Insights from PHIL-AIA-DELPHIA: Architecture and the Natural Context / by Sarah Callahan

Article by Daniel Thornton, AIA, CDT, LEED AP

As long as we have been building, architecture has wrestled with humanity’s relationship to the world around us.  As our perspective changes, architecture has expressed supplication, cooperation, inspiration, dominance, indifference and just about every other mediation of the builders to the local context. So it comes as no surprise this topic would arise in many forms at the AIA Convention in Philadelphia.  While this was likely not an intentional theme (We discussed the primary call to “Imagine What’s Next” in last week’s article), it provokes an interesting collection of related questions.

Nature’s relationship to human works was most passionately and directly explored in Neri Oxman’s Keynote address.  Her presentation began by drawing design inspiration from nature and concluded with using natural processes to build our designs. The Mediated Matter research group at MIT is pushing materials research in new and exciting directions, and their key is thinking about materials from uncommon directions.  Oxman explained that, since the industrial revolution, designers have thought in terms of the assembly line, solving problems by combining discrete parts.  But nature approaches it differently; it makes small and gradual changes, often at the cellular level, to adapt a single fundamental material to different uses.  Consider how the skin of your hand changes to be sensitive at the palm but elastic on the back.  What if we designed building skins with the same approach?  Oxman’s exciting message was that our understanding of chemistry, resolution in 3d printing, and automation software are all sophisticated enough to enable it.  Oxman presented an inspiring menagerie of experiments including a full size column reminiscent of a dragonfly wing, a 3d printed organic wearable that converts light and the wearer’s heat to edible sugar, and a safety helmet that gradually changes from hard protective plates to soft comfortable pads as needed.  The dragonfly wing column, in particular, showed how chitin, the compound commonly found in the shells of crustaceans and insects, can be mixed in different concentrations to produce a gradation of opacity and physical strength.  By layering the mixes, they produced a continuously formed object with structure where needed, transparency where desired, and beautiful surface variation throughout. While it might not be financially practical yet, it certainly inspires a whole host of new opportunities for architecture to more directly emulate the biological world in the near future. 

For those more interested in the Now, the Expo floor was a sea of the newest, most innovative products.  Grouped loosely by material type, the exhibition featured everything from advances in cross laminated timber to cutting edge hand dryers. To me, the most interesting new product wasn’t a building material at all; it was goggles.  Virtual reality simulators are venturing out of the gaming world, and some architects are using the technology as a way to experience their 3d modelled concepts at a deeper level of immersion during the design process.  There is also clear application in helping clients visualize their building’s spaces.  On a theoretical level, the progress of virtual reality begs the question of architecture’s necessity for physicality; is it still architecture if it only exists virtually?  Is it still architecture if it ignores the restraints of gravity, life systems, or constructability? It’s not an easy question to answer, but underscores the important role a building’s context can play.  Regardless of its implications, I’m optimistic that these tools will catalyze new formal ideas and new ways for thinking about architecture.

Returning to “The Sustainable Building Artfully Considered”, efficient energy design is another vehicle by which the local context can shape our structures.  When appropriately recognized, passive energy strategies influence the building form by tailoring fenestration to the solar orientation, shaping ventilation pathways to existing wind patterns, or taking advantage of local resources.  Technology driven solutions contribute a palette of architectural enhancements including photovoltaic panels, wind turbines, and operable skins. Charles Bloszies, architect and moderator, concluded with an intriguing question: will innovation in sustainability generate a great architectural wonder in the same way that thought about structural forces yielded the flying buttress? Although the panel disagreed whether sustainable design would drive the future aesthetic of architecture, there was unanimous consensus that it is an essential design consideration which is slowly (and rightfully) evolving from a specialty concern and into a fundamental influence on all architects. 

In his closing address, Rem Koolhaas attacked the question from yet another angle; architecture as mediator of our cultural record. He praised architecture as one of the last professions with a memory, with a still relevant context stretching over three millennia.  He claimed that both the public and the profession show increasing desire for architecture with local character, and, consequently, dwindling interest in International Style based globalization.  The OMA has taken a greater interest in preservation recently, taking the view that an existing structure inherently offers memory of the local culture and values, thus presenting opportunities for further expression and discourse.  Koolhaas emphasized that, whether we like it or not, architecture is a means of recording, expressing, and commenting on our local cultural values, but those who view our works, now and in the future, will make their own interpretations of our message.  This underscores an interesting tension between the desire to express local meaning and recognition that meaning changes in a relativistic context.  

Sitting in our new Hartford office, once home to assembly line innovator and precision manufacturer Samuel Colt, I can’t help but think back to Oxman’s keynote. Will we really move away from building assemblies to more biomorphic designs? As part of our move to Coltsville, we have acquired a 3d printer. While we probably won’t be making biological wearables or molten glass vases any time soon, I am excited about the possible explorations the technology can enable.  What values will these new designs convey? How will our Vitruvian Triad, recast as sustainability, occupant wellness, and local custom in a global context, look through the lens of biomimicry?  It is intriguing to think that, much like in nature, we could develop a palette that is simple and universal, but adapts to the needs of the local context.  Although this might help address Koolhaas’s tension between global and regional relativity, his caution remains appropriate: what will future generations think?

So what do you think? Is 3d printing and biomimicry the way of future, or just a fad? Leave comments below! Speaking of future generations, in our third and final article from the AIA Convention, we’ll discuss how information technology and the Millennial Generation are influencing leadership in Architecture.