Architecture-by-Bee and Other Animal Printheads

[Image: By John Becker].

For thousands of years now, animal bodies have been used as living 3D printers—or sentient printheads, we might say—but the range of possible material outputs is set to change quite radically. In fact, bioengineering is rapidly making this idea—that spiders, silkworms, and honeybees, to name just a few, are already 3D printers—more than just a poetic metaphor.

Those creatures are organic examples of depositional manufacturing, and they have been domesticated and used throughout human history for specific creative ends, whether it's to produce something as mundane as honey or silk, or something far more outlandish, including automotive plastics, military armaments, and even concrete, as we'll see below.

Animal Printheads

Researchers in Singapore discovered several years ago, for example, that silkworms fed a chemically peculiar diet could produce colored silk, readymade for use in textiles, as if they are actually biological ink cartridges; and other examples—in which animal bodies have been temporarily tweaked or even specifically bred to produce new, economically useful materials on a semi-industrial scale—are not hard to come by.

As it happens, for example, using bees as 3D printers is quickly becoming something of an accepted artistic process and its deep incorporation into advanced manufacturing processes will not be far behind.

Perhaps the most widely seen recent exploration of the animal-as-3D-printer concept was done last year for, of all things, a publicity stunt by Dewar's, in which the company "3D printed" a bottle of Dewar's using nothing but specially shaped and cultivated beehives.

[Images: Courtesy of Dewar's, via designboom].

These pictures tell the story clearly enough: using a large glass bottle as a mold in which the bees could create new hives, the process then ended with the removal of the glass and the revealing of a complete, bottle-shaped, "3D-printed" hive.

As Dewar's joked, it was 3B-printed.

[Images: Courtesy of Dewar's, via designboom].

Or take the Silk Pavilion, another recent project you've undoubtedly already seen, in which researchers at MIT, led by architect Neri Oxman, 3D-printed a room-sized dome using carefully guided silkworms as living printheads.

[Image: Courtesy of MIT].

The Silk Pavilion was an architectural experiment in which the body of the silkworm, guided along a series of very specific paths, was "deployed as a biological printer in the creation of a secondary structure."

The primary structure, meanwhile—the pattern used by the silkworms as a kind of depositional substrate—was nothing more than a continuous thread wrapped around a metal scaffold like a labyrinth, seen in the image below.

[Image: Courtesy of MIT].

It was at this point in the process that a "swarm of 6,500 silkworms was positioned at the bottom rim of the scaffold spinning flat non-woven silk patches as they locally reinforced the gaps across CNC-deposited silk fibers." In other words, they infested the labyrinth and laid down architecture with their passing.

[Image: Courtesy of MIT].

The “CNSilk" method, as it was known, resulted in a gossamer, woven dome that looks more like a cloud than a building.

[Images: Courtesy of MIT].

What both of these examples demonstrate—despite the fact that one is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek media ploy by an alcohol company—is that animal bodies can, in fact, be guided, disciplined, or otherwise regulated to produce large-scale structures, from consumer objects to whole buildings.

After all, the very origins of architecture were a collaboration with animal bodies, and experiments like these only update those earliest constructions.

In both cases, however, the animals are simply depositing, or "printing," what they would normally (that is, naturally, in the absence of human augmentation) produce: silk and honey. Things get substantially more interesting, on the other hand, when we look at more exotic biological materials.

Bee Plastic

For half a decade or more, materials scientist Debbie Chachra at New England's Olin College of Engineering has been researching what's known as "bee plastic": a cellophane-like biopolymer produced by a species native to New England, called Colletes inaequalis.

These bees secrete tiny, cocoon-like structures in the soil—one such structure can be seen in the photo, below—using a special gland unique to its species. The resulting, non-fossil-fuel-based natural polyester not only resists biodegradation, it also survives the temperate extremes of New England, from the region's sweltering summers to its subzero winter storms.

[Image: Courtesy of Deb Chachra].

More intriguingly, however, the cellophane-like bee plastic "doesn't come from petroleum," Chachra explained to me for a 2011 end-of-year article in Wired UK. "The bees are pretty much just eating pollen and producing this plastic," she continued, "and we're trying to understand how they do it."

