Electronic Plantlife

[Image: A rose-circuit, courtesy Linköping University].

In a newly published paper called "Electronic plants," researchers from Linköping University in Sweden describe the process by which they were able to "manufacture" what they call "analog and digital organic electronic circuits and devices" inside living plants.

The plants not only conducted electrical signals, but, as Science News points, the team also "induced roses leaves to light up and change color."

Indeed, in their way of thinking, plants have been electronic gadgets all along: "The roots, stems, leaves, and vascular circuitry of higher plants are responsible for conveying the chemical signals that regulate growth and functions. From a certain perspective, these features are analogous to the contacts, interconnections, devices, and wires of discrete and integrated electronic circuits."

[Image: Bioluminescent foxfire mushrooms (used purely for illustrative effect), via Wikipedia].

Here's the process in a nutshell:
The idea of putting electronics directly into trees for the paper industry originated in the 1990s while the LOE team at Linköping University was researching printed electronics on paper. Early efforts to introduce electronics in plants were attempted by Assistant Professor Daniel Simon, leader of the LOE's bioelectronics team, and Professor Xavier Crispin, leader of the LOE's solid-state device team, but a lack of funding from skeptical investors halted these projects.

Thanks to independent research money from the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation in 2012, Professor Berggren was able to assemble a team of researchers to reboot the project. The team tried many attempts of introducing conductive polymers through rose stems. Only one polymer, called PEDOT-S, synthesized by Dr. Roger Gabrielsson, successfully assembled itself inside the xylem channels as conducting wires, while still allowing the transport of water and nutrients. Dr. Eleni Stavrinidou used the material to create long (10 cm) wires in the xylem channels of the rose. By combining the wires with the electrolyte that surrounds these channels she was able to create an electrochemical transistor, a transistor that converts ionic signals to electronic output. Using the xylem transistors she also demonstrated digital logic gate function.
Headily enough, using plantlife as a logic gate also implies a future computational use of vegetation: living supercomputers producing their own circuits inside dual-use stems.

Previously, we have looked at the use of electricity to stimulate plants into producing certain chemicals, how the action of plant roots growing through soil could be tapped as a future source of power, and how soil bacteria could be wired up into huge, living battery fields—in fact, we also looked at a tongue-in-cheek design project for "growing electrical circuitry inside the trunks of living trees"—but this actually turns vegetation into a form of living circuitry.

While Archigram's "Logplug" project is an obvious reference point here within the world of architectural design, it seems more interesting to consider instead the future landscape design implications of technological advances such as this—how "electronic plants" might affect everything from forestry to home gardening, energy production and distribution infrastructure to a city's lighting grid.

[Image: The "Logplug" by Archigram, from Archigram].

We looked at this latter possibility several few years ago, in fact, in a post from 2009 called "The Bioluminescent Metropolis," where the first comment now seems both prescient and somewhat sad given later developments.

But the possibilities here go beyond mere bioluminescence, into someday fully functioning electronic vegetation.

Plants could be used as interactive displays—recall the roses "induced... to light up and change color"—as well as given larger conductive roles in a region's electrical grid. Imagine storing excess electricity from a solar power plant inside shining rose gardens, or the ability to bypass fallen power lines after a thunderstorm by re-routing a town's electrical supply through the landscape itself, living corridors wired from within by self-assembling circuits and transistors.

And, of course, that's all in addition to the possibility of cultivating plants specifically for their use as manufacturing systems for organic electronics—for example, cracking them open not to reveal nuts, seeds, or other consumable protein, but the flexible circuits of living computer networks. BioRAM.

There are obvious reasons to hesitate before realizing such a vision—that is, before charging headlong into a future world where forests are treated merely as back-up lighting plans for overcrowded cities and plants of every kind are seen as nothing but wildlife-disrupting sources of light cultivated for the throwaway value of human aesthetic pleasure.

Nonetheless, thinking through the design possibilities in addition to the ethical risks not only now seems very necessary, but might also lead someplace truly extraordinary—or someplace otherworldly, we might say with no need for justification.

