School of Architecture, Planning & Landscape

Staff Profile

Professor Rachel Armstrong

Professor of Experimental Architecture

Background

Rachel Armstrong is Professor of Experimental Architecture at the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, Newcastle University. She is a Rising Waters II Fellow with the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation (April-May 2016), TWOTY futurist 2015, Fellow of the British Interplanetary Society and a 2010 Senior TED Fellow. She is Director and founder of the Experimental Architecture Group (EAG) whose work has been published widely as well as exhibited and performed at the Venice Art and Architecture Biennales, the Tallinn Architecture Biennale, the Trondheim Art Biennale, the Palais de Tokyo (Paris), the Institute of Advanced Architecture, Catalonia (IAAC), Aarhus Kuntshal, the University of the Underground (Amsterdam), The Gallatin School, New York University, Allenheads Contemporary Arts, and Culture Lab at Newcastle University.


Rachel investigates a new approach to building materials called ‘living architecture,’ which suggests it is possible for our buildings to share some of the properties of living systems. Collaboratively working across disciplines, she builds and develops prototypes that couple the computational properties of the natural world with matter at far from equilibrium. She calls the synthesis that occurs between these systems and their inhabitants “living” architecture. She is coordinator for the €3.2m Living Architecture project, which is an ongoing collaboration of experts from the universities of Newcastle, UK, the West of England (UWE Bristol), Trento, Italy, the Spanish National Research Council in Madrid, LIQUIFER Systems Group, Vienna, Austria and EXPLORA, Venice, Italy that began in April 2016 and runs to April 2019. It is envisioned as a next-generation, selectively, programmable bioreactor that is capable of extracting valuable resources from sunlight, wastewater and air and in turn, generating oxygen, proteins and biomass. Conceived as a freestanding partition it is composed of bioreactor building blocks (microbial fuel cell, algae bioreactor and a genetically modified processor), which are being developed as standardized building segments, or bricks. Living Architecture uses the standard principles of both photo bioreactor and microbial fuel cell technologies, which are adapted to and combined into a single, sequential hybrid bioreactor system so they will work synergistically together to clean wastewater, generate oxygen, provide electrical power and generate useable biomass (fertilizer).


Rachel is widely published in both academic and popular press. Current titles include Origamy, (NewCon Press) http://www.newconpress.co.uk/info/book.asp?id=99&referer=Catalogue and Soft Living Architecture: An Alternative View of Bio-informed Practice, (Bloomsbury Academic) https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/soft-living-architecture-9781350011342/ She is the author of Vibrant Architecture: Matter as Co-Designer of Living Structures (DeGruyter Open), Star Ark: A Living Self-Sustaining Spaceship (Springer Praxis books), Soft Living Architecture: An Alternative View of Bio-design (Bloomsbury Academic, In Press), Liquid Life: On Non-linear Materiality (Punctum, In Press) and her debut novel Origamy, with NewCon Press. She is co-author of Handbook of the Unknowable, with Rolf Hughes.

Rachel has been frequently recognized as being a pioneer. She has recently been featured in interview for PORTER magazine, added to the 2014 Citizens of the Next Century List, by Future-ish, listed on the Wired 2014 Smart List. She is one of the 2013 ICON 50 and described as one of the ten people in the UK that may shape the UK’s recovery by Director Magazine in 2012. In the same year she was nominated as one of the most inspiring top nine women by Chick Chip magazine and featured by BBC Focus Magazine’s in 2011 in ‘ideas that could change the world’.


Research

I am coordinator for a Horizon 2020 Future Emerging Technologies Open award for the LIAR project (LIving Architecture) that runs from 1 April 2016 - 31 March 2019.

The project aims to design programmable ecosystems for buildings. Imagine that you have a unit in your home that is rather like a water boiler, except it doesn’t use fossil fuels but the metabolisms (the chemical burning) of living things to generate its outputs. What kinds of things could we ask such a system do? This is what we're asking our ‘living’ architecture - an installation that contains tiny ecosystems of hard working organisms that are performing particular useful tasks. For example, we are giving them the specific challenge of cleaning up grey water and seeing if they can reclaim phosphate, or salvage valuable products from our waste. Perhaps we can even encourage them to make new substances like next generation detergents, which are less harmful to the environment than existing ones.

My work broadly investigates the parameters of 'life' that can be engaged directly, rather than represented, in the design process. This necessarily engages a range of materials from activated gels, to dynamic droplets and bioreactor systems. Such matter is not 'quiet' or passive, but exhibits life like behaviours that can be orchestrated in various ways. The coordination and choreography of this process may be considered a kind of 'natural' computing, which provides an alternative framework for thinking about how we may better engage with the living world and working with matter differently.

Changing the protocols for ‘life’ therefore alters our expectations of architecture through its associated ideas, design possibilities and ethical concerns. In my bookSoft Living Architecture: An alternative view of bio-informed design practice, lively matterandparallel biologyare included as part of the design portfolio of the living realm. This experimental work seeks to expand current notions of the living world beyond established frameworks and definitions that shape modern biology and the associated tools of modern synthesis. It seeks to diversify the protocols of life to enable a more agile understanding of the relationship between creature and niche, physics and reality, or building and site – by embracing the fundamental strangeness of the living world. This does not mean that anything goes, but that life’s continuum can be considered through an augmented materiality. Rather than being bounded by the extremes of an existing spectrum of biological possibility, interpreted through a mechanistic relationship with ‘brute’ matter, it also embraces a concept of time as encountered in the natural realm.