Bee plastic, Chachra justifiably speculates, could perhaps someday be used to manufacture everything from office supplies to car bumpers, acting as an oil-free alternative to the plastics we use today. In the process, it could perhaps even kickstart a homegrown bio-industry for New England, where the species already thrives, wherein the very idea of a factory needs to be fundamentally reimagined.

The most exciting architectural possibilities here come less from the bees themselves and more from the elaborate structures that would be required to house their activities; imagine a brand new BMW factory somewhere in the suburbs of Boston populated only by plastic-producing bees, and you get some sense of where industrial manufacturing might go in an alternate future. Not unlike Dewar's bee-printed bottle, then, augmented cousins of Chachra's plastic-producing bees could thus 3D-print whole car bodies, kitchen counters, architectural parts, and other everyday products.

But even this, of course, is a vision of animal-based manufacturing that relies on the already-existent excretions of living creatures. Could we—temporarily putting aside the ethical implications of this, simply to discuss the material possibilities—perhaps genetically modify bees, silkworms, spiders, and so on to produce substantially more robust biopolymers, something not just strong enough to resist biodegrading but that could be produced and used on an industrial scale?

Recall, for example, that the U.S Army, working with a Canadian firm called Nexia Biotechnologies, was successful in its attempt to genetically engineer a goat that would produce spider-silk proteins in its milk. Incredibly, those "Biosteel goats," as they were later known, were eventually housed in old ammunition bunkers on a New York State military base, as if they were living bioweapons that needed to be held in quarantine.

[Image: Biosteel goats summed-up in one simple equation (via)].

The ultimate goal of producing these goats was to generate an unbreakable super-fiber that could be used in battle gear, including "lightweight body armor made of artificial spider silk," and other military armaments; but others have speculated that entire bridges or other pieces of urban infrastructure could someday be woven by goats.

These possibilities become even more strange and promising when we move to materials like concrete.

Concrete Honey

As part of an ongoing collaborative project, NYC-based designer John Becker and I have been looking at the possibility of using bees that have been genetically modified to print concrete. We could call them architectural printheads.

[Image: By John Becker].

Initially inspired by a somewhat willful misreading of a project published under the title "Bees Make Concrete Honey," John and I began to imagine and illustrate a series of science-fictional scenarios in which a new urban bee species, called Apis caementicium—or cement bees—could be deployed throughout the city as a low-cost way to repair statues and fix architectural ornament, even to produce whole, free-standing structures, such as cathedrals.

[Image: By John Becker].

In a process not unlike that used for the Dewar's bottle, above, the bees would be given an initial form to work within. Then, buzzing away inside this mold or cast, and additively depositing the ingredients for bio-concrete on the walls, frames, or structures they've been attached to, the bees could 3D-print new architectural forms into existence.

This includes, for example, the iconic stone lions found outside the New York Public Library; they've been damaged by exposure and human contact, but can now be fixed from within by concrete bees. Think this as a kind of organic caulking.

[Image: By John Becker].

Yet tidy plots such as these invariably spin out of control and things don't quite go as planned.

Feral Printers

Predictably, these concrete bees eventually escape: first just a few here and there, but then an upstart colony takes hold elsewhere in the city. They breed, speciate, and expand.

Within a few years, as the bees reproduce and thrive, and as their increasingly far-flung colonies grow, people become aware of the scale of the problem: rogue 3D-printing bees have begun to infest the region.

[Image: By John Becker].

They print where they shouldn't print and, without the direction of their carefully made formwork and molds, what they produce often makes no sense.

They print on signs and phone poles; they take over parks and gardens where they print strange forms on flowers, sealing orchids and roses in masonry shells. Bizarre gardens of hardened geometry form on windowsills and ledges, deep in urban forests and along railways and roads.

[Image: By John Becker].

