Genetic Architecture: When Buildings Think With Their Surroundings


Karl Chu knows he is a man way ahead of his time. It’s a time when, he posits, humans have transcended their bodies to exist on multiple planes, contribute to a global brain, and write apps with their genomes.

But it’s the implications for architecture that are really exciting, says Chu. The founder of the innovative architectural firm metaxy, he imagines “genetic architects” creating buildings and other objects that can build themselves, that are endowed with a certain kind of intelligence, and that make up a massive "self-aware" built ecosystem. As George Dvorsky writes at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies blog,

Future "genetic buildings" could, for example, be self-assessing, self-healing and self-modifying, thus minimizing their need to be repaired or maintained by external sources. They will morph, process, and react. These buildings could even meet the needs of its inhabitants by sensing the moods or health of its occupants and act accordingly. Needless to say, the potential for sustainability is substantial.

Chu spoke about genetic architecture (not to be confused with the genomic term) at TEDxBrooklyn recently, showing two hundred and fifty slides in about 20 minutes. Watch it below, ponder it —, maybe giggle; just don’t expect to get it right away.

Though it sounds like science-fiction (the connections Chu draws with quantum mechanics and the multiverse verge toward the poetic), his vision can trace some of its roots to the tenets of the organic architecture that Frank Lloyd Wright helped popularize, and to the 1960s, when architects around the world blended utopian ideals with the promise of new technologies.

The Japanese Metabolists, for instance, envisioned large scale, flexible, and expandable structures that echoed the processes of organic growth; in the U.S. Nicholas Negroponte coined the idea of a responsive architecture that was mechanically and dynamically integrated with its surroundings, an idea that lives on in projects like Columbia’s Living Architecture Lab, in design philosophies like biomimicry, and in concepts like the digitally-networked intelligent city.

Since ancient times, architecture has been linked closely with its surroundings. But in an era when our present-day engineering capacity proposes a less synchronous path, one not just of strip malls and parking lots and mountain-top removal, but also of entire landforms and climates being geo-engineered, the prospect of genetic architecture sounds like a tantalizing corrective. Or, at the very least, an exciting prompt for thinking about how we want to design our future.
Image: Seoul Commune 2026 by Mass Studies

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