Half-Acre/Half-Life under production, and public opening, November 2012. Photograph courtesy of the author.BIOPLASTICS!Where that little word “plastics” was once synonymous with cheap abundance, pop-futurist aesthetics, and a promising career, “bioplastics” might be today’s equivalent, now that the toxic reality behind that initial optimism has caught up to us. Bioplastics implies a similar material and formal progressiveness mixed with a comforting appearance of environmentalism—it’s good for us, but we get to keep our bad habits. But what exactly counts as a bioplastic? Must it be 100% derived from plant material to earn the “bio-” designation, or are synthetic agents permitted? Are all plastics included in this category compostable? Biodegradable? And under what conditions (of heat, pressure, and bacterial flora)? And what might these qualities offer for architecture?
A prevalent bioplastic resin, polylactic acid or PLA, is derived from many starches, but corn is emerging as a primary source. A major industry player, NatureWorks is owned by Cargill, the largest corn producer in the world.1 QUESTIONING “BEST PRACTICES”The notion of “best practicesbest practices
” in design means employing design elements that by definition pose the least possible risk—selecting among the materials and methods that have known properties, applications, and results rather than questioning their origin or composition. They are “black boxes,” in the parlance of Bruno Latour, delivering reliable results without making their contents known. One of the critical roles of architectural research, then, might be to question the premises that underlie those best practices, and interrogating the idea of material performance rather than operating within the assumptions offered by a field that has long since solidified particular attitudes toward material. Asking questions through research is a means of opening the many black boxes that appear throughout design practice—whether a product handed down from the building industry or a persistent disciplinary claim. The best questions, then, are those that attempt to disclose the technical criteriatechnical criteria
criteria of performance
and cultural values attached to a practice or an idea. “What is this?” can be a useful question in producing knowledge about a given thing, while “Why do we care?” prompts us to position that knowledge in the world.
A base recipe of sugar, corn syrup, and water cooking to hard-ball phase. Photograph courtesy of the author.BIOPLASTICS?(De)composing Territory (2012–13) is an experimental project that emerged from a curiosity about the growing industry of ecoplastics—their mysteriously coded variations, their source materials and additives, their relative environmental merits, and the cultural conditions around their evident popularity. There’s a satisfaction in being told the coffee lid or food container you’re using originated in a Midwestern cornfield, and relief in believing that it will disappear. This disappearing act will happen later, of course, at an engineered lag that will not inconvenience us. (Premature loss of rigidity plagued early corn-plastic products like disposable cutlery and trash bags, which often began to disintegrate while still in hand.)The built-in impermanence that is fundamental to bioplastics as a class is at the center of this research. In order to find latent potentials of contemporary bioplastics—and to disassociate them from ready-made products where their use is predetermined—the project staged the full life cycle of bioplastic production and decomposition, from making to unmaking. This process involved some unlikely techniques for the designer–researcher, such as sourcing corn syrup in bulk, cooking a range of recipes, forming molten substances into various shapes, and observing their decay under different environmental and material conditions. The dual sites of experimentation, then, were the kitchen and the field.
Early structural test of cast and inverted panel. Photograph courtesy of the author.IN THE KITCHENTapping into a network of resources2 exposed an array of DIY approaches to producing bioplastics. Existing recipes for starch- and sugar-based plastics formed a starting point from which a few “standards” were refined for a repeatable process with (mostly) reproducible results. We positioned ourselves as strictly agnostic observers, maintaining an attitude of “not-knowingnot-knowing
” as we tried recipes iteratively and tested the result (mostly in the form of witnessing their failures of structural integrity). It required a leap of faith to imagine that the countertop procedures of mixing and cooking ingredients all easily found in a grocery store, might have any direct architectural consequence. Scaling upScaling up
production from the capacity of an electric hot plate to larger batches cooked on a propane keg burner yielded larger components; but the real discovery (via many sticky failures) was not a matter of scale but a matter of understanding where design could have agency in the process.
Prototype for a bioplastic component with a structural spine with flanges more vulnerable to the elements. Photograph courtesy of the author.
