Tag Archives: architecture’s troubled relationship with nature

Moneymaking Machines #7: Absolute Towers

The 2005-06 competition for the design of Absolute Towers in Mississagua just outside Toronto in Canada was a privately-run competition open to anyone interested in entering. The following jury shortlisted six proposals from 92 entries.

  • Ed Sajecki, civil engineer and professional planner, founding partner of LinkedIn
  • Larry Beasley, urban planner, formerly Co-Director of Planning for the City Of Vancouver
  • Colin Fournier, founding member of Archigram, professor at Bartlett, UCL
  • Michael D. Spaziani, architect and urban planner
  • Sol Wassermuhl, Toronto-based architect
  • Claude Lacombe, Toronto-based architect
  • Danny Salvatore, President of Fernbrook Homes, the competition sponsor
  • Paulo Stellato, Principal, Cityzen Development Group
  • Sam Crignano, President, Cityzen Development Group
  • Competition Manager: Office for Urbanism, Toronto-based practice

Thanks to sites such as competitions.org and to domusweb.it, we can still see the six shortlisted proposals.

The domus.it site listed MAD Office as a USA-based practice and, though there’s probably some reason for that, it’s nobody’s perception of the company.

Nevertheless, the jury chose MAD’s proposal, basically on the back of enthusiasm on the part of the developers, who then instructed the engineers and architects of record to not kill what they liked about the design. The identical floor slabs in the Stage 2 Identical floor plates meant construction could be by usual slip-form construction, but with a rotational displacement for the outer edge formwork. The submitted drawings – the two on the right, below – showed a building with a 360° twist and a structural system for how that might be achieved. [Canadian Competitions Catalogue has more information on the proposal as submitted in Stage I and Stage II.]

Canadian Competitions Catalogue has more information on the proposal as submitted in Stage I and Stage II, but the competition was an ideas competition and so working out how to build and plan the winning proposal came later, with Toronto-based Sigmund Soudack & Associates Inc. appointed as structural engineers. They kept some things and changed or changed back others.

  • Their final building isn’t as twisty at 209° but it’s a faithful interpretation and, to my mind, all the better for not going full-circle.
  • Their structural followed the idea present in the Stage 1 proposal [left, above], with shear walls simply extending or contracting to suit the rotational position of the floor slab.
  • The identical floor slabs in the Stage 2 Identical floor plates meant construction could be by usual slip-form construction, but with a rotational displacement for the outer edge formwork. This idea was also present in the Stage 2 proposal.
  • They made the distribution of those shear walls more regular.
  • They made the core square to give it symmetry in two directions. (Splitting the elevator bank into two is not ideal but I can see how it would have helped even up the forces when the floors are moving around.)
  • They added four more staggered columns that move in and out along the diagonal grid lines, their horizontal moments cancelling at the doubled core.

The architects of record were Burka Architects Inc. (formerly Burka Varacalli Architects) who were architects for three shorter towers on the same site. Internal planning was their responsibility and, though some of the apartments are small, there’s probably a mixture of sizes and their respective numbers as determined by a marketing consultant. Here’s a CBTUH case study paper for further reading.

The apparent fluidity of shape is produced by floor slabs resting on a three-dimensional grid of concrete planes, none of which are particularly thick when compared with those of other twisting towers such as SOM’s Cayan Tower in Dubai. I put this down to the core of Absolute Towers being well integrated with the shear wall structure whereas, in Cayan Tower, the offset columns create torsional forces that attempt to screw the building into the ground, and that can only be countered by “engineering the problem away” – a cute industry euphemism for “more concrete!” – to increase the torsional resistance of the core.

Another problem with twisting towers is what to do with the facade when living spaces extend to the edge of the slab. The image on the right above shows how the load-bearing facade of Cayan Tower is faceted, as it would have to be if you are using parallelepiped-shaped panels to clad between two floor slabs with non-parallel edges. (Calatrava’s Twisting Torso building in Malmo gets around this by having flat glazing units set into specially-curved aluminum panels. $$)

I took these photos of UN Studio’s Wasl Tower in Dubai over a year ago now. The two corners without a corner feature have narrower panels that facet around the corner within the tolerance of their thickness.

Absolute Towers avoids compromise or complex solutions such as these by the simple decision to set the glazing back from the edge of the floor slab. This leaves balcony edges free to create the shape but also means that external walls can be created by conventional panels and glazing. It also means those exposed balcony slabs become huge reverse radiators sucking cold into the building. The engineers’ website notes that “to address the thermal transfer between the open balconies and the interior, a new kind of thermal break was devised where the balconies meet the wall in two-foot segments alternating with four-foot gaps.” Here’s how it’s done.

