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posted on 09.24.09


What if our houses could grow and change to fit our needs?

This is about two people who are constructing radical new ways of forming the buildings we will occupy.  They are not the only ones bringing about this mutation of architecture but they anticipate a coming transfiguration of everyday homes, apartments, stores and offices that is almost unimaginable.  As energy and materials become scarce and more expensive there is a need for efficiency in the building process and in how buildings function.  By modeling design on organic structures and the processes that bring about form in the natural world, integrated systems are created that maximize functions and minimize materials.  These new investigations based on living systems seek to understand why they look the way the do, not to just imitate the appearance of the biological.

"Architecture has often borrowed and influenced other disciplines – engineering, the arts, literature and philosophy. Similarly “nature” is often cited as a great inspiration for architecture. Too often nature becomes a superficial metaphor; a crocodile hotel in Kakadu, a palm frond in Dubai, a skeletal rail station in Zurich. In more recent times architects have been studying the evolutionary traits of plants and animals at a deeper level to develop a greater appreciation of natural systems, thereby producing more sustainable outcomes – biomimicry. For example Mick Pearce’s naturally ventilated Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe (1996) is based on the workings of a termite nest. The design does not mimic the aesthetics of the nest but rather uses a similar system of operable louvres and chimneys to purge heat from the building by night. An even more sophisticated exploration of nature and biology is being investigated by a generation of architects using digital modelling. Practices such as the Ocean collective, Arup, LAVA and Tom Wiscombe, to name just a few, are studying the means by which cellular evolution might be super-scaled to architecture and urban design for structural efficiencies and operational performance. On the surface Wiscombe’s Dragonfly installation at SCI-Arc Gallery (2007) appears to be a visual reproduction of a dragonfly wing at large scale."

from The Australian Design Review, "An Imperative of Survival" by John de Manincor

DragonflyWhich introduces the first person- Tom Wiscombe and the architecture firm Emergent.  Their Dragonfly project is a lightweight aluminum structure that cantilevers 40' and is based not as much on the form but more on the forces that shape a dragonfly wing.  The realities of what this structure needed to do with the materials specified was fed into a software program which calculated and recalculated ever evolving mutations over many generations.  The information for the final adaptation of the wing was then used with fabrication software which cut the many parts from sheets of aluminum and scored the part number and instructions onto each element at the same time.  The pieces contained the plan for the form.

A detailed and somewhat technical explanation is at the Emergent Architecture website.  The more concise statement from their 'about' page reflects an insistent trend in architecture towards synergy and a blending of disciplines to solve new problems.

"Founded in 1999 by Tom Wiscombe, EMERGENT is dedicated to research as well as built work at many scales. EMERGENT is a platform for experimentation, dedicated to the transfer of techniques, logics, and sensibilities from biology, complexity science, aerospace engineering, and computation into architecture. EMERGENT’s directive is to move beyond categorical thinking and the stratification of building systems toward a more integrated future."

Differentiated Material Organizations

The mission statement from Neri Oxman's site sounds remarkably similar to Emergent:

"M A T E R I A L E C O L O G Y was formed in 2006 by Neri Oxman as an interdisciplinary research initiative that undertakes design research in the intersection between architecture, engineering, computation, biology and ecology. As such, this initiative is concerned with material organization and performance across all scales of design thought and practice."

Neri Oxman finished med school, got a degree in architecture and capped it off with a PhD in design computation at MIT.  This background serves well in her research into the behavior of living organisms and how we can apply an understanding of the way natural systems work to create materials and structures that maybe can grow, shift and adapt continuously to a changing environment.

"We're playing God a little bit," Oxman says. "We're taking a bunch of environmental constraints and throwing them into computational software and letting the computer generate the form for us." It's biomimicry, but instead of aping nature's forms, she's trying to imitate its processes. One of her working metaphors is bone: The same rods of calcium phosphate grow stronger to support extra weight during pregnancy, or get slighter when astronauts spend time in zero gravity. For example, she's seeking a patent on a new kind of 3-D printer that can combine two materials in a single object -- and change material properties as it's printing, "as if you were printing your own bone structure and modifying the density of the bone to fit the structural load."

The combination of high concept and live, seductive forms makes it tempting to see Oxman's work as art. No less an authority than Paola Antonelli, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art who has acquired many of Oxman's pieces and included her in last year's Design and the Elastic Mind exhibit, says it's more than that: "What was amazing about this work is that it uses the computer to transform the secrets of nature into algorithms, and in a biomimetic way to try to use the same stratagems nature uses."

Eventually, Oxman wants to have her own lab where she can oversee an interdisciplinary team in both research and practice. Her innovations are, after all, essentially computer-controlled manufacturing processes, so in some sense she needs to see her ideas play out on an industrial scale and in the marketplace. Still, she knows her work will always be a little out there. "I like to be on the edge because it makes me vulnerable. On the fringes, I think, is where disruptive innovation begins." -- from Fast Company by Anya Kamenetz

These two people represent a worldwide simultaneous shift in thought towards an integrated approach to design problem solving.  Currently design is done in parts that each accomplish a specific purpose and in the end they might be all encased in a glossy, curving exterior form.  Ms. Oxman, like Tom Wiscombe, uses a generative design process that refines the whole as individual parts are modified.  This process is evolutionary, constantly updating to an optimum structure and it uses the efficiencies developed in nature to construct complex adaptable forms from simple instructions.  Already, these early experiments have led to new solutions for the performance of built architecture.  Get ready for your house to evolve or breathe or walk.

Emergent Architecture / Dragonfly:

Neri Oxman, Material Ecology:

Design and the Elastic Mind interactive website:

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