Tiny fragments of concrete can soon be seen atop plants and door frames, beneath cars and on chain-link fences, coiling up and consuming the sides of structures where they were never meant to be, like kudzu; and, of course, strange bee bodies are found now and again, these little concrete-laden corpses lying in the deep grass of backyards, on parking lots and rooftops.

[Image: By John Becker].

Their fallen bodies, augmented and extraordinary, thus dot the very city they've also beautified and improved—this place where they once printed church steeples and apartment ornament, where they fixed cracked statues, sidewalks, and walls.

Of course, other, more adventurous or simply disoriented bees make their way further, hitching inadvertent rides in the holds of planes and cargo ships, mistakenly joining other hives then shipped around the world.

The bees are soon found in Europe, China, and—for reasons never quite clear to materials scientists—throughout India, where, as in the sample image below, they can be seen adding unnecessary ornamentation to temples in Rajasthan. Swarming and uncountable, they busily speck the outside of the building with bulbous and tumid additions no architect would ever have planned.

[Image: By John Becker].

As the bees speciate yet further, and their concrete itself begins to mutate—in some cases, so hard it can only be removed by the toughest drills and demolition equipment, other times more like a slow-drying sandstone incapable of achieving any structure at all—this experiment in animal printheads, these living 3D printers producing architecture and industrial objects, comes to end.

A Bee Amidst The Machines

Most designers learn from the—in retrospect—obvious mistakes that led to these feral printers, returning to more easily controlled inorganic factories and industrial processes. But, even then, on quiet spring days, a tiny buzzing sound can occasionally be heard beneath someone's front porch, out in the suburban gardens somewhere, deep inside National Parks, and even inside huge machines, where whole automobile assembly lines come shuddering to a halt.

There, within the gears, just doing what it's used to doing—what we made it do—a tiny family of 3D-printing bees has taken root, leaving errant clumps of concrete wherever they alight.

(Thanks to John Becker for the fun. An earlier version of this post was previously published on Gizmodo).


[Image: Photo by A. William Frederick].

While on a quick trip to Maine last week—on the hunt for some badly needed R&R—and following a friendly tip from writer Peter Smith, my wife and I very nearly made the long hike out to visit these incredible structures designed by the late Bill Coperthwaite. Imagine a remote coastal peninsula dotted with extraordinary circular structures, all broadly described as yurts, and you can begin to picture the somewhat otherworldly scene.

That's Coperthwaite himself, seen in the photo, below, taken by A. William Frederick.

[Image: Photo by A. William Frederick].

The actual buildings are found near the coast, at the end of a hiking-only route found broadly south-southwest of Machiasport, way out near the Canadian border.

[Image: Photo by A. William Frederick].

We were very close, in retrospect, and should probably have made the effort—but, alas, that's the way things go.

Nonetheless, I thought I'd link to a great write-up of the yurts by photographer A. William Frederick, who made the trip before Coperthwaite passed away, and took some incredible photographs in the process.

[Images: Photo by A. William Frederick].

All the structures date back to Coperthwaite's fortuitous purchase of 300 acres of coastal land from the region's logging companies. Here is Frederick's description:
In 1973 the ocean front of Northern Maine was a different place. Clearcut, infertile, and hours from even the most minor convenience, the land was not widely considered desirable. At the time, Bill heard the logging companies were offering land in Machiasport at six dollars per acre. He bought 300, which seemed outlandish and selfish to him then, but now, as the waterfront condo developments hedge in his boundary lines, a move he thanks himself for. Since that day, he’s spent the better part of forty years playing around with house design, specifically yurt design. His simple structures are efficient and nicely suited to the climate here. Being essentially a series of stacked circles, heat circulates easily during winter, and the long, low rooflines keep the sun from penetrating deep into the rooms during summer. And though the walls are thin pine boards, he burns very little wood during the winter, even without sealing his windows.
Just look at the interiors of these things!

[Images: Photo by A. William Frederick].

They're like handcrafted UFOs crossed with Robinson Crusoe in some scifi writer's colony on the fractal outer coast of the country's northern borderlands.

[Image: Photo by A. William Frederick].

In any case, these are fantastic images, and Frederick's blog is well worth a visit—let alone his portfolio website—if they catch your eye.

