Evolution in a Nutshell


This review of Exploration: Designing with Nature, an exhibition at The Architecture Foundation in London, was first published on DomusWeb in March 2014. Photograph by Daniel Hewitt.

No bigger than a finger nail, the Namibian Fog Basking Beetle makes an unlikely hero. At the first solo exhibition by Exploration, the studio specialising in biomimicry founded in 2007 by British architect, Michael Pawlyn, the tiniest specimen on display could easily have been made the star of the show.

Together with the human lung, the spook fish and the coral-like cocolithiphore, each of these biological organisms partly-inspired the four projects on display at The Architecture Foundation in London. The branching structures which circulate fluids around the body, for instance, gave Exploration an efficient way of laying out data servers for optimum cooling in its design for a data centre housed in a Norwegian mountain.

Elsewhere, an atrium modelled on the mirror structures in the eyes of the spook fish enabled the studio to stream natural light into the lower floors of its proposal for a biomimetic office.

The cocolithiphore, meanwhile, makes use of excess carbon dioxide in the air to grow skeletons of calcium carbonate in the ocean. This process has informed Exploration’s plans to grow a pavilion in seawater by using electro-deposition to make a building from accretive minerals.

Finally, by radiating heat from its black armour to the night sky, the Fog Basking Beetle has proved useful in its ability to take advantage of the difference in temperature between sand and outer space in order to harvest fresh water from the desert. Exploration has accordingly built greenhouses there with double-layered roofs which similarly act as condensation surfaces.

Whether animal, vegetable or mineral, however, Exploration Architecture makes it clear that according to its scheme of things, there is no room for heroes. Part science museum, part architectural display, the story told by Designing with Nature is purposefully more complex than one-to-one correspondences or emblematic translations. Deriving its name from the Greek term for life, ‘bios’ and ‘mimesis’, meaning to imitate, the term Biomimicry was coined in 1962. In 2014 Pawlyn and his team have done their utmost to communicate that the field has come a long way since the hook-shaped projections of the Burdock Burr inspired the invention of velcro, and the microscopic bumps on the surface of the lotus leaf enabled the creation of self-cleaning materials.

Each of the projects on show integrates multiple strands of biomimetic inquiry. If the overriding message is one of billions of years of nature’s evolution and adaptation presenting a model for sustainability and survival, these strands are dictated by social, economic as well as environmental considerations. The greenhouses, for instance, are just one element of the Sahara Forest Project an ambitious undertaking which uses the greenhouses, concentrated solar power and other desert revegetation techniques to tackle problems of desertification, climate change and political instability caused by food and water shortages.

The decision to prioritise the flow of natural light in the design of the office came from a desire to improve worker productivity. According to the exhibition at present the average office worker operates at 65% capacity and while buildings account for one third of global energy consumption, employers spend ten times more on salaries than on rent and energy.

The exhibition unfurls on a series of interlocking tables configured in the shape of a tendril so that the narrative of one project feeds organically into the next. The Namibian Fog Basking Beetle is one of numerous biological wonders, including rocks, skulls, shells, seed pods and feathers, housed in perspex boxes hanging above.

This is not to say the display is chaotic; it is rather a finely tuned and carefully orchestrated communication exercise told in a combination of precise language, seductive nature photography, infographics and 3D printed models, as well as videos which intersperse wildlife footage with animated hand-drawn sketches and commentaries by engineers and biologists alike.

A trio of 3D printers are at work on the window sill of the gallery. Together with the tables which begin as solid volumes but become more skeletal, they are reminders of the symbiotic relationship between nature and technology. The tables have been designed and manufactured based on the growth patterns of bones and trees. Just as nature through other examples such as the crow’s skull or the cuttlefish, has evolved biologically-optimised forms over billions of years, computer software now enables the testing of architectural structures for concentration of force. 3D printing then allows for the manufacture of complex forms. The result is a drastic reduction in the use of materials. The same principle is at work in some of the buildings in the show.

Overall Pawlyn and his team offer an optimistic vision of the natural world and humans’ relationship with it, one which is based on interdependence: ‘Mature ecosystems are complex, densely interconnected and cyclical systems that run on solar energy, produce no waste and have become optimised as whole systems.’

By adhering closely to this definition, always tempering beauty with function and combining nature with technology, Exploration Architecture presents a practice which unites research and application and brings blue sky solutions to reality. Designing with Nature convincingly communicates evolution in a nutshell.

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