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Of this blog’s sixteen categories, SCIENCE hadn’t been updated since Fast Tracking of March, 2017 about the development of Japan’s Shinkansen (lit. new arterial line, a.k.a. “bullet”) trains.

“It’s easy enough to make a train go fast but much harder to make it stay on the track and give passengers a comfortable ride.”

In the post I praised the attempt to make something better through ongoing research that resulted in incremental improvements. This is what makes it science, not architecture. In two and a half years this process hasn’t stopped and now the ALFA-X is being used for testing. As far as acronyms go, ALFA-X is almost okay, standing for Advanced Labs for Frontline Activity in rail eXperimentation. It is the popular name for the Class E956 shinkansen designed to test new technologies for incorporating into the next generation of trains expected to operate at speeds of up to 360 km/h or 220 mph. For comparison, current shinkansen regularly reach 320 km/h (200 mph), which is about one quarter of the anticipated 1,200 km/h or 760 mph top speed of hyperloop.

One important difference is that hyperloop doesn’t yet exist. It will still be some years before it enters commercial operation and, even then, to be truly comparable as a mode of transportation, it will have to transport 5.6 billion passengers in less than 53 years and without any passenger fatalities or injuries. Train speed actually counts for very little.

One of the technologies being tested is for a new type of damper to reduce vibration and the likelihood of derailment in major earthquakes. This is good. Another line of routine research involves body design to prevent snow from accumulating. There’s always something like this that can be improved. Unsurprisingly, all of the technologies being tested relate to problems associated with trains travelling at high speed. The most spectacular of these is the nose design. The ALFA-X is a strange bird with a 22-metre nose or perhaps I should say beak.

The noses of shinkansen trains had been getting longer and longer and becoming more birdlike since the 1997 E4 series. Eiji Nakatsu is the bird enthusiast and engineer credited with this design that minimized the sonic boom effect created at the other end of a tunnel when a train enters.

He arrived at the solution via another problem, that of noise caused by the train pantographs. He observed that owls fly silently because the leading edges of their wing feathers have lines of tiny serrations that force the air flow into smaller turbulences that make less noise. In the natural world, making less noise is advantageous when hunting. So is having a beak that doesn’t cause a huge splash to alert fish when you are diving into water to catch them. With respect to the sonic boom problem, Nakatsu saw a parallel between a train entering a tunnel of relatively compressed air, with kingfisher birds that dive at high speed from air into water that is over 800 times as dense, yet hardly making a splash. He correctly reasoned that this was because of the shape of the bird’s beak. His improved nose design enabled the 70 dBa operating noise level to be maintained, gave 30% less air resistance and provided a 13% energy reduction.

What is like about this story is that it has nothing to do with biomimicry. The natural world obeys its own logic, and mimicry for the sake of mimicry is pointless. Learning from nature is a different matter. With the problem of the pantograph, Nakatsu had a problem on his mind, made a connection with a solution to a similar problem in the natural world, and devised an artificial way to solve the problem of pantograph noise. When it came time to consider the sonic boom problem he thought to look for how similar problems were solved in the natural world. Having birdwatching as a hobby might not have been such a coincidence, especially if he was already interested in the physics and aerodynamics of entities moving at speed. Making the connection between how birds and trains move was the creative leap. Another thing I like about this story is that it does not involve research. All it took was curiosity about the world and knowing where to look for a solution to a similar problem. The part of making it work was relatively quick and easy. [c.f. Architectural Myths #22: Biomimesis]

Thought: Perhaps somebody is researching solving the sonic boom problem by changing the shape of tunnel entrances and exits to make them more funnel-like and so not have such an abrupt difference in air density. It might work, but remodeling existing tunnels would involve a whole world of pain for rail services and not be cost-effective.

People are on the case. Flared tunnel portals (as they are called) reduce the pressure gradient of the compression wave to provide better mitigation of the sonic boom effect.

The nose of the E956 ALFA-X shinkansen now even approximates the proportions of a kingfisher beak. These new shinkansen look strange but then, they are not trying to look beautiful. Nor for that matter is the kingfisher.

Two nose variations are currently being tested for pressure and sound differences when the train enters tunnels. The first one in the diagram below is approximately 16 meters long while the second is approximately 22 meters. The nose of a E-5 series is also shown for comparison.

An E5-Series train

Anything traveling at high speed needs an efficient and reliable braking system. ALFA-X is testing a combination of eddy current brakes (that are a known technology used on high-speed trains and roller coasters apparently) and an air brake system installed on the roof of the trains.

