Hylozoic Ground Chemistries Advanced Virtual and Technological Architecture Research (AVATAR) Laboratory

Team Members

External Collaborators

  • Philip Beesley
  • Robert Gorbet
  • Martin Hanczyc
  • ISSP


The Hylozoic Ground chemistries are a series of synthetic 'organs' that were designed to work with the interactions of a cybernetic installation developed by architect Philip Beesley and engineer Robert Gorbet. The chemistries themselves were developed with Martin Hanczyc at the University of Southern Denmark and represent a 'soft wet' technology referred to as 'assemblages', which operate according to different principles to mechanical technologies. The principles used to operate the chemical system are based on 'natural computing' techniques, which orchestrate the spontaneous behaviour of matter. The work was exhibited at the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale as an immersive environment where the designed chemistries responded to visitor interactions and changes in the environment.

Aims and objectives

The collaborative work represents a cross-disciplinary exploration of responsive and performing spatial programs, which examine how it may be possible to develop architectures that are environmentally responsive and ecologically beneficial.

Specifically the project aimed to:

  1. Incorporate and demonstrate architectural design principles associated with assemblage-based technology into a practice-based setting.
  2. Establish a portfolio of non-equilibrium chemistries that may be applied in architectural design.
  3. Develop principles that enable multidisciplinary practice within architectural design.
  4. Broaden the portfolio of 'ecological' approaches to architectural design.

Impacts and benefits

The Hylozoic Ground chemistries have been internationally exhibited and globally disseminated across many different outlets including:

  1. Hylozoic Ground Series Exhibitions
  2. Conferences
  3. Academic press
  4. General press
  5. Solo installations in group shows
  6. Educational events
  7. Corporate events
  8. Films
Hylozoic Ground Series Exhibitions

This work is ongoing and has been widely exhibited in prestigious international art and design festivals such as, Radiant Soil, Espace EDF Paris, France, 2013, Epiphyte Grove, Trondheim, Norway, 2012, Hylozoic Series: Sibyl, 18th Biennale of Sydney, Australia, 2012, Hylozoic Veil, The Leonardo, Salt Lake City Utah, 2011, and Aurora, Nuit Blanche, Ontario, Canada, 2011. A full list of installations can be found at [www.philipbeesleyarchitect.com/sculptures/index.php]


The Hylozoic Ground chemistries have featured in many international keynote talks such as:

  • September 2013, Keynote talk, '2050 Possible Worlds', NESTA
  • July 10 2013, 'Inspiring Chemistry: Looking Through the Lens of the 21st century Chemist to the World Beyond'. Public Lecture. Royal Society of Chemistry, London.
  • May 2013, 'Future Home Materials', NESTA, London
  • March 2013, Keynote talk. 'Carbon Capture Architecture & Other Design Fictions', Pera Futurology Day, Melton Mowbray, UK.
  • February 2013, Keynote talk, LIFT, Geneva.
  • January 2013, 'Complexity and Architecture', keynote for Unconventional Computing at The University of Southampton
  • November 2012, 'The Intelligent City: Beyond the Buildings!', Intellibuild, keynote speech, Technical Committee, Building Council for Offices.
  • November 2012, 'Synthetic Biology and Design', Keynote speech, Research and Innovation Centre, L'Oreal, Paris.
  • December 2012, Nightwaves, BBC Radio 3, conversation with Martin Rees on the Cambridge project for existential studies.
  • December 2012, 'Architecture and Ecology', Royal College of Art and Architectural Review sponsored event at the V&A museum, London.
Academic press
Scientific publications
  • Adamatzky, A. Armstrong, R. Jones, J. and Gunji, Y.K. 2013. On the creativity of slime mould, International Journal of General Systems, 42(5), pp. 441-457.
  • Armstrong, R. 2011. Unconventional Computing in the Built Environment, International Journal of Nanotechnology and Molecular Computation, 3(1), pp. 1-12.
Architecture & design publications
  • Armstrong, R. 2012. Living architecture: How synthetic biology can remake our cities and reshape our lives. Kindle Single, TED Books. [online]. Available at: [http://www.amazon.co.uk/Living-Architecture-Synthetic-Biology-ebook/dp/B0076QQJMY [Accessed 16 April 2013].
  • Armstrong, R. 2011. Is there something beyond 'outside of the box? Architectural Design. 81(6), pp.130-133.
  • Armstrong, R. 2011. How protocells can make stuff much more interesting, Architectural Design, 81(2), pp. 68-77.
  • Armstrong, R. and Beesley, P. 2011. Soil and protoplasm: The Hylozoic Ground project, Architectural Design, 81(2), pp. 78-89.
  • Armstrong, R. 2012. Print to protocell. In: B. Sheil, ed. Manufacturing the bespoke, making and prototyping architecture AD reader. London: John Wiley and Sons, Pp. 238-247.
  • Armstrong, R. 2011. Architectural Synthetic Ecologies. In: C. Daly, S. Hicks, A. Keene and R.R. Ricardo, eds. Paradigms of Nature: Post Natural Futures. Kerb 19. Journal of Landscape Architecture, Melbourne: Melbourne Books, pp.92-98.
  • Armstrong, R. 2011. Synthetic biology, Nemeton, September 2011, pp. 12-15.
  • Armstrong, R. 2010. "Hylozoic Ground Chemistries and Unanswered Questions on the Origins of Life", in Philip Beesley: Hylozoic Ground: Liminal Responsive Architecture, eds. Pernilla Ohrstedt and Hayley Isaacs, Riverside Architectural Press, Cambridge 2010, ISBN 978-1-926724-02-7, p. 124-141 & 191.
General press

