Tag Archives: nature

Machine or Nature

During a period of industrial revolution and mechanization, there remained a thread of discourse that was interested in biological systems. Roughly 100 years ago, modernism was emerging in architecture through implementation of the then current technological innovations. New methods of mass production and new high-strength, light-weight materials were deployed to shape a modern world of tomorrow fitted with the latest conveniences for modern life. Advocates of the movement were inspired by the efficient technology of the machine. Transportation vehicles such as the airplane, automobile, and ocean liner enabled man to travel great distances, which previously took days or weeks on horseback, in a relatively short time. Production and manufacturing had achieved massive efficiency. Science had taken the place of philosophy in terms of logic and thinking. Architect’s searched for ways to build with the same functionality, creating “machines”, as Le Corbusier put it, “for living in.”

We know all too well the history of European modernism that rose from a post-war environment of necessity, and then immigrated to America to first become a symbol of capitalism, then corporate power in the skyscraper, then mutated with classicism for ‘aesthetic’ purposes, and ultimately classified into ‘styles’ referred to as ‘functionalism’, ‘minimalism’, or ‘international style’…etc. It is becoming more and more prevalent and widely used by designers who reject notions of ornamentation and classical architecture, often called ‘traditional’. These are not new ideas, in fact they are quite old, and the canon of ‘modern architecture’, using platonic solids and pure geometrical forms has replaced the renaissance as the ‘traditional’.

Just as the modernists of last century were inspired by the technology of their day, so are the architects of the 21st century. Over the past decade or two, advances in computation and software development has given new tools to designers, resulting in a proliferation of form generation with increasing geometrical complexity. Advances in the fields of robotics, genetic research, and artificial intelligence inspire architects to design and ultimately build with the sophistication of intelligent organisms. Natural systems are researched bringing a bio-mimetic generation to form-giving and architectural design. As early as 1968, computational systems such as the Lindenmayer system (after the Hungarian biologist, Aristid Lindenmayer), were developed to simulate natural growth and branching through a recursive process. Today, computational software enables architects to deploy and manipulate similar logics to building design.

Some may discard this trajectory as unimportant, reacting only to a visual impulse. Many morphological productions and explorations have been classified as ‘blobs’, and regarded to as unbuildable, digital art. The research is still relatively experimental and considered an infant, though manufacturing capabilities are rapidly being developed to realize the designs. CAM techniques using computer numeric controlled (CNC) milling, water or laser cutting is enabling the work to translate from a cyber environment into a physical one. Just as the pioneers of the modern movement made proposals for a new tomorrow, so are many of today’s architects foreseeing a possible world of intelligent cities and -literally- ‘smart growth’ for the next century. Throughout architectural history, advances in world technology as inspired thinkers to imagine other possible worlds. Inspired by the complexity of growth systems and behavioral patterns of mother nature, rather than man-made machines, the ambition of the discipline is placed beyond the existing creations of man, and after the designs of the Master Creator.



Thoughts on Complexity

The observation of nature, both living and inanimate systems, reveals a beautiful complexity that operates at every scale from macro to micro. To touch on how the philosopher Whitehead put it, patterns of activity are constantly interacting with each other producing organizations of relating systems that are in constant flux, change and adaptation to each other. In every case, behaviors are present that are irreducible in their parts and revealed only in the top level hierarchy of their development when all the participating agents are present and active. This can occur in many overlapping layers with each level of relationships creating a more complex organization than the preceding level. At any level, the organization of the holistic system is more than the individual components that form it. The more sophisticated systems are present only when upper levels are complete, and are untraceable and unpredictable at lower levels of component groupings.

This phenomenon is around us in the natural world everywhere, the patterns on the surface of a body of water, the bark and branching of trees, the way the leaves react when the wind influences them. Complexity is found in dynamic manmade environments, such as the walking patterns on a crowded city sidewalk, or a packed freeway. When the manmade world blends with the natural, the potential for more and more complexity and unpredicability is presented.

Searching for complexity in working systems of the built environment offers a sophistication that can push architecture beyond the presence of form or function. It has the potential to create a living organism that can be in a symbiotic harmony with its natural environment and its biological hosts. And with this comes a changing, unpredictable architecture that offers new perception through life.


Blue to Green

“Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realize we cannot eat money.”

