Events update

Reflections on Vital Circulation symposium 1: Biomes, Bodies and Buildings

On the 6th of January, the White Rose Vital Circulations Network hosted its first symposium, on Biomes, Bodies and Buildings. It had quite a big turnout especially given that it took place right after the new year. It brings together an extremely interdisciplinary panel of expertise, ranging from the sociology of health and medicine, medical anthrpology, engineering, design, architecture and microbiology, to bring forward fresh perspectives on the biotic life of buildings. It thinks about the relation between biomes and buildings and seeks to understand what it means to “rethink architectural spaces as multispecies environments”. It is such a thought-provoking event as it is both rich in historical perspectives and interrogates the most cutting-edge ideas and perspectives.

Firstly, Jieun Kim introduced the Vital Circulations Network and the central questions that concern the network (read about us here), and after that Nik Brown introduced the background for this symposium and traced the history of the relationship between buildings and biomes, and the way different historical understandings of disease feature into the design of the built environment, and clinical space in particular. 

It is perhaps worth mentioning that the symposium was initially set out to take place face-to face but eventually became a virtual event due to a rise in covid cases and uncertainty about what covid regulations were to be placed. To discuss human relations with microbes and the built environment seems ever more timely given this context.

First in an exciting lineup is Richard Beckett who talked about ‘Probioticities’. Richard Beckett is an Architect and Associate Professor of Bioaugmented Design at the Bartlett, UCL. His research focuses on design operating at the intersection of computation, biofabrication, and microbial ecologies in buildings and cities. And this talk introduced the audience to a ‘probiotic’ approach to the design of buildings and urban environments. Richard noted how the modernist ‘antibiotic’ principle might not be suited given new understandings of diseases and new disease trends and proposed new ways of architecture design to embrace beneficial microbes. In line with a contemporary awareness of the essential role of some microbes for human bodies and the environment, Richard has done some exciting experiments to host beneficial bacteria in living design materials and seeks to even incorporate them into architectural design, such as a pavilion. This creates a ‘beneficial entanglement’ between microbes, bodies and the environment and is such a refreshing approach that challenge our preconceptions about biomes.

Next, we heard from Hayley MacGregor from the Institute of Development Studies on ‘Clinic design, patient flow and the organisation of care: responding to Tuberculosis transmission in primary care facilities in South Africa’. Hayley and colleagues combined different research methods to identify cost-effective interventions for infection prevention and control (IPC) in health facilities in South Africa. This is in the context of the high disease burden of Tuberculosis (TB) and with the purpose to decrease airborne transmission of microbes in health facilities, and covid undoubtedly posed more complexities to this issue. Hayley noted that the poor implementation of TB IPC in healthcare facilities is commonly believed to be a result of poor compliance of healthcare professionals in terms of wearing masks or opening windows for ventilation and interventions have been proposed along the lines of making technical changes to the material infrastructures. However, based on the findings of the Umoya Omuhle or ‘fresh air’ project, Hayley and colleagues seek to approach the issue of reducing TB transmission from a ‘whole systems’ perspective. In the talk, Hayley talked about the ‘flow’ in health facilities, which revealed the impact of not just material designs but also social, managerial and infrastructural factors in the clinic, and sometimes there are competing priorities in the building designs which need to be accounted for. Hayley’s talk illustrates the complexities of the issue of  infection prevention and control in the clinic setting with microbial, infrastructural and policy dynamics intersecting with each other and emphasises the importance to hear from the needs of staff in building designs. 

What follows after lunch is Nick Fox’s talk on “Coronavirus, capitalism and the built environment: a more-than-human analysis.” In the context of the pandemic and the heightened inequalities, Nick noted the way some environments have led to covid hotspots such as among food packaging and ‘sweat-shop’ garment manufacturers. Nick analyses this ‘pandemic assemblage’ with a more-than-human framework in a really thought-provoking way. Nick unpacks the global prevalence of covid and the inequalities in its spread as a process of coronavirus “piggy-back on the social relations of capitalism”. Nick looks at all the ‘tiny disadvantages’ that combine to increase the chances of someone catching covid, such as crowd, poor working conduction. This though-provoking analysis of ‘pandemic assemblage’ and ‘tiny disadvantages’ offers an alternative understanding that challenge the predominantly individualistic public health discourses on the pandemic, and carry important implications for policy-making.

After Nick’s really stimulating theoretical account, we then heard from an engineering perspective. Robert Walker and Craig Fenton from DataInnovationAI talked about ‘Modelling biorisk in the built environment’. They discussed biosafety risk of the buildings and provided an AI driven solutions to assess and mitigate such risks in an effort to improve productivity with data driven techniques and computing. They showed us an interface that simulates the built environment and the human movement in the space to estimate the risk and it is so fascinating that this is becoming a possibility! It is undoubtedly an incredibly useful technology for monitoring the safety of work environments post pandemic.

Last but not least, Daryl Martin talked about ‘The architecture of risk: the design of clinical space in a post-antibiotic age’. This is a rich paper that looks at the example of the recently opened Skane University Hospital Infectious Disease Center, located in Malmö and designed by CF Moller + Link Arkitektur, in the context of a wider historical examination of hospital architecture. Daryl looked at the intersection of infection control, architectural atmospherics, and embodied practices and talked about the way recent infectious disease outbreaks have influence on the design of the building, which in turn shape how illness, risk and care are experienced in the clinic space. The example, the cylindrical Skane University Hospital Infectious Disease Center is designed in such as way with open-air decking to enclose a central drum of patient space and an internal administrative core to minimise the risk of spreading diseases. The building design itself became an expression and a response to changing ideas of disease management.

This has been such a fascinating day of exciting talks! I feel that the talks connect with each other really well and offer in combination an interdisciplinary account for the central questions of the symposium: ‘What will it mean to rethink architectural spaces as multispecies environments, in a way that takes more account of the microbiological?’ On the one hand, the embodied movement of bodies in buildings is recognised. On the other hand, different conceptual approaches are explored, such as the ‘whole systems’ approach and the more-than-human approach, both challenging the conventional public health enphasis on changing indivudial behaviors. Moreover, the design of living materials and a probiotic approach to architecture and urban environment offer exciting visions for future building designs. The fact that the biosafety of buildings cane be assessed with AI is also so exciting. What would our future buildings look like, in this post (?) pandemic era?

(By Lijiaozi Cheng)

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