The diagram on the left below shows how the incrementally offset walls require additional insulation on the inside when part of the ceiling becomes a roof when the floor above is set further in, and on the outside when part of the floor becomes an external surface. This is just one of those things architects of record are there to sort out.

The visual continuity of that balcony edge isn’t upset by eye-height partitions separating balconies of adjacent apartments. People will surely put chairs and tables and hardy potplants on their balconies but I don’t think it will much affect how the building looks on the outside or how the residents use it for most of the year.

Let’s take another look at those apartments. MAD had eight per floor. Now there are ten, eight of which are between parallel walls and the other two occur when the spaces along the diagonal grid lines are too large to simply be added to adjacent ones. There can’t be twelve apartments because, when two of those spaces are too large, the other two spaces along the other diagonal grid line are too small to be used for anything other than a small triangular bedroom opening directly off the living area. This is simply the price one pays. However, all apartments have living rooms with parallel walls for a sofa and opposing flatscreen, as is customary.

The core is as close as it can get to being bi-axially symmetrical and this must surely decomplicate the structure when the floor slabs keep moving around. The resultant “circular” corridor around an island core allows more flexibility for apartment entrances but, at approx. 49m2 per 205m2 floor plate excluding balconies, the unsellable area is high at approximately 25%. This and the additional construction complexity meant a build cost 20% higher, but this was recouped by higher selling prices, presumably after maintaining normal profit margins.

The competition winners were announced in 2006 and construction began in 2007 and was expected to have been completed by 2010 but because of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, only the first 22 storeys of the first tower were completed by 2010. This project could very easily have stopped there and the fact it didn’t, and was completed and opened in 2012 is to the credit of its developer. Half finished buildings still litter Dubai.

No architect wants to get a reputation as developer’s friend so all that remains is to find out what the architect has to say about the project.

Unfortunately, the 1,000 words of text on the competition panels is too small to read. ArchDaily is now the closest thing architecture has to a collective memory and, accompanied by photographs (by Iwan Ban no less), the theoretical argument for the building is made.

It’s a big ask of a simple building with a twisty shape. The argument is that buildings with high energy performance are good, but happier and more sustainable societies will result if buildings are shaped like natural objects that people relate to emotionally. The developer client certainly related to MAD’s proposal emotionally. There must have been phenomenal off-plan demand for Nature because a second tower was duly commissioned, designed and constructed with so little delay that many people believe the two buildings were conceived of as a pair.

This is a link to the developer’s website, showing Absolute Towers as completed and marketed.

This next is a YouTube video of the drive from downtown Mississagua to Toronto. In the first fifteen seconds, you get a feel for the building in context.


Aesthetic Efficiency

Prompted by this empty space outside a mall, I asked a few posts back if invisible design was an oxymoron. Despite having no obvious indicators of design, this empty space enables all the feelgood benefits we like to think more visible design can provide.

It enables so much for so little obvious design input and leads to the concept of aesthetic efficiency and an occasional topic of this blog. It goes like this. Some buildings are nice to look at or experience and some may even be thrilling but, if those pleasure units were quantifiable then it’d be easy to put a cost on them and determine if the sum of them was worth it. Not only that, we’d also be able to track the total aesthetic pleasure a building gave over its lifetime. It would enable us to see for what they are, those buildings launched to great fanfare but soon forgotten.

In the previous post I mentioned covering the supports and undersides of elevated expressways with ivy as an example of something that provides huge benefits for very little outlay. This is also a design decision in the sense that somebody was able to imagine an improvement and then implement it. It’s not as invisible as the previous example.

Even less invisible is this next space I recently described as having something compelling about it due to the curved facades of the four buildings giving shape to the space between and forming a faux-roundabout with three drop-offs and one entrance on the diagonals. This works wonderfully for traffic and the hotel drop-offs but less so for pedestrians as the distance between crosswalks is increased. It’s not a plaza, piazza, place, square or circle, but it’s a very strong something that’s been created from nothing or, more precisely, the controlled and consistent absence of something. It’s more than the sum of the spaces between the buildings and is all the more remarkable for being the cumulative work of three different designers. This simple design decision has produced something disproportionately greater than the means used to achieve it. It’s a manifestation of aesthetic efficiency.

