Regenerative Returns

Ila Berman

is an architect, theorist and director of architecture at California College of the Arts (CCA). Berman’s work and publications include the book URBANbuild local global, New Orleans: Strategies for a City in Soft Land, “Amphibious Territories” in AD and the Urban Mappings for a Future City exhibition at the 2006 International Architectural Biennale in Venice.
Dear Ila,

In a recent lecture at the Future of Design Conference at the University of Michigan, you spoke about the changing relationship between nature and culture and the role that recycled materials might play in the future of our discipline. You predict that “we will encounter the inversion of our modern obsession with production and consumption through the digestion and regeneration of objects; the other of production is the disassembly/reassembly process.”

We invite you to elaborate on the ideas of digestion and regeneration, and the implications of these processes within a consumerist society, with respect to contemporary practices in art, architecture, and urbanism.


Trash versus Operations, Fresh Kills Park project, James Corner Field Operations.
Trash versus Operations, Fresh Kills Park project, James Corner Field Operations.

Trash versus Operations, Fresh Kills Park project, James Corner Field Operations.
Trash versus Operations, Fresh Kills Park project, James Corner Field Operations.

One of the most dominant themes in contemporary architectural practice is the new and expanding relationship being generated between nature and culture. As digital practices emulate living models and animate patterns of biological growth, and as green landscape ecologies are routinely called on to cloak the surfaces of the future urban agropolis, smooth mixtures are emerging everywhere that render ambiguous the traditional opposition of nature and culture, the biotic and the mechanistic.

This newly acculturated nature is the product of highly technological practices, yet is directly linked to the primordial by its affinities with the complexity of living systems and the continuities of “raw” unformed matter. In cultural artifacts, the continuous material and experiential field deemed intrinsic to the natural world, is divided into discrete signifiers, representational figures, and formal percepts—to render value to matter, and attribute to it a framework for human intelligibility, perception, and use. Nature is continuous, whereas culture is inherently discrete. This division, which precedes the construction of our own individuation and subjectivity, is the means by which we instrumentalize the real, and transform matter into useful and meaningful cultural artifacts. We cannot, therefore, enter into a discussion of current architectural practices without realizing that they have radically transformed, as biotechnologies have, these traditional distinctions; and we must attempt to understand the consequences of this new synthetic nature.

Indeed, despite both our real and symbolic fascination with the natural, as evident in all of its abundant architectural forms (perhaps at the very moment that we fear its disappearance), the ever-increasing domination of organics by technics and the depletion of natural ecologies is still one of the prevailing issues facing our global culture. Many have argued, including Caroline Merchant in The Death of Nature, and Herbert Marcuse in One Dimensional Man, that the pervasiveness of the technological, which entails the appropriation of all natural matter, effectuates our own absorption into, and potential domination by, the very technologies of our own creation.[1] According to Marcuse, this is the inevitable result of the absolute coordination of the ideational and empirical in a world governed by technological reason, for which the regimented and functionalized space of modern industry (intrinsically linked up with modern science, on the one hand, and modern capitalism, on the other hand) has become the paradigmatic example. Under the technological a priori of this regime, Marcuse states that the primary material of nature, inclusive of all forms of organic life, is conceptualized only as “potential instrumentality, stuff of control and organization.” In the tradition of Western progress, nature is thereby appropriated as a resource for the artificial production of culture, where fundamentally the “instrumentalization of things” also presupposes the “instrumentalization of man.”[2]

In his analysis of the epistemological shift that occurred at the emergence of the modern, Foucault describes the historic role that architecture has fulfilled within this regime as a regulatory mechanism and disciplinary machine employed to correct and control the operations of the body. The factory, which was advanced as the explicit prototypical model of architectural order, functional efficiency, and social regulation, was thus a means to not only transform matter into usable artifacts, but also to efficiently instrumentalize its occupants—to produce a utilitarian body, at once obedient and useful, to be molded according to precise functional programs within rigidly defined architectural spaces of geometric clarity.[3] By the beginning of the 21st century, despite having moved far beyond the reified mechanistic models described by Gideon and the ideological terrain of Taylorism, the ever-increasing proliferation and permeation of technologies into our daily lives is seemingly indisputable. The greatest single effect of this saturation is that it has transformed us all into cyborgs, synthetic hybrids of machine and organism, the boundaries of which have become increasingly precarious.[4] Two decades ago, Donna Haraway had written that, within the contemporary world, the cyborg is both the most disturbing and the most real and ubiquitous, rendering fragile the constitution of humanity and the threshold of the natural. “Late twentieth-century machines have made thoroughly ambiguous the difference between natural and artificial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed, and many other distinctions that used to apply to organisms and machines. Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert.”[5] Yet for Haraway, the cyborg was not a lamentable fact of the postindustrial world, but rather a space of potential political subversion, cautioning that it is necessary to avoid the double pitfall of the either/or response to technology: either blindly accepting technological determinism, or resolutely resisting it by becoming a pre-technological Luddite. Instead, her political response was intended to recall us to an imagined organicism and to integrate our resistance (drawing from Merchant and Marcuse), yet to critically and strategically engage the world of technological mediation as a productive and political imperative, in a way, however, that might rethink and redirect its energies in support of the living.[6]

