Magnus Larsson: Turning dunes into architecture

It’s a bit funny to be at a conference dedicated to things not seen, and present my proposal to build a 6,000-kilometer-long wall across the entire African continent. About the size of the Great Wall of China, this would hardly be an invisible structure. And yet it’s made from parts that are invisible, or near-invisible, to the naked eye: bacteria and grains of sand. Now, as architects we’re trained to solve problems. But I don’t really believe in architectural problems; I only believe in opportunities. Which is why I’ll show you a threat, and an architectural response. The threat is desertification. My response is a sandstone wall made from bacteria and solidified sand, stretching across the desert. Now, sand is a magical material of beautiful contradictions. It is simple and complex. It is peaceful and violent. It is always the same, never the same, endlessly fascinating. One billion grains of sand come into existence in the world each second. That’s a cyclical process. As rocks and mountains die, grains of sand are born. Some of those grains may then cement naturally into sandstone. And as the sandstone weathers, new grains break free. Some of those grains may then accumulate on a massive scale, into a sand dune. In a way, the static, stone mountain becomes a moving mountain of sand. But, moving mountains can be dangerous. Let me try and explain why. Dry areas cover more than one third of the Earth’s land surfaces. Some are already deserts; others are being seriously degraded by the sand. Just south of the Sahara we find the Sahel. The name means “edge of the desert.” And this is the region most closely associated with desertification. It was here in the late ’60s and early ’70s that major droughts brought three million people to become dependent upon emergency food aid, with about up to 250,000 dying. This is a catastrophe waiting to happen again. And it’s one that gets very little attention. In our accelerated media culture, desertification is simply too slow to reach the headlines. It’s nothing like a tsunami or a Katrina: too few crying children and smashed up houses. And yet desertification is a major threat on all continents, affecting some 110 countries and about 70 percent of the world’s agricultural drylands. It seriously threatens the livelihoods of millions of people, and especially in Africa and China. And it is largely an issue that we’ve created for ourselves through unsustainable use of scarce resources. So, we get climate change. We get droughts, increased desertification, crashing food systems, water scarcity, famine, forced migration, political instability, warfare, crisis. That’s a potential scenario if we fail to take this seriously. But, how far away is it? I went to Sokoto in northern Nigeria to try and find out how far away it is. The dunes here move southward at a pace of around 600 meters a year. That’s the Sahara eating up almost [two meters] a day of the arable land, physically pushing people away from their homes. Here I am — I’m the second person on the left — (Laughter) with the elders in Gidan-Kara, a tiny village outside of Sokoto. They had to move this village in 1987 as a huge dune threatened to swallow it. So, they moved the entire village, hut by hut. This is where the village used to be. It took us about 10 minutes to climb up to the top of that dune, which goes to show why they had to move to a safer location. That’s the kind of forced migration that desertification can lead to. If you happen to live close to the desert border, you can pretty much calculate how long it will be before you have to carry your kids away, and abandon your home and your life as you know it. Now, sand dunes cover only about one fifth of our deserts. And still, those extreme environments are very good places if we want to stop the shifting sands. Four years ago, 23 African countries came together to create the Great Green Wall Sahara. A fantastic project, the initial plan called for a shelter belt of trees to be planted right across the African continent, from Mauritania in the west, all the way to Djibouti in the east. If you want to stop a sand dune from moving, what you need to make sure to do is to stop the grains from avalanching over its crest. And a good way of doing that, the most efficient way, is to use some kind of sand catcher. Trees or cacti are good for this. But, one of the problems with planting trees is that the people in these regions are so poor that they chop them down for firewood. Now there is an alternative to just planting trees and hoping that they won’t get chopped down. This sandstone wall that I’m proposing essentially does three things. It adds roughness to the dune’s surface, to the texture of the dune’s surface, binding the grains. It provides a physical support structure for the trees, and it creates physical spaces, habitable spaces inside of the sand dunes. If people live inside of the green barrier they can help support the trees, protect them from humans, and from some of the forces of