Industrial or Natural Future: Is It Possible to Create Organic Cities Shaped by Technology?

In Her (2013), Spike Jonze directs, a lonely writer has a relationship with a virtual assistant in an operating system. Brave New World is a 1932 book by Aldous Huxley. It describes a dystopian society where efficiency and rationality are the norm. This society ignores pain and hardship, but suppresses love, freedom, and also suppresses it. Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein is considered to be the first science fiction novel. A life is artificially created and a monster with human characteristics, such as wills, wishes, fears. Science fiction works are less concerned with the future than they are about the moment they were created. They speak about the hopes and fears of their time, and the uncertainties that industrialization has brought about.

© ICD/ITKE

It is not uncommon to see exaggerated or even humorous predictions when we look at urban visions that are based on the past and project into the future. It is difficult to predict the future of architecture and cities. We can predict what cities will look like in tens to hundreds of years by looking at trends within the industry and using all our imaginations. What will they look like? How will they build and think? Is it a simpler, more minimalist future? Or a more complex, organic future? What will the future look like for cities? How will technology and new building materials impact the form, aesthetics and prosperity of these cities?

Centro de Congressos e Auditório de Plasencia / Selgascano. Image © Iwan Baan

Two main questions can be addressed to gain insight into the future: what materials will make up architecture, and how they will be built. Jean-Louis Cohen, author of T The Future of Architecture, Since1889,, points out that architecture sometimes looks to outside sources for inspiration, using metaphors based upon biological organisms or machines. Other times, it relies on its own disciplinary traditions. Architecture has always found the perfect balance between inspirations and searches.

Casa de Madeira, Palha e Cortiça / LCA architetti. Image © Simone Bossi

Two possible paths have been identified in the study of the tectonics behind buildings. One is the creation of high-tech materials. The other is the return to local and natural materials. These materials can also be modified by innovative methods that alter their appearance. The pursuit of new technologies and products is a constant process. It aims to increase the efficiency of components, improve their functionality, or create structures that are more durable. Many believe graphene, which is 200 times stronger than steel and 6 times lighter than steel, is the material of the future in laboratory experimentation. It also has many other promising properties. Scientists also discovered aerogel, a novel material made mostly of gases. It provides excellent thermal and acoustic insulation properties. The glass, steel and polymer industries continue to strive for improved technical characteristics. These materials allow for the creation of thinner and lighter pieces, greater spans, more prominent oscillations and different levels of transparency.

ICD/ITKE Research Pavilion. Image © Collection FRAC Centre, Orléans

It is possible to also bet that materials made from recycled waste and by-products from other industries will be all around, eliminating much of our dependence on scarce natural resources. Urban mining is a growing trend, particularly in densely populated older cities. We expect that reuse of materials will become more common than ever. It is not an exaggeration at all to say we will see examples materials that can be self-generated energy, products that can generate their own energy from the sun, wind or other sources, facades that adapt to the climate and purify the air in the city, among many other possibilities.

© Christian J. Lange

Gleichzeitig, natural materials need to be allowed more space. As concerns about sustainability, origin, and availability of non-renewable resources rise in the short term, so we hope. It is possible to mass-use materials like seaweed, hemp and bamboo as affordable renewable materials. Other materials like straw and mycelium are also possible.

Cortesia de AI SpaceFactory

However, science fiction tends to be limited to the most important issues at the time and is often refuted just a few decades later. It is possible that our vision of construction materials and the industry itself is too tightly tied to our preconceptions. All the advances and those that are coming will undoubtedly change our environment and, consequently, our relationship with them. Neri Oxman offers a unique approach to this problem. Professor Neri Oxman from MIT points out that architects are taught to see buildings as a collection of components and parts made of homogeneous material. This is not the case in nature. For example, plants are made up of many different parts. Instead, they are composed of the same substances which vary in their composition and fulfill specific functions.

Pavilhão Elytra Filament / ICD-ITKE Universidade de Stuttgart. Image © Julien Lanoo

Mediated Matter is her group. It focuses on design inspired by nature and design inspired by nature. Her research focuses on the intersection of digital fabrication, computational design, material science and synthetic biology. She applies knowledge to design at all scales, from the micro to macro. They work with nature, and they learn from it. Is civil construction going to be more like nature’s forms and processes in the future?

Plaza of Kanagawa Institute of Technology / junya ishigami + associates. Image Cortesia de Junya Ishigami + Associates

We saw how the tool conditioned the product’s shape and form during the 20th century. Technology and technique are dependent on the ability to develop or create the necessary tools. Prefabrication is the best way to express the machine in construction: components are manufactured in a shed outside of the project site and then placed in a particular context. It is a montage that becomes the construction site, and not a building. This seems to be the most efficient way of doing things in today’s world. However, it may also look closer to natural processes. The past and the present, which seem to be opposites, are beginning to come together.

Three-dimensional modeling forms allow for digital fabrication and the inclusion diverse parameters to influence projects. This allows for creation, replication and variation of previously unimaginable artificial shapes. These will continue to improve and become more intuitive, cheaper, and more versatile in the years ahead. The architect, along with Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, must take on a new role. Instead of starting projects from scratch they need to define the best parameters for each situation and then use data to determine the best solution. For example, Biomimesis is more than just the organic form. It’s also about the search to understand and implement the organic strategies found in nature.

Beyond aesthetics and production, other relevant aspects include efficiency and process. Modular and serial construction follow the principles, while incremental housing or built-in vegetation follows the principles. What time frames should we be evaluating our buildings’ performance? Recycling is based on a machine logic. The material can be reconverted or remade based on its unit. New organic materials and passive strategies point to a logic that allows for more balance in living with the environment.

Concerns about hygiene and health point to the appearance of more antiseptic and clean environments. However, those concerned about our emotional connection with the immediate environment suggest richer, organic, and customizable spaces. However, the health and well-being for the human body is complex and requires some of everything.

Technology that is new or old, but still useful. Natural materials and smart materials. Organic shapes are created using predefined parameters or an assembly. Efficiency or process. Complexity or cleanliness. Are the rational environments we live in today truly healthy? Is it worth continuing on this path? Is the future a technological return towards a more natural, instinctive, and natural environment? Will we continue to live in a minimalistic, perfect, and impersonal future? We don’t have the answers you are looking for, if you come here searching for them. We will however continue our investigations.