It is certainly clear that many current architectural practices are attempting to do precisely this, and that our revived fascination with the “living” and the desire to establish new linkages across the nature-culture divide has been one of the strongest trajectories we have encountered in recent years, despite the fact that the design territories and approaches that have been developed are as diverse as the natural systems they seem to emulate. The proliferation of morphogenetic evolutionary methodologies that simulate generative patterns of continuous form growth and development through computational geometries, represent an entire spectrum of strategies, each of which reconnects the technological with the organic territory from which it was separated, by drawing dynamic material logics back into the cultural artifact.[7] The artificially entangled life forms of R&Sie(n) Architects—from the invaginated intricate geometries of I’ve Heard About, to the fuzzy aggregates of Olzweg—create intensively material dystopic environments that undermine the definition of the cultural object, while establishing new forms of random self-generation whose modes of emergence and behavior refer more to biotic animate beings than to the technologies responsible for their very creation.

In the many experimental design studios of Francois Roche and Mark Fornes, we are again confronted with intelligent forms of so-called primitive materiality, each of which defines a new relationship with the machinic.

I’ve Heard About 2005, R&Sie(n), François Roche, Stephanie Lavaux, with Stephan Henrich.
I’ve Heard About 2005, R&Sie(n), François Roche, Stephanie Lavaux, with Stephan Henrich.

Opus 2008, Francois Roche Studio GSAPP, Inviting Marc Fornes, Chi Chen Yang Student.
Opus 2008, Francois Roche Studio GSAPP, Inviting Marc Fornes, Chi Chen Yang Student.

Akin to Roxy Paine’s technologically manufactured and overtly codified red “scumaks,” these biomachinic matters seem to render us all primitive cyborgs, extremely technologically proficient yet intensely and euphorically immersed in the primordial flux of matter and its experience. Aranda/Lasch’s Grotto project, Kokkugia’s ongoing research into wetFoam geometries, and mos’s growing Ivy project,

(L) Grotto, Aranda\Lasch, PS-1 Entry 2005.<br />
(R) Algorithmic Wet Foam Study, Kokkugia.
(L) Grotto, Aranda\Lasch, PS-1 Entry 2005.
(R) Algorithmic Wet Foam Study, Kokkugia.

for example, each establish analogical links to continuous and transformative natural material landscapes directly resulting from the intricate patterns of their evolutionary emergence.

Although specifically distinct in their operations and effects, in all of these new “natures,” Foucault’s modern architectural disciplinary machines are seemingly replaced by vital, biomachinic matters. This “machinic phylum,”[8] simultaneously artificial in its production and natural in affect, not only establishes a new continuum traversing the culture-nature dichotomy, but also inverts the traditional modern hierarchy, such that technologies are now being employed to amplify, register, and reveal, rather than constrain and functionalize, the dynamic potentials of animate matter.

Nature’s clouds, flocks, swarms, and termite mounds have become paradigmatic models for those intent on rethinking architecture as a dynamic transformation of collective biotic material. From The Living’s underwater Amphibious Architecture installation (which enables us to communicate with urban fish) to their Living Light project, a dynamic responsive skin that registers urban air quality in Seoul, Korea, our expanded culture-nature interface has also enabled the insertion of a protean environmental wilderness and feedback loop into architecture’s domestic terrain. Beyond dissolving the boundary between human and animal territories, a condition that Haraway cites as a marker potentially linking ecological awareness with urban mythologies,[9] these practices point to another environmental response to postindustrialization, where technology’s apparent physical absence—its disappearance into the “atmospheric”—has prompted architectural territories to be transformed into ambient meteorological events. In our world of digitized information and intelligent matters, our explorations of ambient and atmospheric environments, those defined by fluid continuous qualities rather than the discrete delimitation of defined objects, have called into question architecture’s cultural role as a provider of spatial stability and material permanence. Interactive responsive fields, such as the early digitized Flux room installation by Reiser + Umemoto, or the more recent White Noise/White Light field by Howeler + Yoon, sited at the base of the Acropolis in Athens,

