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Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL

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Vital Morphons

Vital Morphons

Prototyping the architecture of the Planthropocene, Vital Morphons is a kinetic installation assembled from hybrid synthetic-biological modules. The Planthropocene, a term first used by Natasha Myers, encourages ecological thinking that intertwines relationships between plants and people. Inspired by this philosophy, the team questioned what a post-anthropocentric technology might look like, replacing robotics with the material Chitosan to create a kinetic and responsive installation.

Chitosan is hygroscopic in nature and abundantly found in the exoskeletons of shrimp and fungal mycelia. While it has been popularized in various industries like cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, textile and biomedical fields, the Vital Morphons team has developed a modular system with potential applications in architecture, fashion and product design.

As Myers said, if we cannot use “anthropocenic logics to mitigate anthropocenic violence,” what would this look like in our everyday practice? What does it mean to consider art and design in the era of the Planthropocene? These questions posed an immense challenge for Vital Morphons throughout the year as we attempted to dismantle our Pillars of (mis)Comphrension.

In researching the material performance of chitosan, the team has developed structures that respond to changes in humidity. Harnessing a morphological design approach, they are able to choreograph how these structures transform and thus in doing so, the intelligence of materials allows them to rethink chitosan’s application to robotics and kinetic architecture. Like organic bodies, seemingly static materials also have their inherent properties that respond to certain stimuli, which allows them to be self-actuated.

Experimenting with thermal-actuated forms.

Chitosan tube production process

Skeleton components of the installation

‘…There exists a subtle interplay or balance between an agent’s neural activity (the brain), its morphology (the body’s shape and its material properties), and its interaction with the environment, and that interplay can be exploited to achieve certain tasks.’ – Ralf Pfeifer

Skeleton components of the installation

Each tube was then hand-dyed various colours for different units.

In imagining artificial intelligence within the era of the Planthropocene, how might Daniel Dennett’s idea of “competence without comprehension” apply into art and design for the Planthropocene? In redefining what ‘technology’ means in the Planthropocene, how might it begin to dismantle the logics that are used to make sense of the world and our experiences? Vital Morphons asks us to unlearn the anthropocenic design processes that has been institutionalised and ingrained into our everyday expectations so that we may begin to finally recognize our fellow green beings.

Examples of how units might be collaged together in creating various forms.

Plants are the great symbol of modernity – the most valuable inspiration that the human can take from them, is their brainlessness.’ – Stefano Mancuso

The vibrancy of the colours of unit A.



Thank you Ella Hetherington and Guillem Perutxet for their introduction to chitosan and teaching us about the properties of chitosan.

Thank you Ruairi Glynn and Parker Heyl for their guidance throughout this year!