A leaf unfolds, its parts self-assembling from a slurry of nutrients, using ancient blueprints encoded on a molecular level to spread into a photosynthesizing, thermal regulating, pest-resistant and water-repelling surface. Our greatest technologies look mild compared to such simple, integrated eloquence.
To modify an adage from Arthur C. Clarke, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from life. Life has had millions of years to finely-tune mechanisms and structures (such as photosynthesis, or spider's silk) that work better than current technologies, require less energy and produce no life-unfriendly waste. The emulation of this technology is the goal of biomimicry, the art of innovation inspired by nature.
Architects are interested in biomimicry not only to find new ways of building, but also to find new sources of inspiration for aesthetic expression. In many cases, the results are buildings that are highly efficient, are more durable and require less energy or fewer materials.
Consider the Fennell Residence by Robert Oshatz, a floating home with a sweeping roof evocative of a nautilus shell; the Beijing National Stadium by Herzog & de Meuron with an exposed steel frame inspired by a bird’s nest; and the Quadracci Pavilion of the Milwaukee Art Museum designed by Santiago Calatrava, which opens and closes throughout the day like the wings of a butterfly, or the unfurling of a flower.
These expressions, while largely aesthetic, sometimes lead to new breakthroughs that reveal underlying order. When Calatrava used the twisting of the human torso as a metaphor for a building, he inadvertently made a major breakthrough in building engineering: spiraling structures behave remarkably well against wind loads. His Chicago Spire, evocative of a twisting snail shell, is slated to be the tallest structure in North America.
The most deeply biomimetic buildings are those that utilize functional properties learned from nature. Calatrava’s spire comes 80 years after Frank Lloyd Wright used the idea of a tree taproot (a deep vertical root) to design tall buildings based on a deep foundation supporting a central pillar, with floors cantilevered like branches—now standard practice.
Another example is the passive cooling system at Zimbabwe’s Eastgate Center, which mimics how African termite mounds maintain a constant internal temperature despite wide temperature swings. The Eastgate Center, designed by Mick Pearce, uses cold night air to cool the building mass. Daytime air is then drawn in through the first floor, is cooled by the mass, and rises up through the building to ventilate out chimneys. As a result, the structure uses less than 10 percent of the energy of a typical building its size.
Examples of useful innovations derived from natural processes in the plant kingdom are endless: Solar panels designed to track the sun like sunflowers, roof planes designed to draw water to a central downspout like leaves drawing water down a stem, service ducts integrated with structural members and material around branching structural nodes thickened to strengthen the joint and reduce torque.
We might speculate on other possibilities, such as cantilevers that merge with a supporting column like branches to a tree trunk, or a foundation “root structure” that strengthens the foundation by preventing soil erosion.
Perhaps the most inspiring examples of biomimicry combine functional properties with aesthetic expressions. Consider the Johnson Wax building by Frank Lloyd Wright: a beautifully lit hypostyle hall with columns that expand as they rise, evocative of lily pads floating on the surface of the water. These columns were the first thin-shell concrete structures in the world, designed with innovative use of steel-mesh reinforcement, inspired by the natural structure of the staghorn cholla cactus. The result was a “cathedral of work,” a workspace designed with the serenity of a walled garden.
Consider also imitations of natural systems, or "living machines." Green roofs extend the life of a roof while abating the urban heat island effect and reducing water loads. Living walls of plants growing in irrigated vertical panels of soil can filter air via the microbes in the plant root systems. Natural swimming pools, which are cheaper and more water-conservative than conventional pools, use aquaculture to purify water to drinkable cleanliness. Natural rainwater filtration systems are based on the same principle. Portland’s Lloyd Crossing designed by Mithun Architects aims to create an urban ecosystem using a variety of living machines and sustainable technologies.
Nature also provides principles that, like Calatrava's figure drawings, can lead us to new discoveries. Nature uses life-friendly manufacturing processes. Nature uses an ordered hierarchy of structures. Nature relies on self-assembly. Nature fits form to function.
Imagine urban design that takes after the prairie. A prairie is a highly diverse, closely intermingled ecosystem of autonomous agents. It takes shape over time while agents negotiate symbiotic relationships with their neighbors. While prairies use diversity (of species and variety) to resist pests; in cities, multi-use blocks keeps the streets active enough to deter crime. While prairies sponsor their own nitrogen fertility, communities that sponsor their own financial redevelopment produce vibrant communities that are good places to live. The result is a prescription for multi-use planning and resident-driven development similar to that promoted by Jane Jacobs.
Ultimately, biomimicry seeks to understand how we ought to integrate ourselves with nature. I find hope in the principle that, in nature, there are no hard boundaries or edges; materials merge together seamlessly. Perhaps through the emulation of nature, we will come to live more symbiotically with it, and our environments will become both closer to nature and less invasive to it.
Brett Holverstott is a graduate of Reed College and is studying for a Master's degree in Architecture from the University of Oregon.