(L) Flux Room, RUR Architecture.<br />
(R) White Noise/White Light, Howeler and Yoon, Photo: Andy Ryan.
(L) Flux Room, RUR Architecture.
(R) White Noise/White Light, Howeler and Yoon, Photo: Andy Ryan.

generate animate “atmospheres” that respond to their living occupation.

In these projects, emergent environments are not the result of morphogenetic operations, but rather the result of interactive programming embedded into the potential functioning of the space, such that its affects are dynamically revealed and experienced by direct engagement and immersion. Responsive systems are used to express the choreography of inhabitation through the filter of an interactive gradient field in continual flux. These are technologized spatial environments employed to amplify (rather than constrain) the gestural excesses of animate biotic behaviors, or in the case of Omar Kahn’s Open Columns Project, for example, to provide a changing material index of the composite biochemical and gaseous by-products of human inhabitation. Architecture is deployed as an infrastructure that organizes the variable spectra of potential material responses and that dynamically stimulates and enables the expressive production of a multitude of artificial atmospheric effects.

Our strange fascination with these new artificial “natures” in their many distinct forms—seemingly symbolic compensatory acts that repeat our return to the discovery and exploitation of new “virgin” territories—often remain somewhat impotent when examined according to the performance of these projects in relation to actual living systems. We are acutely aware of the fact that the architectural emulation of growing, animate, or atmospheric environments as an investigation of new modes of architectural form generation or the material amplification and expression of its ambient affects, do not, despite their biomimetic appeal or communicative engagement, contribute in any fundamental way to the enhancement of real nature or the mitigation of its cultural instrumentalization. Conversely, those on the other side of the nature-culture continuum, who have been developing systemic explorations into energy-generating, bioremediating, and recyclable materials and systems (the environmentally “responsible,” rather than environmentally “affected”), although certainly not influenced by geometries that emulate natural formation or its primordial sensual affects, are overtly concerned with natural material, biological and chemical processes; yet where the material functions of these processes have often had little effect on the actual form generation, spatial disposition, or symbolic intentions—that is, the design—of the biodegradable artifacts they produce. The widening gap between those focused on creative formal, morphological, experiential, and interactive processes and those whose emphasis is on material technologies and their ecological functioning, exposes the lamentable segregations still evident in our design thinking. Despite the pervasiveness of our symbolic return to nature, the seemingly endless appropriation and instrumentalization of the natural world for the surplus products of culture, still reigns within the postindustrial and postcapitalist regimes within which we are operating. Against the backdrop of global warming and extreme environmental depletion, our absorption into this web has taken on a new urgency, foregrounding our own biological fragility within the context of the postnatural cyborgian future we have already created.

Perhaps one of the greatest future challenges that will dominate the design industry is initiating the inversion and integration of these principles, through the reduction, transformation, and recycling of cultural waste concurrent with the design and construction of newly acculturated natures in many different forms. Just as steel, concrete, and glass were the new homogeneous materials to represent the industrialization of 20th-century modernity, and plastics signified the utopian trajectory of the 1960s, for our postmillennial future, in addition to the continued development of new biotechnological materials, one of the most important raw materials for design will be trash. Our future return to matter, will therefore not only be through the sensuous deployment of form and the atmospheric extension of design, but also through something far more primitive—the ways in which we generate new processes that collect, sort, filter, pulverize, mix, melt, and modulate trash. Currently our largest renewable resource, trash will become our new postindustrial nature and future raw matter—an inherently heterogeneous mixture whose modes of typological and functional classification will be simultaneously determined by biological and technological properties. Within the context of this postnatural “real,” our framework for authenticity and origins is dissolved, as the endlessness of nature’s transformative operations are drawn on as models for cultural production, and as biotechnologically regenerated trash—a new form of raw repotentialized postacculturated matter—becomes the substantive material matrix for future design endeavors.