nature. Inside of the dunes we find shade. We can start harvesting condensation, and start greening the desert from within. Sand dunes are almost like ready-made buildings in a way. All we need to do is solidify the parts that we need to be solid, and then excavate the sand, and we have our architecture. We can either excavate it by hand or we can have the wind excavate it for us. So, the wind carries the sand onto the site and then it carries the redundant sand away from the structure for us. But, by now, you’re probably asking, how am I planning to solidify a sand dune? How do we glue those grains of sand together? And the answer is, perhaps, that you use these guys, Bacillus pasteurii, a micro-organism that is readily available in wetlands and marshes, and does precisely that. It takes a pile of loose sand and it creates sandstone out of it. These images from the American Society for Microbiology show us the process. What happens is, you pour Bacillus pasteurii onto a pile of sand, and it starts filling up the voids in between the grains. A chemical process produces calcite, which is a kind of natural cement that binds the grains together. The whole cementation process takes about 24 hours. I learned about this from a professor at U.C. Davis called Jason DeJong. He managed to do it in a mere 1,400 minutes. Here I am, playing the part of the mad scientist, working with the bugs at UCL in London, trying to solidify them. So, how much would this cost? I’m not an economist, very much not, but I did, quite literally, a back of the envelope calculation — (Laughter) — and it seems that for a cubic meter of concrete we would have to pay in the region of 90 dollars. And, after an initial cost of 60 bucks to buy the bacteria, which you’ll never have to pay again, one cubic meter of bacterial sand would be about 11 dollars. How do we construct something like this? Well, I’ll quickly show you two options. The first is to create a kind of balloon structure, fill it with bacteria, then allow the sand to wash over the balloon, pop the balloon, as it were, disseminating the bacteria into the sand and solidifying it. Then, a few years afterwards, using permacultural strategies, we green that part of the desert. The second alternative would be to use injection piles. So, we pushed the piles down through the dune, and we create an initial bacterial surface. We then pull the piles up through the dune and we’re able to create almost any conceivable shape inside of the sand with the sand acting as a mold as we go up. So, we have a way of turning sand into sandstone, and then creating these habitable spaces inside of the desert dunes. But, what should they look like? Well, I was inspired, for my architectural form, by tafoni, which look a little bit like this, this is a model representation of it. These are cavernous rock structures that I found on the site in Sokoto. And I realized that if I scaled them up, they would provide me with good spatial qualities, for ventilation, for thermal comfort, and for other things. Now, part of the formal control over this structure would be lost to nature, obviously, as the bacteria do their work. And I think this creates a kind of boundless beauty actually. I think there is really something in that articulation that is quite nice. We see the result, the traces, if you like, of the Bacillus pasteurii being harnessed to sculpt the desert into these habitable environments. Some people believe that this would spread uncontrollably, and that the bacteria would kill everything in its way. That’s not true at all. It’s a natural process. It goes on in nature today, and the bacteria die as soon as we stop feeding them. So, there it is — architectural anti-desertification structures made from the desert itself. Sand-stopping devices, made from sand. The world is likely to lose one third of its arable land by the end of the century. In a period of unprecedented population growth and increased food demands, this could prove disastrous. And quite frankly, we’re putting our heads in the sand. If nothing else, I would like for this scheme to initiate a discussion. But, if I had something like a TED wish, it would be to actually get it built, to start building this habitable wall, this very, very long, but very narrow city in the desert, built into the dunescape itself. It’s not only something that supports trees, but something that connects people and countries together. I would like to conclude by showing you an animation of the structure, and leave you with a sentence by Jorge Luis Borges. Borges said that “nothing is built on stone, everything is built on sand, but we must build as if the sand were stone.” Now, there are many details left to explore in this scheme — political, practical, ethical, financial. My design, as it takes you down the rabbit hole, is fraught with many challenges and difficulties in the real world. But, it’s a beginning, it’s a vision. As Borges would have it, it’s the sand. And I think now is really the time to turn it into stone. Thank you. (Applause)

