April 2010

Architecture goes back to nature

BIOPHILIA, BIOMIMICRY, BIONIC ARCHITECTURE: In searching for a meaningful theory, a conceptual framework on which to construct our architecture, three little letters have sprouted like fresh spring grass — all hail, the prefix bio. Today, in the age of biodiversity, it seems that every other architect has clipped a portion of the Greek root word for life, bios, and attached it, like a philosophical lifeline, to projects. Call the current fascination biomania.

Photo © André Souroujon

Fashionable “isms,” in this case using nature as referent, sometimes suffer from the self-absorption and arrogance of the arriviste: What could possibly have interested us prior to the enunciation of these critical principles? Yet popular new theories often have roots that go back in time. Such is the case with today’s bioarchitecture.

Much of the new architectural bioterminology owes a debt to the American organic tradition, including the theories of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright built upon Sullivan’s legacy, investing the term organic architecture with new meaning. Although Wright never fully or adequately described organic, he said a great deal about the term. At its core, Wright described a unified architecture, in which all elements interrelate, and though explicitly human-made, respond to nature. He frequently referred to the whole/part relationship, in which small details and large systems have an affinity. Ultimately, in Wright’s world, entire buildings relate to their natural environment (“a house should not be on but of a hill”): The human-made world and the natural order conjoin.

If Wright’s own organic work describes a kind of pairing with nature, today’s architectural theorists have come up with a specialized-sounding term, biophilia, with its own distinct set of meanings. Perhaps less daunting than it sounds (while etymologically pure, the term nevertheless unfortunately conjures up something ultra-scientific or even, perish the thought, parasitic), biophilia is attracting broader attention, primarily through the sustainability movement. Coined by the biologist E.O. Wilson, biophilia literally means “love of life or living.” As the writer B.J. Novitski reported in GreenSource Magazine (”Courting Nature in Design,” March 2009, page 102), “… we haven’t evolved away from a psychological dependence on the natural world.”

Architectural attributes of biophilic design include attention to basic design elements, such as proximity to daylight, to natural ventilation, and to other living things. Using these principles, architects are designing with a kind of psychological GPS, anchoring a building’s inhabitants safely and comfortably within protected spaces while allowing them a far-reaching perspective onto changing events. When low lighting levels or security requirements preclude the introduction of life-enhancing plants, designers sometimes construct biophilic analogues — such as treelike forms — that produce similar feelings for their users. Biophilic design acknowledges our human roots and responds to our needs.

Biomimicry, a system initially articulated and propounded by scientist and author Janine Benyus, “is the examination of nature, its models, systems, processes, and elements to emulate or take inspiration from …” In biomimicry, we look to natural systems or processes and examine how they might have applications for us. Spiders, for instance, spin skeins of silk that approximate the strength of Kevlar, all through natural means. Leaf composition may point the way to structuring more efficient solar cells.

Benyus describes three ways of examining nature: Nature as model (how does nature do it?); nature as measure (what will last?); and nature as mentor (changing our point of view about the larger world). While many biomimetic projects will produce industrial or behavioral applications, another, more explicitly architectural, theory takes biomimicry one step further.

Bionic architecture, a theory formulated by two Spanish architects, María R. Cervera and Javier Pioz, suggests a new architectural and engineering language whose framework is derived from nature. Rather than imitating natural forms, their architecture takes cues from nature’s inherent or underlying principles, then translates those systems into new forms. How does the bone structure of a bird wing create maximum strength with minimal mass? The results are less literal and more inspired by nature — a new organicism, if you will.

The architects’ Vertical City has been generating controversy within the academic world for a decade. It is a mixed-use “biostructure” that will hold 100,000 persons, save vast areas of land, and reach a height of 4,029 feet. If once thought fantastic, the Vertical City seems attainable in light of the Burj Khalifa. Cervera and Pioz have been developing their plans for a potential location in Asia, possibly Shanghai.

Biomovements are widely dispersed globally. In Japan, the HTA Association and the publisher Shinkenjiku recently published books on “honeycomb architecture,” reminiscent of the ideas and work of Buckminster Fuller. The authors claim to have developed a hyperefficient system, derived from “close observation of the cells of the beeswax membranes” that “inspired the development of precast prestressed concrete honeycomb tube architecture.” Hexagonal forms, repeated, stacked, and bent into curvilinear forms, offer maximum structural capacity with minimal framework (literally, less material required for construction), a sustainable architecture derived from natural models.

Whether stacked, folded, or curved, imitating nature or derived from its principles, the work of today’s architects and the ideas of architectural theorists are sometimes returning to nature for inspiration. After a period that emphasized pure form, we welcome theories that attempt to relate the human being to the larger, natural order, whether biophilic, biomimetic, or bionic — including honeycombs. In all three cases, the ultimate source of the terminology and of the ideas affirms life and offers a new organicism for a technological age. They simply deserve better names.


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