A growing interest in natural systems within the design disciplines suggests a compelling direction for architectural education. Biomimicry, sustainability, and emergence have become buzzwords representing the search for a deeper understanding of ecological processes. In Janine M. Benyus’ Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature (Harper Collins, 2009), biologist Wes Jackson reminds us of our ignorance of the natural world, advocating that we be “ever mindful that human cleverness must remain subordinate to nature’s wisdom.” In Design and the Elastic Mind (Museum of Modern Art, 2008), curator and co-author Paola Antonelli proposes a role for future designers as “society’s new pragmatic intellectuals… changing from form giver[s] to fundamental interpreter[s] of an extraordinarily dynamic reality.” In a recent graduate design studio at the University of Minnesota, where I teach, colleague Marc Swackhamer, AIA, and I sought to establish a pedagogical framework through which architecture students might successfully translate nature’s wisdom into compelling design applications.
The starting point for our new studio is our book Hypernatural: Architecture’s New Relationship with Nature (Princeton Architectural Press, 2015). There, we describe an interest in natural principles that has begun to have a measurable influence in a variety of fields. From nanocellulose-based photovoltaics made from trees to textile domes woven by silk worms, this interest has led to provocative forms of creative production in which nature is treated more like a partner in the design process than a resource to be exploited. Hypernatural addresses a set of methods by which designers may amplify or extend natural processes instead of working against them. The belief is that this approach can lead not only to more environmentally attuned applications, but also to refreshingly novel design practices.
For the seven-week studio, we had student teams pursue one of three methods based on general phases of natural construction. The first phase, behavioral design, emphasizes the pre-construction phase of a project in which specific characteristics are predicted to unfold as a direct result of well-understood natural behaviors. The second phase, genetic design, considers a project during construction, focusing on the role of genes as biological building blocks that determine future growth. The third phase, epigenetic design, considers a project after construction and addresses the ways in which a mature system can respond to external forces.
In the first week of studio, student pairs investigated each of the three methods. Given the general architectural prompt of the future learning environment, students selected and researched several natural models that fit particular design goals and included considerations such as acoustics, lighting, spatial definition, way finding, and fabrication. Of all the teams, those pursuing genetic design found the most direct application of such considerations in natural models.
For example, one team curious about acoustic control researched the wing of the field cricket (shown above). The students were interested in the sound amplification and reflection properties of the male cricket wing, an appendage formed of cuticle made of chitin nanofibers. Varying densities of chitin strands within the protein matrix determine both the structural capacity and acoustical properties of the wing. Inspired by this example, the students sought to design a lightweight, self-supporting acoustic surface that could be readily located to amplify a presenter’s voice while shielding against undesired noise. They aspired to pursue a mono-material strategy, using recycled paper pulp to fabricate an expansive structured sheet with strategically located folds and voids.
Another team became captivated with the sessile barnacle and its growth process. Once the barnacles become attached to a surface, they develop protective plates that continually push outwards and upwards until an obstacle is met or they reach maturity. Seeking to translate this growth pattern into a new form of additive manufacturing, the students custom-built a rudimentary 3D-printing apparatus that mimicked this development in an accelerated fashion by pushing up dry mixtures of plaster and mortar followed by cementing sprays of water. Noting that barnacles grow taller in relatively confined spaces, the team developed a process whereby different nozzle spacings produce cylindrical modules of varying heights and diameters. They proposed an application of these modules in a skylight system with highly-attuned daylighting control (shown above).
The teams pursuing epigenetic design found many compelling examples of natural models that respond to external stimuli. But they encountered difficulty in translating these models into architectural applications due to the increased complexities of responsive mechanisms in natural systems. For example, one team researched the Venus flytrap, the carnivorous plant that clamps down to trap its prey when multiple trigger hairs are touched. Noting that the bi-stable plant activates based on a shift in the turgor pressure within its cells, the students created a responsive surface based on varying fluid pressure—in this case, compressed air. Another team became captivated with the flocking behavior of starlings, which form clouds of shifting densities in which no birds collide. The students created an elaborate luminaire composed of a multitude of suspended light modules (shown below). Magnets placed strategically within each unit helped to maintain the inter-modular distance. Moreover, a concealed sensor triggers a small motor, sending a subtle vibration through the artificial flock in the presence of a viewer.
The behavioral projects turned out to be the most unusual in nature, and at the same time exhibited their own inherent challenges. One team investigated how termites eat wood. The students devised a plan to create a novel subtractive manufacturing process in which live termites would carve multilayered, acoustically absorptive patterns into plywood panels (shown below). But after obtaining a colony of live termites and setting them loose on a variety of wood samples in custom-built vitrines—an unexpected practice in a school of architecture, to be sure—the students determined that they would need much larger and more aggressive (and therefore more difficult to secure) termites in order to test full-scale applications within the allotted time. As a result, they decided to join the studio’s other behavioral team, which was experimenting with crystal growth. This larger group determined that strong building modules could be fashioned out of sodium tetraborate decahydrate—or borax—crystals, which would solidify upon polyester batting substrates placed in boiling water. After a number of tests, the students devised a process to manufacture a new kind of crystalline masonry, each unit of which can support more than 400 times its own weight. The team sought to construct a small interior enclosure with these modules, although their ambitions were tempered by the time required for crystal growth, with each module requiring six hours to produce.
The atypical design studio resulted in similarly unanticipated applications. After all, insect wing–inspired acoustic panels or crystalline masonry may never become commonplace in building construction. Nevertheless, the half-semester design course offered at least two benefits to the traditional architectural curriculum. First, all students engaged in a deeply heuristic educational process, producing full-scale design prototypes using their intended materials. Moreover, they all devised their own fabrication methods to construct these prototypes—a valuable experience rarely taught in conventional technology classes. Second, the students gained valuable expertise in the workings of various natural organisms and phenomena, and they learned to eschew preconceptions of acceptable architectural applications in favor of developing an authentic knowledge of natural principles.
To be sure, this kind of course cannot replace core design studios, yet it can offer something valuable within an elective sequence. After all, it is refreshing to see students continually engaged in the design process, without becoming limited by their own presuppositions as typically occurs in core studios. By subduing their own version of Jackson’s “human cleverness” in this way, they invite some of nature’s wisdom to become their own.