I’ve admired these London council apartment buildings by Colin Lucas for decades now and I know many people will object to the raw brick and concrete finishes on aesthetic grounds. [Note: Unless there is local pressure to prettify them with overcladding, these buildings will remain as fireproof today as the day they were built.] A single typical floor could have been designed to have three two-bed apartments and one one-bed apartment but instead, the one-bed apartments are grouped on every fourth floor, giving these buildings their distinctive profile, and all for the construction cost of cantilevering the living rooms a meter and a half on one side.

We now go from London to Shanghai and, according to the sequence in my photo library, somewhere between the Picardie Apartments (1935) and Keven Café across the road, and Jing-An Temple. The uppermost floorplates of this building are marginally larger and the levels immediately below have balconies creating a transition. It’s not so different from the London example in using a very efficient aesthetic device to give the building its distinctive profile at very little additional cost. This building uses the device only once to give the building a base and a wider top but nobody can accuse it of trying to be a tree or a flower. However, if you half close your eyes, you can perhaps see an abstraction of one of The Three Classical Orders. Ionic or Corinthian I don’t know or care. I like it.

When I was in Shanghai, an architect friend recommended I go see Square Pagoda Garden (方塔园, FangTaYuan) if I had time, as it’s in the town of Sonjiang outside Shanghai proper. 

The trip is an hour and a quarter by bus from Shanghai Indoor Stadium Station where a new outdoor stadium is being built without fuss.

I arrived at the bus station just as the express was about to depart. I was having trouble registering on the QR ticket app but, when I mentioned FangTaYuan to a station controller, he said something to the driver and I was ushered onto the bus. 

The driver was going to let me ride without paying but, by the time we arrived, I’d managed to get the app working and paid the ¥8 (US$2) fare. My next problem was that the ticket office for the pagoda park only took cash. I must have looked disappointed because I was told it didn’t matter and the lady gave me a ticket anyway. I felt this Square Pagoda Garden was a very special place for Chinese people and that they very much wanted me to see it. 谢谢大家。

You enter the park from the north and proceed along a straight road with close planting. At the end, the view opens up and though your first sight of the pagoda is off to the left, its base is hidden by a wall partially enclosing the square in which the pagoda stands. This is of course deliberate. The most common shape for a pagoda is octagonal and there are also hexagonal and circular ones but I’m surprised there aren’t more square ones since having fewer corners emphasizes the roof curves and makes them appear more delicate. Solidity and grounded-ness must be valued more.

Immediately in front of this approach road is a large mound with steps inviting you to a raised viewing platform offering views of the pagoda seen through tree branches or against the uneven edge of the platforms and their boulders. These aren’t set views from predetermined positions but glimpses, incidental, and almost voyeuristic. I wouldn’t be surprised if none of this, including the mound, is natural. It’s wonderful. Leading off the mound are various paths and, while you suspect some new thing is just around the corner or beyond the moon gate, you go along with it and let yourself be delighted anyway.

The pagoda was first built in the late 11th century, underwent various renovations and repairs, was rebuilt in 1977, had the park added in 1978 and the formal garden added in 1982.

The viewing mound and lake were thus most likely created in 1978. But look at the sides of that lake in the image below! Its sides are vertical concrete [!!] walls where the pagoda is seen against them, and only on the south [left] side is there anything resembling a natural slope. Neither the artificiality of the pagoda or the naturalness of the landscape is made a fetish of with crude juxtapositions. The lake isn’t even trying to be natural yet the noisy paddleboats don’t disturb its silence. It’s bold yet, at the same time, it’s almost nothing. See how the wall around the pagoda isn’t concealed by trees? And how the near corners of the pagoda, the boundary wall and the lake are all on the same diagonal? And how the portion of the lake wall outside this square geometry is slightly lower? Beautiful. Perfect. 1978. [What did we think was important in 1978? And how much of that still speaks to us in the same way it did then?]

This concrete lake is an incremental improvement. Its material and construction are new but not a distraction. Its position and alignment reinforce what’s already there. It’s a respectful acknowledgment that’s made the pagoda better somehow yet it’s difficult to see it as conscious design. It’s probably impossible to find out who was responsible for these decisions but, if I could, I’d like to ask them if they knew they were doing something amazing or whether they just thought it was the right thing to do.

Notice how, from across the lake, the pagoda is either framed by or seen against those cypress trees in the distance? This isn’t an accident. It’s playing the long game, seeing the bigger picture.

