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Fellows Friday with Mitchell Joachim

Posted by: Alana Herro

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Soft cars, jet packs and houses made of meat are all in a day’s work for urban designer and architect Mitch Joachim. Check out this interview to learn how ancient horticulture techniques, Star Trek and Homer Simpson inspire this super-proud dad. (Watch his talk from TED2010.)

What are you working on right now?

I’m co-founder of an organization called Terreform One here in Brooklyn, New York. We’re architects and scientists and we collaborate on all sorts of projects that range in scale from the doorknob to democracy. There’s really no limit to the kind of problem set that we’ll take on. Our work is non-profit based, so we can work without the constraints of clients or private development interests. So things that we do are for the environment or communities that can’t afford lead architects and planners — or scientists, for that matter — to solve some of their issues.

Some of the more interesting projects that we’ve been tackling lately have been a study of refuse in the city of New York. In one hour we produce enough compacted trash in the city of New York to fill the Statue of Liberty. So we’ll make a model and a drawing and communicate that on all different levels. And we’ll also have future propositions of what the city would be like if we solve our waste issue, and have a waste stream that’s intelligent, where nothing is thrown away, everything is conserved.

We also do projects that involve molecular cell biology. We have a house made out of meat. We’re looking at different industrial designed products made from in vitro leathers — meat in test tubes — where no sentient creature is harmed.

We also are looking at different types of transportation systems. We have something called the “soft car” which is a kind of hug-and-kiss-like vehicle — as opposed to the shiny, precious metal boxes that we move around in today. The principle is that no one would ever die again in a car accident.

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ABOVE: Soft Car: LAMB

We’ve got blimps, which are now on the cover of Popular Science — which is very cool — jet packs, because we know we’re eventually going to have them … so we look at propositions for the ecological city based on new forms of mobility.

Read more of this interview with Mitchell Joachim after the jump >>

We have a big show in Prague coming up, opening July 29th. We’re doing a future city of Brooklyn, some place in between the Manhattan Bridge and the Brooklyn Bridge, all the way to the Williamsburg Bank.

Right now we’ve got this horrible oil spill happening in the Gulf of Mexico, and who’s supposed to take this on? Terreform is an organization that’s fitted out to think at that scale, to solve things at that scale, to actually do this ahead of time so we can avoid these kinds of problems.

Terreform’s ideas seem like they could be from a science fiction movie. How realistic are your projects? Do you have functioning prototypes?

We do work a lot in theory, but all the ideas that we proffer are based on off-the-shelf existing technologies. We just change the solution-bases and do things that aren’t necessarily as obvious.

We don’t have a problem with thinking about science fiction — in fact we actually embrace it. Freeman Dyson, a physicist at Princeton, who’s written many books on the subject, thinks that science fiction is a phenomenal indicator — much more so than economic forecasting — about what the future will be like. In fact it represents the hearts and minds and imagination of the everyday person.

When you think of Star Trek back in the early ’70s … if you look at an iPhone, I would never have imagined that we’d have a computer in your hand that can communicate across continents, if not across planets, that works on battery power — it’s just absolutely fabulous — and that it would be available within my lifetime. Of course it happened, it reified. This is something that every accountant, every engineer, you name it, anybody would have loved to have had one when they saw Star Trek. It became a kind of general desire. So it’s not crazy to think that science fiction is a good indicator of what the future will bring.

We want to design technologies to fit the cities. So we’ve produced a large tome of ideas that makes up the thoughts for how we should be moving in the future. That, I think, is much more crucial than producing a workable, moving car, which is one of the proposals we did and are making. But I think it has to go beyond just some demo or prototype.

Are jet packs really in our future?

You know, one idea of the jet packs came from a conversation with a large group of other architects and urban thinkers — some friends of mine from Harvard — when someone’s kid brother said, “All of this knowledge that you guys have acquired about cities and about design and architecture, wouldn’t that be thrown out the window if some guy comes along and invents the jet pack?” And we thought, silly kid, obviously that’s not going to be true.

But I thought about it overnight, and I thought yeah, absolutely, a lot of things will change. And that’s a radical change. It means that a lot of books that we have on the theory of architecture are no longer applicable, or their relevancy has changed. So when we start thinking about what happens when a small factor, like a new system of moving around a city — we look at that small factor and see how it ramifies around the entire urban composition. And that led to our studies on jet packs. That, combined with the New York Times two months later having a cover story saying the jet pack is here, Glenn Martin invented it and you can buy one for about $100,000.

This is just like Otis and his elevator. Otis didn’t invent the elevator, he invented the safety break. He invented a very small device that made it completely safe to move up and down in very tall buildings, in skyscrapers. And he was talking about this one hundred-plus years ago, when people thought it would be absurd to move around in elevators, that it would be too scary and dangerous. But he made a system that made it absolutely safe for anyone to move in an elevator.

So the jet pack has also achieved that same level of safety — maybe not perfected yet, but that’s the direction it’s going. In the future I’m sure my daughter is going to want to be moving around in a jet pack instead of dad’s car. Although dad doesn’t have a car, so she’s going to have to be moving around in a jet pack.

Speaking of your toddler, on a scale of 1 to 10, how adorable is she?

On a scale of 1 to 10? 25.

Your “Fab Tree Hab” design uses a very old technique called “pleaching” to graft trees together to form homes. Why don’t we have these structures already?

