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Fishing for the New Architectural School



Discussion of the potentialities of biomimetic architecture.
[72] sustain’ MAR/APR 2012 sustain’ MAR/APR 2012 [73]
The bottom of an ocean may not strike
you as an obvious place to look when
researching the city of the future. What
could you possibly learn about this city
from the study of aquatic life? A futurist
cum design scientist, I spend a lot time
reading papers, reports and presentations
about future cities. However, from this
mountain of research, I cite only a molehill,
for the greater majority of these proposals
merely dress up the old built-environment
paradigm and parade it as the new – the
wolves in sheep’s clothing of sustainability.
Cast your mind back over the history of architecture
and design. Mentally walk through the various schools,
thinking about how one differentiated from another.
Regardless of the century, the civilization or the
continent, if you progress through the various styles in
order, a distinct trend will emerge. Both technologically
and aesthetically, design styles tend to swing from one
extreme to another. This is a trend we see in all forms of
cultural expression, from music to fashion, dance to art.
While technological innovations can, and often do, shape
our aesthetic preferences, the street between technology
and taste isn’t one-way. Many of the sustainability
concepts being touted as ‘new’ are in fact vintage – ideas
that are years, decades, in some instances centuries old.
Consequently we are currently sat atop an innovation
bottleneck. All that is required to unleash the potential of
hundreds, thousands, possibly even tens of thousands of
sustainability inventions, is a cultural shift in their favour.
Open, undetermined & explorative design
While smart materials, Adaptatronics (adaptive
structure technology) and Bionics (also known as
Biomimetics, Biomimicry and Biognosis) have all been
around for some time, it’s only now that humanity is
getting serious about tackling sustainability challenges
that such innovations are migrating en masse to
market. However, as Dr Tuba Kocaturk pointed out in a
lecture we gave earlier this month on Design Futures,
for the CIOB at the University of Salford, attempting to
fit this new school of technologies into the existing built-
environment paradigm is like trying to put a square
peg into a round hole. In his recent paper ‘Biomimetic
design processes in architecture; morphogenetic and
evolutionary computational design’, Achim Menges
highlighted how ‘open, undetermined and explorative’
design and engineering approaches are imperative
to the application of intelligent materials and systems.
However, postulation is easier than practice, especially
when unlike the presenters on Blue Peter, we have not
the benefit of a project someone, somewhere
“did earlier”.
Back to the ocean… what nuggets of knowledge about
future cities can we fish from the Big Blue? Whether or
not their overall design, or an element of it, is sourced
directly through Biomimetic processes, a great many of
the most disruptive technologies coming to the fore in
architecture mimic the Natural World. Historically the
technological has been the antithesis of the biological,
sharing few if any characteristics; therein the new
wave of technology simply doesn’t wash with today’s
predominant design, engineering and construction
practices. However, dive into the ocean and you will find
limitless examples that indicate how the ilk of smart
materials could shape the city of the future, so let’s do
just that…
Self-repairing & resilient materials
Unknown to science until the 1990s, Thaumoctopus
mimicus – the Mimic Octopus, lives in the tropical
seas of Southeast Asia and is the first member of the
cephalopod family to have been observed impersonating
other animals. Able to mimic sea snakes, lionfish,
jellyfish, stingrays, flatfish, flounders, sea anemones,
giant crabs and brittle stars, the octopus can instantly
change its shape, its colour and its markings, to take on
the form of a creature, often a poisonous one, that will
deflect a predator. While the only predators your average
building need deflect are insects, such as woodboring
beetles and termites, there are potential advantages
to embedding behaviors similar to those of the Mimic
Octopus within our urban habitats. Structurally adaptive,
chromataphoric (colour-changing) smart materials and
building envelopes could, in theory, endow man-made
structures with one of the core characteristics of living
things - Homeostasis - the ability of an organism to
regulate its own internal environment.
However, to be truly life-life, as does the skin of the
Mimic Octopus, such materials would also perform
several other tasks; such as self-repair, communicate
with their surroundings and provide resilience to external
threats. They may additionally embed a feature found
in another aquatic species, Ostreidae, the Oyster, which
as filter feeder helps to cleanse the ocean of excessive
sediment, nutrients, and algae. Pollution-busting
building materials is a concept being explored by my
AVATAR group colleague Dr Rachel Armstrong, who is
researching the potential of protocell technology that
harvests and stores environmental pollutants through
chemical processes. Several other research projects
are exploring the potential of smart materials to harvest
and filter water from rainfall, snow and fog, which if
successful could help tackle water shortages.
A much broader spectrum of possibility
A fellow shape-shifting oceanic companion of the Mimic
Octopus is Tetraodontidae, the Pufferfish, which has the
capacity to rapidly inflate its stomach so as to
become too large for its predators to eat. Adapting this
defense mechanism to the built environment, we see
it expressed in smart materials and building envelopes
that expand and retract in response to changing heat and
humidity levels. This property, especially when aligned
with chromataphoric sensitivity to sunlight and humidity
levels, could enable constant and accurate passive
management of interior temperature and air quality.
While bioluminescence is a very rare characteristic
in land-dwelling species, it’s commonplace in the
ecosystems that inhabit the ocean’s deepest depths.
