De-sterilising Design

De-sterilising Design:
Towards Non-Anthropocentric Strategies Beyond the Inert


November 2020



Video Essay


Univerity of Bologna


Gabriel Alonso, Elena Brea

María Buey, Pablo Ferreira Navone


Matteo Guarnaccia

Reading / Video

20 min / 12 min

De-sterilizing Design: Towards non-Anthropocentric strategies beyond the inert.
Video by Institute for Postnatural Studies

This research traces the relations between hygiene, microbes, and domestic design through the concept of sterilization, shifting from a one-sided concern with human health to a postnatural perspective in which relationships between species come to the fore. To achieve a post-anthropocentric approach toward contemporary design, we propose looking at contemporary philosophers and scientists such as Donna Haraway, Anna Tsing, and Lynn Margulis to stop perceiving microorganisms as a threat in design and instead see them as our allies for interdisciplinary practices of co-designing.

A Microscopic Tour of Death | Compilation, Journey to the Microcosmos, Youtube
A Microscopic Tour of Death | Compilation, Journey to the Microcosmos, Youtube

De-sterilising Design: Towards Non-Anthropocentric Strategies Beyond the Inert

Ever since the discovery of our bacterial companions in the mid-nineteenth century by Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch, their presence has always been associated with hazardous effects to the detriment of human health. The first and only means of battling against pathogens relied on the elimination of all microscopic life. Implementation of highly processed, synthetic materials as well as the narratives and aesthetics which shaped and transformed the collective imaginary, reinforced the idea of separation from the world of the organic as the locus of undesirable organisms. Domestic space became the battlefield where the war against microbes was waged, making it a turning point in the history of design as it constitutes a definitive juncture in the negation of multispecies coexistence.  

“Human nature is an interspecies relationship,”[1]  Anna Tsing puts forward in her own assimilation of Haraway’s idea of companion species. According to Tsing, we only analyse different species in terms of co-existence and co-dependency when they inhabit the interior of the human body, in medical and ecological literature concerning illnesses and parasites. When other organisms are located outside the body, the analysis immediately turns to a discourse of control or impact. This discourse that Tsing refers to has its starting point in the mid-nineteenth century, following developments in medicine and technology that allowed for the visualisation of microorganisms. Processes of staining and culturing specimens and the modern light microscope rendered both pathogens and friendly microbes visible to the human eye. Visualising these other species, far from bringing a reassessment of our anthropocentric perception of reality, only served to reaffirm the illusion that the human body could be isolated from other species through pervasive sterilisation. Instead, the discourse inherited from scientific and medical practice was quickly taken up and significantly promoted by the field of design, and more in particular, domestic design. The home became a privileged space for the promotion of new conceptions around health, disease and our relationship with other earthly inhabitants.

Analysing the connection between the hygiene movement of the nineteenth century and domestic design through the lens of sterilisation implies a shift from a one-sided concern with human health to a postnatural perspective in which relationships between species come to the fore. To achieve a post-anthropocentric approach towards contemporary design, we propose looking at Lynn Margulis and her work on symbiotic microbial living that incorporates microorganisms as allies in interdisciplinary practices of co-designing.

From Pasteur’s laboratory to the Victorian home

Between 1860 and 1864, Louis Pasteur developed his germ theory, refuting the widely believed idea that living organisms were spontaneously generated from non-living matter and that diseases such as cholera were caused by miasma or “bad air”. By observing the fermentation process in certain foods and infections in silkworms he was able to demonstrate the causal relationship between germs and disease. To do this, Pasteur relied on culturing techniques (growing bacteria populations in a laboratory under controlled parameters) which required a sterilised environment to avoid unwanted bacterial or fungal contamination. Robert Koch then perfected Pasteur’s techniques, allowing him to demonstrate the complete life cycle of anthrax, establishing a direct relation between a specific disease and its microorganism. These contributions were fundamental to demonstrate that we could influence our health by acting upon our environment, which had far-ranging implications in the economies of European colonial powers. Controlling diseases in the colonies made the imperial enterprise significantly more profitable, which in turn fed back into European economies. Sanitary devices became a new market for the middle-classes concerned about the hygienic conditions of their homes.