In televised mass performance extravaganzas for some major commemoration or festival, an empty section of sky in the far distance on the edge of frame will be lit with synchronous fireworks to enhance what’s happening on stage within the stadium. (Imagine a project meeting with the stage manager/director saying things like “Give me a proposal and estimate for painting that patch of sky over there orange for the ten seconds from 3:05 to 3:15 into Act 2, yellow for the 8 seconds from …. etc.”)

When we notice this, we say it is “layering of space” as if we understand it, happily praise it as wondrous and then fail to notice how well somebody just did their job. It’s picturesque landscape design and how to make isn’t that hard. The bit we find difficult is seeing that bigger picture in the first place. From now on, me hearing the words “layering of space” to describe one opening seen through another will trigger a “release the safety on my Browning” moment.

Another remarkable thing about this park is how complete a world it is despite being only 450m at its longest north-south. At no time was I aware of the world beyond its boundaries and, always drawn to the centre as I was, I had no desire to seek out those boundaries, or to even wonder how this was achieved. It’s a totally internal world concealing the one outside and allowing you to forget it. It’s totally relaxing and we should expect this of all our parks and gardens. The souvenir and refreshment kiosks were small, functional and picturesque. I wasn’t spending any money just sitting there or walking around and, unlike some galleries I’ve been in, I was in no hurry to leave once I’d seen what I came to see.

My friend tells me that this pagoda and park have inspired many persons, including celebrated architect Wang Shu. I don’t know what Mr. Wang thought or wrote about it and nobody’s asking me what I think but, if they were to, I’d say “Try to make something as simple as you possibly can, and then do something bold with it”. If any of my students learn anything this coming semester, I want this to be it.


Arboreal Angst

If I were a tree I’d be starting to get very worried. There was no need to worry back when roof “gardens” were first proposed as they didn’t seem concerned about plants. Besides, there was still significant garden at ground level. However, the idea that Nature was something to be looked at rather than experienced was planted. Also, having anything called a “garden” on the roof suggested the ground plane could now be used for other things.

In the eighties Ken Yeang produced some wonderful drawings of towers covered in plants and with spaces for trees to grow as part of an integrated building services system. The first built one was his 1992 Menara Meshinaga building.

Integrating rainwater collection, plants and biological waste recycling into a building system remains an excellent idea but the problem is that expensive structure is used to enclose large volumes of space to create “sky courts” for plants that don’t pay the rent. It’s a question of building economics and the multiple benefits of vegetation resist quantification. (This doesn’t mean people haven’t tried, or aren’t trying now.) It makes little sense to use significant structure to define large voids unless there’s going to be significant payback. There were big holes in these proposals. They were visually arresting because we‘d not seen anything like it before, but they were also unfeasible and never became mainstream.

Around the same time, people began to realise the benefits that growing plants on rooftops might have for stormwater runoff, heat-island effect, insulation and biodiversity and, not to mention, make us feel good about ourselves, and all for little extra cost! Green roofs returned some of the benefits that building on a piece of land had taken away. Ultimately however, representing these benefits – especially the one about us feeling good about ourselves –became more important than actually providing them. [c.f. The Demise of the Green Roof] In any case, it was all possible with only a small degree of construction complication as long as the greening bits were limited to grass or meadow plants.

For all the good they might do or might have done, the main problem with green roofs as far as representing green-ness was concerned, was that they were up on the roof where nobody could see them. One solution was to tilt the roof and, accordingly, we went through a stage of variously inclined and bulbous green roofs.

This must have resulted in too much unusable building volume because resolutely vertical “living walls” came next. Most people’s first architectural encounter was probably Jean Nouvel’s 2006 Musée de Quai Branly (with green wall by Patrick Blanc) and the second was probably Herzog de Meuron’s 2007 CaixaForum Madrid building.

We’d never seen buildings do this before. These two bookend and largely constitute The Golden Age of Living Walls. Brave attempts to prettify car parks and municipal buildings often underestimated the amount of maintenance required and ended up giving green walls a bad name. They simply required too much maintenance to ever be viable on public buildings.

Europeans have always liked to grow things on the upper floor balconies and terraces of apartment buildings, particularly so in Milan. Look at this next photograph. Apartments line a street with more than the usual amount of trees but people on upper floors want to grow their own where they can see them. [1]

The deal with apartment buildings such as this next one in Paris by Edouard Francois is that, in return for maintaining the plants, residents get to have plants outside their window as if it were a garden on land they could see through their window. 

