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Rachel Armstrong on Biomimicry as parametric snake oil

Could the shimmering skins of exotic creatures really hold the key to sustainable architectural solutions?

Everyone loves biomimicry. It proposes to be beautiful, useful and sustainable. It seeks to harmonise the relationship between humans and the natural world. Indeed, if the thesis of Architecture follows Nature is correct, biomimicry can provide us with the solutions that will lead to a sustainable future.

The authors introduce us to their strategy in two parts. The first provides a background to biomimicry from both science and architectural design perspectives. The second applies these concepts through a series of case studies based on a variety of interpretations of ‘animal skins’. These proposed architectures are enclosures, which act as filters, bounded by facades. The animal skin that has inspired the exterior design establishes the selective relationship that a particular building will have with the environment.

Architecture follows Nature shares fascinating ideas such as humming-bird feather filaments that can inspire a brightly-coloured pavilion as a mode of ‘communication’; snow leopard erector pili (hair muscles), which can inspire the thermoregulatory system of a mobile base designed to study these elusive creatures; environmentally responsive, adaptable greenhouse cladding modelled on banana slug skins; and Namib beetles that inform water-collecting systems in temporary residences for desert researchers.

Our relationship with Nature is culturally and technologically determined so continually changing − which also influences the way we design

Yet although the aims − to produce more environmentally connected forms of architectural design − are noble, this book gives scant treatment to the thorny and complex political, cultural, historical and aesthetic discourses implied by the term ‘Nature’.

In less than a page Mazzoleni tells us that Nature is ‘interconnectedness’, an idea which forms the theoretical concept for the book. Yet like Claude Shannon’s theory of ‘information’, where the term ‘information’ can be read in many different ways, it’s not exactly clear what ‘interconnected-ness’ is. There is also no discussion about the qualities of experience invoked by the idea of networking artificial and biological systems, or the values or meaning that these new connections may convey.

As Donna Haraway’s ‘naturecultures’ and Koert van Mensvoort’s Next Nature remind us, our relationship with Nature is culturally and technologically determined so continually changing − which also influences the way we design. Yet, Mazzoleni presents biomimicry as a scientific fact and does not critique or compare her choice of design method with other ways of producing ecological architectures such as green architecture (increases vegetation in urban environments), progressive modernism (more efficient industrialisation), or bio-design (incorporating living materials into architecture).

Photograph_by_J._Rothmeyer_390

The shimmering plumage of a hummingbird inspired this iridescent pavilion, but is biomimicry nothing but a pavonine display? And isn’t nature’s beauty itself often only skin deep – the jewel-like tree frog secretes a deadly poison, after all, and the proud lion eats his rival’s cubs?

It is therefore unclear what biomimicry can offer beyond an aesthetic style, which is a position that Mazzoleni is keen to dispel. Yet, without establishing exactly why solar panels inspired by a lizard are different from efficiently-packed solar arrays that are not inspired by a lizard − the functional benefits of biomimicry remain unconvincing, if not spurious.

However, these conceptual explorations are not without value. Mazzoleni poignantly observes that biomimicry inspired proto-architecture ‘defines a key moment of design, open to discourse, experimentation and environmental innovation’, which compels us to seek increasingly environmentally-connected methods of building construction.

If there is one thing that biomimicry does very well indeed, it is to provide inspiration through relentlessly optimistic and seductive visions

If there is one thing that biomimicry does very well indeed, it is to provide inspiration through relentlessly optimistic and seductive visions. The design projects in this book are generated from very handsome animals such as polar bears, snow leopards, vibrant slugs and side-blotched lizards, with no mention of stinking vultures, naked mole rats or abominations from the abyss. It is also noteworthy that in the world of biomimicry, animals are always useful, or efficient − not vestigial, or candidates for extinction like filarial worms, toxic algal blooms or swarms of evil midges.

This uncritical view of the natural world is contagious. It spawns the liberal use of truisms to promote the biomimicry cause (‘we […] are ‘hard wired’ to find nature attractive’). Indeed, biomimicry appears to induce selective attention to the natural world’s activities − think of a rotting carcass (not so lovely). Alternatively, Nature’s frugal virtues such as ‘efficient interconnectedness’ are brought to our attention (explain that to a fox in a henhouse, or a mouse in your sock drawer).

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035_BananaSlug_P_render

Adaptable greenhouse cladding modelled on banana slug skins

We are also moralistically cautioned − Scientology-style − that bad things that happen in the environment aren’t really caused by Nature, but by humans. In fact, it posits that ‘waste only truly happens when we interrupt natural cycles’. This doesn’t deal with wayward animals any more than it addresses the wanton damage of natural disasters, and probably lands more power and responsibility in the lap of humans than we are probably deserving of − or capable of dealing with. Naturally, truisms can be justified when they’re backed up with biology, which is what I am assuming is the point of all the science in this design book − to assert that biomimicry is fact.

Yet, after reading this book, and despite my personal preference for an unsanitised version of Nature − more in keeping with Timothy Morton or Slavoj Žižek − I was left with the impression that biomimicry has a very particular role to play in architectural design and our millennial relationship with the natural world.

Biomimicry is Nature for the digital world − one that has lost any real connection with materiality, context and environment − or, what it is like to be embodied. It sterilises the natural world through algorithms, edits out the bits that we can’t deal with and then calls the product ‘sustainable’. It is a trophy destined to be abstracted into 3D renderings, which are tenuously entangled with parametric datasets (called ‘ecology’) and recapitulated at a scale of ‘one to whatever’. It is an abstraction of reality, compatible with the idea of biology as a form of information, which can be prototyped into existence by hitting the print button.

Biomimicry is Nature for the digital world − one that has lost any real connection with materiality, context and environment − or, what it is like to be embodied

It’s a Frank Lloyd Wright view of architecture for the copy/paste generation where biomimetic geometries burst out of landscapes as recombinant real/virtual organic seeds (which as yet, have no real substance − although genomic scientist JC Venter is working on it.

Indeed, as an idealised and abstracted form of Nature, biomimicry can be whatever we choose it to be − slugs, hummingbirds, beetles, carnivores, de-extinction − even the ugly stuff. Through the transformative platform of the digital realm biomimicry can address almost any problem that we ask of it, with any value we like ascribed to it. Right now, the cultural agenda is sustainability, which is what this book is responding to. But, there are no paradigm-shifting proposals in this book − it is parametric snake oil.

Architecture follows Nature: Biomimetic Principles for Innovative Design, Ilaria Mazzoleni in collaboration with Shauna Price, CRC Press, £63.99

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