Pasteur's experiments demonstrated that spatial design had a major role in the control of microorganisms
[Fig. 1] Pasteur's experiments demonstrated that spatial design had a major role in the control of microorganisms

The colonies. A design laboratory of sterilisation

For his investigations, Pasteur depended on the laboratory which extended beyond its spatial dimension into a set of practices deployed throughout the French colonies. [2] Colonial Spaces were constructed following the characteristics present in the laboratory, “a space of somatic control and closure organised around the avoidance of contamination”. [3] In this way, “the laboratory became the exemplary locus of colonial modernity”.  Strictly medical criteria which Pasteur had developed would be taken up in the colonies to design domestic spaces. 

As Latour states, “in the colonies they [the Pasteurians] could construct public health from scratch. This is not a metaphor. They often preceded the towns, which they could therefore build according to the strictest recommendations of hygiene. [...] If all the houses had to be rebuilt, then they could.” [4] Furthermore, the parasites in the tropics could not be dealt with at the laboratory stage as Pasteurians did on the continent. Instead, they had to be eradicated by interrupting their life cycles through life-sized interventions. “Malaria or yellow fever were to be destroyed not with vaccines but by ordering the colonists and natives to build their houses differently, to dry up stagnant ponds, to build walls of different materials, or to alter their daily habits.” [5]

The houses of white colonizers in the tropics became spaces that functioned as laboratories, where white women were in charge of preserving hygienic conditions, isolated from contact with exterior pathogens.6  Sterilisation became in this way a biopolitical project inextricably linked to the economic and political interests of colonial powers and to the design of their spatial and social control systems, also at the domestic scale.

The sterilised aesthetics of laboratories and infirmaries influenced the design of domestic interiors in Victorian homes
[Fig. 2] The sterilised aesthetics of laboratories and infirmaries influenced the design of domestic interiors in Victorian homes

The London Health Exhibition. Consuming sterilisation for the home

Simultaneously, the spatial configuration of sterilisation started to take hold in Europe as the Hygienist movement gained strength. In 1884 the London Health Exhibition, with Pasteur among the attendees, gathered in one place the multiplicity of devices and practices that were emerging around the idea of sterilisation. From pasteurised milk to ventilation and drainage systems, from spotless white furniture to models of hygienic living rooms and even the first Chinese menu, were all introduced to London society. Designs for the home had a prevalent place in the exhibition, as the main attraction was a life-size reconstruction of the medieval old London street brought into contrast with Victorian buildings furnished with modern drainpipes and ventilators. [7] The exhibition was in a way a kind of hygienist IKEA of the 19th century where middle class families walked around the isles looking for gadgets to ensure the cleanliness of their homes, not only out of concern for their health but also “as a talisman against downward social class mobility”. [8] A visit to the London Health Exhibition would show how the sanitation movement turned domestic design into a form of preventive medicine. [9] Furniture was lifted from the ground, ornaments faded and furry mats turned into sleek and smooth surfaces, illusioning our homes as domestic laboratories.

Sealing the interstices. How sterilization has influenced design to our days

Developments in science, architecture and design over the last hundred years have seen the biopolitical project of sterilisation become so widespread and refined that we have become unaware not only of the presence of microbes but also of the strategies that have allowed their invisibilisation. We have entered what Sennett calls the “politics of indifference” [10], in which microbes remain outside our daily concerns and consequently of the interests of design.  

An example of the insidiousness of the borders and protections that we have built around us is the use of rubber in pipe seals and window joints. Natural rubber, which was imported from the colonial campaign, started being used in 1894 for the design of surgical gloves in England following the bacteriological research of Pasteur, Koch and Lister. [11] Through later treatments of the material, natural rubber —originally obtained from rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis) — became increasingly synthetic, lowering costs and expanding its production capacities which prompted its use for many functional elements of everyday design. The same rubber that was used for surgical gloves has facilitated the perfectioning of the Victorian obsession with hermetic homes by sealing the building’s “skin”. Responding to the omnipresent, invisible threat of undesirable microorganisms, rubber seals also become invisible and omnipresent in the design of our houses. Rubber infiltrates itself in the in-between spaces of buildings, filling any possible spaces of interaction with its barren materiality. The current interior aesthetic of white finishes and polished surfaces is sustained by the perfectly-designed pieces of rubber behind it. Beyond their unquestionable functionality, these contribute to our feeling of confidence and comfort which we get from the idea that our spaces are protected and conveniently isolated from any penetration from the outside. This feeling comes to be taken “as a guarantee of individual freedom and action,”[12] as if we could live and act separately from other organisms. In this way, rubber becomes a facilitator of the biopolitical project of sterilisation, along with its practices and imaginaries. 