This is a photo from 2017 of M6B2 Tower of Biodiversity in Paris, again by Edouard Francois, and when the plants hadn’t yet been added. The entire building is wrapped in a plant-friendly trellis. No doubt Inhabitat has some more recent images.

This brings us to Stefano Boeri’s 2014 Bosco Verticale (“Vertical Forest”). Let’s be clear on this: Vertical Forest is about horticulture, not forestry. After five years, the trees and plants all seem to have reached their optimum sizes, and there are no dead patches, or noticeable differences due to aspect.

On the south side of Vertical Forest is a large park having sixteen “circular forests” of single species. It’s pleasant, but it’s landscaping not forestry. [2]

Apartments aren’t cheap – a low-floor 80 sq.m apartment will set you back €512,000 (US$570,000) while a 200 sq.m penthouse costs around €1.6 mil. (US$1.75 mil.) This is about 20-40% more than comparably-sized apartments nearby. Nevertheless, making something like this work is a huge achievement, integrating horticultural expertise with pedestrian safety and structural concerns. Accordingly, Boeri’s office has been asked to produce vertical forests for Paris (2017), China “Vertical Forest City” (2017), Antwerp (2018), Eindhoven (2018), Cairo (2019), Utrech (2019), Tirana (2030) … [3]

Clearly, vertical forests are a product and part of the appeal is that people can have bigger and better plants outside their windows. This is not only more convincing as garden, but also watered, tended and maintained as a building service charge – and that’s fine. My concern here is not whether vertical forests are a new type of cosmetic facade or an integrated part of some building or urban ecosystem. Some will be and some won’t. Plants being plants, there’s always going to be some organism that will appreciate them. Moreover, benefits such as photosynthesis, of plants not retaining heat, and the moisture retention properties of the soil they grow in are going to be present no matter how marginal or at what cost of getting the plants up there and keeping them alive. Vertical forests don’t require expensive structure, they are highly visible and attractive from all sides. A balance between living wall and the proposals of Ken Yeang seems to have been found. What’s not to like?

I’m suspicious of any kind of any building or part of a building that is claimed to replicate some function of Nature, specifically those traditionally performed by trees.

When these new biometric organic fractal parametric shade-giving free facades can purify air, help out with the water cycle, reduce heat island effect, add to biodiversity and habitat, change with the seasons and also make a pleasant sound when the wind blows, we’ll finally be able to get rid of those stupid green things that obscure our view of them. [c.f. The Free Facade]

Remember what happened when artificial lighting and artificial ventilation began to supplement natural lighting and ventilation? They quickly became substitutes for it and various efficiencies of planning and construction meant bathrooms and kitchens were no longer designed to have those things called windows. This all happened quite a while ago and today we don’t think twice about windowless bathrooms and kitchens in tower apartments (or even detached houses). We never looked back. Hong Kong remains the last pocket of resistance. [c.f. Plan B]

The Objectification of Trees

Consider this next project by arch tree-objectifier, Thomas Heatherwick. It’s currently under construction in Shanghai. It’s not a project that could be designed by someone who likes trees.

Trees and other plants grown in elevated planters suffer the indignity of being part of a representation of trees. On the plus side, the plants look as if they might be left to form their own ecosystems without human interference apart from reticulation. By the look of it, it might not be a good time to be a mountain either.

This is the problem. Such projects offer some of the benefits of trees (and mountains) where previously there were none. However, my worry (on behalf of trees and mountains) is that should we become used to seeing privatised representations of Nature more often than the real thing, then these will become the real thing. And the preferred thing. To put it another way,

if a building can substitute for trees, then we won’t miss the land taken up by trees being used to build more tree substitutes. There’s no further need for forests.

This of course will only come about if we have a very narrow view of what a forest is and does. The objectification of trees and their subsequent mis-naming as vertical forests goes some way towards narrowing it. Forests are more than a lot of trees pleasant to look at. Trees are just one part of an ecosystem that involves climate, insects, soil and animals. This next image is an objectified tree that, if it had been planted in the ground and watered, might have helped enrich the soil and encourage the growth of less exotic plants requiring less water.

The only function of the objectified tree is to be ornamental. It’s a worry. Back in 2009 MVRDV were toying with the idea of fusing mountains, trees and buildings. This proposal is part of their China Hills project for Luizhou, in Guangxi, China. Trying to make buildings look like mountains has some inherent problems, not least of all the poor daylighting (for humans) because of the deep floorplates.