The Hylozoic Ground chemistries have been widely featured in the general press in publications such as, Wired, ICON, Red Bulletin and New Scientist.

"As springtime approaches, so do the home repairs – painting the trim or deck, replacing the rotted boards, getting the lawnmower blade sharpened. But what if our buildings were more like life? What if they grew from a seed? Or were heated with solar energy or sugars or oils they manufactured themselves? What if they self-repaired when they were damaged, as our own bodies can? This is what synthetic biologist and TED Fellow Rachel Armstrong loves to think about – and get people talking about!" Andrew Hessel, spokesman for Synthetic Biology at the Singularity University referring to the New Scientist interview with Jessica Griggs.

Solo installations in group shows
  • April 2013, En Vie group show, ETH, Paris
  • April 2011, Synth Ethic group show, Bio Fiction festival, Natural History Museum, Vienna.
Educational events

ArtScience Prize UK, Derby Silk Mill, April 2013.

This event was a review of synthetic biology projects made by teenagers from Ravenscourt College and also locals schools in Derby. A large hygroscopic preparation was demonstrated and set up for the students to explore. By adding coloured droplets to a glycerine/olive oil interface students could see the dynamic properties of chemistry and how they may be spatially positioned to create a 'dynamic 3D painting'.

"Inspiration: Thank you for bringing so much brilliant inspiration and energy last Thursday." Emilie Glazer, Director, UK ArtScience Prize.

Launch of Prometheus with Liam Young, Kate Davies and Secret Cinema.

This was a series of performances in a warehouse in the Euston area, which was dressed as Ridley Scott's movie set for Prometheus. The work was conducted within a makeshift laboratory space where the team used hygroscopic chemistries to demonstrate the potential for non-biological life forms to be realised as well as showing the footage that they had taken of strange, chemical lifelike events. The team were able to talk to around 120 visitors that were due to see the Prometheus premier which was screened in this space.

"Thanks to all of our experts for giving up your time so generously. It was great fun and we appreciate all of the hard work put in on such a tight schedule!" Kate Davies, Co Director, Unknown Fields Division.

Corporate events
Glenfiddich Pioneers 'One Day You Will' event, October 2011.

A hygroscopic demonstration was held for senior journalists such as Jeremy Webb, Glenfiddich employees and invited experts in the field of art and design such as Caroline Hobkinson (performance chef) and Eben Glemm (master mixologist and molecular biologist).

"Dr Rachel Armstrong challenged the participants' view on innovation, advocating a new approach to architecture that sees buildings become adaptable, sustainable and living creations." (The Future Laboratory, 2011)

"Really interesting talks by Rachel Armstrong on dynamic chemistry and Marek Bereza who is pioneering digital art interfaces." (Webb, 2011)

L'Oreal, symposium on synthetic biology

Dynamic chemistries were presented through films as examples of 'bottom-up' synthetic biology to L'Oreal's research chemists. The event was attended also by Jon Snow, chief scientific officer from J.C. Venter's Synthetic Genomics group, who pioneered 'synthia', the first organism with a fully synthetic genome. This event was private and not attended by press.