For now, check out the original research paper over at Science Advances.

A Model Descent

[Image: Model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

The Homestake Mine in Lead, South Dakota, was once "the largest, deepest and most productive gold mine in North America," featuring nearly 370 miles' worth of tunnels.

Although active mining operations ceased there more than a decade ago, the vast subterranean labyrinth not only remains intact, it has also found a second life as host for a number of underground physics experiments.

[Image: Digital model of the old mine tunnels beneath Lead, South Dakota; via SITU Fabrication].

These include a lab known as the Sanford Underground Research Facility, as well as a related project, the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory (or DUSEL).

Had DUSEL not recently run into some potentially fatal funding problems, it "would have been the deepest underground science facility in the world." For now, it is on hold.

[Image: Digital model of the old mine tunnels beneath Lead, South Dakota; via SITU Fabrication].

There is already much to read about the experiments going on there, but one of the key projects underway is a search for dark matter. As Popular Science explained back in 2010:
Now a team of physicists and former miners has converted Homestake's shipping warehouse into a new surface-level laboratory at the Sanford Underground Laboratory. They've painted the walls and baseboards white and added yellow floor lines to steer visitors around giant nitrogen tanks, locker-size computers and plastic-shrouded machine parts. Soon they will gather many of these components into the lab's clean room and combine them into LUX, the Large Underground Xenon dark-matter detector, which they will then lower halfway down the mine, where—if all goes well—it will eventually detect the presence of a few particles of dark matter, the as-yet-undetected invisible substance that may well be what holds the universe together.
Earlier this year, I was scrolling through my Instagram feed when I noticed some cool photos popping up from a Brooklyn-based firm called SITU Fabrication. The images showed what appeared to be a maze of strangely angled metal parts and wires, hanging from one another in space.

[Image: Model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; Instagram by SITU Fabrication].

One of them—seen above, and resembling some sort of exploded psychogeographic map of Dante's Inferno—was simply captioned, "#CNC milled aluminum plates for model of underground tunnel network in #SouthDakota."

Living within walking distance of the company's DUMBO fabrication facility, I quickly got in touch and, a few days later, stopped by to learn more.

[Image: Model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

SITU's Wes Rozen met me for a tour of the workshop and a firsthand introduction to the Homestake project.

The firm, he explained, already widely known for its work on complex fabrication jobs for architects and artists alike, had recently been hired to produce a 3D model of the complete Homestake tunnel network, a model that would later be installed in a visitors' center for the mine itself.

Visitors would thus encounter this microcosm of the old mine, in lieu of physically entering the deep tunnels beneath their feet.

[Image: Model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

Individual levels of the mine, Rozen pointed out, had been milled from aluminum sheets to a high degree of accuracy; even small side-bays and dead ends were included in the metalwork.

Negative space became positive, and the effect was like looking through lace.

[Image: Model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; photo by BLDGBLOG].

Further, tiny 3D-printed parts—visible in some photographs, further below—had also been made to connect each level to the next, forming arabesques and curlicues that spiraled out and back again, representing truck ramps.

[Image: Model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

The whole thing was then suspended on wires, hanging like a chandelier from the underworld, to form a cloud or curtain of subtly reflective metal.

[Image: Assembly of the model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; photo courtesy of SITU Fabrication].

When I showed up that day, the pieces were still being assembled; small knots of orange ribbon and pieces of blue painter's tape marked spots that required further polish or balancing, and metal clamps held many of the wires in place.

[Images: Model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; photos by BLDGBLOG].

Seen in person, the piece is astonishingly complex, as well as physically imposing—in photographs, unfortunately, this can be difficult to capture.

[Image: Model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; photo by BLDGBLOG].

However, the sheer density of the metalwork and the often impossibly minute differences from one level of the mine to the next—not to mention, at the other extreme, the sudden outward spikes of one-off, exploratory mine shafts, shooting away from the model like blades—can still be seen here, especially in photos supplied by SITU themselves.

[Image: Assembly of the model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; photo courtesy of SITU Fabrication].

