The Living Laboratory is a facility designed to simulate the atmospheric conditions of the future. Within its flexible, tent-like enclosure, native vegetation is subjected to elevated levels of carbon dioxide (CO²), providing a valuable window into how living species will respond to our changing climate.
The facility comprises a lightweight steel ring, 90 metres in diameter, erected within the site encircled by the Power Street exit ramp and located alongside one of Melbourne’s busiest roadways. Within the ring is a temporary greenhouse draped in a translucent membrane. Solar cells woven into the membrane project patterns of shadow on the ground below. Planted in the intervals between shadows, eucalyptus saplings grow towards the sunlight. At the ring’s perimeter, exhaust fumes are siphoned from passing cars and converted - through a chemical filtration process - into concentrated CO². Water is circulated around the ring, solar heated and recirculated through the filter medium, releasing the CO². Exposure to carbon accelerates the growth of the saplings, which climb and push up into the membrane, creating a vast interior volume beneath their boughs- a Living Laboratory.
Inside the Living Laboratory, scientists conduct experimentation on the effect of carbon emissions on native plant species. Solar batteries power laboratory equipment, while rainwater and dew collected on the membrane are used to irrigate plants. This futuristic environment acts as a portal into Melbourne’s future environment, as the city becomes increasingly exposed to byproducts of traffic, industry and machinery.
Beyond its scientific purpose, the Living Laboratory also impacts on the life and vitality of the surrounding area. Drawing in exhaust fumes, the densely vegetated structure cleanses the surrounding air, creating a filter between the multi-lane roadway and nearby Sturt Street. Stretching taller as its trees grow, the Living Laboratory physically embodies the processes occurring within. At night, its glowing skin animates the edge of the Arts Precinct, a lantern casting the shadows of trees.
Decay is an inevitable part of any living system. If we remain reliant on carbon, and car traffic continues to escalate, the full-grown eucalyptus trees will reach a stage where they are unable to absorb any more CO², and will begin to die. When that occurs, the membrane shell will be sprayed with quick-hardening ferrocement and the dead trunks will be burned away, leaving only oculi to the sky. The Living Laboratory will then become the Carbon Cathedral, a cavernous, fossilised remnant of the Anthropocene.