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ABOVE: The Fab Tree Hab

Great question. First of all, we do have them already. There have been many examples of growing pleached or grafted trees into geometries and into shapes. Actually, for centuries — about 2,500 years — people from France to China have been looking at making different kinds of structured systems with grafting tree matter together. There have actually been many examples where they have created trees to form chairs. In some of the biblical illuminated manuscripts you can find drawings of these things.

What has happened with them is that they’re not associated with a certain kind of sophistication that we expect from an era of industrially designed objects and technology. It’s just looked at as kind of a gardening technique.

We decided to take some of those ideas and apply them to a technology using computation to pre-determine the growth of trees into very specific shapes. And using scaffolding printed from CNC or printed from computers, to shape that geometry and make plants behave in structural fashions that they would not normally behave in.

We’re growing one on the roof and testing it for things like infestations from insects, lack of solar income, leaf propagation, capillary activity with water, and making some hard decisions so that when we do grow these homes we’ll have some science behind the approach as well.

You once wrote that you used to play the drums, and that that previous life is not appropriate for the public. So let’s hear it.

[laughs] Did I say that? Ah, yeah, I used to play double-bass drums, alternative and heavy rock. I guess metal would be part of the influence. I started playing the drums when I was 10 years old, I think because it was fun. And then when I hit adolescence around 14, I sorta liked girls, so drums became more of a passion, and I started playing in bands.

I was playing in bands and doing gigs from the age of 14 on. I stopped at the age of 28. Technology replaced me. As soon as I saw what computers can do, I didn’t think there would be a point for a live drummer. I now know that that’s not true, but I do remember being there and thinking, “I’ve got two hands and two legs, and a brain that weighs x amount of pounds.” Computers were just faster, and had unlimited hands. So I guess that kind of explains it. And it was a drug-free time.

Why have you designed a house made of synthetic meat? TED Fellow Rachel Armstrong designs architecture that repairs itself. Is that the idea behind your design?

Does it repair itself? Wow. No, no it doesn’t. It will rot. So no, it doesn’t repair itself, but that’s a good direction to think about.

It is tissue engineering from regenerative medicine. Medicine stemming from the year 2001, more or less, where they started looking at printing cells from modified inkjet printers. So this is a kind of do-it-yourself boutique biology, and we realized that we could do it.

They were using it for printing flesh into shapes for organ transplants. And we’re thinking, “Well, what else can you use it for?” And as soon as I learned that you can control the geometry of the tissue, I decided we can get into making objects like shoes or belts, bands for wristwatches … it’s leather from a test tube.

For the house we soak it in nitrates and sulfates — turn it in to beef jerky, basically, and preserve it with a shelf life of 100 years.

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ABOVE: In Vitro Meat Habitat

It doesn’t mean that other animals won’t eat it, and we know that, and we’re aware of that, thank you, world of anonymous blogging. We’re doing it as an experiment because we want to push the boundaries. We don’t know what those boundaries are. To test those limits we’ve got to start from the groundwork, copy existing feats of science, and then stand on the shoulders of those giants, and start making new propositions. That’s why we built our own molecular cell lab, to do that.

Tell us about your TED Fellowship experience.

Certainly being at TED has been an experience that exceeded all expectations. Meeting the Fellows made it much more important. Having the Fellows creates an excellent sounding board of people with such diverse backgrounds where you can get interesting dialogue, and critique something you’ve just seen for the last hour. You can say, “I actually agree with that person and here are the opportunities.”

So there is a kind of camaraderie that I wouldn’t have gotten if I had just gone to TED on my own. That camaraderie and that filter of reason that comes through all the different folks there, made it one of the most exceptional experiences of my life. It doesn’t rank up there with the birth of my daughter, but at an intellectual level, it was as fun as it gets.

I think, though, that TED needs to admit it’s curating. It’s curating a body of knowledge and the speakers and what it’s putting out there. That means that there is a voice, and there is a direction. It has many kinds of formal positions and oppositions, and I think that’s something to admit.

But I love TED. Big love beams for TED.

What’s in store for Terreform One?

We want to do a plan of the United States, where the United States is 100 percent self-reliant. That’s energy, food, waste, water, everything in the United States. First we’re going to tackle New York. Once we get New York we’ll move on to all of the US.

We want to help define what Obama means by the “smart grid.” We’ve done projects like “Homeway” which is a re-thinking of the suburbs of the United States of America. We know that people like living in the suburbs, and we expect them to double within the next 30 years. So we want to think about what are the choices we can give to every American that would allow them to live in a different kind of suburb. A suburb that is absolutely green, that is fully ecological, in its metabolism and connects itself to the environment.

We use Homer Simpson as a kind of metric. Homer Simpson is one of my favorite people, though he’s not real. He represents the American who’s filled with this “affluenza.” He’s constantly exposed to consumption and a sense of bigness, which is a part of being an American. And actually it’s great to be an American. I love my country. It’s maybe some issues with the government I have.

We try and design things so that no inconvenience, no inconvenience whatsoever, is given to Homer. In other words, he lives life exactly the way he wants to, but the things that he’s using behind the scenes, underneath the surface, in the undergrid, are incredibly green.

We need to design things that Homer Simpson would buy because they’re cheaper and perform better than or equal to the things he’s always used. That should be in everything we do. Cars, planes, houses, cities, it’s the same kind of goal. There’s no reason people should sacrifice or be inconvenienced, because Americans don’t like it and they’re not going to adapt. So we have this philosophy, we take that approach.

Watch Mitchell Joachim’s TEDTalk on growable homes >>