A few of the photos look more like humans tinkering in the undercarriage of some insectile aluminum engine, a machine from a David Cronenberg movie.

[Image: Assembling the model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; photo courtesy of SITU Fabrication].

Which seems fitting, I suppose, as the other appropriate analogy to make here would be to the metal skeleton of a previously unknown creature, pinned up and put together again by the staff of an unnatural history museum.

[Image: Model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; photo by BLDGBLOG].

The model is now complete and no longer in Brooklyn: it is instead on display at the Homestake visitors' center in South Dakota, where it greets the general public from its perch above a mirror. As above, so below.

[Images: The model seen in situ, by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; photos courtesy of SITU Fabrication].

Again, it's funny how hard the piece can be to photograph in full, and how quick it is to blend into its background.

This is a shame, as the intricacies of the model are both stunning and worth one's patient attention; perhaps it would be better served hanging against a solid white background, or even just more strategically lit.

[Image: The model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; photo courtesy of SITU Fabrication].

Or, as the case may be, perhaps it's just worth going out of your way to see the model in person.

Indeed, following the milled aluminum of one level, then down the ramps to the next, heading further out along the honeycomb of secondary shafts and galleries, and down again to the next level, and so on, ad infinitum, was an awesome and semi-hypnotic way to engage with the piece when I was able to see it up close in SITU's Brooklyn facility.

I imagine that seeing it in its complete state in South Dakota would be no less stimulating.

(Vaguely related: Mine Machine).

Dead Ringer

[Image: Mars's moon, Phobos; courtesy NASA /JPL/University of Arizona].

Oh, to live another 40 million years... "One day," Nature reports, "Mars may have rings like Saturn does":
The martian moon Phobos, which is spiralling inexorably closer towards the red planet, will disintegrate to form a ring system some 20 million to 40 million years from now, according to calculations published on 23 November. Other research suggests that long grooves on Phobos's surface may represent the first stages of that inevitable crack-up.
After that point, a red mineral ring will gradually coalesce from the dust storm, circling the planet in a desert halo.

In terms of human experience, 20-40 million years obviously dwarfs our anatomical and genetic history as modern Homo sapiens, and I am excessively confident that no humans will be around to witness this event. Nonetheless, it's not actually that far off. The Earth itself is 4.5 billion years old; 20-40 million years is the geological blink of an eye. In a sense, we will just miss it.

For what it's worth, Neal Stephenson's most recent novel, Seveneves, is about a similar event—but set on Earth, not Mars.

"What if Earth’s moon suddenly and spontaneously broke apart into seven large pieces?" a review in the New York Times asked. "What would happen to life on Earth? It’s an intriguing premise, one that could conceivably go in any number of interesting directions. What would be the ramifications for every aspect of society, including economics, governance, the rule of law, privacy and security, not to mention even more fundamental matters like reproductive rights, religion and belief?"

In any case, read more over at Nature.


[Image: By Spiros Hadjidjanos, via Contemporary Art Daily].

Artist Spiros Hadjidjanos has been using an interesting technique in his recent work, where he scans old photographs, turns their color or shading intensity into depth information, and then 3D-prints objects extracted from this. The effect is like pulling objects out of wormholes.

[Image: By Spiros Hadjidjanos, via Contemporary Art Daily].

His experiments appear to have begun with a project focused specifically on Karl Blossfeldt's classic book Urformen der Kunst; there, Blossfeldt published beautifully realized botanical photographs that fell somewhere between scientific taxonomy and human portraiture.

[Image: By Spiros Hadjidjanos, via Stylemag].

As Hi-Fructose explained earlier this summer, Hadjidjanos's approach was to scan Blossfeldt's images, then, "using complex information algorithms to add depth, [they] were printed as objects composed of hundreds of sharp needle-like aluminum-nylon points. Despite their space-age methods, the plants appear fossilized. Each node and vein is perfectly preserved for posterity."

[Image: Via Spiros Hadjidjanos's Instagram feed].

