MIT Media Lab presents: The New Metabolism

WED, JUL 15, 2015

Architects and designers have for decades pursued the possibility that products, buildings, and cities can come to life. This session will focus on “metabolism”–its meaning and its many interpretations in the digital and biological age. It will question the term and its productive translations in the design of the built environment, across scales and applications. As a scientific term, metabolism embodies the range of chemical reactions known to sustain life. In the context of architectural history, the term stands for a design approach marking the postwar cultural embrace of dynamic, evolving cities informed by the metaphor of organic growth. An infectious model studied across the world, this idea culminated in the megastructures and megavisions of the aptly named Japanese Metabolist movement during the 1960s. The movement also had a connection to MIT, where architect Kenzo Tange made significant contributions to the principles and manifesto of Metabolist architecture during that decade. Architects and designers have since argued that cities and buildings are, in their own way, alive and pulsating. Their designs, and the ways by which they function, follow processes of organic growth. Some 50 years later, what might the notion of a living, breathing architecture stand for in today’s practice? And how might one define a unit of contemporary organic design? Do all scales of design–from vast landscapes to handheld objects to nanotechnological structures–share such a unit? What would it mean to extend the human body to the architectural scale, to inhabit a metabolic building? In addition to its concern with nature and the environment, might the vernacular embody the biological? Think genome-specific E. coli as a new form of social vernacular. In 2015 we can create truly adaptive and responsive products and structures, re-conceptualizing architecture and design as processes, and objects that evolve rather than amortize. We can create entities that can change over time and that can be activated and deactivated. These are structures that can remain sustainable, or become purposefully obsolescent, rather than always inert, solid, and permanent. This session will focus on what the term “metabolism” means to our community today, questioning its origins, its evolution, and its productive translations in the design of the built environment. These questions will travel across scales and through the widest landscape of objects both material and immaterial.

+ BIO: David Benjamin

David Benjamin is principal at The Living and assistant professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. The Living explores the architecture of the future through building it today, bringing new technologies to life in the built environment with a passion for integrating design innovation, sustainability, and the public realm. Benjamin believes that cities and buildings are living, breathing organisms, and in the context of rapid change and new urban challenges, proposes that design should be a living, breathing ecosystem. Within this design ecosystem, The Living works on multiple scales simultaneously; anticipates and welcomes rapid change; and embraces design with uncertainty, design with rules rather than fixed forms, and design with shifting and unknowable forces. Clients include the City of New York, Airbus, 3M, Quantified Self, and Miami Science Museum. Recent projects include the Princeton Architecture Laboratory, Hy-Fi (a branching tower in the courtyard of MoMA PS1 created with almost no waste, energy, or carbon emissions), Pier 35 EcoPark (a 200-foot floating pier in the East River that changes color according to water quality), and Architecture Bio-Synthesis (a new process of bio-computation and bio-manufacturing to produce high-performance, sustainable materials through synthetic biology).

+ BIO: Nicola Twilley

Nicola Twilley is the author of the blog Edible Geography, a co-host of the Gastropod podcast, and a contributing writer at

+ BIO: Hashim Sarkis

Hashim Sarkis began his architecture career in 1990s Beirut, a city rebuilding itself after years of war. A RISD and Harvard alumnus, the 50-year-old architect is now rooted as deeply in New England as he is in his native Lebanon. Sarkis joined Harvard’s faculty in 1995, and for more than a decade has headed the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture—run jointly by Harvard and MIT. He’s a practicing architect as well. In October, Sarkis was appointed dean of MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning. Now he wants to change what we talk about when we talk about cities.

+ BIO: George Church

George leads the Synthetic Biology Platform, where he oversees the directed evolution of molecules, polymers, and whole genomes to create new tools with applications in regenerative medicine and bioenergy. Among his recent work at the Wyss is development of a technology for synthesizing whole genes, and potentially whole gene circuits, that is faster, more accurate, and significantly less expensive than current methods. George is widely recognized for his innovative contributions to genomic science and his many pioneering contributions to chemistry and biomedicine.

+ BIO: Neri Oxman

Neri Oxman, PhD is a designer and researcher whose work establishes a new approach to design at the interface of computer science, material engineering and ecology. She is the founder of an interdisciplinary design initiative, MATERIALECOLOGY. A graduate of the AA School of Architecture and previously a medical scholar at the Hebrew University and the Technion Institute of Technology, she is currently based at MIT where she is a presidential research fellow in Design Computation.

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