Payette’s Women in Design Group (WiD) organized a series of presentations to celebrate the work of women architects, focusing on the topic of Nature in Architecture. This topic can touch on a number of elements in building design – siting, views, materiality and weathering, among many others. I explored the topic of materiality, but first I’d like to start with a look at literature. To view the accompanying graphics, click here.
Rachel Carson is a good place to start. She wrote persuasively at a time when America was ripe for a cultural shift with regard to how we understand nature. Nature is not an endless resource, but rather a delicate system – a system in which human activity plays a pivotal role. Janine Benyus, who is a direct intellectual descendent of Carson’s, takes her principles one step farther: Carson said that our technology should be sensitive to nature; Benyus says our technology should be informed by nature. We know that nature has evolved some remarkably successful and efficient mechanisms. Biomimicry is about mimicking the functional basis of biological forms and processes to produce sustainable solutions. Biomimicry is about function (it may or it may not look natural), whereas biomorphism is about emulating form. Biomorphism is more common in architecture. Furthermore, biomorphism is more common in architecture, where we have a symbolic or an aesthetic reference to nature.
There are a number of female architects who are doing interesting work that is focused on capturing the functional elegance of nature. Neri Oxman heads the Mediated Matter group at MITs MediaLab. This team does material research driven by computation and novel fabrication techniques. Much of their work is inspired by natural processes. With Neri’s concrete project, the synthetic product mimicked an efficient natural form.
In the work on Ginger Dosier, it is the process, rather than the form, that is important. Ginger was trained as an architect, but left the field to become a material scientist. Inspired by the growth of coral, Ginger uses microorganisms to ‘grow’ bricks. These organisms release a calcifying agent that bonds sand together. Conventional bricks have a relatively high embodied energy because they require firing to harden. Her biobrick is presented as a green alternative that could be grown on site.
Ginger is an architect who became a biologist. Doris Kim Sung is the opposite, studying as a biologist before entering the field of architecture. She does a lot of experimental work with thermal bimetals. Just like flowers that open and close in response to sunlight, Doris’ bimetal structures change their shape and porosity in response to changes in temperature. When it gets hot, the skin might open up to increase ventilation.
In computational design, words like parametric and algorithmic get all squished together. But they mean very different things. Parametric means associative (you change one part and an associated element responds in kind). Algorithmic means generative … in an algorithmic system, form emerges from process. This is a lot like nature where molecules interact with their neighbors, and under specific environmental conditions and pressures, after some number of iterations … order and materiality … emerge.
Emulating natural processes with computer codes can produce beautiful and functional material conditions. This is Neri’s work. In these examples, organic-like forms are created synthetically by pairing physical parameters with algorithmic protocols. The shape, the pattern and its properties (density, stiffness, translucency) respond to things like load or skin pressure.
Jessica Rosenkrantz is another local who does this very well. She has biology and architecture degrees from MIT and has an office up in Somerville. She makes objects and jewelry using computer codes that are based on processes and patterns found in nature. Her website is designed so that people can manipulate the parameters of her codes to generate custom objects based on their individual aesthetic preferences. She has some really brilliant code. This dress she did last year is now part of the MoMA collection. This is 4D printing, using the three physical dimensions plus time to build a large object within a small 3D printer bed.
All this to say, there are a lot of interesting women doing compelling work related to this intersection of nature, architecture and materiality.
Immateriality through the Lens of the Work of Women Architects