-Cree Indian Proverb

We see the signs in weather patterns. Catastrophic storms, rising ocean levels, melting polar ice caps, shrinking forests, all are effects of global warming. The term ‘sustainability‘ has become a heroic catch phrase within the discipline of architecture…and rightfully so.

 But can ‘green design’ be more than just the latest trend that corporate architecture paints onto its facade to promote business? What can architecture do as a social catalyst that changes the living patterns of the human race? Building construction and the growth of cities is one of the leading producers of waste, greenhouse gases and energy consumption. Can emerging digital processes and manufacturing technologies push architecture and construction practices away from the tradition of consumption and into a future of healthy stewardship of planet earth?

The automobile industry has moved in this direction with the development of hybrid and electrical vehicles. The recently completed ford factory has made a statement in green building techniques and production. Architecture is following, but there needs to be more than simply using recycled materials, reclaiming water, and planting an array of photo-voltaic panels on the roof.

Prefabrication of architectural components that are implanted with data intelligence can be designed to reduce on site construction waste. Factories themselves can become smaller and more mobile, producing and assembling these components through robotic computation. Architecture can become more fluid in flexible in how it is constructed leaving less of an ecological impact on the blue planet.

H two O

The underlying attraction of the movement of water…is biological. If we look more deeply we can see it as the basis of an abstract idea linking ourselves with the limitless mechanics of the universe.

– Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe

Water…one of the most fundamental elements of life on this planet. It has the ability to transform states between liquid, solid and gas. It has the potential to form and shape earth and stone with complex beauty. It has the capability to cleanse or destroy, to sustain life or drown it. It has a magical effect on the mind and spirit. It has inspired architects for millenia.


Humanity, like all life, flocks to water. Civilizations have risen or declined due to its availability. Coastal cities have grown through the centuries due to maritime ports. Beaches and lakes draw visitors from dry land seeking an oasis. Vacationers flock to island seas, or snow-capped mountains for recreation. Water has an amazing draw, it is essential to our life and lifestyle.
75% of our planet is covered by the odorless, tasteless and colorless element, of that 97.5% is salty. 40% of the earth’s atmosphere falls to the surface through precipitation each day. This feeds the plant life, which feeds the animal life, and makes its way into lakes, rivers, ice caps, groundwater etc. before eventually draining to the oceans. As the sun heats the ocean surface, water evaporates again replenishing the atmosphere. The earth’s continuous water cycle, through flows in the sky and currents in the sea is what sustains life.
70% of a tree is made of water, 80% of corn, 90% of a tomato, 70% of a chicken, and 70% of an average human. All from a simple combination of two small hydrogen atoms bonded to one large atom of oxygen. The hydrogen bonds that connect the atoms into water molecules forms an unequal distribution of electric charges which allows the electrostatic shifting of electrons. Each hydrogen atom is thus attracted to the oxygen atom of a neighboring molecule and bonds to it with the tenacity greater than the molecules of some metals. The hydrogen atoms form an infinite string that is configured as a structural lattice that constantly shifts from one configuration to the next every fraction of a second.
In architecture, water is often used as another material, collected in pools or fountains. It has directed site design and planning, orienting a view, collected for sustainability, or utilized for power generation. It has ever had an incredible influence on the human psyche, mesmerizing the eyes and ears with its soothing undulation and refreshing acoustics. These are valuable uses for this fundamental element of life, but is there something more that we, as architects, can learn from this amazing molecule?
Can we learn to build in a life-sustaining way, that offers unending fluidity and flexibility through deploying a simple ‘molecular’ unit? Is it possible to achieve the emotional, physical and structural attributes of water in architecture?
Can we build liquid architecture?
The future is wide open…
H20 The Beauty and Mystery of Water. Harry N. Abrams, Inc. New York, 2001.
Wikipedia: water. http://www.answers.com/topic/water website access 02/2007
Pacific Institute. http://www.worldwater.org/ website accessed 02/2007


L-screen, based on Lindenmayer substitution system

As the discourse and exploration into computation as architectural design continues, more insight is being offered into the potentials of tomorrow’s digitally charged world. New techniques for form generation and fitness criteria in which to test these forms are developing at a remarkable pace. Architects are becoming part biologist and part computer scientist, studying the natural world in order to implement biological growth strategies into digitally simulated environments to achieve a complexity that is unpredictable and beyond the individual will of the designer. Virtual agents are programmed with behavioral information that can be translated into formal patterns, populations, and structural systems. Evolutionary techniques propagate agents through mating and mutation breeding an offspring that contains a mix of its parent agents creating a sort of ‘genetic vitality’ that is then subject to the fitness criteria of the environment being designed. These reproduced generations can take on any number of attributes. Architecturally, they can be volumes of space that represent rooms, they can be panelized shapes that create a surfacing system, they can be structural members that form a mesh… Whatever the interpretation is the will of the designer.

