A Nobel laureate sits in the corner of the light-filled dining room, but David Benjamin is too busy trading stories with a world-renowned developmental biologist to notice. Spotting a Nobelist such as Günter Blobel (awarded the prize in 1999 for physiology) isn’t unusual at Rockefeller University, a celebrated biomedical research center on the Upper East Side in New York. Rather, it is Benjamin and his graduate students from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (GSAPP) who stand out among the scientists eating lunch there on this March afternoon.
Benjamin and his protégés have come for an informal pin-up and laboratory tour with Ali Brivanlou, the pioneering stem cell and embryo development researcher. Benjamin and Brivanlou are collaborating on the Advanced Data Visualization Project, launched last summer by GSAPP and media giant Thomson Reuters, to study how big data from cellphones, buildings, and other sources can help drive planning and design decisions in our cities.
It’s not a typical day in the studio for the students, but for Benjamin, 38, crossing disciplines represents the core of his work. The director of GSAPP’s Living Architecture Lab, he stands at the nexus of a Venn diagram connecting architecture, synthetic biology, and computation. Consider his project for the U.S. Pavilion at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale, in which he strung together mussels to act as a natural biosensor for water quality. Or that one of his formative inspirations is D’Arcy Thompson’s 1917 book On Growth and Form, which argues that scientists overvalued evolution and underemphasized physical laws in their studies of the form and structure of organisms. Benjamin co-founded the six-person design and research studio The Living in 2006, and he has worked on projects for clients such as the City of Seoul and the Architectural League of New York. For Nike, he designed a pop-up athletic stadium that was built and disassembled in one day. He secures many commissions through invited competitions and referrals, and the results often meld design, science, and technology in a way that inspires even his colleagues at the pointedly avant-garde GSAPP to ask, “You’re doing what?”
Benjamin has always marched to his own beat: After graduating from Harvard University with a bachelor’s degree in social studies in the 1990s, he headed to Los Angeles to drum with the indie band the Push Kings. The group never managed to sign with a major label—studio execs back then couldn’t fathom geek rock becoming popular—and Benjamin returned to the East Coast in 2002 to study architecture at Columbia.
After you studied social studies as an undergrad, how did you find your way to architecture?
I hadn’t studied architecture officially until graduate school. It was a hunch that architecture would combine the kind of art and science that was appealing to me, that it would be creative but also a little bit technical. I had some friends who were studying architecture; I talked to them about it. I didn’t know that it would be right, but it turned out it was satisfactory. It fit.
What do you hope to achieve by merging architecture and biology in your work?
Architects have been inspired by biology, have been directly using biology for many years. But there is also all of this hype about this being the century of biology, that an explosion in biological technology, biological discoveries and innovation, will change a lot of aspects of our world. Two loose categories of things could be different: first, the potential to use biological systems to compute solutions to problems at an architectural scale; and second, to use biological systems—in this case, probably bio-engineered systems—to manufacture new materials or physical buildings.
Some current projects [by other architects] are looking more at biology and saying a sea sponge is a great form: Let’s make a skyscraper in the design of a sea sponge. I think that you could use biology for computation or for fabrication. The connection is through digital computing tools and through data.
Your expertise is more in bio-computation. Are you ever in the lab doing experiments?
I’ve been working with the biology lab at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, [where plant biologists are studying] xylem cells in the stems of plants. They have this incredible way of doing a microscope imaging of hollow 3D cell shapes with an exoskeleton. We translated some of the 3D prints and then basically tried to think about a few ways in which we could execute what we’re calling the biological algorithm of the xylem cell in unusual conditions. You can do some genetic tricks. Normally a xylem cell would be in a cylinder shape. But you can induce xylem cells to form into much more complex shapes, like a leaf. So you can ask how that xylem algorithm computed a weird amoeba shape. Another experiment, with the same biology lab, is about using bacteria to manufacture building materials. This is based on the loose premise that you can grow bacteria in a petri dish, and that they can make flexible or rigid materials. Bacteria have very complex spatial patterning. So we can get a thin sheet of material that has really unique properties, because some parts will be flexible and some parts will be rigid. The material bends irregularly based on the pattern.
