Material Temporality

In Andrea Ling’s thesis “Design by Decay, Decay by Design,” the architect, artist, and researcher explores the future possibilities of designing with biological agents. She proposes that biological matter, such as microorganisms, fungi, and insects, could be incorporated into the design of artifacts and architecture, creating new, sustainable processes reliant on disintegration and reintegration. This process, titled biodesign by design historian and curator William Myers, is concerned with “the incorporation of living organisms or ecosystems as essential components, enhancing the function of the finished work. It goes beyond mimicry to integration, dissolving boundaries between the natural and built environments and synthesizing new hybrid typologies.”1

Andrea Ling is a research assistant in the Mediated Matter Group at the MIT Media Lab. “Design by Decay, Decay by Design” was published in 2018 as part of her Master of Science in Media Arts and Sciences from MIT. With her extensive background in architecture, material research, and biologically mediated design, Ling’s investigation is an incredibly useful and reliable source. She draws from a wide variety of references and thoroughly interrogates the multifaceted nature of decay, from the built environment to organic matter. Traditional architecture and product design are founded upon Vitruvius’ theory of firmitas2, in which decay is seen as destructive, and wear and damage are typically addressed through concealment or replacement. However, when it comes to nature and biology, decay is inherently constructive, what Ling calls ‘graceful failure’: “[when] a system’s functionality is retained, albeit at a reduced level, despite having portions of the system broken down.”3 She argues that designers, engineers, and architects need to embrace the inevitability of deterioration and reconsider commonly held understandings of firmitas.

Ling’s proposals stem from Neri Oxman’s principles of Material Ecology. Oxman, the director of the Mediated Matter Group (and Ling’s thesis advisor), defines Material Ecology as: “An emerging field in design denoting informed relations between products, buildings, systems, and their environment [at] the intersection of Biology, Material Science and Engineering, and Computer Science with emphasis on environmentally informed digital design and fabrication.”4 Since the Industrial Revolution, production has been defined by assemblage. Oxman proposes a radical design process in which artefacts and architecture are approached as singular yet complex systems that adapt with functionality. She points to human skin as an example. Despite its varying degrees of elasticity, textures, and functions, it remains as one unique, single organ with no parts or assemblies. The notion of growth is embodied in the core philosophy of synthetic biology: an exploration of “how to wield life as a design tool”5 to challenge accepted notions of materiality and temporality, reconcile our built and natural worlds, and redefine our place as humans in them. As concrete is the second-most consumed resource on Earth (after water)6, the possibility of growing biologically-derived infrastructure as a sustainable alternative is attractive and promising.

By embracing material temporality, Ling posits that design practices will be opened up to failures and risks, which in turn lead to new, unexplored opportunities. She poses provocative questions regarding designers’ relationships with bacteria and other living materials, and the possibilities of working almost symbiotically to engineer and plan for decay. Two key examples of this emerging interspecies relationship are that in ancient Australian cave paintings and Italian Renaissance artworks. The Gwion Gwion paintings (formerly known as the Bradshaw rock paintings) in the Kimberly region of Western Australia, estimated to be up to 70,000 years old, are remarkably vivid despite their age and exposure to the elements. Research revealed that in the cases where the paint was no longer present, a biofilm of cannibalistic, pigmented fungus has taken its place, contributing to the longevity of the artifacts. The researchers concluded that although biofilms were initially considered to be detrimental to rock art, “the tolerance of the biofilm organisms for extremes of temperature, radiation, and osmotic pressure ... would permit indefinite survival and replenishment of the paintings.”7

Similarly, anthropologist Grace Kim investigated the use of “bacteria-masons”8 in the restoration of Renaissance ruins and paintings in Italy. She writes: “The bacterium removes unattractive residue while preserving the marble that forms the artwork. This ‘selectivity’ ... makes biotechnology the superior alternative ... It relies on the microbe’s natural ability to discriminate between materials – namely, between the materials that constitute art and those that devalue it.”9 These two case studies, one occurring naturally and one with human intervention, provide useful insight into how designers can develop multispecies relationships with microorganisms. Ling aims to develop a similar element of predictability and control when it comes to decay – “not only allowed, but actively pursued, not just improvised, but heavily mediated.”10 However, she does not address the specific ancient practices and design methods of Aboriginal Australians and other indigenous groups, an area that would open up numerous paths of investigation into designing alongside nature’s modes of death and failure.