100 thoughts on “Magnus Larsson: Turning dunes into architecture

  1. Not a bad Idea, reminded me of the Book DUNE and the fremen, living a desert existence and getting water from air catchers and condensation.

    Seems feasible..

  2. If this is feasible, there's no reason to limit it just to "helping them Africans".

    It could be built anywhere there is sand in any country. And it gives an interesting idea that you could continually "seed" the sand underneath your structure with new structure, to be dug down into later. Like an architectural investment for future generations – always new caves to explore

  3. just imagine what this tech could do to spacetravel.

    building yourself a house on the moon or mars with a bucket full of bacteria..

  4. Haha.. really? … and what is it that irks you about Al Gore n Richard Dawkins so much that you think their respective governments bow down to their pompous (?) selves?

  5. @klx134m Can you please enumerate those ethical governments that "we" have and "they" don't? Perhaps you missed "domination" as a part of geo-political development in your "evolution" classes?

  6. Are you 12? Your Roman argument is irrelevant. I think you meant 'cease' not 'seize'. And evolution in our species was short circuited the moment we started using medicine. You might better serve the debate criticising the manner in which aid was distributed and if it has ever empowered people to take control of their own destinies.

  7. Can you please re-address your points on
    "Ethical Governments", Africa and Rome.
    With the added information that Rome was dependant on slaves.

    Do you think that Africa should be capturing slaves to help them get ahead?

  8. this idea is impractical and shows how out of touch the presenter is with desert life …
    , where will you get so much water to keep the bacteria alive (whose natural habitat is … MARSHLANDS!!!) in the middle of the frikkin desert?

    there is a much easier way of creating these barriers and NO BACTERiA needed! lol!

  9. No, I meant 'criticising' (the present participle of 'criticise'). I'm simply spelling it the way people outside the States do. Look it up.

  10. >"are you implying…"
    You're the one who brought up "Ethical Governments". Don't you remember?

    How strange, klx134sm your original comment seems to have gone missing!

    I'll try to paraphrase what i remember it saying:

    "Why doesn't Africa elect an Ethical government? It's almost like they don't want one.
    2000 years ago Rome was still better than modern Africa is today. Why can't Africa get it's shit together?"

  11. actually as a country ( i say country and not continent because I has no data foar continents) gets richer and richer, they tend to have fewer and fewer offspring on average, with the AVG # approaching 2/couple, which is zero population growth. I believe that the current prediction is that the human Pop. will stabilize at approx 11billion, but I'm too lazy to go look up the papers.

    Food for thought.

  12. Just had the same thought, and yes, that's true and all good. But there's no chance it will happen because the world's wealth would have to be thoroughly re-distributed in order to make, say, African bussinesses even somewhat competable on the global market. And do you think anyone will be willing to do that? Some would, probably, but to think that the super rich, global corporations etc. would sacrifice a large protion of their wealth and risk the monopoly for philantropy sounds improbable.

  13. I, too realise that overpopulation is a huge problem, but how do you propose that we go forth to limit the population in third world countries? Genocide? Forced Sterilization? Or cut all aid and allow the immense human suffering to commence?

  14. Education and family planning as someone suggested, is the only way to go. In some industrialized countries population even decreases, all because of family planning. Ordinary families that decide (on their own) to not have more than 2 children. I am sure that in an educated world that faces massive over population, the people would take the necessary action and stop having so many kids, especially if they feel the effect of the over population, as I'm sure they would do.

  15. Its a great thought… tho it would be a bit difficult to implement. And those who talk abt population being the root cause of all this … think again. The countries w/ more population are greener than the ones w/ less population. First stop using plastic, second replace paper towels w/ water, use public transport. These little things will save 50 yrs of our planet.

  16. Does anyone else see more holes in this idea than in his "architecture?" Aside from the fact that sand would just build up on the desert side until it reached a height large enough for it to be blown over he doesn't even touch on the environmental aspect of a 6000 mile barrier…..or introducing a non-native bacteria. To add, his vision of architecture is not ideal for what will be the leeward slope of a hill.

  17. That comparison doesn't even relate to a project of this magnitude. I'm not sure what the pyramids still being in existence have to do with anything. The "desertification" is an important geologic process that has and WILL continue to go on despite an ill conceived barrier. i do not see this doing anything but delaying the proess for a short period of time.

  18. Right, that's the nature of a leeward slope. It's why best and sometimes most dangerous places to ski/snowboard are leeward slopes after high winds.

  19. and animals would try to inhabit them. But like he said its just a rough model. Imagine this crazy thing called a DOOR on the entrance of the cave. Then imagine solar panels that are able to provide lighting inside. This is all possible. Probable? Not very likely.

  20. the sand bacteria thing is interesting, but I dont see how it really connects to the problem of people being so poor that they destroy all the vegetation.

    how about some infrastructure? miles of solar panels powering dozens of desalinization plants…

  21. the idea is that they would have ownership of the tree so they would want to protect it, i guess, probably better if those trees bared fruit or something but it is a stretch of the imagination.

    miles of solar panels would cost billions of dollars which is much more then the nations income even if combined.

  22. i like that idea also but it seems to assume that the reason the people migrate is that the sand is taking over their house but the issue is that it also takes their farmland which this solution does not prevent stop. without farmland they wont stay there just to maintain the trees.

    i think this would be more effective as a transportation corridor then habitation.

  23. only an opportunity to someone who lives an ocean away its a "problem" to those who live there and a rather large one.

    but a very optimistic way of looking at things which has great value.

