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'Microbes Make Mountains' highlights rousing links within the microbial world
(L-R) Prototype for 'Microbes Make Mountains' made with sand, copper carbonate, and iron oxide; Disassembled sculpture
Image: Laura Maria Gonzalez

'Microbes Make Mountains' highlights rousing links within the microbial world

Laura Maria Gonzalez’s bio-cemented sculptures made with the help of microbial action are on display at the Microbes Make Mountains exhibition at MIT's Keller Gallery.

by Almas Sadique
Published on : Sep 06, 2023

The provisions accorded by the natural world are unique and abundant. They do not require artificial reinforcement or extensive processing in order to become edible or habitable. These ecosystems exist in parallel to the man-made habitats scattered across the globe. While we often discard their dispositions in favour of newly built constructions, the recent (shared) acknowledgement of the latter’s ill effects on the environment has begun to impel individuals and larger organisations to initiate research and development towards utilising natural provisions that are available to us, in an attempt to cut down on the copious waste generated and left behind.

With an interest in exploring the relationships, interactions, and artistry that pervade the microbial world, enabling creatures to build and design at a scale comparable to extant infrastructure, US-based architect and multidisciplinary designer Laura Maria Gonzalez initiated the project Microbes Make Mountains. Findings and innovations developed as part of the project are currently on display at MIT’s Keller Gallery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, under the eponymous title of Microbes Make Mountains. The exhibition, on display until September 15, 2023, showcases bio-cemented sculptures built by Gonzalez, made with the help of microbes. The processes undertaken by the microbes enable them to harden their creations without the need for cement or binders. Relatedly, the interaction of these microscopic creatures with different kinds of geological materials results in the creation of a wide array of colours, textures, and structures.

These art sculptures highlight the complex relationship between microbes and different minerals. The exhibition also comprises a short video and a few images that present the documentation of the microbes' lives, their interactions with other living and non-living entities, as well as their capabilities as builders of crystal structures. In presenting organically shaped sculptural installations that are shaped as desired by Gonzalez, the exhibition offers hope for these processes to emerge and evolve across different scales.

To understand Gonzalez’s process, intent, and experience pertaining to Microbes Make Mountains, STIR speaks to the American designer and architect who is currently a teaching fellow at the MIT School of Architecture and Planning, a researcher at the MIT Media Lab Community Biotechnology Initiative, and whose practice is pivoted upon the exploration of the latent interconnectedness that pervades living systems, as well as their potential in catalysing architectural processes.

Almas Sadique: What are some early experiences that inspired your career in architecture and design?

Laura Maria Gonzalez: I remember being about five years old and tracing the figurine of a sailboat on wet concrete in our backyard in Havana. My dad was working on the floor, and together, we added drawings and our initials. Growing up in Cuba, we had to be creative with limited resources. We would make beautiful cardboard dollhouses, with Coca-Cola tin sinks, and egg crate cushion beds for the dolls. Every project was an adventure in itself. That drive and love for creation stayed with me when we immigrated to the US. For my undergraduate degree, you could not get me to leave the digital fabrication lab. There’s just something about taking an idea, a drawing or a digital model, and bringing it to life. These days you’ll find me in a biolab, but it’s not all that different. Just a different design process, but the magic and wonder remain the same.

Almas: How did you come across natural microbial processes? How would you describe the interactions between microbes and minerals to a layman?

Laura: I came across natural microbial processes when I was learning about gut microbes and their role in our health. This made me wonder about the role these microbes might play outside our bodies, perhaps, even in our buildings. That curiosity led me to research that showed the surprising roles microbes play in our environment. For instance, did you know, that microbes play a part in the formation of cave stalagmites and stalactites?

To simplify the interactions between microbes and minerals, think of a city where the buildings are minerals and the people are microbes—these 'people' (microbes) live around and in the 'buildings' (minerals). They use these buildings as shelter, protection, and even as a source of food. Just as people might change the appearance or structure of buildings over time, the microbes also impact the minerals they are associated with. It is a give and take—minerals offer resources to the microbes, and in return, the microbes can alter or even help form new minerals.

Almas: What does the name of the exhibition, Microbes Make Mountains, indicate?

Laura: The name underscores the paradoxical relationship between the microscopic and the macroscopic. It speaks to the profound idea that processes, no matter how minuscule, can culminate in immense and transformative impacts. On one hand, this suggests the potential scalability of these processes, envisioning a future where they might be used in the construction of buildings. On the other, it reflects the timeless role of these organisms in geology, sculpting our landscapes over vast time scales. Beyond these practical implications, there’s an aesthetic dimension as well. The vibrant colours and patterns they present not only catch the eye but also provide captivating insights into the diversity and health of our environment.

Almas: Tell us about the process of creating these bio-cemented sculptures, from visualising their inceptive forms to finally sculpting them.

