The architecture webosphere is abuzz about David Benjamin, co-founder of New York-based The Living, and his winning proposal for MoMA's 2014 PS1 Young Architects Program. I have chronicled the provocative activities of The Living since my first Transmaterial book (Princeton Architectural Press, 2006), and the firm's experiments with gill-like breathing windows, micro-archipelagos of water-testing devices, and collective sensory networks for buildings have broadened our notions of what building products and architectural practice can be.
As Joseph Giovannini reported last week in ARCHITECT, Benjamin's Hy-Fi installation at MoMA PS1 will be a brick tower that frames three circular oculi at the top, providing both shade and cooling breezes for summer visitors via stack-effect ventilation.
The most compelling aspect of Benjamin's proposal, however, are the two types of bricks themselves: a bio-engineered brick made of corn stalks and living mycelium roots, and a reflective brick made of thermoformed multilayer-optical film, produced by 3M. In an email conversation with me, Benjamin says that the process to make the bricks out of agricultural waste and fungi is adjustable. "By varying factors such as coarseness of the chopped-up byproducts, duration of growth, process of drying, and post-treatments, we can tune the material strength, density, and hardness of the material," he says.
He shared images of the first laboratory prototypes, which look like wide loaves of bread dough that he colors with a variety of dyes (presumably because people expect bricks to be red, although some of the tones he uses are tantalizingly high-chroma).
Like the Ecovative Design technology on which these bricks are based, there is negligible waste, energy, or carbon emissions, and no toxic byproducts.
Visitors to past PS1 summer courtyard events will recall the sweltering heat that typically shapes the experience, and may wonder how a tower built with biological materials could possibly survive such conditions. The material is inert, however, which should allow it to last all three summer months without degrading while still being safely compostable once the Hy-Fi tower is dismantled. In an effort to convince skeptics (and simply for the sake of good practice), Benjamin says they "have already been conducting accelerated aging tests to confirm the performance of the material after 90 days of New York City summer conditions, including wet/dry cycling and UV exposure."
Benjamin and his team are working with London-based Arup, who are providing structural consultation on the tower design as well as the anticipated mechanical performance of the bricks. As one of the most experimental PS1 proposals from a materials standpoint, Hy-Fi will likely be one of the most anticipated designs in this Queens spot to date. I can't wait to see it realized.
Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.