For example, and for example.

But, given these photos, the story of Coperthwaite himself, and Coperthwaite's own specific spatial interest in the power of these buildings, this would all make a fascinating book; this 2007 publication is great, of course, but only a start. Princeton Architectural Press, take note!

(Thanks to Peter Smith and Nicola Twilley for the heads up!)

Buy a Lighthouse

[Image: Photo courtesy General Services Administration].

A remote, 76-foot lighthouse is for sale in Maine, and it could be yours for only $30,000.

[Image: Photo courtesy General Services Administration].

It's located far to the south of the coast of Bailey Island, on a place called Halfway Rock, due east from Portland in the cold ocean waters of Casco Bay. Indeed, it's so far out in the waves that Google Maps doesn't even show detail for the seas around it.

[Image: Halfway Rock seen on Google Maps].

The photos seen here were taken by Kraig Anderson and Jeremy D'Entremont, and were made available to the bidding public courtesy of the U.S. General Services Administration—who strongly advise that you physically travel to and inspect the lighthouse to make sure you know what you're getting into.

The structure is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and it "will continue to serve as an active aid to navigation, maintained by the United States Coast Guard," the GSA explains. "Maintained" is a subjective concept, on the other hand.

[Images: Photos courtesy General Services Administration].

After all, it clearly needs fixing up—to the extent that that's possible, given the structure's status on the National Register—so tread carefully if you are not in the market for a strenuous project.

Waterproofing Nationally Registered wood panels and repainting iron doors as minor storms of sea spray crash on the rocks nearby might not be your idea of a perfect Sunday.

[Images: Photos courtesy General Services Administration].

But I say buy it, visit it now and again when you're bored, and then invite a changing parade of architecture bloggers to come out for one week at a time in the summer, writing spatial fictions as the fog rolls in. It will be our generation's Villa Diodati.

Don't like the looks of this? Consider bidding on the singular, island-less Minots Ledge Light for only ten grand

[Image: Photo courtesy General Services Administration].

—which, at the time of its (second) construction (because the first Minots Ledge Light was washed away in a violent storm), was actually "the most expensive light house that was ever constructed in the United States," according to Wikipedia.

Here's a photograph of it taken from a passing tour boat.

[Image: Minots Light, courtesy of Wikipedia].

Or put in a bid on the Boon Island lighthouse for $12,000, instead.

[Images: Photos courtesy General Services Administration].

Then invite me around for a candlelit tour.

(Thanks to Chelsea H. B. DeLorme for the tip! Post updated after a note from Daniel H. Cantwell. Earlier real estate listings on BLDGBLOG: Buy an Underground Kingdom, Buy a Prison, Buy a Tube Station, Buy an Archipelago, Buy a Map, Buy a Torpedo-Testing Facility, Buy a Silk Mill, Buy a Fort, Buy a Church).

Road Trips, Routes, and Landscape Instrumentation

[Image: Venue at the Center for Art + Environment, Nevada Museum of Art; courtesy Nevada Museum of Art].

I'm extremely pleased to say that a small exhibition based on Nicola Twilley's and my project Venue has opened at the Center for Art + Environment, part of the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno.

[Image: Venue at the Center for Art + Environment, Nevada Museum of Art; courtesy Nevada Museum of Art].

Venue, in effect, was a 16-month discontinuous road trip around the continental United States, with a deliberate emphasis on the west and southwest states, during which we toured sites and interviewed people whose work foregrounded the intersection of human activity and the landscape—whether those landscapes were real, virtual, simulated, augmented, or "natural," in the broadest terms, but always extraordinary.

They ranged from mines to landfills, from a simulated lunar landscape in Arizona to the remains of a Hollow Earth cult in southern Florida, from a novelist to an historian of American river fish, from a speleo-biologist to an architecture critic, from neutrino detectors to the Astroturf factory in Dalton, Georgia, to name barely a few.

[Image: Venue at the Center for Art + Environment, Nevada Museum of Art; courtesy Nevada Museum of Art].