Despite the obvious fact that our current deleterious environmental impacts would be substantially reduced if we simply manufactured, built, used, and disposed of less—a concept that undermines the impulse toward excessive production that drives global capitalism—the true inversion of our modern obsession with production and consumption is not only to be found in their absence (for those who yearn toward a preindustrial future), but rather in their much needed reversal, by amplifying processes and designs that contribute to cultural digestion and regeneration. The “other” of production, therefore, refers not only to a redefinition of consumption that expands the parameters of both use and design, but also to the inversion of production through an emphasis on the disassembly reassembly process—an evolutionary, ecotechnological model of regeneration that would require that we spend as much of our energy on the strategic recycling of matter, form, and space as we do on the creative design of new objects. William McDonough’s proposition to incorporate the concept of biological and technological nutrients into our design parameters to transform the way we think about materiality (his now famous dictum: “waste = food”) is one strategy for ensuring that the physical substance of cultural products have the potential to be biologically “digested” when literally buried in landfills, or infinitely recycled when returned as secondary materials for industrial reprocessing.[10] In spite of the questionable application of intensive ecological strategies directed toward products, such as cars, seemingly by their very nature ecologically irresponsible artifacts, McDonough’s model U Ford concept car (2003), one of many new proposals for hydrogen-fueled electric hybrid vehicles, incorporated modular disassembly methods and plant-based manufacturing materials as a way of integrating digestive and regenerative strategies into the design process. Biopolymers such as polylactide (pla) fabrics derived from corn- as well as soy-based foam, and machined components used in its design ensured the potential biodegradability of parts of its vehicular apparatus while engendering new biotechnological continuities between cultural and natural systems. If, for Frank Lloyd Wright, it was the car, through its freedom of access, that enabled us to directly engage the expansiveness of the natural landscape, for McDonough, it seems we should also be transported by a biotic digestible trace of this landscape’s very constitution.

Although the history of material recycling through design has offered us many trajectories—from the redeployment of cardboard and chain link (symbolically loaded cheap “secondary” materials) in the early work of Frank Gehry, to the human nest chair made of scrap fabric of Emily Pillotin, or the entangled mesh of waste plastic of the RD4 chairs by Richard Liddle/Cohda design, few of these projects imagine the temporal, spatial, and material afterlife of their own disassembly, digestion, and regeneration. In addition, the difference in impulse between the ad hoc forms of recycling that dominated the fragmented collaged works of the 1980s and 90s and our current trajectories, exposes the direct influence that both the rapid expansion of biological and digital technologies have had on our understanding of digestive and regenerative processes. Even our current processes of design, often modeled on incremental evolutionary operations that either emulate forms of artificial life through genetic coding or digitally recycle existing contexts by generating continuities from the fragments or pixilated “bits” of disparate cultural systems, seem to be cultural extensions of natural modes of organic recycling. It is as though we are fulfilling some strange ecological or evolutionary imperative. Unlike their earlier Frankensteinian counterparts, these more recent forms of synthetic nature have emerged from a technological primordial soup, seemingly an aftereffect of the now-digitized compost pile of culture.

Perhaps the most compelling of regenerative design strategies to emerge are those that operate on the urban and territorial scales, from disciplines such as landscape architecture that have traditionally incorporated living matter into the design process and that are having the largest influence on urban bioremediation and geographical recycling. In projects such as Lifescape, Field Operation’s proposal for Fresh Kills, one of the largest landfill landscapes in existence, 150 million tons of human cultural waste have literally become the base material for a new living landscape ecology. Now referred to as the Fresh Kills Reserve (in a strange oxymoronic twist), the project proposes a regenerative strategy that will intensify natural wildlife by exploiting the biotic potential of its estuarine geomorphology while reconnecting it to its newly colonized postnatural alien ecology, with diverse cultural and recreational programming intended for human inhabitation. As the nature-culture trajectory is inverted, the redefinition and recycling of the landfill as lifescape, and the direct amplification of strategies intended to augment living systems through networks—threads, surface mats, and clusters—that redistribute flows of water, energy, and matter across the site and ensure its requisite porosity and protection, are indicative of a design trajectory that is modeled on principles of regeneration and whose formal, spatial, and material strategies are active embodiments of the processes it supports.