Since the times of Pasteur, microorganisms have been recognised within architecture and design only as pathogens. The forms, materials and technologies of design have been selected and developed to eliminate anything microbial through methods that are non-selective; they not only kill pathogens, but also all other microbes which are beneficial to human health and to whole ecosystems. The sterilisation of the built environment has brought it out of balance and disabled its capacity to self-regulate. Beyond its material consequences, the narrative of sterilisation has resulted in the creation of a series of dichotomies for the classification of bodies and spaces: inside/outside, pure/contaminated, wild/domesticated. Such dichotomies become both ontological and physical borders, leaving companion species inside and those deemed uncontrollable and undesirable outside. According to Tsing, “with the fetishisation of the home as a space of purity and interdependence, extra-domestic intimacies, whether within or between species, seemed archaic fantasies.”[13] In this way, architectural spaces and in particular “the home cordon off inter- and intra-species love,”[14] preventing our appreciation of the complex relationships that we as human beings establish with other non-human agents constituting our bodies and our environments. We argue that to overcome this binary heritage of design and to understand how relations between organisms may allow spaces to self-regulate, we have to look at the behaviour of the microbial cosmos through a different microscope.

Lynn Margulis. A different look into the microcosmos 

If Pasteur and Koch gazed through the primitive lenses of their primitive microscopes at invisible “enemies”, Lynn Margulis saw a very different picture when staring through the improved electron microscope. Looking closely at the eukaryotic cells which make up animal and plant biology, she hypothesised that their small organelles came from long-term relationships of coexistence. Margulis’ theory of the origin of eukaryotes led to a new hypothesis for evolution which she called symbiogenesis, claiming that the origin of new forms of life was primarily the result of symbiosis. Bacteria, our fundamental symbionts, infiltrate all our ecosystems, including our own bodies. Healthy underarms, clean mouths and functional guts all enjoy unconscious symbiotic relations with all sorts of bacteria. Rather than self-contained individuals, we are “walking assemblages” of different kinds of organisms. This turns on its feet the simplified and biased perception of microbes as enemies we inherited from the 19th century. Margulis’ findings pose a challenge to the notion of the individual and the human species and therefore to all the disciplines founded on anthropocentric principles. What are the consequences for domestic design when its unit of measurement is no longer only the human figure but its tentacular, sticky and flamboyant associations with microbes?

The discovery and visualisation of tuberculosis by Robert Koch in the 19th century was one of the events that contributed to the biased perception that all microbes are enemies to human health
[Fig. 3] The discovery and visualisation of tuberculosis by Robert Koch in the 19th century was one of the events that contributed to the biased perception that all microbes are enemies to human health

Looking at microbes. Allies for co-designing spaces

Microbes are neither inside nor outside but rather function as a continuum between organisms and the environment. Through their metabolic flexibility, they colonize our bodies and our homes, establishing relationships of symbiotic exchange and codependency. Microbes thrive and proliferate precisely within the limits that had previously enabled the separation of such imaginaries, blurring the smooth, shiny black lines that represented the perimeter of domestic spaces. Following these microbial logics, design is today facing the challenge of creating new openings. Donna Haraway describes how it is in “the tunnels, caves, remnants, edges, and crevices of damaged waters, airs, and lands'' where “the symbiogenetic and sympoietic earthly ones” make their living.[15] Interstices which were previously filled with rubber become cavities where microscopic life can grow. The ubiquitousness and insidiousness of the sterilising strategies is substituted by invisible companions which work to promote our mutual health and regulate the environment. They infiltrate the in-between spaces of our homes, destabilising the general aesthetic of purity and cleanliness in favour of more three-dimensional, complex and colourful patterning. Microbes, rather than something to eliminate or a passive element, become our allies for thinking through the dichotomies that have shaped the materials, aesthetics and imaginaries of design.

