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David Benjamin's The Living Evolves

Just before the debut of a summer-long installation in New York, architect David Benjamin announced that Autodesk has acquired his research-focused firm.

By William Hanley
July 1, 2014
Photo © Architectural Record
The Living's installation, Hy-Fi, in the courtyard at MoMA/P.S.1 in Queens, New York.

The smell is distinctive—not offensive, but definitely farm-like. “I think it smells like hay,” says architect David Benjamin looking up at the three conjoined brick towers rising above the courtyard at MoMA/P.S.1, the Museum of Modern Art-administered contemporary art space in Queens, New York.

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Benjamin made his olfactory observation last week at an opening event for Hy-Fi, a temporary installation designed by his firm, The Living. The work’s fragrance comes from its experimental masonry, which is made from chopped up corn stalks and mycelium, a root organism in fungus that develops into mushrooms. Placed in a mold, the living mixture grows and solidifies into bricks over the course of five days. The process, developed with New York company Ecovative, gives the installation its name—Hy-Fi is a shortened version of the scientific name for the proto-mushroom organism.

Constructed after winning MoMA’s annual Young Architects Program competition, the work opened to the public on June 28 and will occupy the courtyard for the duration of the summer. It is The Living’s most high-profile project to date, and Benjamin used its debut as an opportunity to announce that software giant Autodesk has agreed to acquire his eight-year-old firm.

The biological brick-making process is typical of The Living, a seven-person office based in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, that Benjamin has helmed while also heading Columbia University's Living Architecture Lab. The research-focused practice experiments with architectural applications for biological systems and unconventional building materials, often employing complex digital models in their work. For Benjamin, the Autodesk acquisition was a logical next step in the firm’s evolution. “Of all the companies, universities, and other organizations working in architecture, engineering, and construction, Autodesk seems to do the most interesting research and development,” he says.

The Living has worked with Autodesk on several projects, including a major body of material and 3-D printing research for Airbus. With a new building at Princeton University in the works, as well as other projects in planning, Benjamin hopes to take advantage of Autodesk’s formidable technical capabilities. But the firm will continue to operate as an autonomous entity within the company. “We will keep our name, our projects, our studio, and our way of working,” says Benjamin. “But we’ll be able to take it to the next level in terms of working with collaborators at Autodesk and having connections to their network of companies and clients working in everything from manufacturing to 3-D printing to engineering and even to entertainment.”

Meanwhile, the MoMA/PS1 installation’s entwined set of hollow tubes looms over the courtyard like a trio of giant sea sponges—or a mysterious earthen habitation from a science fiction film. The firm initially designed the installation with the experimental masonry providing the entirety of its structural support, but working with a team from Arup, they added a timber frame to shore it up against hurricane-force winds. With just a clear finish to provide some additional weatherproofing, the bricks have a faintly yellow, whitish color—a satisfyingly organic look that shows its biological composition—except for a silver crown ringing the top of each tower. There, the molds used to form the bricks, made from a highly reflective material developed by 3M, have been recycled into an eye-catching cap that casts light down into the hollow towers. Look up from inside and the sky appears silhouetted in what resembles an appropriately alien face.

Standing in one corner of the museum’s outdoor space, the work is humble by comparison to courtyard-spanning installations of previous years, but what it lacks in scale or glitz, it makes up for with attention-grabbing strangeness and ecological purpose. At the end of the work’s summer-long run, the bricks will be composted and given to local gardens—breaking down, just as The Living grows into the next stage in its lifecycle.

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