This article originally appeared in the SCI-FI issue of CLOG. As it is central to much of my thinking these days, I decided it was time to share. The image below is artist David Lamont’s concept for the Vorlon Transport B. You can see the original image and more here. I really wanted to include David’s work with the original article, but CLOG chose to put a quote from my article on the opposing page instead. Since this is now on my blog I can add this awesome visual for those of you who don’t immediately know what I’m talking about in regards to Babylon 5. I trust you have all seen Star Trek and Star Wars.
Analog — Digital — Organic
Star Wars and Star Trek offer seductive potential futures. One appeals to our hardscrabble romantic side, the other to the comfort of clean linear technological progress. Star Wars is an analog universe. Steel and mechanical energy are paramount. Star Trek on the other hand is a digital future. Silicon and the flow of electrons underpin all the advances. These sci-fi universes are extrapolations of then-contemporary technologies mixed with asynchronous future-tech required by the plot. Neither approximates our impending reality.
The creators of the mid-90s television show Babylon 5 better prognosticate the world to come. The Vorlons are the most evolved race; their technology is depicted as organic. Spaceships are made for and become extensions of specific individuals. Reminiscent of giant space-faring cephalopods, these ships are semi-living, semi-sentient: a hybrid of animate and inanimate. The spacecraft aren’t built; they are grown. Chemical reactions and DNA are the building blocks.
The trend towards organics and bio-mimicry is apparent in 2013, though mostly visible outside the purview of architects: organic light-emitting diodes, DNA used as data storage for computers, and tiny organisms being developed to digest or produce chemical compounds. As these and other technologies reach the consumer, another critical trend will meet biotechnology halfway: 3D printing. The current expression of 3D printing focuses on the DIY freedom of desktop printing, mass customization, and the ability to print common materials like plastics, metals, or chocolate. But the larger potential of 3D printing is to act as the systematic tool for growing organics and other advanced materials. 3D printers will create objects using the building blocks of life: DNA, RNA, and proteins.
These printers will enable us to live in a world of designer materials—a world where the fundamental construction elements are not carbon or silicon but rather biological macromolecules. The architectural implications of this new reality are far-reaching. Every piece of a building can be as complex and computationally powerful as any living creature. Each component can be an engineered negligibly senescent organism with underlying DNA identical to the rest of the building or completely unique, depending on the needs of function or location. Just as buildings are now designed for specific clients, so too could materials be designed for specific uses.
The result will not be a world of Vorlonesque soft buildings with smooth surfaces covered with naturalistic shifting patterns and biomechanical tentacles, but rather one of smarter, more responsive materials. The trend toward organics will be about the essence of the material and not the physical appearance that describes its creation. The form of a grown object will no longer be constrained by our views of what organic matter looks like. Instead of a shallow stylistic visual shift in our environment, the future of organics will be a fundamental leap forward, a deeper change in how our world is built and operates.
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