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Architecture Myths #10: Learning from Nature

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So what’s left then to ‘learn’ from Nature? We’re still very quick to want to do it but what have we ‘learned’ so far? It’s time for a quick roundup.

In the not-so-dark ages before Architecture was invented, people managed to work out how to build buildings that suited how they wanted to live, using whatever materials were available, and did the shelter thing rather well, all things considered.


These huts are made out of vegetable matter. Their walls store very little heat. 


This building is made out of mud. Its walls have a very low coefficient of thermal conductivity which is good in this place which is mostly hot and dry.


And these buildings are carved out from stone. Their walls have a very low coefficient of thermal conductivity which helps in this place with cold winters. These are all very picturesque examples but, by and large, people everywhere worked out for themselves how to best live with the climate they had. If these days we place more emphasis on the thermal coefficients of materials and glazing, it’s only because carveable mountains are in short supply. We still try to achieve much the same thing as in the photo above, but faster, to a far greater degree and using far far less material to do it.

All was well until this thing called the Industrial Revolution and the reactionary Nature worship it prompted. It gave us things like Laugier’s Primitive Hut from his 1753 Essaie sur l’architecture. You know the one. Where the stupid cherub can’t spot the primitive hut.


Thus was born the idea that architecture should somehow imitate Nature. For all his interest in new materials and methods of construction, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc did little to help. What he brought to the table was the idea that each construction element had a natural purpose not unlike in the Gothic construction he so admired.


William Curtis (of Modern Architecture Since 1900 fame) was not impressed.  

His imagination was not as strong as his intellect and the buildings and projects which he left behind were uneven combinations of old images and modern constructional means, usually reflecting his underlying taste for medieval structures.

Curtis is miffed Viollet-le-Duc didn’t invent modern architecture in the mid-18C, thus denying him 150 more years of MODERN ARCHITECTURE to champion. Viollet-le-Duc’s use of cast iron as building prosthetics has its own logic and might even be an early example of ad-hoc architecture. But it was not to be. Curtis credits Semper (whereas I blame him) with crossbreeding a version of natural adaption with an idea of historical progress.

Just as nature is ever thrifty of motifs, even in her endless abundance, constantly repeating her basic forms, but modifying them in a thousand different ways according to the condition of her creatures and their mode of life … so art lies within the scope of a few Norms or Types, that derive from old tradition, each constantly reappearing in diverse forms …

This next quote will bring us up to speed. 

Nature and architecture

Nature is ‘lofty’ and mechanisation is ‘banal’. Ever since, we’ve been lumbered with the consequences of NATURAL PHENOMENA PROVIDING ANALOGIES AND METAPHORS IN DESIGN, AND SERVING AS THE BASIS FOR ABSTRACTIONS OF FORM. And it has led us nowhere useful. 

Modern architecture might one day be seen as that period when representing Nature was more important than stopping Nature leaking in through the roof or conducting itself in through the glazing. The Farnsworth House was famously airtight. Edith Farnsworth noted in her diaries that lighting a fire in the ornamental fireplace caused the window glass to bow inwards.

Representation of Nature is the name of the game. A quick trawl through my image library dragged up these.

We continue to suffer more sophisticated attempts at representation. Remember fractals and how excited everyone got over self similarity? Back in the day Calatrava was hot?

calatrava in valencia



In the late-90s there was also a clumsy attempt to launch zoomorphism – buildings that look like animals. Nothing clever – just buildings that look like animals. There was a book to accompany an exhibition at the V&A. From memory, it had evocative images of buildings adjacent to images of the relevant organisms or parts thereof. For example, bird wing next to this, etc.


Ahh – found it! More than slightly lame, as you can see.  I seem to remember Michael Sorkin and Sorkin Studio being mentioned in conjunction with projects like this.

Follow this link for more examples.



–––– BACK ––––

Anyway, fractal architecture morphed silently into today’s parametric design and, if Schumacher has his way, tomorrow’s as well.


Here’s a Zaha Hadid soundbite. If A=B and C=D then A=D.

“We don’t deal with normative ideas and we don’t make nice little buildings. People think that the most appropriate building is a rectangle, because that’s typically the best way of using space. But is that to say that landscape is a waste of space?

“No, Dame Zaha, that is not to say landscape is a waste of space.”

The world is not a rectangle. You don’t go into a park and say: ‘My God, we don’t have any corners.'”

I wonder what the standard issue ZHA landscapes are mimicking as they seem to have more corners than the buildings.

