Architect Creates a Living, Breathing Wall Full of Frogs

The Living
The Living / The Living

Have you ever looked at the blank, boring wall of your home or workplace and thought, “It’s fine, I guess, but I just wish there were frogs in it”? Well, does experimental architect David Benjamin have a treat for you: a living, breathing wall that’s literally full of frogs.

This is slightly less nonsensical than it sounds. Every building has an inside and an outside. The layer between the inside and outside—that’s the foundation, walls, windows, ceiling, roof, etc.—is called the building envelope. The building envelope has a big job: It keeps the structure standing and regulates temperature, humidity, and air pressure.

Glass building envelopes are made of two or three panes of glass. The pockets of air between the panes help insulate the building and let light in. Three-pane envelopes are solid and efficient, but, Benjamin says, they could be doing so much more.

Collaborating with biologist Ali Brivanlou from Rockefeller University, the architect inserted a miniature ecosystem into the cavities of a glass envelope. The team filled one pocket with air and the other with water, algae, snails, and frogs.

Frogs take in oxygen from the water. When that oxygen runs out, the frogs swim to the surface to get a breath of air. A frog's appearance at the surface sets off a digital sensor, which pulls in air from outside the tank. Air entering the tank is purified as it moves through the water, and then released into the atmosphere surrounding the wall.

Every element of the living diorama has a part to play. The snails are frog food. The algae balls absorb light and carbon dioxide, and produce additional oxygen.

Benjamin calls his wall the Amphibious Envelope, since it makes use of a frog’s ability to breathe both above and under water. The envelope provides a room with purified air, as well as a primitive form of air conditioning. The bubbles in the tank and the movements of the frogs create what Benjamin calls a “dynamic pattern.”

This is not Benjamin’s first bizarre-architecture rodeo. Last summer, the architect (who also goes by the name of his design firm, The Living, an Autodesk Studio) built a tower of living bricks in the courtyard of the Museum of Modern Art. The bricks were made of corn stalk and mycelium, the thread-like roots of fungus. 

And then there was the Venice Mussels Choir, a display of shellfish hooked up to sensors and microphones. As the mussels filtered the water, the sensors would “sing” about the water quality. 

Yes: All of these projects are weird. But they also offer a sense of interconnectedness and possibility. We don’t have to do things the way we’ve always done them. We don’t have to isolate ourselves from our environment. Light and air are everywhere; all we have to do is think outside the cinder block.

All photographs are courtesy of The Living