Like many fields, architecture is increasingly influenced by the call for more collaboration among disciplines. In practice, the emphasis is on improved collaborative processes, like integrated project delivery. In higher education, administrators attempt to soften the boundaries between disciplinary silos with incentives, such as funding, for faculty and students from different departments to work together. The Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College, in Northfield, Minn., presents a strong argument for interdisciplinary education, citing research that lists its numerous advantages to include critical thinking, the recognition of bias, tolerance for ambiguity, and the acknowledgment and appreciation of ethical concerns. Still, academics and practitioners aware of the time required to develop disciplinary expertise express understandable concerns about the potential distraction that such training poses. Yet a recent experience has revealed to me that these experiences can actually clarify and reinforce disciplinary knowledge and skills.
In a graduate design studio at the University of Minnesota, which I co-taught with HouMinn principal and head of the university's architecture school, Marc Swackhamer, we worked with faculty and students from the university's College of Biological Sciences to translate biological precedents into architectural proposals. The process is similar to the biologists at the design table model promoted by the Biomimicry 3.8, in Missoula, Mont., in which biology experts facilitate the emulation of natural organisms and processes in design. In this half-semester course, we gave students the option to pursue not only biomimicry but also biodesign, a method of working directly with living systems rather than mimicking them. The regular participation of biologists in the studio and design review settings revealed several benefits of bringing together separate disciplines in pursuit of a clear objective.
Developing More and Better Ideas
The first advantage is an increase in the quantity and quality of novel ideas. When architecture students are intent on understanding unfamiliar topics, such as the workings of natural organisms, their chances to develop innovative designs expand. In one project, a team of students studied how cuttlefish manipulate light with their skin. Recent research revealed that these animals use a light-sensing protein in their skin called opsin, which is also found in human retinas. Cuttlefish skin actively manipulates light by transforming its depth and structure, creating tiny bumps that emulate the colors and textures of the surrounding environment. Based on this approach, the students developed a system of dynamic apertures (shown below) that regulate light using a self-folding process. When more light and view are desired, the origami-like cells open up and become volumetric, changing the form of the overall surface and enabling a self-shading phenomenon. Because the students initiated their design process with biology rather than a traditional studio brief, they were able to propose a new kind of dynamic envelope and overcome the tendency to emulate conventional window or skylight technologies.
Knowing the Role of an Architect …
Another outcome is the sharpened awareness of the nature of architecture as a discipline. By working with biologists, architecture students are immediately conscious of the fundamental approaches, techniques, and conceptual thinking that architects employ—especially when working with collaborators who use entirely different methods. Most importantly, the qualities that define architecture percolate to the surface. For example, one team of students studied a species of black bamboo that exhibits running growth. After discussing the plant with the biologists, the team decided to employ live bamboo in their architectural proposal (shown below). Using a soft rather than a heavy hand, they devised a system of varying soil hydration and nutrition to seed a collection of architectural spaces with a predetermined density, spacing, orientation, and height for the plantings. This cultivation approach not only required the team to become knowledgeable about bamboo behavior but also to develop the essential spatial character of the habitable volumes they wished to create—without using conventional building materials.
… And Acting Like One
A third benefit is an increase in collaboration and leadership. When architecture students work with students from other disciplines, something remarkable happens: They begin to act as architects. They become conscious of their potential roles as leaders, project orchestrators, and design integrators, and begin to model this behavior in the classroom. The presence of other disciplines supercharges the intellectual atmosphere, and architecture students exhibit increased enthusiasm, empathy, and tolerance of criticism. For example, one group of students studied cacti to understand how they conserve water in harsh environments. Their biological consultants were unapologetic in correcting the students’ preliminary and incorrect assumptions about cactus behavior, yet the students remained unfazed. Rather than become defensive, which might have occurred with architecture instructors and peers, they listened carefully to understand the biology’s more complex functions. Maintaining a gracious and respectful attitude, the students persevered in devising an innovative envelope system that guides and stores water from dew and rain events. At the final review, the biologists were effusive in their comments about the architecture students’ productive process and functionally accurate outcome.
Finding New Roles for Architecture
A fourth advantage is the development of new ways that architecture can help to advance other fields. Our biology collaborators were impressed with how architecture students can quickly study a precedent and represent it meaningfully. They were also inspired by the students’ ability to make important conceptual connections between disparate areas of expertise. They said that these two capacities are viewed as increasingly necessary for scientific progress since ever-more complex information requires sophisticated visualization, and valuable insights often arise from comparing different areas of specialization. For example, one student team investigated the wayfinding capabilities of ants, which communicate using complex pheromone trails. The architecture students created an animation to simply demonstrate this invisible phenomenon. Next, they developed a system of responsive floor tiles (top image) that detect human footsteps and communicate a building occupant’s presence as radiating waves of light that slowly fade over time. This human-scale visual simulation of a pheromone trail generated substantive discussions about the socio-behavioral dimensions of group communication in other species, such as fish and gorillas, which share some uncanny similarities in information-sharing and response.
Despite these benefits, caution remains. For example, students might be distracted and directionless unless well-defined objectives are established at the outset. Furthermore, students may require additional time to develop necessary disciplinary expertise within an increasingly specialized field. A balance must therefore be struck between architecture-focused education and interdisciplinary learning. Yet, as this studio experience has demonstrated, successful interdisciplinary opportunities can teach critical field-based skills—such as original thinking, disciplinary awareness, collaborative leadership, and the development of new channels for contribution—even better than traditional architecture courses. Architecture curricula have a better chance of producing future leaders, thus serving the profession more effectively, by judiciously incorporating these opportunities into architecture degree programs.