City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Biology and building

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Just wondering. Can anyone tell us about biologists interested in, or working within, architecture or engineering, or conversely architects, designers or engineers much influenced by biological process … Janine Benyus springs to mind, and a few architects do too (e.g. Ken Yeung is close; thanks to Rob Annable for the tip. And there are many architects with work inspired by natural forms, but I’m looking for a deeper level of integration/realisation, ideally.). But not many. Following Pruned and BLDGBLOG will help, but any other ideas? Comments below much appreciated.


16 responses to “Biology and building”

  1. Matt Avatar

    I’m thinking William McDonaugh must be somewhat into this kind of thing, with his grass-covered/earth-sheltered factories. Also practices doing zero-impact schemes like BedZed… although it occurs as I type this that I am thinking perhaps on the wrong scale – of local ecologies rather than biology… what’s the distinction in your mind?


  2. Dan Avatar

    Ta Matt, good one. His book Cradle to Cradle sits on my ‘To read’ pile glaring at me in admonishing fashion… One idea (also mentioned by Rob Annable), drawn from your zero impact point, would be ‘positive impact’ schemes i.e. interventions that actually, say, generate carbon as a side effect (uh if that’s useful I guess!), rather than damage limitation as the goal.
    I’m also thinking something a little more, well, genuinely bio-mechanical I guess. And probably something ‘R&D only’ at this point, if not fantastical i.e. buildings that actually grow, adapt over time, using a combination of biological and ‘mechanical’ processes … McDonagh’s work – and that of his fellow author Michael Braungart – certainly approaches that, but as you say, more on the ‘local ecologies’ side rather than biological (am aware my use of these terms is tenuous and vague). But what else in this area? Just curious.


  3. Rob Avatar

    Now that we’re out of the pub, a couple more examples have come to mind…
    Try Eisenman’s 1987 Biocentrum and the project entitled ‘FGU’ in the urban design section of
    I once saw Davidson and Bates of Lab Architecture give a lecture about their Federation Square project and I seem to remember the FGU project being heavily influenced by biology. Either way, they rock.
    Not had much luck Googling, I’ll check the bookshelf when I get home.
    By the way, remind me what the name of that Russian(?) artist we were talking about was…


  4. rodcorp Avatar

    I do like how heavy the Cradle to Cradle book sits near the top of the to-read pile. Literally: that Durabook synthetic paper is really heavy; it also takes a pencil mark nicely!
    McDonough wrote that speculative piece on bamboo architecture with Sterling for Wired a few years back.
    Frei Otto (cf pneus) and Greg Lynn perhaps.


  5. peterme Avatar

    No one’s mentioned Christopher Alexander?
    The Nature of Order is much about biology, from what I’ve heard.
    Also, his “a city is not a tree” definitely has biological intersections.


  6. Dan Avatar

    Thanks all, keep ’em coming. Good stuff. Definitely more interested in the ‘lab-orientated stuff’ or actual building projects rather than theory, though that’s good too, natch!
    [Rob, the Russian artists (unrelated to this discussion, folks) was Ilya and Emilia Kabakov; the specific ‘piece’ was the Utopian City exhibition that I saw at the Albion Gallery, London]


  7. bryan Avatar

    Here’s somenano-bio architecture by a professor of mine. The metabolists may be worth a look too.


  8. HamRod Avatar

    Totally agree with the Greg Lynn and Otto Frei (check out his IL9 on pneumatics and his other studies at Uni. of Stuttgart) references.
    Not convinced by Ken Yeang…
    Would throw the Aqua centre for the BJ olympics (ie. the water cube) into the mix. Not pure biology, more mathematically derived form but
    has parallels I think.
    Charles Jencks (and to a lesser extent Cecil Balmond) argue in their writing about a nature inspired logic for science and mathematics – ie. golden ratio manifested in the spirals in ferns and seashells – but this again is geometry for geometry’s sake or to paraphrase Mies – form which doesnt necessarily follow function.
    Quite a few architects claim anthropomorphic references in their work but not convinced by their validity as biological study ie. they
    choose it cos its pretty not because it has any particular logic (except maybe Calatravas bridges which are way better then his
    buildings but these are good because its a structural logic expressed as a pure flow of forces, as opposed to any nature derived intelligence).
    Would be interesting to look at proper biological influences on structure which is much more pure and sophisticated then the rather superficial architectural flights of fancy which ‘dabble’ in the sciences.
    A rigorous investigation into biological forms (DNA double helix, carbon nano tubes etc) and where they could be applied to structural/built forms could be quite interesting and I am sure people our doing work in this so would love to hear more…


  9. Tom Carden Avatar

    Despite email prodding I’m late to this party. You’d think, with an undergrad background in bio-inspired computing and a graduate background in architectural computation that I’d be aware of where the two meet, wouldn’t you?
    Sure, there’s an architectural interest in Fibonacci spirals/phyllotaxis etc. but it’s never been made clear to me what for. (As Hamish says, it’s geometry for geometry’s sake… not something I’m personally against in research though it would be sure to bug me in a real building).
    From the computing/complexity/artificial-life world, it might be worth a look at some of the swarm computing and stigmergic approaches to generative forms like Dan Ladley’s termite nests, and then maybe take a look at people like Pablo Miranda Carranza or Sean Hanna for examples of architects using similar ideas, but again mainly in research.
    I’ll pass these queries on to the Advanced Architecture and Computation folks at the Bartlett and see if anyone knows of any concrete examples (pun somewhat intended).


  10. Tom Carden Avatar

    Oh, also the Brandeis projects on automated modular design and evolved buildable objects – highly theoretical but might lead somewhere.
    I’ve seen similar things for product design and more from EZCT, too.


  11. Brian Avatar

    A number of designers are working with evolutionary computing tools to generate architectural form via “natural selection”, see books such as:

    Aedas Studio are actively using evolutionary/generative software in this area:
    Or this one on learning from adaptive repair mechanisms in biology:


  12. Dan Avatar

    Thanks all – that’s a fantastic springboard of references. Much appreciated.


  13. Patricia Avatar

    Hello all,
    As I am close to entering in a B.S. of Architecture I am interested in what people do have to say about the combination Architecture and Biology. Next to this education I also have a B.S. in Plant and Animal Biology.
    I believe that these two subjects can work very well together and should definitely be looked at in more depth. Besides sustainable systems in a building the outside can also be adapted to the biological world.
    I would like to know how other people feel about this.


  14. Dan Avatar

    Couple of references dug up after seeing the ‘new materials’ exhibition at the New London Architecture/Building Centre. Both about Dr Rupert Soar’s work at Loughborough University:
    Columbia: How to improve your home by mimicking nature
    EPSRC:Termites Could Hold the Key to Self-Sufficient Buildings


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