Learning from nature only works when the problems are seen or found to be similar. Some birds such as this peregrine falcon can decelerate from 390 kmph (242 mph) with astonishing speed using their alula which are small winglets on the leading edge of their wings. [c.f. Architectural Myths #22: Biomimesis]

Unsurprisingly, fighter aircraft have alula equivalents and resultant manouvreability advantages but, trains being trains, they have to move along track and to stay on that track while braking. In the air, birds and aircraft don’t have this limitation but when an aircraft is rocketing down a runway just after landing (and must stay on that runway), the situation is similar to that of trains. Engines can be reverse thrusted or parachutes can be deployed. An air brake is a third option. The last time air brakes were mentioned in this blog was with respect to the Sukhoi SU-27 in the post Architecture Myths #9: Clean Lines.

The ALFA-X will not be the last shinkansen. There will always been something that can be improved and I’m sure their engineers will continue to set problems that need solving and to draw upon the huge resource of case studies that is the natural world and also on the history of man-made solutions. Both are there for us all, whatever our field, to learn from but in order to do so we first need to frame the problem correctly. [c.f. Indexed Memory]

Some problems such as how to make a building look like a natural object are, along with transparency and weightlessness, logical and physical impossibilities resistant to solution no matter how much money and resources are thrown at them. Such decadent wastage is so over-represented in the history of architecture that one might be mistaken for thinking it is the very essence of architecture.

But not all problems can be solved through precedent in the natural or built environments. The quest for novelty is one such. True, a comprehensive knowledge of architectural history would be useful to know whether or not a solution were truly novel but, on the other hand, an absolute ignorance of architectural history would generate novel solutions just as well even if there were no reference for comprehending them. This is basically where we are today. [You will look in vain for architect job advertisements stipulating a knowledge of history.] Also rife is a pseudo-novelty whereby architectural history is mined for imagery that, chances are, people either won’t know about or will have forgotten anyway. Plundering the built environment for imagery is no different than plundering the natural world for imagery but both often pass for novelty.

To clear our minds, it might be time to revisit Formalism, and regain a perspective on what exactly is an architectural problem. These next two lists I’ve copied from the September 2017 post Making Strange where I suggested a formalist approach to architecture could translate directly and with better fidelity than the literary concepts of Post-Modernism and Deconstructivism ever did. First, what’s not an architectural problem.

  • It means harmony and rhythm are not valid concepts for producing or evaluating architecture, as they’re borrowed from Music.
  • It means composition and proportion are not valid concepts for producing or evaluating architecture, as they’re borrowed from Painting.
  • It means three-dimensionality and form are not valid concepts for producing or evaluating architecture, as they’re borrowed from Sculpture.
  • It means transparency and blurring are not valid concepts for producing or  evaluating architecture, as they’re borrowed from Photography.
  • It means organicism and self-similarity are not valid concepts for producing or evaluating architecture, as they’re qualities intrinsic to Nature.
  • It means historyphilosophypsychologypolitics and even culture are not valid concepts for producing or evaluating architecture, as they’re not qualities that influence Architecture alone. Everything has a history or, more precisely, everything has many histories.

Next, what’s left.

  • The notion of space seems to survive intact and I’m not the first to suggest it as a fundamental property of architecture. It may well be the real essence of architecture is the void and not the pretend solid enclosing it.
  • Following on from that, there’s moving through a space. The Acropolis and The Villa Savoye have been famously identified and described (yet never evaluated) as sequences of spatial experiences. Nonetheless, those sequences of spatial experiences are still distinct from the flashbacks, flash forwards and other devices intrinsic to Cinema and that evoke similar feelings of anticipation and suspense.
  • Materialsconstruction, and structure – but only at scales distinct from those of furniture and civil engineering.
  • As long as buildings are constructed objects, the senseable qualities of materials are as valid as their physical ones. This isn’t to argue for a touchy-feely architecture but just to say that, as long as buildings are constructed from materials with qualities, one quality is just as valid as any other.
  • Site.
  • The notion of function survives, in the sense that people still experience a space even if they’re not moving around admiring it.

Identifying the characteristics specific to architecture makes it easier to see what problems need to be solved. It’s the opposite approach to that of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, of whom Paul Rudolph once said was a great architect only because he choose to solve so few problems. There’s some truth in that.


Sunday 10th November 5:08PM: Less than one hour after I posted this post, this arrived in my inbox.