The results are pretty awesome—but I was especially drawn to this when I saw, on Hadjidjanos's Instagram feed, that he had started to apply this to architectural motifs.

2D architectural images—scanned and translated into operable depth information—can then be realized as blurred and imperfect 3D objects, spectral secondary reproductions that are almost like digitally compressed, 3D versions of the original photograph.

[Image: Via Spiros Hadjidjanos's Instagram feed].

It's a deliberately lo-fi, representationally imperfect way of bringing architectural fragments back to life, as if unpeeling partial buildings from the crumbling pages of a library, a digital wizardry of extracting space from surface.

[Image: Via Spiros Hadjidjanos's Instagram feed].

There are many, many interesting things to discuss here—including three-dimensional data loss, object translations, and emerging aesthetics unique to scanning technology—but what particularly stands out to me is the implication that this is, in effect, photography pursued by other means.

In other words, through a combination of digital scanning and 3D-printing, these strange metallized nylon hybrids, depicting plinths, entablatures, finials, and other spatial details, are just a kind of depth photography, object-photographs that, when hung on a wall, become functionally indistinct from architecture.


[Image: "Vaulted Chamber" by Matthew Simmonds].

While writing the previous post, I remembered the work of Matthew Simmonds, a British stonemason turned sculptor who carves beautifully finished, miniature architectural scenes into otherwise rough chunks of rock.

[Image: "Sinan: Study" by Matthew Simmonds].

Simmonds seems primarily to use sandstone, marble, and limestone in his work, and focuses on producing architectural forms either reminiscent of the ancient world or of a broadly "sacred" character, including temples, church naves, and basilicas.

[Image: "Basilica III" by Matthew Simmonds].

You can see many more photos on his own website or over at Yatzer, where you, too, might very well have seen these last year.

[Image: "Fragment IV" by Matthew Simmonds].

Someone should commission Simmonds someday soon to carve, in effect, a reverse architectural Mt. Rushmore: an entire hard rock mountain somewhere sculpted over decades into a warren of semi-exposed rooms, cracked open like a skylight looking down into a deeper world, where Simmonds's skills can be revealed at a truly inhabitable spatial scale.

(Previously: Emerge).


[Image: Originally an ad for the Cité de l'Architecture in Paris].

I originally spotted this image a while back via the Tumblr Architectural Models, but it appears actually to have been created as part of an ad campaign for the Cité de l'Architecture in Paris.

Whatever its actual provenance might be, I love the idea of leaving in place the partially excavated backdrop out of which an architectural model emerges, the rough material matrix—be it wood, rock, or 3D-misprinted plastic—whose precise spatial shaping becomes all the more clear when you can compare a form with its formless origins.


[Image: From Pierre Huyghe, "Les grandes ensembles" (2001)].

A short news items in New Scientist this week describes the work of University of Michigan engineers who have developed a way to, in effect, synchronize architectural structures at a distance. They refer to this as "ghosting":
When someone turns the lights on in one kitchen, they automatically switch on in the connected house. Sounds are picked up and relayed, too. Engineers at the University of Michigan successfully linked an apartment in Michigan with one in Maryland. The work was presented at the IoT-App conference in Seoul, South Korea, last week.
I haven't found any more details about the project—including why, exactly, one would want to do this, other than perhaps to create some strange new electrical variation on "The Picture of Dorian Gray," where a secret reference-apartment is kept burning away somewhere in the American night—but no doubt more info will come to light soon.*

*Update: Such as right now: here is the original paper. There, we read the following:
Ghosting synchronizes audio and lighting between two homes on a room-by-room basis. Microphones in each room transmit audio to the corresponding room in the other home, unifying the ambient sound domains of the two homes. For example, a user cooking in their kitchen transmits sounds out of speakers in the other user's own kitchen. The lighting context in corresponding rooms is also synchronized. A light toggled in one house toggles the lights in the other house in real time. We claim that this system allows for casual interactions that feel natural and intimate because they share context and require less social effort than a teleconference or phone call.
Thanks to Nick Arvin, both for finding the paper and for highlighting that particular quotation.