We’re in an intermediate stage where we are using software that biologists created to simulate bacterial phyla. And then we can use a multimaterial 3D printer to print them. It’s slower and more difficult to get the actual forms in the petri dish, but we’re working on it.
Given your background, has it been hard to do that kind of laboratory work?
Well, I’ve been inspired by something Sheila Kennedy, [one of the founding principals of Kennedy & Violich Architecture in Boston], said: “I know enough to be dangerous.” I’ve never been an expert in sensors or microcontrollers or modeling data analysis. But I’ve gradually gained more confidence in being able to pick up key concepts and approaches, knowing just enough to do a very rough prototype, have a good discussion with the expert about it, and then together develop a way forward. Architecture traditionally is very conservative, due to issues such as health and safety. Synthetic biology is untested and theoretical. What are the challenges in merging these two fields together in a unified way?
It’s the kind of thing that will seem far away up until the moment that it’s proven, and then will rapidly become widely accepted. It isn’t quite happening yet, but it’s like half a step away. Consider all of the seating for the  World Cup stadiums in Brazil: There’s a goal to make those out of bioplastics.
The interesting thing about that version of our biological future is that it will look and feel exactly the same. Those plastic seats will probably not be tangibly different to people, but it would be potentially more radical than any new form of a chair that you could create, because we’re making this plastic out of renewable sugar rather than petroleum. The life cycle has 80 percent fewer carbon emissions, and it’s obviously incredibly sustainable. That kind of thing is not far away now. Obviously a lot of versions are further away, like using synthetic biology to design a seed that grows into a building.
Do you think that will happen someday?
Versions of that will. Future waves [of research will yield] living systems such as a biological coating that can help buildings self-repair.
For your Amphibious Architecture project, you placed sensors in New York’s East River to measure water quality, among other things.
We’re now about to start construction on a much bigger, permanent array [at the Pier 35 EcoPark in the East River]. We were saying, “OK, we have these electronic sensors to help us measure something that’s normally invisible about the ecosystem and make it publicly .” We’re very interested in projects where we bring things to the public realm and help people understand something about the world.
We’ve migrated in the past year from using electronic sensors to also using biosensors. It turns out that living mussels will open and close their shells—both the rate of opening and the amount—depending on [the level of] pollution in the water. So if we can measure that, then we can basically use this kind of intelligence in biological systems to tell us something that is actually more precise than our best electronic sensors.
How do you divide your time between Columbia, your firm, and your family? Still playing with the band?
No more music. [Laughs.] It’s roughly half and half between teaching and research at Columbia and the practice, which has to support itself by getting these public commissions. The way the family fits in is just like many people told me: You just get more efficient at doing things when you have a child. I’ve developed, out of necessity, a way of quickly switching gears in five seconds, from reading a book with my son to reviewing some renderings for a new RFP. Where do you see your practice heading?
There’s a lot more ground that I’m interested in covering in this territory of bio-computation. But I don’t want to become purely a bio-computation researcher for the rest of my life. While that’s a big part of what I’m working on now, there are about 37 projects that we didn’t talk as much about today. You could have come on a day when we’re having meetings with the city and the planning department about getting the East River project approved. Or meetings with this material salvage nonprofit, Build It Green! NYC, about how to build a new storefront in Brooklyn.
I’d like to take more of my projects from a smaller prototype phase to something larger that either has more public impact or tests the widespread viability. Some of my projects for clients like Nike or Kanye West have had a bigger and more permanent scale.
What was your project for Kanye West?
This project is confidential, but it has to do with an entirely new type of movie theater and 3D entertainment experience. In a way, like Amphibious Architecture, it’s a prototype for larger ideas, larger exploration.