David Benjamin, an architect known for integrating principles of biology into his design, mesmerized a full lecture hall at Rudolph on Thursday night with fungi-based building bricks and shellfish-powered water pollution detectors.
The lecture, titled “Now We See Now,” after his new book, features research and projects that Benjamin’s architecture firm, The Living, has completed in recent years. The New York-based firm was ranked the third most innovative architecture firm in the world by Fast Company – a magazine that covers technology, business and design.
Benjamin is the mastermind behind a project featuring floating tubes that change colors according to water pollution in New York’s East River. In addition to digital sensors, the tubes rely on shellfish, which open and close their shells at a rate and amount proportional to the level of water pollution.
Benjamin explained Thursday that his shellfish detector, which consists of a small magnet glued to one side of the shell and a magnetic field sensor to the other, costs just two dollars — dwarfing the $1,000 cost of the electronic detector that is typically used.
“It’s certainly helpful to us to save money, but that’s not the main point here,” Benjamin said. “The main point is that combination of artificial intelligence and natural intelligence points to really interesting possibilities of design and techniques.”
Benjamin’s use of biological principles in architecture does not stop at shellfish detectors. During the lecture, he also presented a 13-meter-tall tower his firm built primarily from corn waste and mushroom roots.
With photographs from his labs flashing behind him, Benjamin said that, when mixed, corn waste and mushroom roots turn into a solid substance. After extensive testing, his team used the solid product as building blocks to create a habitable, open-air structure that looks straight out of a science-fiction novel.
The tower decomposed in 60 days, with its bricks turning into soil that was returned to local community gardens and tree planting projects in New York City. Benjamin described the process as one that participated in the earth carbon cycle.
In response to a question from an audience member, the Harvard-educated Benjamin said he derived inspiration for his unique style of architecture from his liberal arts education.
“It’s the desire, the interest and sometimes a naive confidence in being able to connect intriguing things,” Benjamin said.
Victoria Ereskina ’18, an attendee and architecture and mechanical engineering double major, said she recognized Benjamin’s work from a class she took when she was a sophomore and hoped to follow in his footsteps in her own career.
Ereskina said Benjamin’s turn to biology for inspiration is fascinating but intuitive.
“The reason that human-made engineering system can never compete with biological ones in terms of efficiency is because what kind of human-engineered thing is going to undergo millions of years of testing,” Ereskina said.
Ereskina added that she hopes to apply to “The Living” and work with Benjamin at some point.
Aidan Moran, an engineer by training who said he attended the talk out of curiosity, described Benjamin’s designs as clever and out of the box.
“It’s a great talk and thank you, Yale, for hosting it,” Moran said.
Last November, Benjamin was named by Rolling Stone magazine as one of “25 People Shaping the Future in Tech, Science, Medicine, Activism and More.”
Jingyi Cui | firstname.lastname@example.org