"Thank you for sharing your insights and vision with our teams. I personally was delighted to meet you and my only regret is that we didn't have more informal time for debate and discussion, which most certainly will be worked into the schedule of our next event. As I mentioned, this was an experiment for us and I thank you for making this first symposium very interesting and rich in ideas." Dr. Michelle Rathman-Josserand, Research Associate, L'Oréal R&I - Direction Scientifique.

Arup, 'From sustainable to evolvable'.

This event curated leading multidisciplinary thinkers into the research and development forum of construction engineering firm Arup to produce a provocative series of essays that were aimed to stimulate debate on notions of sustainable development. Contributors included Neil Spiller (architect), Stuart Kauffman (Physicist) and Bruce Sterling (Science Fiction Author).

"For four weeks starting Thursday 26 April, Rachel will introduce Thoughts articles that explore how to put people back at the heart of cities and how the use of ecology and biology could create 'evolvable' cities – cities that can actively adapt to changing circumstances." Arup Thoughts [http://www.amazon.co.uk/Living-Architecture-Synthetic-Biology-ebook/dp/B0076QQJMY]

"In her introduction, Rachel Armstrong highlights the problem with the way we 'imagine the world through machines'. When you're trained in mathematics, everything's about problem solving – and all problems have a single correct answer. But a creative process is usually the opposite, with infinite possibilities to choose from. We need to embrace both approaches." Tristram Carfrae, structural engineer, Arup Board Director.

'A Recipe for Life', Earth 2.0 – movie on designing life for the 'About a minute' exhibition at the Gopher Hole, February 2011

This movie was produced using footage taken from Rachel Armstrong's experimental work on the Bütschli system in Denmark and edited into a film that responded to the theme of the gallery show 'About a minute', demonstrating that the beginning and end of 'life' or lifelike systems can happen in an incredibly short time, provoking questions about the transient nature of 'life'.

Protocell Circus by Rachel Armstrong and Michael Simon Toon

This arts film was produced with artist Michael Simon Toon who directed 'thought moments'. Combining the extraordinary and unique footage that Rachel Armstrong has taken of the 'protocell' technology, which has never previously been photographically documented or captured on film and Toon's thought moments, a film was made to raise questions about the existential meaning of lifelike behaviour in non living systems such as sensitivity, consciousness, community, desire,and the prospect of death. Protocell Circus was produced in 2010 with a discussion panel that included filmmaker Tina Keane (Central St Martins) and launched in the same year at the Royal Society's British Film Institute in South Bank, London, Chelsea Art Museum in Manhattan, New York, and Google Headquarters, New York. The film was also shown at the British Film Institute the following year in discussion with Douglas Trumbould, a former architect who was the art director for Stanley Kubrick's Space 2001 and created the special effects for the blockbuster Back to the Future.

IBM Smarter Cities Film, April 2010.

Footage from the Bütschli dynamic droplet experiments and a short interview on my work was featured in the IBM Smarter Cities film shorts [https://www-03.ibm.com/press/uk/en/pressrelease/29909.wss] and [www.ibm.com/smarterplanet/uk/en/smarter_cities/perspectives/index.html].


Hylozoic Ground was listed in the top 10 of the Katerva Awards for urban design, December 2010, which are awarded for sustainable innovations.


"Armstrong … contributed chemical features, which hang from the canopy in glass bulbs. Like the mechanical system, they are an attempt at artificial life. The mechanical parts are constantly changing, and on another timescale the chemistry is also evolving," she says. One reaction takes carbon dioxide from water and transforms it into a shell, suggesting how future buildings might repair themselves in a carbon-negative way. But more literally, says Beesley, Hylozoic Ground could be seen as a new type of space: a "next-generation public forum where people can gather". Burton, C. 14 January 2011. Interactive sculpture is a template for carbon negative homes, Wired [online] Available at: http://www.wired.co.uk/magazine/archive/2011/02/play/buildings-come-alive. [Accessed 5 August 2013].

"It was refreshing to see Armstrong grounding her research in early experiments on biological computing by Alan Turing to remind us that the computing power of our machines is only a minuscule representation of what can be found in nature, even in the most elementary organisms." Botazzi, R. 2013. A fuller understanding. The Architectural Review. [online] Available at: www.architectural-review.com/a-fuller-understanding/8641752.article. [Accessed 19 July 2013].

Advanced Virtual and Technological Architecture Research (AVATAR) Laboratory is part of the Faculty of Architecture, Computing & Humanities, University of Greenwich.