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BIOARCHITECTURE + BIOMIMICRY Merging Biological and Digital Fabrication in Architecture


BIOARCHITECTURE + BIOMIMICRY Merging Biological and Digital Fabrication in Architecture Alex DiLena

The effect of nature on our built environment is undeniable; from basic shelters to contemporary structures, all are manifestations of ideas, thoughts, and conversations between the environment and human need.1 The formal and material qualities of structures are dependent on location, on program, and on climate – this is immutable fact – but biomimicry in architecture has given more weight to nature’s influence on a structure’s appearance; Appearance being the operative word. Biomimicry is the mimicking of qualities and processes that occur in nature.2 In contemporary architecture, we can find several examples of structures mimicking the natural world, a few notable examples being: Heatherwick’s UK Pavilion (2010), The Beijing National Stadium and the Beijing National Aquatics Center (2008). These projects are enchanting; their extreme scale reduces the viewer to ant-like observers under an unacknowledged microscope, reversing the microbial roles of who-is-looking-at-who. Bioarchitecture, over biomimicry, goes beyond copying natural shapes and incorporating biological materials in the construction of buildings, to focus on understanding the building itself as a living organism.3 In nature, fabrication processes inform the spatial and visual qualities of the object, be it animate or inanimate. To fully reap the benefits of bio-inspired design, whether those rewards be environmental or atmospheric, a new method of design must be adopted, where architects become strategists who set carefully developed parameters “without concern for the precise nature of their outcome.” 4 What happens when biological and digital fabrication are used in tandem? I would argue that the line between object and animal is blurred - the building is given breath, perceived as animal itself. We often alienate ourselves by excluding cityscapes from our understanding of nature, but by hybridizing cities with nature through fabrication and bioarchitecture, we could begin to see these structures as organisms with biological potential.5 Comparing the Eastgate Centre, The Silk Pavilion, and La Trufa, we can begin to understand the implications of biological fabrication in architecture.

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1 Dennis Dollens, “Architecture as Nature: A Biodigital Hypothesis,” Leonardo. 48, no 5, (2009): 413. 2 Zach Mortice, “Nature Does it Better: Biomimicry in Architecture and Engineering,” Architecture. (Redshift, 2016). https://www.autodesk.com/redshift/ biomimicry-in-architecture/ 3 Renee Ripley and Bharat Bhushan, Bioarchitecture – Bioinspired Art and Architecture – A Perspective (Royal Society Publishing, 2016) 4 Blaine Brownell and Marc Swackhamer, “Zoological Biosphere,” Architecture’s New Relationship with Nature. (New York, Princeton Architectural Press, 2015): 134. 5 Dollens, 417.


Now comes the inevitable question: How does it look?

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When designing the Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe, Mick Pearce used termite mounds to develop the mall as an ecosystem rather than a shell to inhabit. The two buildings, connected by a glass roof share the same cooling internal capabilities and overall shape of the stacked mounds found in the surrounding landscape. The precast concrete with which the structure was built was brushed to show the granite aggregate that mirrors the rock formations found in the landscape. Forty-eight stacked towers pull the exhaust air out of each of the seven floors, while high volume fans found under the office floors suck air from the atrium. The air is then pushed through the central spine of each of the buildings and fed into the hollow floors. As it is heated by human activity, it rises and is then pulled out by the exhaust sections. 6 The centre, in effect, works autonomously to cool and heat itself depending on the environmental context. Like the termitary it was modeled on, it responds to stimuli that is beyond itself. While we are not directly discussing the environmental benefits of bioarchitecture in this context, it is impossible to ignore how significant this construction method is on the building’s overall energy consumption. Eastgate uses 35% less energy than the average buildings in Harare, and when frequent power outages affect surrounding structures, the building is able to operate while maintaining the same level of comfort for its guests. 7 An innate quality of nature is its efficiency: it uses as little material and resources as it possibly can. While our technology is still lightyears away from reaching the efficiency of biological growth, the potential of using materials made with minimal energy and structures that are significantly more efficient could result in the “design[ing] out” of waste in fabrication.8

