Frogs have an integral role in a new dynamic, air-purifying façade by The Living and the
Ali Brivanlou Lab
Imagine Science Films / The Living and the Ali Brivanlou Lab Frogs have an integral role in a new dynamic, air-purifying façade by The Living and the Ali Brivanlou Lab

"Outside Design," a collateral event of the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial, opens tomorrow at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s (SAIC's) Sullivan Galleries, in downtown Chicago. The opening will include a public reception and talks by the show’s five commissioned design firms, selected by curator Jonathan Solomon, AIA, for their explorations of architecture, art, biology, and ecology: Analog Media Lab, in Champaign, Ill.; Ants of the Prairie, in Buffalo, N.Y.; Species of Space, in Chicago; Sweet Water Foundation, also in Chicago; and The Living, an Autodesk Studio, in New York.

Amphibious Envelope
The Living and the Ali Brivanlou Lab Amphibious Envelope
Amphibious Envelope
The Living and the Ali Brivanlou Lab Amphibious Envelope

For this show, The Living's founder, David Benjamin, will debut “Amphibious Envelope,” the first project out of an ongoing collaboration with Ali Brivanlou, head of the Laboratory of Stem Cell Biology and Molecular Embryology, at the Rockefeller University, also in New York. The installation is a full-scale, part-prototype, part-experiment building façade that combines air, water, plants, frogs in a vertical grid of 22 glass tanks supported by a salvaged structural frame.

The tanks serve as a temporary home for the frogs, which in turn act as living sensors in an interactive, air-filtering system. In nature, frogs need to surface every 10 to 20 minutes to breathe, depending on the oxygen level in the water. Here, as they swim to the surface of the individual tanks, their movements trigger aeration: air is drawn into the façade’s grid, bubbled through the water in the tanks, stripped of pollutants, and passively sent back to the interior space.

This natural ecosystem is a "conceptual and practical" example of what adaptive and responsive buildings of the future may need, according to the press release. As more people gather and thus breathe near the façade, the more frequently the frogs will need to surface, and consequently, the more often aeration and air cleansing will occur. But the frogs aren't doing all the work: An occupancy sensor on the interior side of the façade will also activate aeration in the tanks when people are nearby.

Along with this self-adjusting rhythm of air filtration, the project also demonstrates a new use for insulated glass units, beyond the conventional window or door systems. The sandwiched layers of air and water between the insulated glass lites will help regulate the building temperature at the façade, while the aeration bubbles make for dynamic patterning.

Since 2012, Benjamin and Brivanlou have co-taught a graduate workshop in dynamic architecture at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation. For this project, they collaborated with engineers at Arup as well as Aquarius Aquariums, in New York, on water filtration.

"Outside Design" runs through Dec. 19. The Chicago Architecture Biennial, a landmark gathering of work by more than 100 architects and artists worldwide, opens to the public on Oct. 3 and runs through Jan. 3, 2016.

The Living and the Ali Brivanlou Lab
The Living and the Ali Brivanlou Lab


Note: This article has been updated since first publication.