Failed structural form on a humid day in the studio. Photograph courtesy of the author.LEARNING THE LIMITS OF CONTROLShifting attention from a set of desired forms produced from controlled casts, the design research took note of what was actually contributing to the end product’s variable qualities. What led to a more or less rigid, more or less self-structuring, more or less attractive bioplastic? On the one hand, there were the controllable variables: cooking temperature, proportions of starches to water to stiffeners, length of the reaction time in the pot. But what became apparent by further repetition of the cooking-forming-cooling process and better control over these techniques of making was the degree to which additional variables, of which we had little control over, affected the results. Environmental factors such as ambient room temperature, direct sunlight, humidity, and (most dramatically for the “field test” installation) wind introduced another level of complexity in both the production and subsequent stability of the material. Rather than attempting to curb these environmental agents, we allowed a sort of loose feedback between recipe-adjusting, form-making, and the effects these external agentsexternal agents
brought on. Experimenting with bioplastics in the kitchen suggested a design approach in which environment becomes a co-producer of an architectural experience.
Prototype composed of two recipes in full sunlight. Photograph courtesy of the author.
The “field test” installation moved the full cycle of production (and decomposition) on-site. Photograph courtesy of the author.IN THE FIELDIn the material experiments, quality had an explicit relationship to the energetic and chemical interactions occurring throughout the bioplastic’s making, and unmaking, suggesting an architecture generated through a series of phase changes. To test this premise at a larger scale, and in a less controlled setting, the bioplastic production moved from kitchen to field. If the decay of an architectural material is anticipated, or even expedited, what would that mean for the spaces, landscapes, or territories these delineate?Following the initial cooking tests and iterative prototypes, Half-Acre/Half-Life (2012) was a live field experimentlive field experiment
real world laboratory
and public installation sited on the grounds of an educational farm. More than fifty handcrafted bioplastic panels enclosed approximately half an acre; like a porous fence, this temporary structure implied a pentagonal figure with an uncertain temporality. Environmental circumstances, such as rain and heat, all contributed to the speed at which the sugar-based plastic broke down, dissolving the territorial boundary.Design entered the process as a way of directing this process of decomposition such that the bioplastic panels’ limited temporality would have some sort of agency, defining a site, producing space, and attracting various forms of curious creatures, human and nonhuman.
One of more than fifty site-cast panels in Half-Acre/Half-Life. Photograph courtesy of the author.DESIGNING WITH UNPREDICTABILITYThis project developed from an ongoing interest in environment and urban systems, where architecture becomes a kind of interface that opens onto more extensive social and material landscapes. Within this framework, research provides a basis for determining how and where architecture might intervene, but in a way that resists the sense of causality that often afflicts architectural research. What’s interesting about this work is that things are repeatable to a point, but the inherent variability of things “in the field” demands a partially indeterminate attitude toward research—and indeed architecture always finds itself in a variable field of some kind, even when it pretends to occupy the neutral space of the laboratory.(De)composing Territories is an attempt to advance the idea that experimental making can be one means for opening up the black boxes of design practice. If we think about and study architecture’s products and materials beyond their most evident use- and performance value, we might begin to understand the architectural things that we interact with daily as suspended moments within a longer series of phase changes, each with different qualities and capacities. Allowances for ephemerality or unpredictability place pressure on the idea of the designer as the author of particular qualities and effects. To position the designer as both author and investigator invites a productive instability from which to produce architectural knowledge.
Half-Acre/Half-Life. Photograph courtesy of the author.
Custom and repurposed kitchen tools aided in scaling up to the half-acre enclosure, while also lending an aesthetic to the production as a public event. Photograph courtesy of the author.
Research team at work in the improvised site kitchen. Photograph courtesy of the author.Meredith Miller is an architect and co-founder of MILLIGRAM-office. She is an assistant professor at Taubman College of Architecture + Urban Planning, University of Michigan. milligram-office.netACKNOWLEDGMENTSThis research was funded through the Research Through Making Grant Program, 2012–2013, Taubman College of Architecture + Urban Design, University of Michigan; additional support from the Office for the Vice President of Research Productions Grant, 2013, University of Michigan. Installation site provided by Domino’s Farms. Research team: Nate Oppenheim, Peter Halquist, Lizzie Krasner, James Graham, Delia Guarneros, Laurin Aman. Cookbook graphics: Nick Safley.