In my book Liquid life: On non-linear materiality, a metaphor and apparatus is explored that begins to discuss the consequences of thinking, working and living through liquids. It is an irreducible, paradoxical, parallel, planetary-scale material condition, unevenly distributed spatially but temporally continuous. It is what remains when logical explanations can no longer account for the experiences that we recognise as part of ‘being alive’.

Liquid life references a third-millennial understanding of matter that seeks to restore the liquid soul banished by present brute materialist discourses and mechanical models of life. It offers a parallel worldview of the living realm through a ‘new materialist’ study of matter and examples of creatures that do not easily fit with mechanistic concepts (e.g. quantifiability, predictability, rationality). While liquids may be unpredictable and difficult to control, with the advent of molecular science, an increasingly persuasive ontology of liquid technologies can be identified. Possibilities are interrogated through the lens of lifelike dynamic droplets that operate through highly local effects, rather than instructions from a central organising system.

More broadly, liquid life seeks an alternative partnership between humanity and the natural world. It provokes a re-invention of the languages of the living realm to open up parallel spaces for exploration such as, Rolf Hughes’ ‘angelology’ of language that explores the transformative invocations of prose poetry, and Simone Ferracina’s graphical notations that can help shape our concepts of metabolism, upcycling and designing with liquid life. Liquid life is a conceptual and practical toolset for thinking and design that reunites us with a soul substance that will not simply be ‘solved’, or go away.


My ongoing authored and edited book Experimental Architecture examines the relationship between architectural research and the necessary shift in perspective and practice required in the profession to take steps towards enabling an ecological era of human development. Acknowledging the ‘wicked’ nature of this century’s fundamental challenges, which are difficult or impossible to resolve, since they present partial, variable and even conflicting aspects of design and inhabitation that may be difficult to recognize, or fully describe, it calls upon the ‘wicked’ character of architectural research as an effective approach to enable this transition by expanding the available research portfolio of methodologies, apparatuses and technologies that underpin human development. While our building practices and technologies were perfected to address the opportunities and needs of the industrial revolution, millennial society faces qualitatively different sets of concerns. To enable a necessary shift in perspective and practice from upholding the principles of an industrial age and to take steps towards an ecologically-engaged era of human development, this book acknowledges the ‘wicked’ nature of this century’s fundamental challenges. Such characteristics are difficult or impossible to resolve, since they present partial, variable and even conflicting aspects of design and inhabitation that may be difficult to recognise, or fully describe.This book calls upon the ‘wicked’ character of architectural research, specifically through the practice of experimental architecture, to generate an expanded toolset for the choreography of space, so that the process of human inhabitation has a qualitatively different impact on planetary infrastructure.


The book itself embodies an experimental approach to the ‘wicked’ challenges it proposes to address and is divided into three sections.


Part A gives a contemporary overview of research in architecture, with a particular UK focus, both within academia and the profession, drawing attention to their often-contradictory goals. Acknowledging the influence of the market-driven research framework that shapes formal inquiry, this book is in search of alternative architectural impacts that augment rather than damage the living world. Highlighting the fundamentally ‘wicked’, transdisciplinary nature of architecture that incorporates disciplines beyond architecture into its practice, this section establishes the conditions for the alternative forms of research capable of addressing ‘wicked’ challenges.


Part B explores the specific role of experimental architecture as a transdisciplinary practice, which arose during the late industrial age during a period of techno-optimism. Steeped in the application of cutting-edge of industrial developments to increase people’s freedoms, it provides a platform with access to many different kinds of materials, apparatuses, methods and laboratories. A twenty-first century practice of experimental architecture is presented that exceeds the logic of the industrial era, and engages with a practice of worldingthat creates the conditions in which ecological narratives can be constructed and prototyped.

Part C builds towards a platform for alternative concepts, discourses and possibilities within an evolving practice of architecture. This section aims to catalyse ways of generating new architecturally-concerned practices that are pertinent to ‘wicked’ challenges. It presents a series of architectural experiments from invited contributors that embody the transdisciplinary nature of experimental architecture. Authors were selected for their outstanding originality and experimental approaches to architectural agendas, where the collective explorations are united by the concept of experiment – not in its classical manifestation within a modern scientific laboratory – but as an exploratory engagement with architectural ideas that arise from many different kinds of research environments. Contributors are: Andrew Ballantyne, Rolf Hughes, Simone Ferracina, Esther Armstrong, Simon Park, Francoise Chatelin, Susan Stepney, Fabio Bonsignrio, Alisa Andrasek, Claudia Pasquero, Catie Newall, Jenny Sabin, T E A M with Ellie Abrons, and Joyce Hwang. Each contributor was invited to embody an experiment that addressed an architectural concern such as space, time, matter, identity, inhabitation. Not all participants are architects by training, yet in keeping with the transdisciplinary ambitions of this book, each work contributes to the potential exchange of ideas that is relevant to architectural agendas. Contributions can be read independently, or in the context of others, building a portrait of the thoughts and events that inform the pursuit of architectural experiment. Such provocations are the bedrock of experimental architecture and when considered collectively, generate a portfolio of possibilities and exemplars for experimental practices from which a toolset of approaches for future explorations can be synthesised. An ultimate synthesis of these proposals is discussed but not resolved, enabling readers to continue to see unique connections between the various contributor works.