Aesthetics, of course, is a matter of taste - a subjective orientation – but still we must not forgo answering the question. The building’s efficiency and overall functional success is due to its formal and spatial qualities, but certain details could be reimagined to elevate the structure and its impact. After all, good design is aesthetic as well as thorough to the last detail.9 It should be noted that, to use a previous term, the interior of Eastgate is somewhat enchanting. The same ant-like (or might we say termite-like) quality is evoked by the expanse of negative space in the central atrium. The vertical quality found in termitaries is referenced in every architectural element, from the concentric metal planters that run up all seven floors to the exposed elevator and stair hub. It is not so much the interior but, rather, the exterior that lacks the connection to the landscape that had been its inspiration. As example, the Bug Dome, located in rural Guanxi China comes to mind. This cocoon-like structure is built off of ruins and exists only through its connection to the sitespecific conditions of its environmental context.10 What differentiates the Bug Dome from Eastgate is, of course, location, but more importantly it is scale, both in terms of program and of size. Until very recently, copying natural fabrication processes was rather complicated because the organic forms found in nature were more expensive to make.11 The development of rapid prototyping and 3D printing allowed for new forms to be explored but scale has been and always will be the eternal dilemma when it comes to innovative fabrication methods.

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Mick Pearce, “Eastgate,” Mick Pearce Architect. April 2018. http://www.mickpearce.com/Eastgate.html Ibid. Michael Pawlyn, “Living Landscape,” RSA Journal. 157, no. 5548, (2011): 29. Dieter Rams, “Ten Principles for Good Design,” The Power of Good Design. (Vitsoe, 2018). https://www.vitsoe.com/us/about/good-design “The Bug Dome,” Casagrande Laboratory. (2018). https://www.casagrandelaboratory.com/portfolio/bug-dome/ Pawlyn, 28,


02 If Eastgate, in this context, is the foundation laid for further development of biological and digital fabrication methods, I turn to the whimsical Silk Pavilion by Mediated Matter Group to demonstrate how nature itself can be integrated into the fabrication process. The MIT lab was inspired by the silkworm’s ability to create a 2-dimensional cocoon from a single multi-property fiber. Innate in all animal construction processes is the capability to generate, distribute and assemble material, and the lab was interested in fusing this ability, found in the Bombyx Mori silkworm, with robotics to explore what could result when both were to work in tandem.12 Integrating the silkworm into the construction process required significant preliminary research in order to understand the methodology behind the making of their cocoon. Dynamic tracking of the worm (using a tiny magnet attached to the insect’s head) and MicroCT scans made it possible to examine the distribution of material and the gradient between densities, as well as the optimal spinning surface for the worm.13 The construction of the pavilion was two-fold: the first being the digital fabrication, while the second was the biological. Using the data from their research as well as grasshopper and similar modeling software, the lab generated an overall shape consisting of a steel scaffolding device and silk fibre panels. The size and position of the apertures in the panels was determined by the light and temperature patterns of the site which, consequentially, determined the distribution of the worms on the structure as they tend to seek darker and denser areas. 14 All of this to say that incorporating biological fabrication means shaping the digital fabrication around the natural one, instead of the opposite. By giving breath to a structure, it gains autonomy while the fabricator loses it –and so the scale shifts.

When it came to the actual construction of the pavilion, the scaffolding was cut from steel while a CNC robotic arm with a tool tip weaved a silk fiber around the teeth in the scaffolding. The panels were then transported to the site and assembled, where, using tension, the scaffolding was removed so that just the weaved panels remained. Finally, it was time to introduce the silk worms. 6500 of nature’s 3D printers had been fed for several weeks until they had reached the pupation stage and were ready to start spinning; They were then placed onto the pavilion over the span of a ten-day period.15 The silkworms spun a secondary silk shell over the pavilion, strengthening and adding density in the weaker areas, and after two to three days, they were removed from the structure so they could cocoon in peace. Both systems are complimentary, “while one is the load bearing paths […] the other strengthens and acts as a skin.”16 Ideally, what the lab was working towards was a generative environment that could potentially be used elsewhere and on different scales, in different contexts, and with different biology. Collaboration over emulation of the natural world requires the intermingling of different realms of science and design, so that we can follow the future trajectory of fabrication processes as inclusive conversation between chemists, zoologists, architects, designers, biologists, and engineers.17

