What’s behind the current obsession with all things superheroes, from the Marvel and DC comics spinoffs for TV and film to the more eccentric offerings on Netflix (from the Wachowskis’ Sens8 to the cosmic supernature of The OA)?
Critics see the classic superhero expressing the desire to re-establish order in the face of chaos (Batman/Joker), but some more recent superheroes are about the power of change, of remaking the world through a kind of “superempathy.” The power of the superhero is depicted as an eccentric group of people reskilled with new forces and energies—think the aerobics-physics of The OA, which invents and designs a new collective body and superpower, and the transcultural/transtemporal superempathy of Sens8.
Something of this otherworldly capability of the new wave of superheroes is tangible at the SuperMaterial exhibition at the Building Centre in London. It’s about materials and the built environment, how these supermaterials will radically transform human’s relationship to the world through the superpower of material empathy, either adapting and changing to the environment or being so efficient to produce and upcycle that they diminish the need to lay waste to the environment in the extraction of resources.
As SuperMaterial exhibition curator Lewis Blackwell says: “We are entering an era of rapid change in how buildings work. These new materials and processes can give us buildings with living skins, cleaning the environment and even generating food and power for themselves and us.” These new materials amplify the flow of life, create rather than destroy, and operate within a wider ecological and economic vision of the planet rather than providing limited short-term solutions.
Society is increasingly seeing the impact of the Anthropocene—the name given to the period of time in which human beings have had an impact on the earth’s geology and ecosystem (see my interview with Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams, professors of paleobiology at the University of Leicester). People will need supermaterials as well as superheroes to help make the planet sustainable for all living things.
There are some spectacular examples of materials in the show of very old materials being reconfigured in ways beyond traditional human capabilities—such as the grottos by Michael Hansmeyer and Benjamin Dillenburger, an example of which they call the “Digital Grotesque,” an incredibly ornate form of 3D-printed sandstone that really has to be seen to appreciate its staggeringly delicate composition of brute mass.
And then there’s the stone table created by Webb Yates Engineers and Interrobang (with the Stonemasonry Company and Artisteel Ltd.), which looks to be floating. Sophisticated engineering means the stone slabs are simply clipped together, resulting in thin structures that use less than half the embodied energy and less than a quarter of the carbon of reinforced concrete.
Here are five supermaterials from the extensive exhibition at the Building Centre that deserve their own TV show.
1. Bioreceptive concrete
People know how badly polluted their cities are—but do they really? In 2017, it took only five days for London to exceed its annual air pollution limit. Created by BiotA Lab at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London, bioreceptive concrete enables the hosting of microorganisms and nurtures biocolonization.
Superpower: The organisms growing in the concrete produce oxygen and absorb CO2 and pollution.
2. Coconut Husk Boar
The great thing about the SuperMaterial exhibition is that it demonstrates that superpowers can emerge like the tortoise who wins the race. Take the humble coconut husk, 60 billion of which are discarded by the food industry each year—an environmentally expensive waste. But not anymore.
Superpower: The husk’s high lignin content means it can be bound into incredibly strong hardboard (made by GoodHout) without the damaging glue. The lack of glue means it can be fully recycled, which means less demand for wood and destruction of forests.
3. Cellulose Nanofibers
That step counter on your phone? In the not-too distant future, you could be step-counting the electricity generated around the house.
Superpower: Invented by Xudong Wang and Chunhua Yao at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, this floorboard made from cellulose layers generates electricity from footsteps.
4. Aluminum Foam
“Is it a sponge? Is it foam? No, it’s aluminum made by injecting air into molten metal!” The process means it has a high weight-to-strength ratio and has been used as external and internal cladding in major projects such as Fondazione Prada Museum/Gallery in Milan.
Superpower: Made by Cymat Technologies, the metal is fully recyclable and is itself made from 50 percent recycled materials.
All that microalgae in canals and waterways were waiting for the Urban Morphogenesis Lab at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL. The algae is harvested and grown, and the microbial cellulose derived from the algae can be spun in a fermentation process that metabolizes organic waste and air pollutants into layered structures. The harvested algae can also be used to grow bioplastic.
Superpower: Imagine you care about the environment and didn’t have to wait for 200 years, tapping your fingers on the desk, while your conventional petroleum-based plastic biodegrades. This bioplastic degrades speedily in six months.