The Xylinum Cones project by Hülsen and Schwabe presents a strategy for growing geometric building blocks from living bacterial cellulose. Cellulose is a material found in plant cell walls and vegetable fibers, such as cotton. It is also used in the production of paper. Bacterial cellulose, however, is different than the plant-based variety, and is characterized by its higher strength, moldability, purity, and its ability to hold more water. The production cycle of each unit is about three weeks, during which time it is dried and removed from a suspended armature. While the units are currently informed by the shapes and tiling patterns of reptile scales or flower seeds, they really could take on any shape, depending on the geometry of the mold. Hülsen and Schwabe speculate that the units could be developed into viable alternatives for roof tiles or wall cladding.
Like many of the projects in Hypernatural, Xylinum Cones calls to question the relationship between the hand of the designer and the natural forces leveraged to produce a material or building. To what degree do architects dictate the shape, color, texture, and size of their work—and to what degree are these characteristics informed by the natural processes used to produce the work? If architecture is evolving into a discipline where materials are grown rather than manufactured, how much of the decision-making process is handed over to nature?
Hülsen and Schwabe are very much aware of these questions and have embraced them with Xylinum Cones. They state that “(t)he main motivation of Xylinum Cones is to prove the reproducibility of organically grown objects, but also to find a balanced level of geometric precision and organic diversity.” The project aspires to make the production cycle of a naturally formed material completely transparent. It accepts the irregularity that is sponsored by unpredictable cycles of biological growth and reproduction. While the form of each cone is nearly identical in its current design, one could imagine a scenario in which the formwork is less constrained and the balance between control and variability is shifted slightly to prioritize the voice of the bacteria in determining the units’ final outcomes.
The story continues in Hypernatural, which explores architecture’s new relationship with nature.