12 Neri Oxman, Jared Laucks, Markus Kayser, Jorge Duro-Royo and Carlos Gonzales Uribe, “Silk Pavilion: A case Study in Fibre-Based Digital Fabrication.” Fabricate 2014: Negotiating Design & Making. (UCL Press, 2017): 248. 13 Ipid. 14 Ipid. 15 “Silk Pavilion; 2013 CNC Deposited Silk Fiber & Silkworm Construction,” Environments. (MIT Media Lab, 2018). http://matter.media.mit.edu/environ ments/details/silk-pavillion#prettyPhoto 16 Ipid. 17 Brownell, 132.


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While the Eastgate Centre can be categorized by its rhythmic breath, as it circulates warm and cool air when needed, the Silk Pavilion becomes animated by its construction, only possible through its connection to the silkworms. Fragile and eerie, it hangs wearily, demanding to be left alone but examined nonetheless. Both alien and organic - so that the viewer can only understand parts of it, but not its essence as a whole. Again, by giving breath to the structure – hybridizing it with nature – the power dynamics are reversed, and the viewer becomes aware of their inability to control the environment, be it built or natural (or both). By including animals and utilizing their methods, architects are consciously letting them make decisions about the overall outcome of the work. Research, parameters, and preparations can all be made, but the uncontrollable element in the construction is what will ultimately decide the fate of the project. The Silk Pavilion is undeniably beautiful, calculated and minute; Its intricacies are what make the project so successful. The MIT lab, for the most part, knew what the final project would look like because of the digital modelling they had done, and what they could not predict exactly (the densities and exact patterning of the worm work), occurred at such a small scale compared to the overall pavilion, that any discrepancy went unnoticed. Even though the control was given up in the second half of the project, the technology they used was sophisticated enough to predict, rather accurately, the outcome of the project. To demonstrate an even greater succession of architectural control, La Trufa (2010) by Studio Ensemble, is the true manifestation of nature as architect.

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A combination of animal assisted design, natural construction, and technology forms La Trufa, a surfaced fungal-like formation along the Atlantic coastline in Costa da Morte, Spain. “A piece of nature built with earth, full of air.”18 The aim of the project was to study the ritualization of metabolic processes in the built environment.19 The project began with the digging of a hole while using the topsoil as a frame to encase it. It was subsequently filled with a volume built of hay. Concrete was poured into the hole, submerging the volume, and left to cure. When it had hardened, the mass was found to have exchanged properties with the earth; “the land [had] provided the concrete with its texture and color, its form and its essence, and concrete gave the earth its strength and internal structure.”20 The merging of biological and technical fabrication formed the mass in a way that could not have been done without either, fusing the relationship in formal and spatial qualities. Next, the mass was cut open to reveal the inner cavity built with compressed hay. To empty it, Paulina the calf was brought to the truffle, where she feasted for a year – consuming 50m3 of hay, and weighing 300 kilos when she finally finished.21 The act of emptying the mass reinstated its architectural quality, where before, it was more natural than architectural – simply a rock formation found on the coast. Where Eastgate and the Silk pavilion were first and foremost architectural, it seems as if much effort had to be expended to realize La Trufa as a constructed environment, so that the method of fabrication required breath to be taken away rather than added. Compared to its counterparts, La Trufa was constructed with the least amount of control from the designers, with little to no digital modelling involved.