For example, we made a lengthy pilgrimage into the mountains of eastern Oregon to visit the world's largest organism; we learned how National Parks are curated, preserved, mapped, and remembered in our backstage visit to the archives of Arches National Park in Moab; we tagged along for a simulated military raid on a replicant Middle Eastern city made of shipping containers in the California desert; we went in search of darkness with author Paul Bogard, discussing the impact of light pollution on human history; we flew with aerial photographer Michael Light over the incredible shores of Mono Lake; we sat down with Edward Burtysnky to discuss the concept of primary and secondary landscapes of industrial production; and we learned about the strange paintings used as backdrops in prison photography with artist Alyse Emdur, among many, many other site visits and interviews, many of which have yet to be written up.

In fact, some of my favorite experiences of the entire project have yet to be written up, including our first-hand private tour of the nuclear waste repository at WIPP, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico; our no-photos-allowed visit to the GPS control room at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado; and the aforementioned tour of a factory in Georgia where Astroturf is woven on huge looms; but the opening of the exhibition is a good spur to get those online.

[Image: Venue at the Center for Art + Environment, Nevada Museum of Art; courtesy Nevada Museum of Art].

Of course, while we were traveling we also deployed our own landscape instruments—designed by the multi-talented Chris Woebken—allowing us to take our own readings of the U.S. landscape.

The huge sets of information produced by all this—what we called our "site readings" ran from details as simple as time of day, elevation, and ambient air temperature to more complicated parameters, like phases of the moon, number of sunspots, and local seismic activity—were then turned into some fabulous examples of data visualization for us by Everything-Type-Company; you can see those surrounding the giant map that adorns the back wall of the exhibition space.

[Image: Venue at the Center for Art + Environment, Nevada Museum of Art; courtesy Nevada Museum of Art].

The exhibition itself will remain open for most of 2014, closing on November 30, 2014, and the Venue website will continue to be updated as we comb through the intimidatingly deep backlog of material we accumulated during our travels. Nicola and I will also be presenting our travels at the Center for Art + Environment conference this October, specifically on Friday, October 10th; check out the conference website if you are interested in attending.

Go Fish

[Image: Photo by Jesse Rockwell/Rex Features, via The Verge].

You might already have seen this small gallery of images showing an abandoned shopping mall in Bangkok, now partially flooded and "infested with koi carp and catfish." The images—taken by Jesse Rockwell—were originally published on the photographer's own blog back in October.

"At some point in the early 2000s," Rockwell explains there, "an unknown person began introducing a small population of exotic Koi and Catfish species. The small population of fish began to thrive and the result is now a self-sustained, and amazingly populated urban aquarium. I will not tell exactly where it is, as locals somewhat discourage people visiting it. In fact we had to wait for a policeman who was parked on his motorcycle in front of the gate to leave before we timidly entered."

The sight of an eviscerated old escalator dissolving with rust, its internal cables now exposed to the air like the roots of some future tree, surrounded by the white blurs of fish, is particularly evocative.

[Image: Photo by Jesse Rockwell/Rex Features, via The Verge].

Perhaps offering us a glimpse of things to come, this Bangkok mall inadvertently reveals what the outer coastal suburbs of the U.S. east coast might look like in the century to come, as the waterlogged edgelands of cities will be slowly but totally reclaimed by rising waters. Escalators, subway stations, and basements all turned into polluted fish farms for the deeply impoverished, families and entrepreneurs harvesting their protein in what used to be lobbies and parking lots. From malls to salt marshes.

Put another way, perhaps the real future of urban agriculture is actually urban aquaculture: slithering pens of marine life bred amongst the ruins of lost megastructures.

[Image: From Flooded London by Squint Opera].

If you recall Squint Opera's 2008 project, Flooded London, with its images of people fishing in the streets of a semi-submerged metropolis, then you've probably got a good sense of what things might eventually come to look like, as scenes like these—appearing poetic and even whimsical to us today—will be nothing more than the sad, everyday conditions of a coastal disaster to which our descendants will somehow have to learn to adapt.

