Nature as System

Architecture has traditionally been very rectilinear with simple forms.  In Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction, he explains how Modernists have even taken this too far, and how, rather than celebrate complexities through juxtaposition and other means, some architects have minimalized their designs with the ideal that “Less is More.” They have ommitted a number of key aspects of their designs that may have caused certain relationships that Venturi praises.

Recently, rain has become a bit of a norm in New Jersey, something we see almost every day and dread with each passing hour of cloud-filled skies and fall/spring worthy temperatures.  But today was different.  Today I was sitting at work down at the lake, and usual, it began to rain.  Now, I have lived on the same lake for my entire life, and have seen nature’s phenomena numerous times.  But, as Sarah Drake once said, once you are an architect, you begin to see the world completely different.  I am beginning to see this is true.

While sitting on the dock, I began to notice the patterns of the raindrops on the lake, and after this, the amorphous forms at the surface of the water.  Normally, I would have brushed this off as nothing, but I started to think about derivation of forms, and then about biomimicry.  Did they form randomly? Did the topography of the lake change in these spots? How do these forms change over time?

During my first year, I typically tried to make some sort of system in my work, finding both success and failure.  To me, it always seemed like I needed some sort of concrete reasoning behind my form (at least until Don Johnson pointed out that forms can be derived without systems and still be compelling).  Anyway, it caused me to think: does nature have a system?  We know about the many biological cycles, the periodic table, and the atomic structures of everything around us, but do raindrops fall in a certain pattern, do trees grow in a certain pattern?  With the rise of biomimicry in architecture, as well as many engineering and other sciences, the human race has tried to realize nature’s many systems in the built environment, from the veins of leaves, to the organization of cells, but for what reason?  Are these forms compelling, or is there something else about these arrangements that causes us to reinvent nature?  In Cradle to Cradle, the authors repetedly give the example of the cherry tree: although the leaves and blossoms are considered “waste,” they still provide nutrients for the soil around the tree and provide food for other organisms.  Is this the goal of biomimicry, to create net zero losses?

In an article about Zaha’s Performing Arts Center in Abu Dhabi, the structure is described as “a ‘biological analogy’ whose primary components (branches, stems, fruits, and leaves) are then ‘transformed from these abstract diagrams into architectonic design.’ We can only hope that such poetic biomimicry will be translated into green functions, materials, and technologies as well.”

As it starts to rain and thunder for the billionth time today I leave you with a few notes: What are your thoughts on biomicicry?  Or have you also noticed something that you normally wouldn’t have, if it weren’t for your “new” architectural mind?  If not, try looking at the rain, noticing the profile line created by the setting sun behind a cloud, or the section cut of a pepper or rotting tree.  Inspiration comes from everywhere, but it is our role to take this imspiration and turn it into architecture.



6 Responses to “Nature as System”

  1. 2009/07/03 at 10:19 am

    Bravo, Dan! This is a hearty post. The lake pictures are beautiful, and for a second, I thought you had a Zaha building on your lake. Haha.

    NJ’s downpour has had a slightly different on my backyard: mushrooms of all shapes and colors are popping up everywhere (we’ve had a good time trying to keep the dog away from them…), and everything is just so green. Pretty amazing what a little bit of water can do.

    Living in the suburbs of NJ also means spending a lot of time in the car (much to my dismay), so your comment about patterns of rainfall remind me of rain on windows and windshields, and the watching the drops catch up to each other as they slid across the glass. Almost poetic.

    Cradle to Cradle’s William McDonough has a recent project you might want to take a look at: http://www.mcdonoughpartners.com/projects/hlat/default.asp?ProjID=hlat

  2. 2 Pablo Garcia
    2009/07/03 at 10:39 am

    Biomimicry, in some sense, is well entrenched in a long history of looking to nature for architecture. Pre- and Anti- moderns throughout the 20th century used nature as their counter-argument for orthodox modernism, be it Frank Lloyd Wright (the most famous 20th c. example) or lesser-known “organics” like Bruce Goff and Bart Prince (all pre-digital). This argument goes waaaay back, even to the inspiration in nature for the Classical column orders (note the acanthus leaves in the Corinthian column). You can even find nature-based reactions throughout history, such as Marc-Antoine Laugier’s essay on architecture (1753), urging architects to remember the “primitive” rustic hut as the origins of architecture.

    So, in my opinion, biomimicry as “nature inspiration” is nothing new. Danny is right that the SYSTEMATICITY of nature into architecture is the flavor du jour.

    But you all have to ask yourselves two questions:
    1. Is it enough to turn the systems of nature into forms of architecture?
    2. Is it really our role to turn our inspirations into architecture?

    The first one is easy: Many of the forms you see are the “architecturalization”, the “solidification”, the “freezing” of the dynamic biomorphic systems using steel, concrete, glass, and other standard materials, sometimes aided by digital processes. Is this anything more than the “sculpturization” of architecture? What does that ACTUALLY change other than what architecture looks like in a skyline or on a magazine cover? Where are the spatial inventions other than twisty forms? It is not yet clear with many of these buildings.