Laura: Creating bio-cemented sculptures is both an art and a scientific collaboration with microbes. Unlike traditional methods, this one demands a deep understanding of the living organisms I am working with. For example, even though they originate from soil, these microbes need access to oxygen. This realisation influenced my designs to be shallow and modular, maximising surface area for better oxygen access.

The designs, informed by these microbial requirements, are crafted computationally, resulting in soft, sinuous forms that interlock and can be assembled into larger structures. Moving to the lab phase, I use bio-compatible resins and silicones for 3D-printed moulds, ensuring they support microbial growth. Filled with sand, minerals, bacteria, and nutrients, these moulds require daily nurturing. After a week, the solidified pieces are extracted and assembled into the final sculpture.

Almas: What are some software that aids the creation of these sculptures, and how?

Laura: To craft these sculptures, I used Blender 3D, Rhino, and Grasshopper. Grasshopper played an essential role in optimising the underlying forms to minimise tensile forces. With the aid of a plugin called ‘Tissue’ in Blender, I generated interlocking modules that integrated with the optimised base structure. The design process was iterative, with a constant back-and-forth between analysis and design. I frequently checked in Grasshopper to ensure that the modules were both bacteria-friendly and conducive to the overall fabrication process.

Almas: Which man-made material are these bio-cemented sculptures most similar to, in terms of strength, flexibility, durability, texture, and other intrinsic attributes?

Laura: The properties of bio-cement most closely resemble traditional adobe or cob, in terms of texture and inherent brittleness, especially under tensile stress. My primary aggregates have been sand and minerals. However, there is potential to enhance its mechanical properties by integrating different composite materials, such as glass fibres or carbon fibres. These materials can interact well with the bio-cement due to the adhesive nature of the crystals formed in the cementation process. Just as concrete is fortified with rebar or additives, bio-cement can be improved with the right combinations. While the bio-cement I have developed has certain strength limitations, ongoing research, including work by other experts in the field indicates the potential to achieve strength akin to low to mid-grade concrete.

Almas: Could this process and materiality be employed to build usable furniture and building components?

Laura: While we are not yet at a stage where these bio-cemented creations can be used for furniture or building components, that is the direction we are aiming for! One of the key challenges isn’t just about making them strong, but also ensuring they are durable over time, especially considering they are made of living material. I believe we will initially see them in roles that don’t bear too much weight, perhaps, as interior decorative pieces. The end goal, however, is to have them in our homes as functional objects. Just think about the environmental benefits, like having materials that are carbon neutral or even carbon negative. Imagine having a piece of furniture or a part of your home that can self-heal!

Almas: What is the possible scale of construction with this material?

Laura: The potential scale of construction with this living system is promising. One inherent advantage of living systems is their ability to self-duplicate—bacteria, for instance, grow rapidly. However, there are challenges to consider, such as the heavy water dependence of the process. Solutions, like recycling water through the system, would be essential. The immediate aim is twofold: first, to reduce our reliance on concrete, especially in contexts of interior or finish applications, where its use might be unnecessary. Second, to prompt a shift in perspective, urging people to see nature as an interconnected system we are a part of, rather than just another material to exploit.

Almas: What are some potentially harmful effects (if any) that manipulating microbial behaviour to build desired objects may have on the environment?

Laura: If we scale anything to the extent of concrete use today, there will be environmental consequences. This system is no exception. Its waste product is ammonia, which could harm aquatic life if released into waterways. Therefore, implementing waste management systems would be crucial. For this exhibit, I have used non-engineered bacterial strains. But imagine the possibilities if we decided to genetically modify them—they could become more efficient or even help remediate polluted soils by immobilising harmful metals such as lead or arsenic. This introduces ethical questions: Are we comfortable with genetically modified buildings in our future? And crucially, who gets to make that decision?

Almas: How do these creations usually disintegrate into the environment? Does the disintegration process remain the same, despite human intervention (as seen in this project)?

Laura: When left to the elements, these bio-cement structures degrade similar to how sandstone cliffs erode over time. External factors such as rain or heat, can speed up this process. To prevent breakdown, protective layers can be introduced, akin to how sealants are used for concrete. However, we always keep in mind how these changes might impact how the material returns to the environment.

Almas: What is NEXT for you?

Laura: I will continue my explorations into integrating microbes into design and architectural practices. These tiny organisms offer a vast array of capabilities and while my focus over the past three years has been on hardening, I am increasingly fascinated by their sensing abilities. Imagine if we intentionally integrated microbes into our design ethos, the transformative environments we could conceive.

I also see the bio-cement research continuing. There are great potentials and possibilities to discover. But I also think there is a larger question to be asked—beyond mere sustainability, what pivotal roles might microbes play in enriching the multifaceted way we experience the world?

‘Microbes Make Mountains’ is on view from June 2 – September 15, 2023, at MIT's Keller Gallery at 77 Mass Ave, 7-408, Cambridge, MA, the US.

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