Catching eyeless fish in abandoned shopping malls and living in networked tents attached precariously to the dark ceilings high above, our distant and greatest grandchildren will see images like these and wonder how we ever found them extraordinary.

(Link to sea level rise after 2100 via Rob Holmes).


It's hard to believe, but BLDGBLOG began exactly ten years ago today. It's been a life-changing and incredibly unexpected decade for me, and, although 10-year birthdays justifiably mean little in the world of online publishing, I nonetheless wanted to mark the date with a quick post and a thanks: thanks for reading, commenting, critiquing, and following along, whoever and wherever you are.

The magic of a more or less anonymous audience is such that you never really know who you are writing to—after all, every post is also like a letter, an open postcard, a note directed outward at some unidentified reader or future friend—but that also means that the energy and support I have found over these last 10 years have both been all the more surreal and exciting.

For now, I just wanted to say thanks both to linkers and to haters alike—and a quick happy birthday to this strange digital thing I never thought would be anything more than a textual sketchbook. Here's to ten more, be they weeks, years, posts, or decades.

Buffer Space

[Image: Photo taken by Your Captain Aerial Photography, via Wired].

Here are two short, conceptually related pieces to read, both of which revolve around the notion of a buffer landscape: a marginal, otherwise unused land that is nonetheless deliberately maintained as a spatial intermediary between two very different zones.

1) The first of these pieces describes an acoustic buffer grooved into the landscape around Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport. Wired writes that "these mysterious-looking formations"—a crystallographic ridged pattern of lines and diamonds designed by artist Paul de Kort and visible in the above photo taken by Your Captain Aerial Photography—is actually a series of "noise-deflecting ridges." It is a garden of aeronautical silence, designed to nullify noises from the sky.

People identified only in the abstract as "researchers" apparently noticed that recently plowed agricultural fields near Amsterdam's airport had an unintended side-effect: they dampened the constant, very aggressive sounds of airplane engines that had been coming out of Schiphol. Taking these "grooved landscapes" to their logical conclusion, Paul de Kort simply exaggerated that topography using what Wired describes as "GPS-guided robot excavators" to produce an abstract terrain that would precisely cancel-out the sounds of airplanes.

Their height and location thus corresponds not to some overlooked aesthetic tradition of Dutch landscape architecture, but to wavelengths of airplane noise.

Acting as the spatial equivalent of a giant mute button, these ridges and furrows thus help to silence local aircraft, erasing their otherwise deafening and thunderous engine noise for the sake of nearby suburban homes. Those same planes would normally drone and roar over the vast flatlands around the runways, where, as Wired writes, "noise can travel unobstructed for miles."

As it happens, I've written before about one of my favorite landscapes in England, a small forest planted entirely for acoustic reasons outside of Heathrow Airport, southeast of London. This grove—a visually nondescript bank of trees that I've passed at least half a dozen times on my way to the airport—exists not for visual or aesthetic reasons but for its sonic effect on the space around it. The trees absorb echoes and reverb, roars and booms, and would never have been planted in the first place were it not for their function as an acoustic intermediary between domestic suburbia and international air travel.

In fact, these same acoustic buffer zones and sound forests have also been documented by photographer Bas Princen in his excellent book, Artificial Arcadia.

[Image: UN Border zone in Cyprus, photographed by Athena Lao, via War is Boring].

2) The other is a short but interesting interview over at War is Boring about the often literally changing nature of those spaces known as "no-man's-lands," or militarized dead zones.

These are landscapes, described in this Q&A with geographer Noam Leshem, that function as "a very significant space economically," yet are also "a space that is constantly inhabited, governed, monitored and practiced." As Leshem explains, however, the notion of no man's land is actually "much older than 1915, i.e. the Battle of the Somme. It dates back to the 14th century and to London during the months preceding the plague, when the bishop of London buys a lot of land outside the city to prepare a mass grave ahead of the bubonic plague."

Leshem's current project is an attempt to learn "what do no-man’s-lands in the 21st century mean?" Check out the full interview for more.

(Thanks to Andrew Elvin for the Wired link).