Teaching

The Year 6 Experimental Architecture Studio 2016-2017 explored the relationship between 'living' materials and human inhabitation. Imogen Holden from this studio was awarded the RIBA Hadrian Medal, 2016.

I currently (2017-2018) teach Year 3 with Andrew Campbell, with assistance from the Experimental Architecture Group and Andrew Ballantyne. This year's studio has been the Palace of Ecologies, a project based in Venice, which looks at the relationship between human and non-human communities in a changing environmental context.

Experimental Architecture’s ‘palace of ecologies’ explored the concept of ecology and the notion of ‘palace’ as contested centres of communal activity. Based on two field studies, projects emerged through the production of prototypes, models, stories and field studies. The first site, in Washington Wetland Centre, considered the relationship between space, structure, materials and modes of inhabitation by non-humans, by making ‘creature boxes’ that were installed as a formal visitor attraction, which can be see 'here' https://www.ncl.ac.uk/press/articles/latest/2018/05/creaturewalk/ . The second site was the Sant’Elena football stadium in Venice, which embodied an interface between complex human and non-human ecosystems, from which a diverse range of ‘palaces’ emerged.

Working with Rolf Hughes and the National Trust, we have guided the work of a transdisciplinary group of post-graduate innovators through the process of making specific installations at Cragside house that address the theme of Women in Power. Pertaining to 100 years suffrage, these nine innovators are in search for a vision of Cragside’s future, draw on the latest technologies to augment the visitor experience and re-capture its awe-inspiring possibilities. This exhibition, which is part of Cragside’s innovative spirit of place, the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and International Women in Engineering Day, is an evolving experience and open university. Visitor trails will reflect back into the gallery to raise questions about how our homes may shape the future; what kind of relationship they will have with the environment and through them, how we may better draw upon our rich heritage to make better choices that will benefit future generations. The vision of Cragside presented in these works is the start of ongoing conversations between the National Trust, artists, researchers, young innovators and the general public that aim to continue developing Cragside’s innovative spirit of place through visionary thinking and ongoing conversation.

Times and challenges have changed since Lord and Lady Armstrong developed their own visions of the way we might live in modern times with bountiful hydroelectric supplies and machinery to perform domestic chores. The demands of the time pitched human needs against nature in a quest for domesticating the living realm. While the clean, renewable energy provided at Cragside meant there was little environmental pollution as a consequence of the property’s development, the progression of the industrial revolution beyond its domain had other impacts. The unwanted side effects of burning fossil fuels as our primary energy source has irreversibly damaged our relationship with the natural realm – through environmental pollution and depletion of natural resources. This studio looks to a new sensibility and alternative ways of working in concert with the living world are needed to underpin its re-imagining and re-construction. This requires alternative technological platforms to bring about a new kind of ‘sustainable development’. Within Cragside, this particular realm has been overseen by Lady Armstrong, through whom our present twenty-first century concerns are played out. Constructing a new relationship with the living world demands ethical considerations so the right choices to reconnect, re-empower and become re-enchanted with our world can be made through processes of human development.In making this transition from industrial to ecological modes of human advancement the dynamic nature of reality and contributions of nonhumans in the search for a new relationship with nature must be recognised, so how we live not only respects, but also augments the natural realm.


How should we view the next 100 years of innovation at Cragside? We might look, for starters, to alternative ways of being ‘connected’ to the living realm, and to each other, so that we are more sensitive and responsive to changes in our living spaces. Cragside has always been more than a ‘house’. It is a living space – an experimental laboratory, even – that changes and evolves according to context, time and availability of resources. Those that have dwelt here, both men and women, have learned much about its pioneering character and, in return, have kept the place ‘alive’. This new generation of pioneers draws on digital technology, cutting edge medical science, ecology and communications networks, to present an ambitious vision of the interconnections between the body of the house and its wider context – the living landscape that surrounds it.These encounters with the receptivity of Cragsideare created by combining the latest digital technologies with flexible sensor systems to form networks that begin to link together audience participation, archival materials, emotional responses, different ways of experiencing space and encounters within the visitor experience, which have never occurred before. Setting a new vision for Cragside for the next 100 years and beyond, the existing structural ‘body’ of this incredible site is celebrated in the context of evolving a sensory network, a ‘nervous system’ – an alternative sensibility, fusing hardware and software and evoking a shared spirit with the living world.


[1]Rob Blazey, Imogen Holden, Claire Jones, Pavandeep Rai, Assia Stefanova, Kate Stobbart, Harriet Sutcliffe, Violeta Tsenova and Olivia Turner.

Publications