[Image: Shelters by LUMO Architects; photo by Jesper Balleby].

These gorgeous timber pods are a series of "asymmetric nature shelters" designed by LUMO Architects for the Danish South Fyn islands.

According to a write-up over on designboom, they function a bit like traditional Japanese moon-viewing platforms: "clad with large wood chips treated with black-pigmented wood tar oil," we read, "the randomly displaced openings look out and frame the surrounding nature and at night, the lunar orbit across the night sky can be observed."

[Image: Shelters by LUMO Architects; photo by Jesper Balleby].

It will be interesting to see how they weather and fade over time, of course—and, in the bottommost images seen here, you can already see them transitioning to grey—but, for now, these look spectacular.

[Image: Shelters by LUMO Architects; photo by Jesper Balleby].

The black exterior shell creates a particularly eye-popping juxtaposition with the unstained interior, almost like cracking open a timber geode to reveal a world of light burning inside.

[Image: Shelters by LUMO Architects; photo by Jesper Balleby].

Here's some more information, from the all-lowercase designboom:
five different volumes have been established, each varying in size and function, while maintaining a consistent spatial relationship. the asymmetric forms are reminiscent of the various shelter types originating from the traditional huts used by fishermen to store their catch, and thus, influencing the names of each one: ‘monkfish’—containing 3 levels and integrated bird-watching platform; ‘garfish’—a 6-7 person overnight shelter that doubles as picnic space for school classes; ‘lumpfish’—a 3-5 person overnight shelter with stay and sauna space; the ‘flounder’—a 2 person overnight shelter; and finally the ‘eelpout’—which functions as the lavatory.
You can see many of those variant types here, but click through to the architects' website or to designboom for more.

[Images: Shelters by LUMO Architects; photos by Jesper Balleby].

(Via designboom).


[Image: Photo by Adrià Goula, courtesy of Carles Enrich].

Here's another prosthetic elevator project—in fact, the reason I posted the previous one—this time around designed by architect Carles Enrich for the riverside city of Gironella, Spain.

[Image: Photo by Adrià Goula, courtesy of Carles Enrich].

The elevator connects the old and new parts of town, offering ease of access to the young and elderly alike, and reopening social and economic circulation between the two halves of the city.

[Image: Photo by Adrià Goula, courtesy of Carles Enrich].

Built using steel, glass, and bricks, the project also blends into the existing color scheme of the city, looking like a chimney or a church steeple, a tower of roofing tiles suddenly standing alongside the city's cliff.

[Image: Photo by Adrià Goula, courtesy of Carles Enrich].

Among many things, I love how unbelievably simple the project is: it's just a rectangle, going from level A to level B. That's it.

[Image: Photo by Adrià Goula, courtesy of Carles Enrich].

I'm not entirely sure why I find projects like this so fascinating, in fact, but the notion that two radically separate vertical levels can suddenly be connected by the magic of architecture is one of the most fundamental promises of construction in the first place: that, through a clever use of design skills and materials, we can create or discover new forms of circulation and unity.

[Images: Photos by Adrià Goula, courtesy of Carles Enrich].

With staircases, of course, you have more leeway for introducing expressive shifts in direction and orientation, pinching floors together, for example, or introducing elaborate curls leading from one floor to the next.

The elevator, by contrast, seems remarkably sedate.

[Image: Photo by Adrià Goula, courtesy of Carles Enrich].

It's just a box you step into, and a vertical corridor you travel within. In the photo above, it's like a dimly lit portal peeking up from some other, deeper district of the city.

Yet the ease of connection, and the use of subtle materials to realize it, are immensely exciting for some reason, as if we are all ever just one quick design gesture away from linking parts of the world in ways they never had been previously.

Just build an elevator: a pop-up vertical corridor delivering ascension where you'd least expected it.

[Image: Photo by Adrià Goula, courtesy of Carles Enrich].

In any case, read more about the project over at the architect's own website, or at ArchDaily, where I first saw the project, and check out the previous post for another elevator, while you're at it.