Point of View: David Benjamin

by William Myers, MetropolisMag.com

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"Pioneering architect and teacher David Benjamin tinkers at the crossroads of design and biology, exploring the possibilities of both mimicking and literally harnessing life to create dynamic, responsive structures. He has orchestrated research workshops for his graduate students and initiated interdisciplinary collaborations with scientists and software developers. David is interested in synthetic biology in particular: a branch of the field closely linked with engineering that involves piecing together bits of DNA like Legos to perform specialized functions. He speculates that research in this area will significantly impact architectural practice in the coming decades and could eventually become as historically significant as the industrial revolution was.

David teaches at the Columbia GSAPP (Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation) and is co-founder of The Living, a firm dedicated to creating architecture that is both interactive and responsive to environment conditions. His innovative work includes Living Light, a permanent, illuminated pavilion in Seoul that visually reports changes in air quality, and Amphibious Architecture, a floating installation in New York’s East River that enabled participants to communicate with fish and learn about water pollution.


William Myers: What are the sources of your interest in linking science and architecture?

David Benjamin: I’ve found that collaboration across disciplines is helpful to break out of old patterns of thinking. It turns out that most innovation comes from someone outside the direct field of research.  

As an undergraduate at Harvard, I majored in social studies, which was an interdisciplinary program. Then I worked at a start-up software company alongside designers, engineers, computer scientists, and “human factors” experts.  By the time I started studying architecture, I already considered it to be a perfect field for interdisciplinary and collaborative projects.

My interest in science, and particularly in synthetic biology, is a natural extension of The Living, an architecture firm that I started with my friend and collaborator Soo-in Yang.  Our firm explores various ways to bring architecture to life, and recent developments in biology may allow this to become literal.

If the 20th century was the century of physics, then the 21st century is widely seen to be the century of biology. Biology already leads the sciences in terms of budgets, workforce, and innovation. Genetic modification accounts for 3% of G.D.P. in the U.S., and it is growing quickly—for comparison, construction accounts for 4% of G.D.P.

So as an experimental architect interested in new ideas and innovations, I have been studying synthetic biology for several years. Recently I started a collaborative research initiative at Columbia GSAPP that involves the intersection of architecture, synthetic biology, and computer science. I have been teaching design workshops at Columbia about these topics, and also, as part of the Synthetic Aesthetics Project—an international, NSF-funded residency that has selected six pairs of scientist-designer collaborators—I am working on applied research with Plant Biologist Fernan Federici and the Jim Haseloff Lab at the University of Cambridge, U.K."

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By William Myers, Metropolis Mag.com
Published: April 14 2011