Architecture & design Energy & environment

Design for life

Biomimicry is the discipline of designing buildings that simulate or co-opt processes that occur in nature, enabled through understanding the rules governing those forms. So how are how new computational platforms driving new possibilities in architecture and to what extent might a biomimetic approach become mainstream? Abi Millar explores the topic with Michael Pawlyn of Exploration Architecture and EcoLogicStudio founders Claudia Pasquero and Marco Poletto.

When Michael Pawlyn worked on the Eden Project in Cornwall, 20 years ago, biomimetic architecture was generating a buzz. Dubbed ‘the world’s largest greenhouse’, the project is composed of self-heating domes that simulate a range of tropical and temperate environments. Visitors can trek through the South American rainforest en route to the Australian grasslands, passing banana trees, cacao plants, citrus groves and waterfalls on the way.

As well as housing a rich plant ecosystem, these ‘biomes’ are based on natural structures. Their hexagonal panels were inspired by studying dragonfly wings, while the copper-clad roof evokes the arrangement of leaves on a plant stem. They are textbook examples of biomimicry, in the sense first popularised by the science writer Janine Benyus in 1997.

“[People] are exploring nature’s masterpieces… and then copying these designs and manufacturing processes to solve our own problems,” she wrote. “I call their quest biomimicry – the conscious emulation of life’s genius. Innovation inspired by nature.”

For Pawlyn, then part of the team at Grimshaw Architects, this was the start of an ongoing love affair with biomimicry. He founded Exploration Architecture in 2007, before publishing the bestselling Biomimicry in Architecture in 2011.

“I was convinced that the idea [of biomimicry] was taking off 15 years ago, which is partly why I launched Exploration,” he explains. “But it passed the hype stage probably 10 years ago, and in the architectural world it is only recently out of the trough of disillusionment.”

He is using the terminology of the Gartner Hype Cycle – the idea that most new technologies follow a trajectory from ‘hype’ to ‘disillusionment’ through to ‘enlightenment’. If the thinking holds, then biomimetic architecture – once overhyped before falling out of favour – is on the cusp of making a more reasoned, deliberate comeback.

“Conventional sustainability is not enough, because it’s really just about mitigating negatives – somehow we need to go beyond that to a realm where we’re optimising positives,” he says. “This means rethinking our relationship with the rest of the living world, and striving for a state of coevolution with nature. And I happen to think a lot of the solutions we need are to be found using biomimicry.”

When we think about biomimetic buildings, perhaps the most obvious starting point is architecture that mimics natural forms. From the interior of the Sagrada Familia (which resembles a forest), to Kisho Kurokawa’s Helix City (based on the structure of DNA), examples aren’t hard to find. Nature has probably served as an inspiration for as long as there have been manmade structures.

However, these are more strictly instances of biomorphism than biomimicry proper. Biomimicry is not just about copying forms, but also about copying functions. An early example is Velcro, which was designed by an engineer who wanted to mimic how burdock burrs clung to his dog’s coat. A more recent example is Airbus’ Bird of Prey, an aircraft concept with feather-tipped, bird-like wings. Within the architectural field, biomimicry is first and foremost about sustainability.

“By learning from the way that nature has delivered functions or solved problems, we can very likely solve many of our challenges with a fraction of the amount of energy and resource inputs that we use currently,” says Pawlyn. “That’s why it’s particularly relevant today – we need to use all resources far more efficiently, and we need to transform our cities from linear flows of resources to cyclical flows of resources. It’s a pretty fundamental shift of mindset.” 

Claudia Pasquero and Marco Poletto, cofounders of ecoLogicStudio, have worked on a number of biomimetic projects, including the PhotoSynthEtica ‘urban curtain’ in 2018. This is a photosynthetic building membrane that incubates algae and sequesters carbon dioxide from the air, in much the same manner as a tree.