Finally, we have biomimicry (as distinct from biotechnology and bioengineering) and I don’t know what to think. We know all about those clever ants and their ventilation systems but since we don’t tend to make and roll little balls of faecal matter to divert and direct air flows as and when required, this has little to do with us. Consider this. A lizard lays in the sun because it can’t regulate its own body temperature. We use solar collectors to heat water to bring it closer to our body temperature. Is that biomimicry? I think not. We worked that one out ourselves. We too, are biological organisms and, when pushed, can be inventive all on our own. All the same, I quite enjoy reading things like this.

New surface coatings for boats which emulate shark skin texture and fine-scale movement have been shown to reduce fouling by 67% over conventional surfaces, and at 4-5 knots be completely self-cleaning. 


Here’s a closeup of some real shark skin and we all know about how it has been used to give humans a “skin” that makes swimming more efficient. 

Learning from things that move in water naturally, to solve problems associated with things moving in water  unnaturally, seems to me to be an obvious thing to do. But. Man didn’t “learn” “how to fly” by flapping his arms.


As with everything, there’s a difference between mimicking and learning and this is where the problems will continue. The questions a biomimetic approach may help to answer are generally not the questions that architects are used to asking. As applied science, biomimicry is ideology-free and thus of no use to architecture even though it may be of immense use to the building sciences. If biomimetics does become a major force in contemporary society, then we can be certain that architecture will represent biomimicry and thus refresh its tired claim to represent contemporary society.

On the bright side however, it has always been possible to build in direct response to the climatic manifestation of Nature and without having to explicity represent Nature or any of its processes.

Back in the stealth post, I mentioned how animals that looked fast aren’t necessarily all that fast. The cheetah is the animal with the highest top speed and happens to look rather fast as well, as does its cousin, the jaguar. The jaguar’s top speed is 50mph (80kmph) so it’s not as fast as the cheetah, but it does have a car named after it because of its impressive speed and looks combo.


As I wrote in that post, the pronghorn antelope can outrun a cheetah if it has a couple of seconds’ head start. The cheetah is a faster accelerator and has a higher top speed but rather crap stamina. The pronghorn antelope can sustain top speed for far longer due to some impressive muscle metabolism and an exceptionally large windpipe, heart, and lungs. It can run 35 mph for 4 miles (56 km/h for 6 km), 42 mph for 1 mile (67 km/h for 1.6 km); and 55 mph for 0.5 mile (88.5 km/h for 0.8 km). The beasts seem to be built for running. Compared to the horse’s three natural gaits of walk, canter and gallop, the pronghorn has at least THIRTEEN distinct gaits, including one reaching nearly 7.3 m (8.0 yd) per stride.


In other words, the cheetah is the dragster of the animal world. Looks fast and is fast, in the “fastest instantaneous speed” sense of performance. Its automobile equivalent would be a top-fuel dragster.

Top fuel racing is a class of drag racing in which the cars are run on a mix of approximately 90% nitromethane and 10% methanol (also known as racing alcohol) rather than gasoline or simply methanol. The cars are purpose-built for drag racing, with an exaggerated layout that in some ways resembles open-wheel circuit racing vehicles. However, top fuel dragsters are much longer, much narrower, and are equipped with large tires on the back and small tires in front, all in order to maximise their straight-line acceleration and speed. A top fuel dragster accelerates from a standstill to 100 miles per hour (160 km/h) in as little as 0.8 seconds and can exceed 280 miles per hour (450 km/h) in just 660 feet (200 m). 


By comparison, the pronghorn would be a, umm, let’s say … a 1986 Maserati QPIII. No slouch in the engine department, it does a bit more than just get you there but it’s grey and wedgy. It’s ‘an old man’s car’.


In the past, misfits’ has gone on about high-performance buildings and consistently implied they are better than those designed just for visual/media/brand appeal. Many of the buildings misfits finds attractive have been designed without regard to conventional notions of visual architectural aesthetics. Many look weird, despite them performing their shelter duties far better than many buildings more conventionally pleasing to the eye.

The pronghorn antelope is not trying to look fast.


The pronghorn antelope is proof that looking fast and being fast are not as closely related as we might like to believe. This so-called learning from Nature is highly selective and more of a reflection of us than any absolute truth gleaned. The pronghorn antelope shows us that Nature is not so much concerned with visual representation, or even the visual representation of performance. It would do the animal little good if it merely looked fast without having the performance to back it up. But it has – to the chagrin of cheetahs.

It is neither useful nor necessary to have every design principle ‘validated’ by Nature but this one can be, if you insist. It is not necessary to represent performance,

just do it

Nature does.