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Chemistry and Architecture – Chemarchitecture?

By James M Heather, on 7 June 2011

100% Genuine Cheltenham Architecture. Unknown percentage chemistry.If you’re like me, you might not instinctively give chemistry and architecture too large an overlap in your mental Venn Diagram of Everything. However, having just attended my first event at the Cheltenham Science Festival, I’m inclined to reconsider.

UCL chemists Andrea Sella (chair) and Dewi Lewis teamed up with visionary architect Magnus Larsson to discuss the interplay between these two fields.

In an almost science-fiction like presentation, Magnus illustrated how he’s using biological and chemical techniques to produce novel and useful architectural structures, or as he put it, “to design materials that don’t quite exist just yet”.

Perhaps the most interesting part of his talk involved preventing desertification in Saharan Africa using nothing more than special bacteria and sand. This ambitious project would involve using the peculiar properties of the bacterium Bacillus pasteurii, which has the ability to cement sand particles into sandstone, through the production of calcite. In Larsson’s plans, whole sand dunes along the leading edge of a desert could be converted into homes, by using these bacteria to create stable cavities inside the dunes. This would also provide stability to the dunes, which would allow the planting of trees, preventing further desert spread.

Next up was the super keen Dr Lewis, a man whose passion for chemistry is palpable from across the room. He is the chemistry teacher I wish I had; a man who genuinely finds (and can share) the aesthetic beauty in the atomic structures of crystals. Dewi comes at the talk from the other side, being a chemist who uses architecture as the source for inspiration, analogies, and perhaps even markets for the material chemistry he does.

Dewi works on zeolites, which are structures formed from the self-assembly of silicon dioxide tetrahedrons into a variety of different shapes, with differing chemical properties. These are his molecular ‘bricks’, and to hear him tell it the possibilities of what might be built are endless. Instead of thinking of how to use materials to make a building, he’s thinking about how to make the materials themselves.

While both speakers highlight the potential of chemistry in architecture (and vice versa) it seems that so far the inroads that each field is making into the other haven’t quite met in the middle. However, it was an interesting talk, on an area that I imagine will only grow in years to come.

I was also very pleased when Dewi whipped a blowtorch out half-way through to make a point; is that not the true bench-mark of a good chemistry talk?

2 Responses to “Chemistry and Architecture – Chemarchitecture?”

  • 1
    Lara Carim wrote on 8 June 2011:

    Hi James,

    Sounds like a great mind-expanding way to start the festival! You can hear Andrea Sella’s pre-talk thoughts – plus his take on one of the greatest scientific achievements to date – at the link below:


  • 2
    Emerald Sky Henley wrote on 20 November 2015:

    Hello James,
    This post is very interesting and I wonder if any more information on the discussion between Andrea Sella, Dewi Lewis and Magnus Larsson is available?
    Thank you 🙂

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