Their next proposal for Luizhou made the rounds not long after after. I don’t know if it was ever built but I can imagine it all to easily.

What is getting built in Luizhou is Liuzhou Forest City. It’s designed by Stefano Boeri Architetti. Clusters of buildings with mountain profiles from one or two directions looks like a typology we’ll be seeing more of.

Stefano Boeri

So what’s next? MVRDV were about five years behind the curve when it came to building a greened building and are now looking at the retro-greenification of entire cities, as described in the cover story of the current issue of DOMUS.

The Green Dip project jointly conducted by WhyFactory [the research side of MVRDV] @TUDelft and IAAC in Barcelona calculated the environmental gains of having vegetation covering the surface area of entire cities. Doing this for Hong Kong would absorb 3,450,000 tonnes/year of CO2, produce 2,070,000 tonnes/year of O2, save €1.97 bil. in cooling, produce 7,160,000 MWh/year of energy and retain 489.62 hectolitres of H2O. Similar calculations were done for Sao Paulo and St Petersburg.

So there you have it. It’s all good news about easy-on-the-eye buildings, environmental gains and costs saved. Nobody’s saying that any forests need to destroyed but these fake forests are making it easier for us to think we’ll get along just fine in a world without them. To finish, here’s a current project by Jean Novel for Sao Paulo which, as you don’t need to be told, is in Brazil which, as I write, is burning.

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Building Nature

Nature has been synonymous with Beauty for some time now. Despite what it’s about to do to us, we continue to have an image of Nature as something beautiful beyond bounds and an endless source of inspiration and PR blather for architects. That inspiration is without end because, try as one may, it’s simply not possible for a building to ever be a natural object. Attempts to make a building appear as if it were a natural object are a different matter. They fall within architecture’s traditional remit of showing how much money and resources one can waste throwing at an insoluble problem. Natural-looking buildings are just that – natural-looking. If we’re hearing “natural” and understanding it as natural then it’s just another example of the PostModern disease where the representation of something is more important than the thing itself. Buildings may be “natural” and not natural at the same time and for many they’re the same thing.

The fact Architecture hasn’t managed to define itself vis-à-vis Nature makes me suspect something more deep-seated is amiss. It’s an ongoing and troubled relationship with identity issues at its core. It’s as if Architecture is in denial, as if its very existence – or at least its self-image – is threatened by acknowledging and accepting the reality that buildings are not natural. This denial extends to language and cognitive frameworks when building –the noun –  is said to be the opposite of Architecture, and build-ing – the verb – is claimed to be the opposite of creating.

Lovely as St. Petersburg is for the casual summer tourist, I’m not sorry to be living in a place where public spaces aren’t dominated by self-important monuments and buildings aren’t graced by caryatids and atlantides. I’m untroubled by the Islamic prohibition on reproductions of the human form. If God indeed holds the copyright I only wish He’d extend its scope to include rocks and assorted landforms, trees, plants, leaves, animals, birds, fish and insects.

Architecture as metaphor for Nature

Organic architecture is a metaphor because buildings are, by and large, made of inorganic material. They have more in common with each other than they ever will with Nature.

“Organic architecture” was and still is unquestionably thought to be a good thing. The concept entered architectural lore via Thoreau’s 1854 book Walden that was wildly popular by the time Frank Lloyd Wright was old enough to read. The term is still in use and used to justify all manner of crimes against not only Nature but Architecture as well.

Architecture as substitute for Nature

Green roofs seemed like a good idea to begin with. They had the potential to act as rainwater runoff buffers and add a much-needed biodiversity to urban areas. These important roles were sidelined as architects and clients discovered green roofs were a relatively inexpensive, attractive and popular means of projecting an apparent environmental wokeness. There’s no lack of examples. Here’s one I would expect and hope is a biofuel plant. [c.f. The Demise of the Green Roof]

A variant substitute for Nature is the green wall or “living wall”. These first entered architectural consciousness with Jean Nouvel’s 2006 Musée du Quai Branly.

Despite being more high maintenance than actual Nature ever was, the concept of living walls shot around the world as a space-saving representation of environmental wokeness. Now, every city has at least one dead living wall adorning either an IBIS hotel or a sustainability awareness centre.

Stefano Boeri’s 2014 Bosco Verticale in Milan was doing very well last time I saw it. I put this down to the residents taking responsibility for the care of the plants outside their windows, something I think the Milanese like to do anyway.