In the field of biologically derived materials, one that’s problematic lack of standardization conflicts with the industry’s demand for uniformity and homogeny, Ling grapples with how designers can harness the unpredictable dynamism of these materials while simultaneously maintaining an element of control. In order for such a radically new methodology to function, designers, architects, and engineers must “relinquish the control and predictability that characterize conventional processes.”11 Her personal involvement with the Mediated Matter Group’s investigative and experimental project ‘Aguahoja’ (2014 – 2018), meaning ‘water leaves’, provides insights into the incorporation of ‘graceful failure’ with design on an architectural scale. The project, completed through three case studies, grew out of a desire to design a structure that is “both seed and tree.”12 The Mediated Matter Group carried out exhaustive experiments into synthetic biology through the use of four ingredients: chitosan13, cellulose14, pectin15, and water. The use of limited ingredients is inspired by designer Peter Pearce’s theories of biological fabrication: “a minimum inventory of component types which can be alternatively combined to yield a great diversity of efficient structural forms.”16 Different ratios of these four ingredients allow for variations in texture, strength, viscosity, density, color, and opacity. In turn, these qualities affect the materials’ behavior over time, from deformation and disassociation to biocompatibility and biodegradability. Aguahoja saw the use of microorganisms as both a material and a co-designer – the ultimate embodiment of life. The five-meter-tall structure, built around a reusable, 3D-printed skeleton wrapped in a “bio-composite skin-shell system,”17 functions on micro and macro scales, demonstrating the vast array of possibilities that come with the amalgamation of biology, design, and technology.

However, Ling does not address a crucial issue that emerges with any new technology: human bias. Artist Trevor Paglen, whose practice revolves around mass surveillance and data collection, notes, “There is no such thing as a technology detached from [the user] ... Any kind of sensing technology sees through the eyes of the forms of power that it’s designed to amplify [and] exercise.”18 Myers addresses the issue of bias, posing challenging questions that are easily overlooked “in the breathless optimism that characterizes discussions of [biodesign] today.”19 He warns: “These technologies will be wielded by people – the same biased and frail creatures who designed the world into a desperate mess in the first place ... Evidence strongly suggests that designers could misuse the new powers they are obtaining with the help of biology. Designers and architects are still people bound to their cultural biases and personal frailties.”20 While biodesign’s development (and its eventual integration into everyday life) will continue to raise new questions and problems, Myers thoroughly believes that the benefits of the incorporation of biology into design far outweigh the risks that accompany human hubris.

Ling concludes, “One of the most common questions we are asked about Aguahoja is how durable it is. The answer is it is not ... It is meant to decay and decay quickly. But in this deterioration is the opportunity to rethink what can be made durable, as well as rethink our approach to repair.”21 “Design by Decay, Decay by Design” offers thought-provoking and exciting insights into the future of design practices. Ling highlights the potential of the fields of synthetic biology and biodesign have to dramatically reshape everyday life on both individual and collective scales. She implores designers, engineers, and architects to not only acknowledge the inevitability of decay, but to account for and welcome deterioration, failure, and repair. She regards detritus as an opportunity for longevity, allowing for the conservation of energy, materials, and thus our planet and our species.


1. William Myers, Bio Design: Nature, Science, Creativity (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2018), 8.

2. According to Vitruvius, all buildings require firmitas, utilitas, and venustas; that is, strength, utility, and beauty, as outlined in Ten Books on Architecture.

3. Andrea Ling, “Design by Decay, Decay by Design” (Master’s thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2018), 19.

4. Neri Oxman, “Material Ecology,” in Theories of the Digital in Architecture, ed. Rivka Oxman and Robert Oxman (London: Routledge, 2014).

5. Myers, Bio Design, 11.

6. Colin R. Gagg, “Cement and concrete as an engineering material: An historic appraisal and case study analysis,” Engineering Failure Analysis Vol. 40 (May 2014), 114.

7. Jack Pettigrew et al., “Living pigments in Australian Bradshaw rock art,” Antiquity Vol. 84, Issue 326 (December 2010),

8. Grace Kim, “Putting Microbes to Work: Using Biotechnology to Restore Architecture & Art in Italy,” Thresholds 44: Workspace, Journal of the MIT Department of Architecture (2016): 177.

9. Ibid., 180.

10. Ling, “Design by Decay,” 22.

11. Myers, Bio Design, 20.

12. Ling, “Design by Decay,” 77.

13. Chitosan, a derivative of chitin, is the second most abundant biopolymer on Earth and is found in arthropod shells, fish scales, and fungal cell walls.

14. Cellulose is the most abundant biopolymer on the planet and provides stiffness to plant cell walls.

15. Pectin is most commonly found in fruits, mainly citrus peels.

16. Peter Pearce, Structurer in Nature is a Strategy for Design (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1978).

17. Ling, “Design by Decay,” 77.

18. Trevor Paglen, “Invisible Images of Surveillance,” filmed April 2018 at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting, video, 12:46,

19. Myers, Bio Design, 17.

20. Ibid., 10.21. Ling, “Design by Decay,” 87.

I respectfully acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land on which I work, learn and live – the Gadigal people of the Eora nation – and pay my respects to Elders past and present.

© 2022 Nina Szewczyk All rights reserved