“Biomimicry” is designing after nature; imitating its patterns and systems. Isn’t this a strange concept? By “mimicking” nature, we admit our deep-rooted feeling of otherness. Though technically animals, we now self-consciously regulate our behavior to minimize our impact. In a planet defined by constant change, we lament how our our industry contributes to global warming – while a volcano is a blameless part of nature. Mankind considers itself a foreign presence in the ecosystem.
When was this balance upset? How have different cultures related to nature through their history? Our buildings can provide insight.
Nature seeks the easiest path. It prefers certain forms: the circle and triangle, which optimize volume and strength. Early man used the same forms for shelter; round enclosures for building footprint, livestock pens, and defense contained the maximum area per amount of building material. Curved walls can follow the contours of the land, reducing the need for costly excavation. Triangular framing is inherently strong and simple to construct, though less optimal for headroom. Our ancestors built structures like this worldwide.
A typical prehistoric village, seen from above, has obvious resemblance to organic patterns. (Drawings by the author)
As societies around the world began to urbanize, labor was specialized and reserves of wealth – and time – grew. Building materials were collected on a greater scale, and traded. During trade, knowledge was exchanged between different cultures. We discovered that planning on a grid, while not the most efficient use of material, was otherwise superior. The rectangle neatly scales down from city streets, to our building plans, rooms, and furniture. Now that extra labor and materials could be spared, usefulness was prioritized.
For thousands of years, builders have defaulted to rectilinear planning, and today a design based on a grid is standard worldwide. A few have tried to break out of the box. Baroque architects, notably Francesco Borromini, sculpted spaces and plans based on the ellipse, triangle, and hexagon. Yet the Baroque style didn’t quite break free from Classical rules of order.
Antoni Gaudi is one of history’s most original designers. After exploring historic styles and the vernacular of his native Catalonia, he stripped away his aesthetic to a powerful statement: “Naturalisme”. “Nothing is invented, for it is written in Nature first.” Beneath the profuse ornament of his works is a daring, and rational, use of complex geometry and structural forms. In one sense, Gaudi planned buildings like machines: the leanest structure possible, with maximum natural light. His plans and engineering truly followed nature’s principles, a pure statement rare for such a prolific career.
In the 20th century, designers continued to explore the potential of organic geometry. By then, we were strangers to our roots in prehistory. Or perhaps not. The emerging science of archaeology jolted popular culture in those times. It revealed how much closer we once were to nature, and raised the question of whether our ancient tendencies had truly left us. Yet today, Naturalism is a willful act of design, no longer driven by necessity.
New architectural movements like parametric design, “Blobitecture”, and autogenerative design have explored further. The results are provocative: is Nature alien to us, or has progress walled off a deep part of ourselves?