Architecture as container for Nature

Another problem with green roofs was that they provided a pleasant place for office lunch and cigarette breaks. This was no good. Bringing the plants inside means people can admire them without leaving their desks. Architecture’s brightest and best can easily persuade Architecture’s wealthiest clients to put some plants in, on or around a building. In principle it’s an okay idea as it’s better to have plants than no plants but these are now privatised plants in gated communities. Some benefits of photosynthesis may reach the atmosphere outside but the primary purpose of these plants is to increase employee wellbeing – our new word for productivity. [c.f. Future Nature

Architecture as value-added Nature

The above project was presented as a serious proposal but, frankly, who can tell anymore? “The New Sincerity” is a post I have yet to write. The proposal below left looks a bit studenty to me. although I suppose tree-shaped wind turbines will work on some level. The proposal below right looks like it came from a vizualiser’s portfolio. [Apparently, the trees grow horizontally to the ground because the pots rotate.] If only our capacity to be inspired by Nature knew some bounds. I’m pretty sure such things as photosynthesis and the growing thing are better done by trees and plants.

If this is the level of technological investigation into Nature replacement, then it’s not ikely we’ll have any reliable and effective technologies to replace trees should there come a time when the planet has no more.

Greendix are doing their best.

170.52 x 83.5 mm eh? How’s this going to work? Are they going to be arranged in grids on rooftop solar panels aligned at 22.5° to the horizontal or are they going to adorn fake trees? Real leaves do much that is good. They provide shade and go some way to ridding the atmosphere of pollutants and also do the photosynthesis thing. It’s not as if leaves don’t have enough to do. Leaves are not imperfect because they don’t generate electricity. All the good things that happen with leaves happen because sunlight falls upon them and plants contrive their growth patterns to ensure the right amount falls upon them. Most of the time though, leaves shade other leaves. Greedix may manage to make a reasonable facsimile of a leaf but will find they have insufficient insolation if ever they make thousands of them into a reasonable facsimile of a tree. What would such a tree look like?

Architecture as an improvement on Nature

This isn’t going anywhere. Even our landscrapers have gotten lazy and aren’t what they used to be. This does remind me of the next, however.

Architecture as an extension of Nature

It works. I’ve uploaded these next images before. It was a study I did circa 1995 in order to test whether something that “appeared as if it was growing out of the very ground” would automatically be beautiful or not. It is.   In this case, Nature is represented as gravity acting in opposition to some sort of geological force over time in a way not dissimilar to the Futurist notion of lines of force. As it grows out of the ground the materials change from amorphous, solid, raw and heavy into light, refined, geometric and so on. It’s a neat trick, but it’s an inauthentic beauty that denies the facticity of building. [c.f. Existential Architecture: Being There]

For what it’s worth, here’s the full study/presentation from circa 1995.

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After that quick survey, I return to the village of Tiébélé in Burkina Faso. There’s something calming about it. I like the obvious care and pride being shown, unencumbered by pretence and the desperate baggage of architecture. The people who planned, built and decorated these houses were untroubled by the relationship their buildings had with Nature. The result doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is. These buildings are very obviously built objects and don’t attempt to appropriate, represent, mimic, extend, contain, or improve upon Nature. The people who made them don’t have a dysfunctional relationship with Nature.

All well and good you may say but the villagers of Tiébélé lead a pre-industrial life. It’s easy to conclude that Architecture’s dysfunctional relationship with Nature began with the Industrial Revolution and a desire to return to a supposed paradise lost. This may be so but, a century and a half on, Architecture refuses to let go of memories of a relationship that never existed to begin with.


Architecture Myths #22: Biomimesis

Learning From Nature introduced aspects of the troubled and confused history of architecture’s relationship with the natural world.


The concept of biomimesis was never going to make it any clearer.


On reading this, I did bristle at contemporary philosophy and wonder what was meant by sustainability in nature but the rest was good. I approved of the bit about not by replicating natural forms, but by understanding the rules governing those forms and the bit about following a set of principles rather than stylistic codes. However, given architecture’s historic appetite for reducing potentially useful ideas to representations of useful ideas, the concept of a biomimetic architecture is just asking for trouble.

ONE. A clear definition of a term is a good thing but mightn’t a term like biolearning been better? Learning isn’t synonymous with mindless copying and repetition. Mimicking is.  

TWO. Biomimicry is easily misunderstood as referring to appearance – shape – FORM if you will. Despite the disclaimers, the definition aims to learn from forms and for that learning  to inform architectural form. This practically guarantees we will miss everything of value. The most valuable thing we can learn from the biological processes of Nature is that they randomly rearrange matter and any forms that result, result because they are good at doing something. It follows that there is something that can be learned from every form that results from the processes of Nature. How are we to know where to look, and for what? Sometimes it’s easy.

