Fewer things are as enthralling as learning that a material is few moments away from being "alive." The expanding definition of "life" or "alive" is not only a consequence of joyful abuse of language and metaphors, but also the outcome of an increasingly able gaze upon the things that make -- and with which we make -- the world we supposedly know.
This is how I originally met Zbigniew Oksiuta near one of his gelatin-based spheres, thinking of how water could now again breed life into this structure. Make it sprout -- or decay.
Zbigniew Oksiuta is an artist, architect, and scientist, interested in the possibility of designing biological structures, whose work combines architecture, biology, physics, and genetic engineering.
Originally from Poland, he currently teaches in the School of Architecture at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), in Albany, N.Y., and produces and exhibits work in several countries across the globe.
Mr. Oksiuta's work includes built architectural structures, scientific experiments and art installations spanning several countries.
His work engages the formulation of a new biological habitat investigating biological materials' potential in the formulation of new forms of living on Earth and in space.
I asked him about some of the main themes in his publications.
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Zbigniew Oksiuta FORM AS PROCESS, 2002 An originally spherical form after several spatial deformations and invaginations. The forms ware made of biological polymers obtained from animals and plants, such as gelatin, agar, and starch. They are edible and have various flavors and smells. Chaotic curves and fractal deformations are the effect of precise biological self-organization processes combining the physical and chemical principles of order and beauty in the animated world. Source; Forms, Processes, Consequences, Zbigniew Oksiuta, Catalogue, Arsenal Gallery, Bialystok and Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw, Poland, 2007 © Copyright by Zbigniew Oksiuta & VG Bild-Kunst Bonn
Zbigniew Oksiuta ©SPATIUM GELATUM, FORM 090704, 2004, Biological Habitat for La Biennale di Venezia, 9. International Architecture Exhibition, 2004 Diameter: 2.5 m, thickness of the sphere: 0.3 – 1.0 cm, Material: gelatin 270° Bloom, colour, taste, smell: neutral Physical properties: viscosity 31.8 mP, transparency 93.4%, conductivity 248 uS Chemical properties: pH 5.60, ash contents ≤ 0.5%, water content before drying 70%, metals ≤ 40 ppm Bacteriological properties: aerobic germs ≤ 1000/g The goal of the study is to shape biological forms and objects into new habitats. Spatium Gelatum objects are biologically renewable. They can exist in a solid or liquid state, be soft or hard and transparent or colored, as well as having different smells and flavors. Made by NWT-Nahrungsmittelwerke,Twist,Germany Technical cooperation: Wolf-Peter Walter, Econtis, Emmen, The Netherlands Photo: H.W. Aquistapace, Meppen, Germany © Copyright by Zbigniew Oksiuta & VG Bild-Kunst Bonn
Zbigniew Oksiuta ©ISOPYCNIC SYSTEMS, 2003 Inflation of hollows in a polymer lump floating under water Videostill: Meogloea The film was partly shot in a Neutral Buoyancy Facility, European Space Agency ESA, Cologne Photo: Uwe Lierman and Industriesauger-tv, Cologne 2003 The Isopycnic Systems Project is aimed at creating forms under water in the neutral buoyancy phase. The technology of fluid forms uses biological polymers with a similar density to that of water. © Copyright by Zbigniew Oksiuta & VG Bild-Kunst Bonn
Zbigniew Oksiuta ©BREEDING CONTAINMENT,2003 A three-dimensional biological container for breeding. The idea of Breeding Spaces is to create a three-dimensional biological membrane the whole interior of which is a bioreactor that enables controlled experiments in laboratory conditions. The polymer layer provides both a spatial perimeter and a nutrient medium for the microorganisms, as well as, stimulating the processes that take place inside the membrane. The breeding process involves injecting plant cells into the interior of the form. Breeding Spaces are concurrently spaces for breeding and breeding farms for space. Source; Forms, Processes, Consequences, Zbigniew Oksiuta, Catalogue, Arsenal Gallery, Bialystok and Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw, Poland, 2007 © Copyright by Zbigniew Oksiuta & VG Bild-Kunst Bonn
Zbigniew Oksiuta ©TRANSGENIC HABITAT, 2005 A part of a sterile plant callus culture showing white embryogenic structures, pale leaves and transparent root tips The project investigates the potential for biologic anomalies in conditions when a common external stimulus, i.e., the force of gravity, and the immanent growth principles, i.e., correlation and cell diversity, cease to play a role. Providing uncontrolled processes with a spatial structures would enable the development of new plant forms. Photo Courtesy by Maret Linda Kalda, Max-Planck-Institute for Plant Breeding Research, Cologne, Germany © Copyright by Zbigniew Oksiuta & VG Bild-Kunst Bonn