  24. and on further reflection, giving people a muddy hole in the ground to live out of, even if it is a very clever hole in the ground, is kinda insulting. no idea whether its structurally sound or would even function as he expected it to. the dunes eat villages, I expect the same thing to happen to these piles. maybe instead use the bacteria to make proper slabs of rock and make a series of walls? even better, use concrete.

    its a prime solar region, doesnt all need to go up at once either.

  25. well in this vid he show that this would cost about 1/9 as much as concrete. The material is a natural cement but he doesnt say anything about its structural properties but one would hope that they took that into consideration (although the design he showed here is pretty much impossible even with concrete, it would likely be a very different design in pracitce)

    solar panels last anyware from 5-25 years putting a few at a time isnt gonna add up much. besides their problem is food and water 1st

  26. yep, and then he finds that when he lets it loose, the big structures he makes are just as riddled with holes as the small structure is and either the sand goes right through or it collapses.

    solar runs desalinization -> clean water -> food

  27. hmmm we should come to terms with overpopulation definately, can't stress that enough how serious that problem is and its why we have a lot of other problems – but we can't just let the unfortunate die. Annoyingly though it can be from a purely logical veiwpoint

  28. @SobaniForce Ok, here are your options. You either let the unfortunate die, or you enforce legal consequences for human reproducing. If someone decides to have a child, they must pay a price, or start the process gradually. For example, initially you are allowed to have 2 kids without having to pay a price. As time progresses, reduce it to 1, and I think that would at least get us somewhere. People believe they can just have as many kids as they want, it shouldn't be so.

  29. solar is very expansive and does not last very long.

    Also, the equipment that is needed is not exactly on the shelf and is very very expansive.

    again these are for the most part land locked third world countries they cannot afford to porches the equipment in significant quantities and create the needed infrastructure, they would have done so if they could have.

  30. i agree with that too.

    just look at china they had the one child policy and now they are booming.

    The Earth simply cannot support our way of life. So we either drastically lower our life standards or we reduce our number it is impossible to have both indefenetably.

  31. fifty years ago most things we take for granted today were mere fantasy, dont tell me its not doable just because it hasnt been done.

    who's shelf are they bought off of? give a man a solar panel, it will give him electricity for 5 years, teach a nation to make solar panels and it will thrive.

    will they have to take on a huge amount of debt to make it happen? sure, thats what the IMF is there for.

  32. "There are a number of powerful interests"

    Sources man sources. You can't make a "claim to authority" and expect to be taken seriously without some hard data.

  33. Hey i'm with you and I've been saying for years that people need to just accept the fact that overpopulation is the cause of a lot of massive problems with the way this sick sad little world works. Thing is, I don't agree you should just kill off the unfortunate ones (which is the same as leaving them to die) in order to lower the population. Education, media cooperation, and legislative INCENTIVISING for families to be small is what i believe in. Also stop with the religious more-children! crap

  34. A few BIG questions: is there a sample of this sandstone? He showed working in a lab to create some, but didn't show a sample in his presentation. What is its strength and water permeability compared to concrete? His design suggests the stone is stronger and less permeable. Similar structures are built with concrete, but they typically require steel reinforcement. If concrete is nearly nine times more expensive, this would be a revolutionary alternative to this very popular building material.

  35. i think the IBM ad after the ted talk is quite funny. Seeing how IBM is useing cameras to track people movements & send them a bill in the mail, if they enter the downtown city. IBM is really good at keeping track of people , Just ask the Nazi's and Jews. IBM was the company who helped the Nazi's make punch cards, based on age, weight,height,build. So the Nazi's could work them to death, based on there IBM Cards. IT's really SIck. And i don't support Anything IBM does.

  36. he would make SOME electricity for 5 years. Solar panals are not all that effective and are most def not economical (that is why we dont all use them.)

    i dont think you understand as to how huge this amount would be. besides even if they did manage to somehow get the money and all the jazz they need they still have the problem of the desert taking their land at high rates, and no solar panel is going to stop that.

  37. That is pretty cool.
    But i doubt how strong those structures would be. Like I would be scared of it collapsing sometime onto the people inside.
    But I think thats just a minor obstacle.

    This guys should go ahead and build a few prototypes and see how it goes. If it works then its something the governments should really invest into. It gives shelter for the people and protects arable land.

    Governments can spend $700bn to bail a few of bankers but barely a million/bn to progress the 3rd world!

  38. Actually population control is a very real thing. And yes you will not hear lobbyists talking about such things because all these talks happen behind closed doors.

    There is a very deliberate attempt to let the 3rd world starve and die as it'll reduce the "burden" on the planet. The developed world easily has enough resources to feed every single person on this planet but it still keeps 99% of resources for itself while people in africa die by hundreds every day. The world is a business.

