The University of Pennsylvania

As scientists continue to build structures at a microscopic scale, they uncover new opportunities related to material architecture. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have recently discovered a new method of assembling liquid crystals in a radiating disc structure, resulting in an insect-like compound eye that may be used as a lens.

The new method is indicative of an approach known as "directed assembly," in which scientists grow microstructures by providing basic physical and chemical parameters, as opposed to individually placing each element. In this sense, scientists are approaching this work like architects, and their material parameters are the equivalent of building drawings and specifications.

"Before we were growing these liquid crystals on something like a trellis, a template with precisely ordered features," said Randall Kamien, a professor in the physics and astronomy department, in a university press release. "Here, we're just planting a seed."

This process is not unlike parametric design, which allows users to plant seeds, so to speak, to create complex, algorithmically generated forms that would otherwise be challenging and time-consuming to draw.

As knowledge of material properties increases, scientists and architects will have something else in common: the means of assembling materials themselves, at a nanoscale or building scale, will also become more automated and sophisticated, enabling parametric construction using smart materials and self-assembling components.

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.