Zbigniew Oksiuta The Cosmic Garden, 2003-2007 A liquid polymer pneu (a bubble cast) made in space as a container for breeding of living organisms. Videostill: “Made in Space”, 2007 Animation by: André Hindenburg, Industriesauger-TV, Cologne © Copyright by Zbigniew Oksiuta & VG Bild-Kunst Bonn
Zbigniew Oksiuta The Cosmic Garden, Random Positioning Machine, 2003-2010 Centre for Contemporary Art, Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw, Poland, 2007 The Cosmic Garden project is a universal self-sustaining system in space, containing organisms in a transparent polymer sphere that interact and survive using solar energy. The Random Positioning Machine is a device for simulating microgravity and studying the sensitivity of organisms to the impact of gravity (geotropism). The rotating spherical bioreactor in the middle of the machine is a model of the Cosmic Garden in its weightless condition. Photo: Mike Kozak, Toronto © Copyright by Zbigniew Oksiuta & VG Bild-Kunst Bonn
Zbigniew Oksiuta THE COSMICAL SPERM, 2003 Swarm of mini Biospheres in Space. Photo Sebastian Hoegen and Prof. Dr. Hans-Henning Steinbiss, Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research, Cologne, Germany © Copyright by Zbigniew Oksiuta & VG Bild-Kunst Bonn
How do you see decentralization and autonomy in the context of the design of material forms?
In the living systems, local laws make global order. All organisms breed in local environment, even animals which migrate globally. The genome drift, which is the "most powerful impulse in nature", presses as dough on a sieve of local environment. The best locally adapted organisms survive and pass on their genes to next generations. Locality is a source of diversity.
The motto of David Brower and Buckminster Fuller should be changed to "act locally and think locally". Not long ago, architecture was created on these principals. I remember that from my childhood. I was born in a small village in Eastern part of Poland, on my grandfather's farm. We produced everything locally and we were almost self-sufficient. My ecological footprint was at that time 0.8 ha. Now I need 10 times more.
Decentralization is the quintessence of the biological future, but this vision has nothing to do with romantic wish back to the nature. "The Sun, the Genome & the Internet" as Freeman Dyson wrote, are the forces that can make local autonomy possible.
You have a particular interest in water but also in other fluids. What is the potential you see in these materials and how do you further equate them with the concept of a fluid architecture?
I am interested in liquids because they are in shapeable state of matter. In solids, cohesive forces cause particles to have defined, unchangeable positions. Gasses on the other hand are boundless and do not create shapes or forms. Liquid state is the only one that allows self-organization processes, and the only state that allows for life, as we know it.
Living organisms are autonomous self-replicating systems. Their activity depends on internal chemical processes and reactions to external environmental stimuli. Internal structures are the proteins produced on the bases of directives from the genes. Complexity of live processes requires enormous precision in transfer of information. For this purpose, evolution uses linear conductors like long molecular and polymer chains. Almost every human cell consists of a 2- meter-long DNA.
The key to biological architecture is material science and the main aim of the research are biological polymers, which can create new unimaginable possibilities. As solids they can serve as structural elements. As liquids and gels they can become new kind of architectural soil and help to maintain biological processes such as growing plants, or microorganisms on and in the building matter.
Purely liquid forms in the architectural scale are possible only outside the gravitation field. On the Earth's surface, where gravity is unavoidable, hybrid objects combining liquids with solid matter like gels, foams and bones will be possible.
How is your concept of biological habitat connected to visions of future growth for humans and the earth?
A contemporary challenge is to acknowledge and respect the potential of information embedded in matter. Our formal "heat, beat and treat" methods of producing structures do not take into consideration the information contained in the materials.
The vision of habitat based on biological principles, making it literally alive as an organism, such as a tree is challenging. A house that dynamically reacts to the environment on the molecular level will be part of the future.
Can you imagine being in the transparent sphere made not from black humus, but from transparent polymer? In this maximally condensed introversive garden, your personal biosphere, a variety of organisms, similar to the plants, animals and people that existed on my grandfather's farm, would be living together.
Zbigniew Oksiuta's website
All images in gallery credited to authors, and obtained to this article with the courtesy of the artist.