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Is Cyber-Gardening the New Urban Gardening?

At an experimental algae farm, technology, biology, and architecture unite to educate the public.

Algae is increasingly seen as a source of tremendous potential, as scientists and entrepreneurs hurry to turn the organism into biofuel on a scale that's commercially viable. But for most people, their only interaction with the slimy stuff happens when scraping it from a fish tank—the plant is foreign, misunderstood, and too often considered "gross." A new futuristic exhibition called HORTUS (Latin for 'garden,' but in this case "Hydro Organisms Responsive to Urban Stimuli) at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London is educating the public with an urban algae farm that relies on humans and technology to help the plants grow.

Visitors to the installation are greeted by hundreds of transparent algae-bearing vessels hanging from the ceiling like IV bags in a villainous laboratory. Each bag connects to a blow-tube, where participants can exhale to feed the system carbon dioxide and help the plants grow. As the algae blooms, it emits oxygen into bags of eerily green bioluminescent bacteria, as well as into the air for consumption by human visitors. Using smartphones, participants in this strange experiment scan each bag to discover information about the nine different types of algae, then tweet about their actions. The digital engagement is mapped out on a nearby screen in real-time, a 3D visualization referred to by the project's creators as a "cyber-garden" that demonstrates the evolution of the ecosystem and the relationship between plants and humans.

"The project makes you think about farming and gardening, but there is another level where knowledge can be disseminated and exchanged, and it's a virtual cultivation of knowledge," Claudia Pasquero, who helped create the exhibit, told domus. "Media technologies and material systems come together." Pasquero's EcoLogicStudio used a similar experiment as part of research methods and to build public support for an algae-centric economic redevelopment plan in an economically stagnant region of Sweden. But whether or not the project is "useful," it provides a fascinating perspective on a future where biology, architecture, and urban agriculture all begin to unite.

Images courtesy of EcoLogicStudio

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