    Two: a larger discussion. First, is it really your inspiration that becomes form? Or an inspiration that can become space? Is the inspiration a quality of space or a form seen in a cloud? And in the end, who is to say what is the “proper” inspiration for a project? I don;t tend to care, personally, where architecture comes from, but what concerns me is the second part of the inspiration question: the translation. How does one translate an idea into architecture (note I did not say “…into form”). The complexity of spatial experience can be rendered in white boxes or in swooping curves, but how do you take what interests you and make space at full scale with construction materials and techniques and fulfills some predetermined set of functions? That is the real challenge at stake with Danny’s question, not the “correctness” or “appropriateness” of a current architectural trend.

  3. 4 Richman N
    2009/08/15 at 3:53 pm

    I’ve a got a few thoughts!!

    Nature is an extremely opportunistic and reactive animal. That’s kinda what it means to have equilibrium as one’s goal, after all: arbitrary decisions probably create more problem than they solve. Raindrops fall in particular spots AS A RESULT OF density patterns in cloudmass; trees grow in particular spots AS A RESULT OF rainfall/sunlight patterns. Nature doesn’t grow itself a tree in Antarctica, then step back and think, “wait, okay, this will be a problem, let’s reroute some warm air, nutrients and water down there to keep it alive.” That’s arbitrary and active – the opposite of “opportunistic and reactive”.

    If we took Darwin’s theory of evolution and extended it to the furthest reaches of its applicability, I think we’d find Nature’s schematic for “addressing program” and “designing for function” just like we do in studios. It’s just that, well, Nature’s kinda had a few billion more years than we have to learn about the needs of its inhabitants and design accordingly. The amount of critical thinking required for architects to make up that time difference is simply unattainable.

    Nature stands for “a superb level of forethought and planning” regarding inhabitants, regenerability, resourcefulness, etc. As such, I respect adaptation of nature from an engineering standpoint.

    I have a problem with adaptation of nature from an artistic standpoint, because logic is often absent from the proceedings. The artists claim “well, if you keep asking ‘why’ about everything, you’re gonna limit yourself into completely logical forms, come on man, just let loose and MAKE for a change!” However, did Nature do anything as arbitrary as “just let loose and MAKE” when it arrived at the current forms of its inhabitants? No way.

    If we’re simply willing to think further into the field of reason than ever before, we will arrive at equally mind-stretching concepts and forms as if we just spontaneously made an “organic building” – but our resulting building will be infinitely more applicable and useful than the bio-trend which creeps into architecture today.

    An example of “thinking further” that I’ve been grappling with since the IDM lecture which first mentioned “parametric modeling”:
    Is there a worldwide urban/architectural planning logic which would work better than “right angles”/boxes/rectangles?
    Argument for squares: North and South offer very unique material properties to magnetic substances, as do East and West where those properties are neutralized. Sunrises and sunsets work along the East-West axis (frequently drifting off the axis severely, though).
    Argument against squares: If you have X square feet of material, the resulting hollow sphere would have way more volume than the resulting hollow cube. Lots of other shapes tesselate in three dimensions the way stacked boxes do, but provide better surface-area/volume efficiency!

  4. 5 Richman N
    2009/08/15 at 4:18 pm

    Sorry guys, more thoughts I had just after posting:


    In response to Pablo’s first question, I think it is within architecture’s engineering spirit to take in Nature’s engineering spirit. BUT WE ARE NOT CELLS, OR WATER MOLECULES, OR VESICLES, or whatever! In a plant, a xylem tube is where water moves up the plant, and it’s one of the strongest structural pieces in a stem; because of its strength, the phloem tube (where complex nutrients move from the leaves down to the storage roots/tubers/whatever) consequently is found attached to it. I see numerous people comparing vertical aspects of their buildings to “the xylem/phloem relationship” when the properties of the building’s vertical aspects do not depend on strength! That’s an arbitrary comparison, then, isn’t it?

    Another example: Buildings which grow upward and become largest at the top, to “maximize light intake” like a plant’s leaves. There are most likely other ways to achieve this which tax the building’s engineering less severely – top-heavy buildings are more risky than bottom-heavy ones. These architects confuse certain plant attributes: LIGHT is why plants’ leaves grow above their competitor plants, and WATER EVAPORATION, which happens in leaves’ stomata to inspire water intake from the roots, is why plants’ leaves grow on the ends of their branches.

    Anyway. My point is, Nature thought out a heck of a lot of little details, and each has a good reason.

    -Form-based or formal architects address specific problems in a *different* way from the last generation of architecture. Recently, organic shapes have become a trend.
    -Architects who truly follow Nature address specific problems in a *better* way than the last generation of architects. After all, it’s simply Darwin’s Theory of Evolution!

    Consequently, I think the answer to Pablo’s second question depends. If they’re art-based inspirations, that alone doesn’t validate their construction. If they’re reason-based inspirations, then they’re called “reasonings” and I change my opinion.

    Holy heck, I just went from “haven’t thought about this in 3 months” to “I have organized ideas about the whole matter” in an hour. My brain hurts.

    And who decided that we would write our posts in a serif font, then they would become sans-serif posts? :P

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