Material Change

Advocating the dynamism of nanotechnology and architecture, George Elvin contends that with the embrace of nanotechnologies, the field of architecture will no longer be based on static objects; rather, it will react or mutate according to environmental variables. The author of Integrated Practice in Architecture: Mastering Design-Build, Fast-Track, and Building Information Modeling (Wiley, 2007), Elvin speaks with Volume about the ethical and social implications of a spatial reality dictated by sensorial information.

Julianne Gola: Can you briefly describe nanotechnology and what you see as its consequences for architecture?
George Elvin: Nanotechnology is the manipulation of matter at the molecular scale. The field is introducing a new breed of materials that are designed from the bottom up. Material engineers can start by asking, ‘what kind of material do we want? What do we want it to do?’ And then they are actually able to fabricate those new materials. So, for example, people can ask, ‘wouldn’t it be great to have a material that was many times stronger than steel but lighter and transparent?’ An architect could make a building supported by something that looks like glass with nano-composite plastics, for example. Eventually, in the long run, you could have materials that would seem to disappear.

Cameron Robertson: How pervasive are nanotechnologies in architecture today?
GE: There are already over 200 building products that incorporate nano-particles or nanotechnology. The two largest solar cell producers in the world print their cells using nanotechnology. There is a long list of nanotechnologies with considerable green or ‘de-polluting’ potential. For example, the precast panels in the façade of Richard Meier’s church in Rome are coated in nano-materials that, through photocatalysis, break down large amounts of atmospheric pollutants into benign elements on contact.

JG: In other words, nano-materials are responsive. Can you elaborate on their dynamic properties?
GE: We think of architects as makers of static objects – sculptural things that you create and then walk away from. When you start designing with the nano-materials that we will have available in, say, ten or twenty years, architects will be initiators of a dynamic process. You’ve even got things that show the changing state of what we typically consider static materials. In fact, to so they incorporate organic substances – literally living materials. There are bio-hybrid products such as protein-based biosensors that luminesce when stressed. Already, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco uses sensors to detect movement as an early warning system for earthquakes. You could have concrete beams in a building that glow when stressed.

JG: So nanotechnology offers functionality that exceeds what the public currently expects of architecture. What do you believe are ways to represent this?
GE: We’ve got to make 4D modeling – 3D plus time – really pervasive, because, frankly, nanotech demands it. We’re talking about a technology that allows whole interior and exterior environments to be programmable and continuously variable. We will have to express buildings as networks of intercommunicating intelligent materials, objects and systems. To talk about adequately representing that kind of thing with static media is just crazy.
CR: In addition to the representation of this emerging technology, there are questions of public reception and acceptance. How do you think it will change our daily experience of the built environment as its deployed?
GE: With the properties of carbon nano-tubes, for example, you could make a chair supported by legs almost the diameter of a needle. But would people really be comfortable sitting in it? In the same way, on the architectural scale, it will be possible to do away with the distinction between structure and skin, a standby not only of construction, but also perception. Would people be perceptually comfortable in that space? There is going to be a lag between material developments and people’s comfort level. The same thing happened when steel columns first came out. In Maison Domino, for example, people weren’t entirely comfortable standing under a concrete slab supported by just a few steel columns. It should also be acknowledged that consumers are apprehensive about nanotechnology. So while companies are very happy to use nanotechnology to improve the performance of their product, they don’t necessarily want the ‘nano’ name on them, because of concerns that if something went wrong, it would backfire in terms of public comfort with the idea of nanotechnology.
CR: You’ve focused much of your career on broadcasting the potentials of nanotechnology for sustainable design. Do you see nanotechnology as being inherently sustainable?
GE: Well, many believe that the responsible use of technology can get us out of the mess we got ourselves into through the irresponsible use of technology. Right now, because nano is a new and very powerful technology, we don’t know its impact on human health or the environment. There are concerns about bioaccumulation. For example, Samsung makes a washing machine that injects silver nano-particles into your wash. Even though it is a minuscule amount, silver is a heavy metal. So there is reason to be concerned about its accumulation over time in the body and the environment. Of course buildings would be a primary source of nano-particle pollution, as they wash off buildings into the larger environment. So we have to consider the large-scale effects.

JG: How might nanotechnology affect the urban scale and what is its capacity to change or manipulate the nature of public space?
GE: One thing this brings up, particularly in the case of sensor technology, is privacy. As we get further along in our ability to control matter and materials, objects become more malleable and responsive. As people want more intelligent and interactive environments, this implies a give and take of information. With what they call ‘push technology’ in Japan, for example, your cell phone will ring as you’re walking past the Gap, telling you that the jeans you bought last week are now on sale. Or consider the University of Illinois Computer Science building: when a faculty member swipes his card to enter into the building, the lights and heat in his office kick on. Nanotechnology would amplify that kind of intelligence, and you would get a much more personalized environment. We’re talking about buildings and urban environments that are much more dynamic and changing. On the one hand, it has the potential to put people more in touch with their environment. But if all of these sensors are communicating with each other, the environment, and users, then an important question is: who controls this information? Who has access to it?

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