“With our PhotoSynthetica system, we design artificial habitats for micro-algae to grow,” says Poletto. “We do it in such a way that what a city expels as pollution becomes an input to the metabolic intelligence of these organisms and therefore gets transformed into something useful.”

They have also been working with the UNDP to develop Deep Green – an AI-based tool that translates natural processes to urban planning. It is based on the premise that, in nature, different kinds of systems ranging from micro-organisms all the way up to large landscapes tend to share common denominators (such as the need to transport nutrients or resources from one part to another).

“From this perspective, cities are also complex dynamical systems with a certain organic origin – there are common logics that can be observed in biological systems, which can help us understand what happens at an urban scale,” says Poletto.

He and Pasquero are interested in the idea of working with non-human intelligence – specifically biological intelligence, artificial intelligence, and the interface between the two. In recent years, advances in bio-computation have expanded the parameters of what can be achieved.

“It’s not simply about borrowing models from nature, but establishing a different type of conversation with other organisms that populate the planet,” says Pasquero. “We often say that in an anthropocene age, it is relevant to take a non-anthropocentric perspective, meaning as designers, we don’t design simply for the human. Architecture becomes a way you’re creating a relationship with the organisms, like algae, that share the planet with us.”

Pawyln agrees that computational design and 3D printing are an asset for designers interested in biomimicry.

“One of the things you find in biology is complicated arrangements of materials or structures,” he says. “Conventionally, complicated always meant more expensive, because it was just more difficult to make. But actually, by looking at the complicated structures that exist in biology, we can find ways to use far less material by putting it exactly where it needs to be. Computational design allows us to get a lot closer to the way things work in biology.”

In 2014, Pawlyn designed a collection of 3D-printed tables, structurally similar to trees, which used algorithms to determine the optimum placement of materials. They ended up needing a thousandth of the material you’d find in a solid object of that volume.

He is now working on an ultra-lightweight pavilion based on a 3D-printed model of a bird’s skull. He is also developing a version of Peter Rice and Humbert Camerlo’s legendary ‘Full Moon Theatre’ – a zero-energy theatre that uses mirrors to focus moonlight, so that it can be lit via the moon and “promote a more reflective idea of our place in deep time”.

However, when asked about the projects that best exemplify his ethos, Pawlyn says he has moved away from exemplar projects and towards more systems-based thinking.

“Before 2018, I was convinced that exemplar projects was what we needed to bring about a change required,” he says. “But in 2018, the IPCC report came out and showed that we’re on a path towards the near-term collapse of ecosystems and the medium-term collapse of our societies. So I thought, well, how is it possible that the market is not ready for these kinds of solutions? This is insane.”

In other words, individual projects can only to do so much to convince the unconvinced. It’s more important to change the paradigms or mindset from which market behavior emerges.

Pasquero and Poletto agree that we need a wholesale change in thinking.

Historically, digital technologies have been used to transform the natural realm, whereas bio-based approaches have emphasised preservation. As bio-digital designers, they want to bridge the two and develop more sustainable modes of construction.

“It’s no longer a question of limiting our impact on the natural world – it’s a question of understanding how transforming the natural world can become a generative force that is conducive to life, rather than a cause of destruction,” says Poletto.

Like Pawlyn, they see themselves moving towards a systems-based approach, and envisage their practice becoming less a traditional architecture practice, more a kind of design innovation agency. Whether such thinking will catch on, depends on politics. But to their minds, the need for biomimicry is urgent, both on the level of a single building and as a way of re-integrating our urban sprawl with the natural world. 

“The scientific revolution gave us the illusion of being able to control and dominate nature, but now this illusion has dissipated and we realise we can no longer control the repercussions of the systems we have made,” says Poletto. “The next step will need to be another kind of scientific revolution, in which will involve the arts as much as the sciences. I think architecture will have an important role to play in enabling the evolution of this new science of nature.”

This article appears in the Winter 2020 edition of LEAF Review

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