The foundations of Venice are sinking into the city's own brackish lagoon. Built upon piles of hard alder wood that sat in water underneath sand, mud, and clay for hundreds of years, Venice has been slowly slumping back into the earth, a phenomenon aggravated by the city's groundwater extraction and weight gain during the last century.
Sea level rise is also an ongoing issue for a city that floods four to five times a year. But while officials install 78 robotic gates to keep the Venetian lagoon protected from the Adriatic Sea during high tides, a separate group of researchers have been working on a radical project to rebuild the city, droplet by droplet, from its underwater foundations up.
Rachel Armstrong is a futurist thinker and architect who believes that Venice can be fortified with a unique "living architecture." Over the past five years, she’s been investigating ways to seed the city with an army of programmable water droplets that could deposit a limestone reef underneath the series of islands linked by canal.
In December, for the first time, Armstrong and a colleague set about characterizing what these "protocells," as they’re called, might be capable of in a lab.
"Protocells are simple, lifelike chemistries. They are made from a very basic set of ingredients, which when mixed; behave in ways that are strikingly lifelike and can be chemically programmed to act as a technology," Armstrong explained via email.
"Lifelike chemistries" don’t mean that protocells are actually alive. The kind that Armstrong and her colleague Martin Hanczyc generated in a lab, made of oil and water, came about simply as the result of the same process used to make soap. Instead, the lifelike properties of the droplets lie in their chemical metabolism, and how sensitive they are to changes in the environment.
"They behave in ways that are more like gardens than mixing concrete," Armstrong said. "Yet these agents are not out of control malignant bodies, they are fragile, require human support to thrive and perish without food—which comes from the lagoon chemistry."
Like coral reefs, protocells can replicate and build structures on top of one another. And the chemical reaction that’s triggered by environmental change would come in handy with shifts particular to the Venetian lagoon. Programmable droplets could be deployed to specific, difficult-to-reach sites underneath the center of the city. And if water levels recede, the protocells’ work would naturally direct itself into fortifying the wood piles instead of moving away from the city, Armstrong says. Ideally, the protocells would work like a self-directed "bio-concrete."
Armstrong isn’t the only one to dream about the possibilities. In 2012, architect Philip Beesley created protocell mesh that could suck in carbon dioxide from the air and turn it into solid, inert calcium carbonate, the same way that limestone is generated from the sea. Then, last year, London designer Shamees Aden began work on a pair of running shoes 3-D printed from protocells in order to conform to shifting pressures.
In 2014, Future Venice will be developing new designs, with research funded by several different think tanks, including The European Centre for Living Technology, as well as Philip Beesley’s architecture firm.
"Venice was an ideal setting for examining the potential of a new water-based technology—not only as it was situated in a lagoon that enabled the technological agents to move autonomously but it also offered more than functional engineering challenges," Armstrong writes. But she also recognizes that preserving something so ancient, so delicate, and globally treasured is a difficult endeavor.
"Venice is an historic city, a beautiful city, a city of romance, city of contradictions, a city of trade and a living stage set! It is also a city that embodies the very best in us all!" Armstrong says. "As a UNESCO World Heritage site it therefore poses aesthetic, ecological, and cultural challenges to consider alongside any proposed technological innovation."