If there is one word that summarises the collective goals of our age, it would be indestructibility. We are relentless in our pursuit of invincibility. Whether it’s a cure for cancer or a car that can fly, the goal is the same – eliminating weakness and building on strength. We love grand designs, and we have big ideas. In architecture, we love the parti for the same reason. But the devil is in the details.
That’s what nanotechnology is all about. You know you have to be precise when you are dealing with things measuring about 1 to 100 nanometers with a single nanometer being one billionth of a meter.
To put it in perspective, a strand of human hair is around 80,000 to 100,000 nanometers in width. As the Australian Academy of Sciences imagined, if each of us were a nanometre in size, then the entire human race would fit into a Hot Wheels car. Unthinkable, right?
That’s why physicist Richard P Feynman had to to go to great lengths to “describe a field, in which little has been done,” in his 1959 talk titled “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” where he explained “the problem of manipulating and controlling things on a small scale.” He was, of course, talking about nanotechnology even before the term was coined by Professor Norio Taniguchi in 1974.
Today, the tiny fingers of nanotechnology have revolutionised everything ranging from food to cosmetics, and of course, architecture. In fact, it has given rise to what the visionary architect John M Johansen defined as a “new species” – nano-architecture, a frontier field that aims to build robust structures using nanomaterials.
Check out Johansen’s pathbreaking book on architecture here.
A world built on nano
Nanomaterials are the core of nano-architecture. It’s the wee matter expected to fight the ravages of time, giving us a world filled with descriptions like ‘fireproof’, ‘shatter-resistant’, ‘self-healing’, and ‘unbreakable.’ Nanomaterials are the wonder materials that are set to change the way we live.
Nanotechnology will allow architects to create spaces that allow for:
- Increased flexibility
- Superb strength
- Thinner surfaces
Take graphene, for instance. Made of a single layer of carbon atoms packed in tightly, it possesses incredible tensile strength that puts steel to shame. Mixing graphene with concrete can make it nearly unbreakable as researchers at the Exeter University discovered in April 2018. And applying Graphene to steel and paint can render them resistant to corrosion.
Read more: Why graphene won the Nobel Peace Prize
Now, roll up graphene sheets into a cylindrical form, and you get another super-material called carbon nanotubes (CNT). Boasting astounding strength, CNT can be incorporated into glass, cement, metal or wood enabling structures that are marvellously safe and wear-resistant.
NASA is already using CNT to make transparent aluminium, which might be well-known to Star Trek fans, and it’s not too long before this heat and pressure-resistant material finds its way into buildings.
Creating a network of CNT with a special gel sans the liquid gives us the incredibly lightweight aerogel, a material that is extraordinarily heat and fire-resistant. A foam-like substance that is almost 90% air, aerogel promises high-end insulation, which can improve the thermal performance of structures by huge leaps.
A one-inch sized panel of aerogel is as powerful as stacking 30 panes of glass, and it is matched in its power only by Titanium Dioxide (TiO2) nanoparticles.
Developed as a coating that is applied on the glass to clean itself, TiO2 has photocatalytic properties, which, in the glass, induces chemical reactions when exposed to sunlight, repelling stains, fingerprints, and weathering. Not just that, it also helps reduce pollution in its immediate environment by transforming harmful particles in the air to nitrates that are more eco-friendly.
So, what does it mean to be an architect in this era of nano-architecture where all existing notions are being disrupted? To quote Johansen from his lecture at the Mummers Theater in Oklahoma, “the task for architects today is to seize hold of new technologies, judiciously apply them to a building, delight in the symbolic potential, and endow them with poetic expression.”
Architects are freed from the bind of ensuring comfort, safety, and environmental sustainability to a large extent. Structures built with these uber powerful materials would automatically take care of these aspects leaving the architect free to focus on aesthetics.
Architects, then, are the sculptors of our living spaces, holding the blueprints to our indestructible future. And that future is small, powerful, and disruptive.