The power of these evolutionary computing tools are undeniably potent, and the result of a well constructed system is visually amazing. Yet the seduction of the presented product may be misleading, the concept of ‘hands-off’ design / bio-mimetic evolutionary processes has a fundamental flaw, and the research of generative morphogenetic design often overlooks the one of the most basic reasons for architecture to exist in the first place.

Thousands of years ago, at the beginning of mankind’s recorded history, architecture was created out of necessity for shelter from the natural world. Throughout the centuries, it has represented many monumental ideals of man’s philosophy; the immortality of the pyramid, the grandeur of the palace, the might of the fortress, the divinity of the cathedral… It has provided solitude for the individual, comfort for the family, kinship for the community, commerce for the city, and headquarters for the nation. Architecture has throughout history served mankind for specific purposes and offered a reading of human culture that invigorates the health of societal networks. Unfortunately, it has also represented man’s conquest over nature rather than our symbiosm with it. And nature continues to prove that it is more powerful, more beautiful, more intelligent, and through increased capability and investigation, we discover its designs are more amazingly complex and fascinating.

natural packing in blackberries

What can we learn from nature in order to better understand how to deploy natural systems into architectural design? Evolutionary processes in nature are contained within species and environment. Small genetic alterations are presented through mating and mixing of the gene pool, but this is always done within a species, kind with kind and type with type. Mutations in biological organisms do not enhance the organism or its performance, but rather contaminate it. Sometimes, these mutations can be passed on devitalizing the genealogy through each successive generation. When introduced to a fitness function such as the environment, natural selection demands the survival of the strongest and best equipped for the environment, allowing them to mate and pass on the fittest genes into the next generation gene pool. The mutations die out and do not survive.

Evolution through adaptation is evident within species who adapt to their habitat, strengthening their genetic chances for survival to the next generation. However, no scientific evidence shows evolution between species at a genetic level. In order to be tested by the fitness criteria, a complete phenotypic model must be presented. From the entire organism to the individual systems within the organism, a completed phenotype must be tested. The test cannot occur at any level lower than the completed whole, due to the fact that the complex systems are more than the sum of the individual parts that compose them. The skeletal system, the muscular system, circulatory system, must all be complete in order to test against the fitness criteria and ensure they are strong enough to survive and be passed on. Each organ in the biological body must be complete to perform its function. An organism could not survive without complete lungs to breathe, or with a complete heart to pump…the organism would not live while small mutations to an incomplete lung were being tested to see if it could provide for the respiratory needs of the body. How would it pass on genetic information if it does not survive? A single bone does not perform its function apart from the adjacent bones of the skeletal system, and this compressive structure needs the muscular system to operate it. The muscle needs blood from the circulatory system, which carries oxygen from the respiratory system…and so on. Every complex system at every level within the natural world is more than the sum of its parts and critical to the phenotype’s condition of survival and genetic continuation. Where do the specific phenotypes come from? They must be designed.


Porous structural wall

How does this inform the architectural trajectory? Design is inevitable. There are always fitness criteria in which to test and measure the performance of every generation, but at every level, it is up to the designer to impose their design judgment upon the work. Just as in the complexity of the natural design is undeniable, so too in the search for generative techniques in architecture. In the sight of architecture’s potential and the proliferation of seducing forms being produced in today’s academic arenas, the architect must not overlook the consideration of its human users. This does not imply that architecture cannot exist without people…it can. Nor does this imply that architecture cannot strive beyond the reach of this planet’s current physical reality, including gravity, solar and atmospheric conditions, and time. What it does imply, that the human race is an existing species, expected to adapt and survive and not expected to evolve into another species. Architecture will continue to be designed by humans and for humans, creating a better tomorrow and ensuring the genetic vitality of our cultures.

The quest to mimic the natural environment through architectural research and development is noble. It is inevitably the path toward a future where man-made architecture becomes more like biological organisms co-existing with nature rather than attempting to control it. Through this partnership the world will be enhanced with a human / nature symbiosis rich with architectural complexity, variation, interest and fascination.