  39. More children is not a religious thing, its an economical thing. More children = more chances of survival. The more children you've got the more contribution of income in your family. In a society where the life expectancy is barely 40yrs, having one kid per family and population control is not the first thing on people's mind.

    Its food, shelter, work, water and such things that are more important. Hence merely educating and contraceptives will do nothing. You need a sustainable infrastructure.

  40. The world easily has enough resources to feed a population of more than 10bn. But this would mean developing regions of the world so that they can lead a sustainable lifestyle. The haves need to contribute to the have nots so that everyone gets an equal share of the resources. This will never happen. $700bn to save banks, nothing to save poor!

    Its a world where IMF and World Bank sanctions force the 3rd world to export its produce to the developed world. Sustainable development is only a dream.

  41. Its always the poor who suffer. Be it population control or climate change. We wanna force the poor to use contraceptives and so stop their society from propagating. We wanna force them to buy "clean" energy while they can barely afford to run a wood burning stove. We make energy more and more expensive and unattainable for them.

    While we in the west can turn up the heating, waste more food, drive bigger cars, consuming more resources then buy "carbon credits" while the 3rd world starves.

  42. In the United States alone, if we didn't consume animal products and instead used the farm land for fruits and vegetables, we would not only be able to complete the diets of the underfed people in this country, but we could feed 800 million more people.

  43. I like your idea, its got some feasibility issues, it could be very powerful to assist these bacteria.

  44. naive… the dunes will just rise up and swallow the trees as if they were not even there… its funny how he shows the dunes peaking just to the tree tops and stopping…… total bullshit

  45. Where do we get this bacteria? I wouldn't mind building stuff out of ready-made customized sandstone bricks! No more lugging around gravel, concrete powder, and water!

  46. I'm gonna laugh if this is how they made the pyramids. Moove all those bricks?! No, we just grew them like that!

  47. SUN(heat)+SAND=GLASS(SOLID)—-easier/free to make walls, don't need bacteria. build a solarpowered magnifiying glass and you'll have a solid glass wall.

  48. A Massive quartz magnifying glass (to hold up to the heat)with a widespread reflecting sheet of maybe aluminum to focus more sunlight into the magnifier could turn the sand into glass as it is excavated and could temporarily hold (if arches and domes (self supporting architecture) are exclusively used). Then the bacteria could be added from above to the highest point and would have a nonporous "mold" to follow. plus condensation collection would work better if it was lined with glass instead of sandstone.

    it just thought from an outside perspective, but i thought it was worth sharing.

  49. live in an underground sandcave made by bacterias… no thank you! what if it collapses?!!! Is it really necessary to put people in it?
    and what if the bacteria mutate to accommodate to this environment, manage to survive on its own and we loose control over it? What are the consequences if it spreads through the whole desert?

  50. الوصفة الطبيعية و المضمونة في علاج المشاكل ضعف الانتصاب و القذف السريع و صغر الحجم قضيب للاستفادة من المنتج يرجى التواصل مع الدكتور المالكي مصطفى على الواتساب 00212689611487
    كريم رجال الصحراء هو علاج طبيعي وكل أعشابه طبيعيه ١٠٠٪ وليس له أي أثار جانيه امن تماما.
    كريم رجال الصحراء هو المنتج الرائد في دول العالم عامة وفي الشرق الأوسط خاصة بسبب لنجاحه مع كل العملاء اللذين استعملوه
    خلطت رجال الصحراء منتج مرخص من هيئة الغذاء والدواء
    نتائج كريم رجال الصحراء
    1-يعمل على تكبير القضيب
    2-مفيد لي تأخير القذف
    3-يساعد على لانتصاب
    لا تترددوا وغيروا حياتكم للأفضل…
    نحن نرسل المنتج لجميع دول الخليج و دول العالم
    أخواتي الكرام دعوكم من الفيديوهات النصابة حول موضوع زيادة حجم القضيب و التخلص من سرعة القذف و ضعف الانتصاب لان أغلبيتها لها هدف تجاري و لأنني جربت أغلبية هده الوصفات دون أي نتيجة إلى أن تواصلت مع الدكتور المالكي مصطفى الذي ساعدني على زيادة حجم قضيبي 4 سنتيم في ضرف 6 أيام هاتف الطبيب 00212689611487
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  51. Watching this in 2018 with a government shutdown on the horizon over Trump's wall. $5 Billion would likely buy a lot of bacteria.

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