Knotty Objects: Session Details

The New Metabolism

David Benjamin, George Church, Neri Oxman, Hashim Sarkis, and Nicola Twilley (moderator)

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.

New Dimensions in Organic Design

Isha Datar, Kevin Esvelt, Alexandra Midal (moderator), and Howard Shapiro

Over centuries of evolution through slow manipulation of living beings—from plants to animals—and by virtue of technological advancements in the natural sciences and synthetic biology, humans have managed to control, accelerate, and even hack growth and development. This session will focus on the possibilities and pitfalls of designing entities made of cultured cells.

The study and application of the norms and forms of nature in architecture and design has been bundled under the label of “organic design,” a broad term that embraces diverse examples such as Art Nouveau, some robotic specimens, biomimetic objects produced according to principles of sustainability, and even the architectural manifestation of the ideal American domestic lifestyle post WWII.

When the materials of design, however, are not plastics, wood, concrete, or glass, but rather living cells or tissues, the implications of every project reach far beyond the form-function equation, as well as preconceived notions of comfort, modernity, or progress.

A new generation of designers and artists are today facing the challenge set by scientists. Some of them work with visible organisms such as plants and animals, others with bacteria and tissues, and then there are those that tinker with DNA to create new beings and new materials. Or new foods.

Design and science collide frequently on food in particular: an entire industry is developing around tremendous technological innovation, at times pushing the role of artists and designers to that of "ethical barometers." Can cultured cells provide a viable food source for humans now and in the future? Will they replace pre-existing models? Take as an example the meat industry, which still relies–both in the US and the greater global market–on many unsustainable and cruel practices. If cultured cells supplant this, will it entail new types of factory farming that deplete different environmental resources?

This burgeoning field intersects not only with new technologies but also with some of our oldest traditions and deepest physiological instincts; incisors cutting down animal flesh, molars desiccating it. Is this violence natural, social, and cultural? And what does it mean to reimagine it through science? When meat goes in vitro, when food is cultured, what pleasures associated with eating might be lost and what new intense culinary sensations, textures, and tastes might be gained?

Manufactured Objects

Revital Cohen, Anab Jain, Tanya Menendez, and Rob Walker (moderator)

Between makers and manufacturers, the spectrum of economic, social, political, and aesthetic issues connected with contemporary manufacturing grows wider every day as we develop new human needs, desires, and behaviors. These shape—and are shaped by—the objects produced in factories, garages, and desktops worldwide.

Modern design developed in tandem with the industrial revolution. Since then, different ballasts have anchored design to various locations, attracted designers and intermediaries, and created concentrations of cultural and technological production. The first poles were the actual manufacturing plants, directly run by the company in a vertical integration of production - from design to distribution.

Postwar 20th-century corporations, however, began subcontracting most of the construction and assembly, while keeping the pre-, and post-production phases in house. Recently, manufacturing has become even more opportunistic, spread and outsourced in fragmented ways. Great innovations in complex system design and management hold it all together, while labor pools ranging from highly skilled to poorly paid (and sometimes both), or even the cooperative labor between humans and robots, keep the edifice standing.

What does it mean to manufacture objects in an age where the assembly line has been atomized and reconstituted globally? How does manufacturing adapt to a world in which service design has usurped product design? What is the threshold between maker and manufacturer, and how do new means of interacting with consumers, including crowd sourced funding, change the behaviors within that spectrum?

The intersection of design and manufacturing immediately triggers economic, social, political, and aesthetic issues, as well as the human needs, desires, and behaviors that shape and are shaped by them around the world. How can we shift our perspective to understand the tyranny of the carefully restricted iPhone “designed in Cupertino” in relation to the cacophonous open market of the $12 mall phone designed and deployed in Shenzhen?

Manufacturing has always existed within a complex web of regulation, law, and cultural practice. Of late, nations and startups alike have begun to leapfrog these conventional constraints, from demand (Etsy, Kickstarter) to supply (from 3D printing to Dragon Innovation) to all the pieces in between, including designers who work more closely with their consumers and their manufacturers than ever before. What are the consequences for design, manufacturing, labor, and even entire markets and economies—and how might they affect us all?

Design and Complexity

Allan Chochinov (moderator), Scott E. Page, and Fernanda Viégas

From tatting to coral formation, complexity is commensurate with all things both natural and cultural. Expressed through design fabrication, data visualization, architectural practice, or urban formations, this session will unfold the term, its productive interpretations, and its relevance to design at large.

The term complexity is deeply rooted in science, nature, and culture. But are these interpretations commensurate? If they are, how might designers embrace the term, use or misuse it to inform and transform both the natural environment as well as cultural contexts? What are its associations with diversity, and how might these benefit relationships between living organisms and their environment?

This session explores the notion of complexity within a wide array of scales and disciplines, and will shuttle between multiple nodes of inquiry from the micro to the cosmic scale; from biology through craft to social constructs. We will explore innovative and engaging ways with which to represent these notions and/or act upon them.

The debates around quantitative versus qualitative models of human behavior is well known, but lately, mathematics has gained much ground supported by massive, algorithm-based systems like Google’s and Facebook’s. We’ve turned to design visualization – one of the most promising and important forms of contemporary practice – in its promise to fuse the quantitative and the qualitative and provide data with a sensual, aesthetic, human face. Has this produced a greater cultural capacity to grapple with complexity, or just the aesthetics of complexity? Our daily lives, commerce, and aesthetic landscape are predicated on networks that are invisible and intangible; complexity remains the organizing principle. Do we build these networks, or do they build us?

Amongst many possible avenues of inquiry, this session will question the axiomatic relationship between complex systems and simple components; have we overvalued “simplicity”? Is complexity something to overcome in the field of design, or can it be productive to allow complexity to infiltrate parts (or all) of our lives? Is there something to be gained from making things harder and more friction-filled, rather than clearer and easier through design? Does complexity have a sweet spot in our human day-to-day? Would we know it if we saw it?

Debate: On Critical Design

Ahmed Ansari, Gabriella Gomez-Mont (moderator), and Jamer Hunt

The term Critical Design was first introduced by Tony Dunne & Fiona Raby at the beginning of the millennium, to outline a new area in design focused on the potential impact and consequences of new technologies and policies, and the global social and environmental trends inside which they are embedded. This new area of inquiry has brought together various disciplines and mediums of expression, enabling designers to move from solving problems to framing new ones, while asking new questions in the process.

Critical Design also outlines new goals and areas of interest for designers, a process that does not immediately lead to useful objects but rather to consideration and reconsideration. It asserts value in the role of helping others to predict, prevent, and direct future outcomes.

The practice has thus often come under fire from those who assert that design must engage in real-world, real-time “problem-solving,” and address real issues in realistic ways. In this spirit, the debate will focus on this pointed motion: Design must fill current human needs before imagining new futures.

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