For 15 years, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) has hosted its Young Architects Program competition to build a state-of-the-art, visionary project during the summer in the courtyard of its P.S.1 satellite in Queens, N.Y. And for 15 years, visitors have walked into architectural worlds framed by fantastic technologies in uncharted environments.
Sometimes it’s as simple as a new way to use a 2-by-2 to form a bench that morphs into a building. Sometimes it's a nanoparticle-treated nylon echinoderm that eats smog. No matter what, the installation is always a party with a high IQ attended by all—from the coolest Brooklynite to the toddler barely able to wade into a biomorphic pool.
For the 2014 Young Architects Program, MoMA and MoMA P.S.1 selected David Benjamin, a Columbia University academic who heads the New York architectural firm The Living to build a project that pushes the envelope of what we already know. The brief for the competition stated that the architects should work to address environmental issues, including sustainability and recycling.
Benjamin’s proposal, Hy-Fi, would seem to be, on the face of it, rather prosaic: a tower of bricks not too different from a lot of buildings around it in Brooklyn, including P.S.1 (which takes its name from its former occupation as a school). However, Benjamin—as the name of his firm, The Living, implies—is a bio-ethicist architect who bases his architecture on biological models. So he has reinvented the brick as a basic building block: Benjamin combines computational technologies and engineering materials to bio-design new materials that are 100 percent organic.
Though they look innocent enough in a city with many traditional brick buildings, these bricks by The Living are two sorts of very eco-smart bricks. One is designed in a process that harnesses the natural carbon cycle: This first set of bricks grows out of earth and returns to earth, it generates no waste or carbon emissions, and it requires no energy. Benjamin has applied a process developed by Ecovative, a company with which The Living collaborates, to bio-engineer bricks composed of a combination of corn stalks and living root structures. The plants are locally grown.
The second set of bricks is reflective, produced through a process of custom-forming a new daylighting mirror film (invented by 3M). The reflective bricks are used as growing trays, or petri dishes, for the organic bricks.
Both bricks will be incorporated into the actual structure Benjamin has designed. The tower is circular. The organic bricks are used at the bottom of the structure, and the reflective bricks at the top, to reflect light down on the tower and the ground.
Benjamin subverts our expectations of a brick structure whose visual weight usually gathers with the flow of gravity to the ground. His tower is thin and porous at the bottom rather than thick and dense, producing a gravity-defying effect. Environmentally, the porous base draws cool air in at the bottom and pushes it out through the top in a chimney effect.
Architecture as a profession has been reshaped by environmental concerns over the last quarter century, with an ever increasing awareness of its professional responsibilities in the face of global warnings coming now on a nearly daily basis. Benjamin’s project suggests taking the responsibility a step further, with the application of biological research directly into the building arts via their common ground in computation.
Visitors should not think that the boutique scale of the experiment makes limits the idea to a delightful summer folly. Benjamin is already at work applying the principles at larger scale.
The tower may look like a tower, but it is really the next nexus of design, science and technology. At P.S.1, the tower will no doubt rise like a nerdy enigma wrapped in a conundrum wrapped in a computer program. But it may be one of the first built indicators of a shift in architectural paradigms toward a basic biological model.