Organisms as infrastructure: Meghalaya’s root bridges

Living things give us the opportunity and the imagination to reinvent our urban environments and the materials we place within them. This is epitomised by designers such as Diana Scherer who manipulates plant roots which grow to form textiles, and American artist Aganetha Dyck who places damaged objects into beehives to ‘fix’ them as the bee’s honeycomb fills in the cracks.

Throughout history, natural entities such as plants, animal products and fungi have been used to construct various textiles— take linen and silk, for example. Yet, in the last decade, there has been an increase in designers collaborating with material scientists to produce materials and architectural designs which challenge our material usage and what natural entities can be used to create. In light of climate change, the recent development of biodegradable and self-sustaining materials has illustrated that this, undoubtedly, is the future of sustainable practice in both architecture and design.

Some natural systems and materials, however, do not need to be ‘reinvented’ by humankind to be ‘useful’ in design, and instead, can be manipulated without changing their material structure. Structures similar to Diana Scherer’s root project, but designed on a much larger scale and for architectural use,  can be found in Meghalaya, a state of Northeast India. Here, bridges are constructed not from steel and concrete, but from the roots of banyan fig trees, also known as the Ficus elastica. Meghalaya is one of the wettest places on Earth which accounts for the rich diversity of biological phenomena which thrive in the area. Here, the local people tie the fig tree roots together which can grow to be over 50 meters and 1.5 metres thick.

To make the roots grow in the correct direction, the local people pull and twist the roots together and often scaffolds of bamboo and wood are used to train the roots to merge. As the roots naturally grow, they layer over each other, also known as inosculation —a natural process in which structures such as roots, branches and trunks grow on top of each other. This process makes the whole system much stronger, so it is resistant enough to support the local people that move across it.

These bridges have a lifespan of 500-600 years, and over time, the roots grow thicker due to the tree’s self-renewing and strengthening abilities. Although based in Meghalaya — an area which has unique environmental characteristics — these root bridges give insight and greater understanding of aligning living systems into the built environment, without the need for synthetic materials. By manipulating living systems into useful designs such as bridges, the once separate boundary between the natural and urban world is challenged. 

By Anna Marks

Image credit: Anthony Knuppel.

Image credit: Ashwinkumar

Image credit: Ashwinkumar

Image credit: Ashwinkumar

Image credit: Ahinsajain 

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