News
02.07.2014
Review> Act Naturally
Russell Fortmeyer checks out the new book, Architecture Follows Nature: Biomimetic Principles for Innovative Design.
Courtesy CRC Press

Architecture Follows Nature:
Biomimetic Principles for Innovative Design

By Ilaria Mazzoleni in collaboration with Shauna Price
CRC Press, $80

Biomimicry is increasingly becoming one of those loaded words, like sustainability or innovation, rendered meaningless by overuse and over-application to concepts and objects further and further removed from their original intention. In its simplest definition, biomimicry is design inspired by natural systems and materials. Poorly translated, this could mean anything from a building shaped like a bird to a coat rack in the form of a tree’s branches.

In other words, biomimicry can easily become a slick appropriation of natural forms and imagery to no end in particular, as opposed to the application of scientific principles of nature and its systemic processes to a design problem. Why shape a building like a bird—and surely this calls one particular architect to mind—unless you need the building to perform similarly to a bird?

In her work and writing, the Los Angeles architect and educator Ilaria Mazzoleni has sought to expand biomimicry’s limited understanding in architecture to include performative aspects she sees as central to a more balanced, holistic view of the world. For the last several years, Mazzoleni has taught a design investigation course focused on biomimetics at SCI-Arc (full discolure: I have taught a separate class with Mazzolini at SCI-Arc). She has now written a book, Architecture Follows Nature: Biomimetic Principles for Innovative Design, which builds on material produced in the course.

 
 

The book is divided into two parts. The first sets a theoretical framework for the concept, beginning with a light touch on historical precedents for expressions of nature in architecture and how the modern era has driven nature to extremes through over-consumption of natural resources with designs working against, rather than with natural processes. She then follows this with a similar discussion on biology and architecture. To underline her main point—that our era defines a shift from “bio-inspiration to biomimicry”—Mazzoleni relies on systems theory, which posits that nothing, not even a building, exists in isolation, but is dependent on a shifting network of other things. She suggests that parametric design, emerging materials science, and responsive, dynamic technologies increasingly make it easier for architects to ground their work within this systems approach.

In the second half of the book, Mazzoleni and her students follow through on this proposition with a series of case study projects that respond to the performative aspects of animal skins to develop a responsive architecture focused around the building envelope. Conceptually, she positions the envelope as fulfilling four main roles in architecture—communication, thermal regulation, water balance, and protection. Her focus on the envelope is timely, since its role in architecture has never been more central. This owes as much to technology as it does the lack of potential design scope in the other aspects of buildings. In many cases, the envelope is the only site within architecture open to investigation. In terms of biomimicry, the envelope certainly represents the most direct and relevant comparison to the animal and plant worlds.

For example, one project takes inspiration from the way the lettuce sea slug, which has a leafy form and resides in shallow coral reefs in the Caribbean Sea, uses the sun’s energy to drive a photosynthesis process with its green algae food source. Effectively, these transparently-skinned slugs are “off grid” for weeks or months at a time thanks to this solar process.

The architectural project inspired by the slug takes key aspects—clear skins, lots of surface area, an internal circulatory system for distributing energy—and applies it to a modular energy generation structure to create bio-diesel for post-earthquake Haiti. Formally, the structure appears like a congealed blob tower made up of individual plastic pods, each containing different algal species depending on solar orientation and desired rate of energy production. The project is idealized in the way we expect work produced in academia to look, but its technical merits are certainly there, especially in its use of modular, lightweight materials, which are conducive for post-disaster deployment.

There are several more such case studies, most of which, like the sea slug, neatly balance technological performance and what we might call “bio-aesthetics.” In that respect, Mazzoleni’s book is a helpful step in taking the application of biomimetic principles further in architecture. It is certainly refreshing for those who only have Janine Benyus’ somewhat cheerleading 1997 book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, and wondered, “what next?”

Russell Fortmeyer

Russell Fortmeyer leads sustainable design for the LA office of Arup. He is an applied studies faculty member at SCI-Arc.