Saturday, 28 July 2007

Architecture mimicking nature and Gaia

A recent article in “The Scientist” described architects using and adapting from biological systems to design buildings (“Designing buildings, using biology”, 27th July 2007). I thought it was an interesting and sensible new-age concept because it does make sense to create an unnatural object that will be subjected to nature by mimicking nature itself. Although most architecture has stood the test of time, it is not always aesthetically pleasing and does not take advantage of what nature has to offer. For example, the article states that one of these modern architectural firms “ensures that each house gets the most exposure to light and works around the natural movement of groundwater. Like in a living organism, each part of this project is influenced by its relationship to the other parts”.

Below are just some points from the “The Scientist” article which I thought were pertinent to what I will introduce next.

Before the 20th century, most architects detached their work from the place it was designed to go. Rather than understanding the city as a living, dynamic organization, these earlier architects established static forms and rules that did not take the environment into account. That's why the skylines of so many cities contain a series of boxes that often don't relate to each other, and could essentially be picked up and stapled down anywhere else.”

Otto (who you could possibly call the protagonist of the article) “recognized that natural systems are self-stabilizing, optimization machines. Any changes in the internal or external environment have a direct consequence on the form, so why not design the final form by imitating the processes that create the form of natural objects?”

Today, more designers are accepting the idea that physical structures are a part of a larger organic network, and that the structure, forms, and environment influence each other, just as in living systems.”

I find the last concept (quoted above) really interesting and is closely related to James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, which I heard about for the first time a few weeks ago after listening to a radio interview.

The Gaia hypothesis is an ecological hypothesis that proposes that living and nonliving parts of the earth are viewed as a complex interacting system that can be thought of as a single organism". (Wikipedia)

Lovelock (in collaboration with Lynn Margulis) introduced the term “gaia” to describe a number of concepts for earth but basically describing planet earth as a single, evolving, self-regulating, physiological system at at state favourable for its inhabitants (living and non-living). Lovelock was “concerned with the working of a whole system, not with the separated parts of a planet divided arbitrarily into the biosphere, atmosphere, lithosphere and hydrosphere”. He states that “conventional wisdom sees earth as a dead planet made up of inanimate rocks, oceans, atmosphere and inhabited by life”.
When Lovelock initially proposed the gaia hypothesis in 1971, it was criticised by scientists because it couldn’t be proven scientifically and as the earth was a system incapable of reproduction, it was not considered to be alive and therefore the hypothesis was scientifically unsound. Lovelock uses earth and the human body as an analogy to make his argument. If earth was compared to the human body, for example, the rivers and oceans as the body’s cardiovascular system or the forests as the body’s respiratory system, then each system is unable to exist independently. All systems work together and exist in harmony. After recently reading one of Lovelock’s books (“Gaia – medicine for an ailing planet”), I will acknowledge some of his ideas and will adopt this new philosophy to view different systems that I am not familiar with, such as our planet. As a scientist in the making, I don’t agree that all things have to be scientifically proven to be real or truthful (cue shifty look) but I am open to new ideas and would like believe that this idea of gaia is plausible.

Now to a less relevant point, the main notions of this book revolve around the gaia hypothesis and the argument and examples of how humans have inflicted a “disease” on the planet. Initially though, when introducing the gaia concept, Lovelock describes the problems with today’s “reductionist” scientific approach and believes that it is not the best approach to study global changes (I can understand the latter point and agree that it would be a hard task to accomplish). He states that today’s science is not pragmatic, does not consider the systems wholly and therefore takes too long to make progress however he does not think the “scientific method” should be abandoned. While I agree with this to some point, I think some systems (whether ecological, biological or medical) have to be dismantled to be studied in detail or microscopically. This approach, although time-consuming, may not always give immediate answers but the outcomes are still valuable and have been responsible for some of great scientific discoveries in history. Further into the book , Lovelock goes on to say “Not all things reductionist are bad, nor are all things holistic good. The reductionist, bottom-up view can be needed just as much as the holistic. One of the great rewards of science is that sudden flash of understanding that comes when holism and reduction meet”. Now that’s what I like to hear.

Gaia - medicine for an ailing planet (James Lovelock, 2005)


J A G U A R I T O said...

Hey!! :-)

On ecological architecture: Yes, I am enamoured with this as well.. but I think it should go beyond form and aesthetics, and also into function... I think you did touch on this though.

The epistemology of things is crucial... There was a time when architects and urban planners understood the city through the metaphor of a machine. Everything was seen just to be a part of this machine, and all things were seen to be related mechanistically. Optimal function and efficiency were the goals. But this whole modernist approach to architecture and planning was disastrous for human sociality. The pretence of modernism was the search for perfection.... but what those idiots didn't realise was that nature was already perfect! Perfection was deemed to be that which was "civilised", and that which was "civilised" was deemed to be that which had moved beyond or transcended nature. This arrogance has now come back to bite us all in the ass. Aesthetically, modernism was about straight lines, right angles, "perfect" form, "efficient" function... nature, in contrast, was seen to be messy. Something to be tamed. But now we can see differently, and I find it extremely exciting that architects are looking back to nature as a source of inspiration... Do you remember my paper on complexity and post-humanism? There was a bit in there where I called for us to mimic nature's own design systems. You know, even velcro was invented by mimicking nature... I think the inventor was inspired by the form of burrs, with their dozens of tiny hooks... So anyway, the original point I wanted to make is that no longer should we see the city as a machine, but rather, as an ecology...

On Gaia: I also have a lot to add on this, but I will come back to comment later... need to go and get my day started :-)

You rock! Thank you for sharing all of this with me :-)

The Afro Scientress said...

Yes, I remember your paper/talk on post-modernism. I went back to it tonight to refresh my memory and re-read the section on mimicking nature’s systems. And yes, I heard about the origins of Velcro just recently. A Swiss scientist discovered the burrs stuck to his pants while waking through a field. When he looked at these burrs under a microscope he discovered they were made of tiny hooks which this plant used to attach onto passing things to disperse its seeds. This nature-inspired invention occurred more than 50 years ago!

The Afro Scientress said...

Forgot to add this: A couple of the venues for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing were inspired by nature. If you get the chance have a look at their website for the national aquatic centre which is based on bubbles or water molecules and the national stadium which is based on a bird's nest. Both systems in nature are fragile yet able to withstand many forces.

J A G U A R I T O said...

Hey! :-) Thanks for the info. Very cool about Beijing. Will check it out for sure. See you soon!