“The Truffle. Costa da Morte, 2010” Ensamble Studio. 2018. https://www.ensamble.info/thetruffle Brownell. 145. Ensamble Studio, 2018. Ipid.


because nature as a whole is impermeable to the inevitable decay that follows time. Is this what makes the truffle more natural, more alive, than the other projects? It could also be linked to the openness with which the project converses with its context. As it cured, the concrete and the earth shared their properties – and so does Paulina when she hollows the mass. She eats the framework and, by doing so, changes its properties, but by ingestion, the framework also changes her through the metabolic process that helps her grow into a mature cow.22 The active interplay between structure and nature suggests the structure’s capability for biotic agency. Once Paulina had left the site, full and strong, the interior could finally be discovered. The ‘amorphous’ texture of the exterior with the ‘liquidity’ of the ceiling evoked an ambiguity between the natural and built environments.23 To finish the space, Ensamble Studio looked to Le Corbusier’s ‘Le Cabanon’ as inspiration, with sparse and angular pieces built into the walls, leaving the majority of the formation untouched besides the installation of a large picture window facing the coast, and an unmarked steel door to enclose the space. I could marvel at the purpose of that particular door for a long time. It is not meant to go unnoticed, by blending into the rocky façade, nor is it meant to be welcoming - the black steel pushed slightly off of the wall almost as if it were charging. Nor is it menacing or embracing or obvious. It emphasizes the cut, the only truly noticeable human action on the structure, as if to clarify that The Truffle is not meant to be confused with nature. It is a threshold that, once crossed, allows the viewer to experience ‘a piece of nature, a contemplative space, a little poem.’24 In all three spaces, the biological construction method transforms the structure into a living organism and introduces a new type of space to be experienced. Both dead and alive, both natural and artificial, so that our experience in these liminal interactions reconfirms our lack of control. Even if we have helped build it, we are but tiny ants that inhabit the structure - once made, it takes on its own life and its own existence outside of our control.

What further separates the truffle from the Silk Pavilion and Eastgate is the element of time. When explaining the project, the studio often refers to time passing, literally as well as metaphorically as they describe the project in an ethereal air-like way. It is a project ‘full of air,’ after all. They had to wait a full year before they could even experience the interior of the structure. Time is intrinsically linked to nature. Generative environments necessitate time for growth but are, in some way, also unsusceptible to it

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Brownell, 145. “The Truffle/Ensamble Studio.” Arch Daily. (April 2010). https://www.archdaily.com/57367/the-truffle-ensamble-estudio Ensamble Studio, 2018.


Bibliography Brownell, Blaine and Marc Swackhamer. “Zoological Biosphere,” Architecture’s New Relationship with Nature. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2015. Dollens, Dennis. “Architecture as Nature: A Biodigital Hypothesis,” Leonardo. 48, no 5, 2009. Mortice, Zach. “Nature Does it Better: Biomimicry in Architecture and Engineering,” Architecture. Redshift: 2016 https://www.autodesk.com/redshift/biomimicry-in-architecture/ Oxman, Neri, and Jared Laucks, Markus Kayser, Jorge Duro-Royo, Carlos Gonzales Uribe, “Silk Pavilion: A case Study in Fibre-Based Digital Fabrication.” Fabricate 2014: Negotiating Design & Making. UCL Press, 2017. Pawlyn, Michael. “Living Landscape,” RSA Journal. 157, no. 5548: 2011. Pearce, Mike. “Eastgate,” Mick Pearce Architect. April 2018. http://www.mickpearce.com/Eastgate.html Rams, Dieter. “Ten Principles for Good Design,” The Power of Good Design. Vitsoe: 2018. https://www.vitsoe.com/us/about/good-design Ripley, Renee and Bharat Bhushan. Bioarchitecture – Bioinspired Art and Architecture – A Perspective. Royal Society Publishing: 2016. “Silk Pavilion; 2013 CNC Deposited Silk Fiber & Silkworm Construction,” Environments. MIT Media Lab: 2018. http://matter.media.mit.edu/environments/details/silk-pavillion#prettyPhoto “The Bug Dome,” Casagrande Laboratory. April 2018. https://www.casagrandelaboratory.com/portfolio/bug-dome/ “The Truffle. Costa da Morte, 2010” Ensamble Studio. 2018. https://www.ensamble.info/thetruffle “The Truffle/Ensamble Studio.” Arch Daily: April 2010. https://www.archdaily.com/57367/the-truffle-ensamble-estudio

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Alex DiLena  

Bioarchitecture + Biomimicry

Alex DiLena  

Bioarchitecture + Biomimicry

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