Taking Margulis’ ideas of symbiogenesissymbiogenesis means opening up design to the possibilities of the unpredictable. Different materialities and agents generate new forms when they respond to one another’s presence over time. Design has a lot to gain from the generative and creative potential of the relationships between different kinds of organisms present in built environments. The domestic interiors of the nineteenth century and the strategies developed in the colonies show how architecture and design have always dealt with living microorganisms. What has changed is what we now know about them. Just as Margaret McFall-Ngai says that “human bodies can no longer be seen as fortresses to defend against microbial onslaught but must be reenvisioned as nested ecosystems,”[16] so neither can buildings continue to be constructed as impenetrable strongholds. Future forms and materials will not result from the designs imposed by humans but rather from unexpected collaborations between forms of life. Designing in symbiotic times also means looking at mycelium growing over strips of wood or algae proliferating overnight inside foam structures. The flexible, the unpredictable, the unstable and the permeable which characterize symbiotic forms of microbial living should stop being suppressed in design to become opportunities for moving beyond anthropocentric conceptions of inert spaces.

The bioreceptive turn. The challenge for interdisciplinary symbiosis

Today, investigations carried out inside scientific laboratories continuously inform design strategies. Cutting-edge research teams in architecture and design schools around the world become increasingly interdisciplinary, including biotechnologists, synthetic biologists, ecologists, biochemical engineers, etc. Some examples moving away from sterilization include probiotic design such as wall tiles or even infant toys, bioreceptive architecture and materials, research into the use of biomaterials including mycelium, bioluminescent bacteria or photosynthetic garments, or the profiling of the home microbiome. New bio receptive structures and materials become ecosystems whose parts work together to self-regulate and find their own balance.

While teams working on these projects are interdisciplinary, a contribution from a socio-behavioral and philosophical point of view is missing. Biotechnological advances in design have to be developed hand in hand with critical and speculative thinking, addressing not only the transformation of materials but also of the collective imaginary. Each field of knowledge explores its relationship to nature (and its microbes) from a different point of view, which is why interdisciplinary forms of creation are an imperative today. We see these methodologies becoming symbiotic processes of working in the in-betweens.


As Donna Haraway says, “Truly nothing is sterile. And that reality is a terrific danger, basic fact of life, and critter-making opportunity.”[17] The reality of this danger has become patently clear today, as we are forced to stop and notice those other forms of life which make their living alongside us. In the encounter with other organisms, “resistance is a fundamental and necessary experience for the human body”,[18] which compels us to reassess our position in the world. The challenge that humans are facing today is not altogether that different from the one experienced at the time of Pasteur and there is a risk that design will respond with the same solutions. An alternative landscape of initiatives is growing which seems to have realised that contemporary spaces have to become ecosystems that host life, rather than build borders. These new strategies also have to contribute to the redefinition of domestic spaces which have recently gained a new relevance. What we have learned from Margulis is that houses with a complex and diverse microbiome are healthier ones. We have the opportunity of using design to bring a different awareness about the ways in which we live entangled with one another. We believe that at this critical time, design must move away from fantasies of polished white bunkers and impermeable concrete walls to messy, kaleidoscopic, hybridised homes where different but connected forms of life can co-exist.

This research was part of the conference The Ecological Turn, Design, Architecture and Aesthetics beyond the “Anthropocene organized by the University of Bologna in 2021 (Doctoral Program Department of Architecture) Read the full publication here


  • 1

    [1] Anna Tsing, “Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species, Environmental Humanities 1, (2012): 141.

    [2] Bruno Latour, The Pasteurization of France, (London: Harvard University Press, 1998), 140-145.

    [3] Anderson,“Excremental Colonialism: Public Health and the Poetics of Pollution”, 652.

    [4] Latour, The Pasteurization of France, 143.

    [5] Latour, The Pasteurization of France, 144.

    [6] Warwick Anderson,“Excremental Colonialism: Public Health and the Poetics of Pollution”, Critical Inquiry 21, no. 3 (1995)

    [7] Annmarie Adams, Architecture in the Family Way: Doctors, Houses, and Women 1870-1900 (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1996),  204-205.

    [8] Hayes,“The Aesthetic Interior as Incubator of Health and Well-Being”, Architectural History 60, (2017):287.

    [9] Adams, Architecture in the Family Way, 37-39.

    [10] Richard Sennett, Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994), 350-370.

    [11] Ira M. Rutkow, “The Surgeon's Glove”, Arch Surg 134, no. 2 (1999): 223.

    [12] Sennett, Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization,310.

    [13] Tsing, Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species, 150.

    [14] Íbid., 141.

    [15] Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, (London: Duke University Press, 2016), 71.

    [16] Margaret McFall-Ngai, “Noticing Microbial Worlds: the Postmodern Synthesis in Biology”, in Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet. Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene, ed. Anna Tsing et al. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017),65.

    [17] Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, 64.

    [18] Sennett, Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization, 324.

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