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David Benjamin: Architecture with Organic Materials
Amy Barkow/Barkow Photo17/25

David Benjamin: Architecture with Organic Materials

When architect David Benjamin decided to call his firm the Living, he intended for the name to refer to his notion of bringing buildings "to life" via digital sensors, moving walls and other forms of computer-aided interactivity. Only later, Benjamin says, did it strike him that the name was literal – that he could bring architecture to life "through actual living things."

Benjamin – who spent a couple of years touring with his indie-rock band the Push Kings before graduating from Columbia's school of architecture – operates like a socially conscious mad scientist. At his Lower Manhattan office, the 42-year-old shows off samples of his work. He used agricultural waste – corn stalks and cobs – to grow organic bricks from mushrooms and to build a 40-foot tower in the courtyard of contemporary-art museum MoMA PS1. When the museum installation was dismantled, Benjamin says, the bricks were broken up, combined with food scraps, and "in 60 days, it [had returned] to the soil."

When Airbus contracted with Benjamin to build lighter airplane parts (thus reducing its fleets' fuel consumption), he turned to the natural world – specifically, to the lowly slime mold, which spreads adaptively as it searches for food. He created a computer algorithm based on the mold growth, which is supremely evolutionarily efficient. The patterns that emerged from this allowed him to design irregularly shaped plane parts with maximal strength and minimal weight. For another commission, he plans to attach sensors to mussels in New York's East River; the sensors will change the colors of a series of lights to alert passersby of the water's cleanliness.

Benjamin points out that buildings account for one-third of the world's energy consumption, and that construction waste makes up 30 percent of American landfills. "People ask me, 'Is this material going to last long enough?' " he says. "I like to ask, 'Is this material going to last too long?' Why shouldn't architects design the after as well as the before?" MB

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