From the beer we drink to the polio vaccine, humankind has a symbiotic relationship with all sorts of micro-organisms—but we we tend to not think of them as our roommates. Living Things is a new exhibition by Jacob Douenias and Ethan Frier of the Mattress Factory that imagines the home of the near future, in which human beings have integrated bubbling tanks of edible luminescent algae into their mid-century-inspired furniture.
Currently on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Pittsburgh until March 27, the Living Things exhibit isn’t quite as gross or outré as it sounds. It’s made up of three rooms–a kitchen, a living room, and a dining room–which prominently contain glass vessels of algae, connected to one another by a half-mile of plumbing and wiring. Douenias and Frier call this photosynthetic furniture. The vessels are wired to both heat and light the room; in doing so, they also cause the algae within the tanks to grow, pumping oxygen into the room. Eventually, the algae grows so thick it can be harvested, and even eaten.
A recent graduate from Carnegie Mellon’s School of Architecture, Douenias originally set out to explore the possibility of a hypothetical building that could produce its own biofuel. Although that project didn’t pan out, it did inspire Douenias to pursue Living Things. “I began exploring the idea that photosynthetic algae alongside a variety of other impressive microorganisms represent a massive, relatively untapped resource, capable of being harnessed to improve the wellbeing of people,” he tells me.
Although each of the nine vessels in the Living Things exhibition do roughly the same thing by serving as aesthetically pleasing bioreactors cum lamps and heaters, they’ve been slightly tweaked according to where they are meant to be positioned in the home. “In the kitchen area we built out a control station which allows the maintenance of each of the vessels,” says Douenias. “It also allows for the [algae] to be harvested and later to be stored or consumed. In the living room larger vessels are used, which provide a glow to read by and which radiate heat from their internal lights and back-up heaters to people sitting nearby. And in the dining area the vessels are smaller and for accent, perhaps small enough to provide a snack.”
Living Things is hardly the first design project we’ve seen recently that harnesses algae in different ways; we have also recently covered a facehugging helmet and a belt by MIT’s Neri Oxman that feed their wearers. According to Douenias, we should expect to keep seeing these sorts of projects, because algae is an amazing medium for designers.
“Micro algae present a unique opportunity to designers,” he says. The absence of a superstructure to organize their anatomy allows the liquid suspension in which they live to be treated more like a material than a plant. In the hands of an architect, industrial designer, engineer, or systems designer this liquid plant becomes a living material which can be integrated symbiotically into the architectural environment.”
Who knows? Maybe the house that runs its own biofuel isn’t that far off.