In addition, projects within urban design such as the Growing Water project, designed by the Chicago Urban Lab for the City of the Future competition, recycles wastewater, infrastructure, and space through an integrated matrix of “Eco-Boulevards” that link local biospheres to larger regional and global ecologies. Drawing from the ecological engineering research of biologist John Todd, this project proposes to use “living machines”[11] — those that literally incorporate biotic vegetation and organisms such as microbes, plants, algae, fish, and snails into cultural reprocessing systems — to phytoremediate 100 percent of Chicago’s wastewater without toxic chemicals, while harvesting and recircuiting its regenerated and purified liquid products for reconsumption. This and other projects—such as Urban Aeration by Konyk Architecture, generated for the d3 Natural Systems Competition—that integrate permeable carbon-capturing material filtration mechanisms to recycle urban toxins, or the Living Tower project by SOA, that establishes new territories for urban and architectural syntheses intended to limit the eco-footprint of our farming practices by incorporating them into high-density urban agricultural communities, focus on the syntheses of architectural, urban, and landscape practices to recycle and revivify space while limiting the natural devastation that results from sprawl and geographical consumption.

It would seem that we need to allow for a new expanded understanding of what a postindustrial culture-nature continuum might entail in relation to design—one that is much more aware of the larger cultural, spatial, material, and temporal cycles that influence the life of the objects and architectures that we produce. There is certainly a necessity to synthetically integrate biotic materials and technologies, or methods for disassembly and reassembly (intended as exchangeable/recyclable products of service),[12] into our culturally informed design strategies, yet these are only meaningful when understood within a broader cultural and environmental context. Even the “digestible” solar-powered minimobile device of the future must be imagined in both spatial and material terms, and respond to the temporal microcycle of its design, manufacture, and use, in relation to the much longer macrocycle required for its biodegradation (or a more immediate cycle of disassembly and technological regeneration), if we are to truly reverse or redirect current trajectories and productively relink them to a larger biotic material matrix. The questionable demand for the physical durability of our everyday cultural artifacts remains, for example, if the speed of design fashion (dependent on uniqueness and high-velocity turnover), capitalist overproduction (dependent on quantity), and technological innovation, are not equally retooled according to parameters that redirect their energies in support of the living, lest we transform the earth and all of the life forms it supports into one enormous sacrificial landscape. Perhaps it will be only when we begin to comprehend the evolution of our own forms of cultural production in terms of the complexity of nature’s systemic ecologies that will we truly initiate the inversion required for our own regenerative return.


1. See Caroline Merchant, The Death of Nature (New York: HarperCollins, 1980) and Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man (Boston: Beacon, c1964, 1991).
2. Marcuse writes that “[s]cientific rationality makes for a specific societal organization precisely because it projects mere form (or mere matter—here, the otherwise opposite terms converge) which can be bent to practically all ends. Formalization and functionalization are, prior to all application, the pure form of a concrete societal practice. While science freed men from the ‘natural’ hierarchy of personal dependence and related them to each other in accordance with quantifiable qualities—namely as units of abstract labor power, calculable in units of time. By virtue of the rationalization of the modes of labor, the elimination of qualities is transferred from the universe of science to that of daily experience.” Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man, 154–159.
3. Michel Foucault, “Docile Bodies,” in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Alan Sheridan (trans.) (London: Allen Lane, 1972).
4. Donna Haraway, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs,” in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1990), 150.
5. Ibid., 152.
6. Ibid.
7. In addition to those cited, see Evan Douglis, Autogenic Structures (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2009).
8. On the “machinic phylum,” see Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, Brian Massumi (trans.) (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1987), 410 and 510–514.
9. See Haraway, Ibid., 151–152. “By the late twentieth century in the United States scientific culture, the boundary between human and animal is thoroughly breached …. Movements for animal rights (ecological awareness) are not irrational denials of human uniqueness; they are clear-sighted recognition of connection across the discredited breach of nature and culture. Biology and evolutionary theory over the last two centuries have simultaneously produced modern organisms as objects of knowledge and reduced the line between humans and animals to a faint trace re-etched in ideological struggle or professional disputes between life and social sciences …. The cyborg appears in myth precisely where the boundary between human and animal is transgressed.”
10. William McDonough and Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (New York: North Point Press, 2002), 92–117.
11. See Nancy Jack Todd and John Todd, From Eco-Cities to Living Machines: Principles of Ecological Design (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1994).
12. Products of Service is a term that refers to the replacement of ownership of objects with those that would be rented out for a limited period, defined by the product’s useable lifespan, that could then be returned to the manufacturer for product, component, or material recycling. The product of service can be disassembled and regenerated, where the intention is to establish a closed loop that is defined by the technological metabolism of the object. See McDonough and Braungart, ibid., 109–115.


Go back to 8: RE