Created through a chemical reaction called
chemiluminescence, in which chemical energy converts
to radiant energy, bioluminescence enables organisms
to generate their own light, be it to attract prey, detract a
predator or communicate both with its own species and
others. One of the most beautiful creatures to exhibit
this ability is Aurelia aurita, more commonly known
as the Moon Jellyfish, which has become a pin-up
girl of marine ecology journals. A growing number of
scientists, artists and designers are experimenting with
bioluminescent materials, in particular novel aesthetic
applications. However, chemiluminescence processes
present a much broader spectrum of possibility, such as
the potential to develop materials that provide kinetically-
triggered emergency lighting during power outages
caused by both natural and man-made hazards, such as
seismic activity and explosions.
The aesthetic and the functional
One by one, the dots in the smart materials picture are
being joined, as breakthroughs in micro-engineering
merge with those in nano-electronics, sensory
technology and computational design. Of the research
projects exploring the potential of this interdisciplinary
space, Biornametics – Architecture Defined by Natural
Patterns, is one of the few to place equal emphasis on
the aesthetic and the functional. Led by Dr Barbara
Imhof and Dr Petra Gruber of the University of
Applied Arts, it seeks to explore a new methodology to
interconnect scientific evidence with creative design in
architecture. Biornametics acknowledges the fact that
living systems have evolved a process of continuing
adaptation to a complex and changing environment.
Along with my own research project, The Bionic City,
for which I’m investigating the potential of building a
Biomimetic blueprint for urban resilience to natural
hazards, Imhof and Gruber’s project is one of the few
that truly challenges the traditional built-environment
paradigm – rejecting some of the most fundamental
assumptions that underpin the most common design,
engineering and construction practices.
More than metaphors
The ocean floor isn’t a natural habitat for Homo sapiens,
a matter of which we are acutely aware during our
brief, technologically facilitated visits. The expanse
of water on Earth is so vast and our exploration of it
so little, that we know more about the surface of the
Moon than we do about the watery depths of our blue
planet. However, oceans have hosted life for 3.8bn
years, sustaining it through multiple planetary-wide
catastrophes that wiped out most land-dwelling species,
therein are worthy of our exploration and consideration.
In marine species we find more than metaphors, as
they illustrate living technologies with greater efficiency,
resilience and sophistication than anything humanity
has yet created. Ocean ecosystems, in particular coral
reefs, are amongst the most complex adaptive systems
in existence, comprising myriad mutually beneficial
symbiotic relationships, in many cases numbering a
wider community of species than we have yet recorded,
let alone studied in such detail as to fully understand.
Unlike many other futurists, I very much doubt that our
future cities will sit atop or below the oceans’ waves,
considering most such proposals to be technically naïve
and conceptually flawed. However, there are a great
many subtle ways in which our future cities could find
solutions below the water line. At a time when the ilk
of James Hansen and Professor John Beddington fear
humanity could be rapidly sinking out of its depth, what
better place to fish for a brighter future?
Melissa Sterry, Director and Head of
Technology at Earth2Hub Ltd, PhD
Researcher at the Advanced Virtual
and Technological Architecture
Research group at University of
Greenwich and Visiting Fellow at the
University of Salford.
Materials that are self-repairing, regulate
internal environments, and communicate
with their surroundings – dive into the ocean
and you will find limitless examples that
indicate how the ilk of smart materials could
shape the city of the future. Your diving guide
is Melissa Sterry…
Full-text available
Integral to the reproductive processes of the biota of several forest, shrub, and grassland biome-types, wildfire ignites some 3,400,000km2 of Earth’s vegetated surface annually. Though a highly complex phenomena coupled with not one, but several Earth systems, human actions are both directly and indirectly changing wildfire frequencies, intensities, severities, and behaviours, and to the detriment of both environment and society. Nowhere is this felt more so than the wildland urban interface, which home to roughly 1/3 of the nation’s populous and 40% of its housing stock, is the fastest-growing land-use type in the conterminous United States. A place where fire-averse architectures meet increasingly fire-prone lands, loss of lives, properties, and livelihoods to a series of wildfire complexes of proportions unprecedented in living memory have rendered there an urgent need to reconsider the challenge of living with wildfire as a vital landscape process. The product of a transdisciplinary study which converged state-of-the-knowledge from fields as diverse as the fire, ecological, and wider Earth sciences; information, communication, computing, and related technologies, both digital and biological; evolutionary, smart and living materials, architectures, and urban systems; philosophy, anthropology, psychology, and policymaking, this thesis presents a new wildland urban interface paradigm modelled on the biochemistries, behaviours, and systems of fire-adapted flora and the fire regimes they form. Migrating biomimetics from the level of species to systems, relying not on generic notions of nature and its workings, nor assumptions more generally, but on rigorous interrogation of the interplay between biotic and abiotic processes from the molecular to landscape to planetary scale, and across both human and geological timescales, several original theoretical and technical architectural and urban concepts are discussed, together with their possible applications and implications both within and beyond the wildland urban interface. Integrating insights from local and global indigenous and ancient fire cultures, the findings conclude that not merely is a reconciliation of human and non-human systems at the interface of fire-prone wild and urban lands possible, but therein resides potent ecological, social, and technical potentialities that merit further research in the years ahead.
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