro-spaces for humans, micro-spaces for microbes, and material interfaces for exchanges among the different species, promoting the idea of living together. STEFANO SCHIAFFONATI

The architect and his team want to translate this fundamental understanding into how we build structures in the future, especially when it comes to ensuring a level of symbiosis and interspecific cohabitation. At the core of Benjamin’s proposal are porous environments that can host both humans and microbes, with the latter serving as a natural form of HVAC. “A holobiont is a collection of different species living together, each contributing to the well-being of the whole,” Benjamin explains. “If we think of buildings in this way, we might design for more than just human comfort. This gives us a new perspective on life and health.” 

As demonstrated by the various mock-ups on view as part of the “Alive” installation, nontraditional bio-receptive materials like dried fibers of luffa might offer viable alternatives to the sleek, sterile, and industrially produced materials we’re accustomed to. Such plant-based substitutes are inexpensive, low-carbon, renewable, and fast-growing. Taking on aesthetic and structural qualities all their own, these experimental substances also accommodate different light and airflow zones.

“The project is a prototype for the architecture of the future. Recent advances in biological technologies—combining artificial and natural intelligence—can supercharge our creativity and also help address complex problems like climate change and inequality,” the architect concludes. “At the same time, this is also relevant to current buildings. A sustainable material like a luffa can be used in many environments: partition walls, acoustic-tiled ceilings, or even microbial facades that remove pathogens from the air.” 

On the other end of the spectrum experts from Gensler and Columbia University Irving Medical Center lay out a blueprint that seeks to protect us from pathogens, arguing that we must implement strategies and standards for infection control in all spaces to prepare for the future. Read the full story here.

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