Every day, architect Magnus Larsson sits down and thinks about what future cities might be made of—synthetic spider silk, perhaps, or timber, or maybe sand. These aren’t just conceptual exercises or sci-fi visions. Larsson deliberately chooses materials that will be feasible to use in the near future, because he thinks societies need to change what they use to build.
"We’re stuck in the concrete age," Larsson says. "Concrete has really become this ever-present material that's almost impossible to get away from. It’s cheap, abundant, and easy to work with, and to an extent that’s good. But at the same time, I think that we can find smarter ways of producing buildings than heating up limestone and clay at 1450 degrees and producing a ton of carbon dioxide for every ton of cement that we make. I find it slightly absurd that the only thing we consume more of than water is concrete."
Larsson, who now runs the London-based visualization studio Ordinary Ltd. with collaborator Alex Kaiser, began his dive into alternate materials several years ago as an architecture student. He was given the assignment to design an adaptive structure for an extreme environment, and chose the Sahara Desert and its surrounding regions, where the changing climate is causing an expansion of the desert.
"It seemed that it would be strange not to use the super-abundant masses of sand that were on site, so I had to figure out a way of turning those into architecture," Larsson said. Through research, he learned that certain bacteria could turn sand into sandstone. He created a design for a 6,000-kilometer-long sandstone structure, built by bacteria, that could house refugees and hold back encroaching dunes.
Like his other work, Larsson says Dune could be built. "It's possible in the technical sense, and the architectural sense," Larsson said. "The science is there to back it up. However, do I think that it's likely that the political will is there in these African countries where I positioned the project? Probably not quite yet. Do I think that someone will invest in a 6,000-foot-long inhabitable wall that is the size of the Great Wall of China? I hope so," he laughs. "It may not happen tomorrow, but it's doable, and once the necessary machinery is in place it would actually be as cheap to build as it would from concrete."
Some of his studio’s more recent designs explore the use of engineered timber. The tallest wooden building in the world is nine stories high, but Larsson says architects will soon do better. "That’s just not really very tall," he said. "We're working with timber engineers now, and we're pretty sure we can go up to at least 30 stories. One of the most obvious reasons to start using timber rather than concrete is that it's the one commonly grown and therefore exceptionally renewable building material that we have available to us. And it acts as storage for carbon dioxide."
One of his timber designs considers how a tall skyscraper could use space differently, with a lower density rather than cramming in as many people as possible. Another is a gigantic timber grid shell, inspired by midcentury Japanese plug-in architecture, that allows mini-skyscrapers to be hung above the ground. "It’s a typology that’s only possible using the very latest engineering timber materials," Larsson says. "We’re interested in seeing how far we can push those materials and what we can do with them."
The studio is also exploring the possibilities of synthesized spider silk, a new material that Larsson says may be ready for use in architecture within a decade. Like natural silk, the material is as strong as steel. "Again, our starting point becomes, 'What would this material allow us to do that wouldn't be possible using other materials?' Could we suspend an entire city with this material? Could we suspend living units inside essentially a spider web in midair?" Though it might sound fanciful, he says there are practical implications; for example, in an earthquake-prone area, he explains, buildings could possibly shake without getting damaged.
Silk and sand are only the beginning for Larsson. "It’s an amazing playground of opportunity. We can easily go on for the rest of our lives turning over stones and discovering how these materials can be applied to architecture, and that's what we intend to do."