Inspiration from the natural world

For the first time, in history, the majority of human beings live in urban regions. Although
cities are among the most complex human-made systems, they are unfortunately
environmentally, economically and socially unsustainable. How can we change this? This
paper discusses an undergraduate architectural design studio, Future Cities, which pushed
for an environmentally holistic design process, moving past the idea of single, object-like
buildings. The studio taught various digital and research methodologies to aid in the complex
issue of urban form. Emphasis was placed on balancing the huge amounts of data and
information that is available in our technological age, with the need to retain the human
perspective and experience.
The Future Cities studio took place at the University of Arizona, in Tucson, Arizona, USA during
the Spring Semester of 2011. The studio consisted of 9 different teams comprising of 13 fourth
year undergraduate architecture students. Students could work individually or in teams of up to
three people. We also had input from one of our Planning Professors, Dr. Ryan Perkl and two
additional masters students from the School of Landscape Architecture and Planning. Students
were also encouraged to consult with other departments outside of our college, most notably with
material science and biochemistry.
Our current environmental crisis led to a studio premise that it is not okay to maintain the
status quo, but that we needed to fundamentally rethink the direction we are moving in as a
design profession. This re-calibrating related to the structure of the design studio and the design
proposals themselves. The speculation was whether city planning should continue to impose its
will upon the land, or should it become yet another organism imbedded within a homeostatic
ecosystem, like an emergent system which has been correlated with the concept of giving up
control? Part of this process was determining how much should be designed and controlled in
this potentially more dynamic, ecological model for humans and the environment (bottom-up
versus top-down approaches).
The studio’s intent was to find ways of form-finding verses form-making; using natural and
built infrastructure, systems and flows to create new planning strategies, relationships and
building typologies. Projects needed to emphasize cycles and inter connectivity. Pedagogical
methods were a crucial part of the studio’s make-up, emphasizing digital agility and collaborative
team–work. Recent advances in digital technology have helped us understand our environment
at another level then we previously had known. Design proposals were critiqued against the
move towards superficial formalism to an understanding of the systems and performative aspects
of ecological systems. Speculating on whether this understanding can help us to develop a nonplan
that allows for more adaptability, livability and change in our built environment. Ecological,
inter-connected systems in the natural world have no separation of form, structure and material:
they all act on one another and cannot be predicted by the analysis of any one separately or in a
different context. Isn’t this how the design of our built environment should be, critically sensitive to
its region and holistic? With the increasing specialization of professions and the academy it is
imperative to get input from other areas of knowledge and experience to develop a more holistic
design strategy.

Inspiration from the natural world has been an important force in humanity’s design history.
Charles Darwin’s theories in the late nineteenth century had a strong influence on Art Nouveau
and the Arts and Crafts Movement. The concept of the organic was also central in the 20th
century. Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier all employed biological analogies.
Generally the connection was fairly superficial, although Wright spoke of adaptability and several
other core ecological concepts. In other fields Aldo Leopold, in the early twentieth century was a
proponent of inter-disciplinary ecological design and author of the Land Ethic. He wrote,
“When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to see
it with love and respect. There is no other way for land to survive the impact of
mechanized man, nor for us to reap from it the esthetic harvest it is capable,
under science, of contributing to culture. That land is a community is the basic
concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension
of ethics.” (Leopold, 1949, p. viii).
Some scholars see his work as one of the first modern philosophies of sustainability.
Developments in cybernetics, computation and science later in the century led prominent
architectural theorists like Reyner Banham and Charles Jenks to predict that biologically-related
architecture would be the next major movement. Jencks wrote in 1971, “When biology becomes
the major metaphor of the 1990’s, the intuitive tradition will explode in a burst of biomorphic
images suited to the individual and organic development” (Jencks, 1971, p. 99).
Hopefully we have learnt from the modernist tradition of ‘form follows function’ that making
design too cut and dry tends to lead to alienating and cold environments. Most ecological
systems are completely bottom-up systems, i.e. they are ‘designed’ through the balance of selforganized
internal and external environmental forces. Humans, being among the most complex
natural organisms, have the ability to think and plan ahead, so one would assume that their built
environments need to be a balance between top down (planned control) and these more natural,
bottom up (self-organization) systems. Therefore designing for them should not be reductive, but
should acknowledge that humans are different from plants and animals.
Most contemporary designed environments have emphasized the top down approach too
much. In order for us to become more civilized we need to be less controlling of others and our
environment (softer), realizing that in this time of rapid change we cannot plan for permanence or
predictability in a way that past cultures have.
“Power itself must be abolished – and not solely in the refusal to be
dominated, which is at the heart of all traditional struggles – but also, just as
violently, in the refusal to dominate…Intelligence cannot, can never be in
power because intelligence consists of this double refusal.” (Baudrillard, 2010,
If we are to be at balance with natural systems we need to have less of a hierarchical attitude and
focus more on a system of ethical, mutual respect for the entire environment. This ultimately
leads to changes beyond traditional architecture’s scope, which would have to happen on
multiple levels of society, including economics and politics. Trying to solve all of these issues are beyond the scope of this paper of course, but it is imperative to at least open the door to these larger ideas, particularly in an educational environment.


One response to “Inspiration from the natural world

  1. Pingback: Inspiration from the natural world | archiabyssniya·

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