• • •

Birds have wings and tails to help them move through space but there’s nothing especially architectural to be learned from that. There’s a difference between biomimicry and zoomorphism. Axially symmetrical airport buildings as tedious metaphors for flight is zoomorphism.

Buildings, even those at airports, don’t move through space. However, arranging things in space is one thing the processes of Nature and the processes of Architecture do have in common. A study on how birds use air turbulence to their advantage when flying in formation might provide some insights into better ways for air to move around buildings. Perhaps – but so far we haven’t found a problem we can apply this knowledge to. I’m not sure anyone’s looking.

Flock of White-faced Whistling ducks flying in 'V' formation

The field of aviation however, has many problems to which it can apply the mechanics of birdflight for both deal with objects powering through air. Aircraft have tails and wings not because they’re mimicking the form of birds but because they’re required to do much the same thing in much the same environment. There are important similarities that have to do with aerodynamics, but there are also crucial differences such as aircraft having fixed wings. Bio-mimicry was the first avenue of exploration but not the best place to start.


Although airships forever seem to be on the verge of making a comeback they never actually return. The fixed aerofoil wing coupled to a means of thrust remains our preferred way of getting something into the air and making it move through it. Developments in commercial aviation have concentrated on factors such as lower weight, improved safety, increased passenger capacity, and more powerful and efficient engines – all of which are directly linked to commercial advantages. One of the features of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner is the use of carbon fibre composites for the fuselage, wings and other major components. Their higher strength-to-weight ratio makes the 787 lighter and more fuel efficient. $$.


It’s a different story for fighter aircraft. The dogfight isn’t so common a form of military engagement these days but development of fighters continues as a matter of national prestige. Some birds hunt and attack. Some aircraft hunt and attack. Range and speed are important but manoeuvrability is now top priority and birds, especially birds of prey, suddenly have a lot to offer. Have a look at this.

242 mph is 390 kmph. The bird was able to decelerate and turn so quickly because of alula. These are the small “winglets” at the front of the wing. Birds of prey tend to have more pronounced ones as they improve manoeuvrability.


Alula function in more than one way. When flying at slow speeds or landing, the bird moves its alula slightly upwards and forward, which creates a small slot on the wing’s leading edge. This functions in the same way as the slats on the wing of an aircraft, allowing the wing to achieve a higher than normal angle of attack – and thus lift – without stalling. The leading edge slats on this Airbus A318 function as alula.


Manoeuvrability is about maintaining laminar airflow by not exceeding the angle of attack (alpha) of the wing. It’s a serious design problem.


Solving this problem of laminar flow is why people go “oooh” at airshows when aircraft do impossible looking turns without falling out of the sky.


Also important for both birds and aircraft but particularly fighter aircraft is a very low wing-loading. This is the loaded weight of the aircraft ÷ area of the wing. Aircraft with low wing loadings produce more lift per unit area of wing, have better agility and higher landing and take-off speeds.


This means bigger wings. With its tiny wings optimised for supersonic flight, the Lockheed F104 Starfighter was the hummingbird of fighter aircraft. It was very stable at high speeds but required high speeds to turn, take off and land. “Banking, with intent to turn” was an in-joke for F-104 pilots.


Hummingbird wings have no alula.


There is no need to compromise between speed and manoeuvrability and this is where a bit of selective biomimicry is a very useful thing. At high speeds, alula function differently. They generate vortexes that suppress flow separation over the wing surface and so provide increased lift and better manoeuvrability when flying at high angles of attack. In this next image you can see vortexes doing just that, being generated by the wing leading edge parts extending forward to beside the cockpit.


These vortexes are created by airflow changes where the circular fuselage meets the leading edge extensions. We see them because of the water vapour that forms when air is suddenly compressed, expands again.


These vortexes are powerful and stable air streams having mass and inertia. They keep air flowing across the part of the wing where it is most useful. They follow the surface of the wing and, even if we can’t see them, remain in the air long after the aircraft has passed.

The canard is the aviation equivalent that best mimics how birds use their alula to improve lift, control or stability.


But canard? Why the French word for “duck”? Here’s why.


Static canards optimise one of these three but operable canards can optimise any of the three as required. This is a SAAB Viggen, the first production canard aircraft.