A zoological approach to architecture

How to design experimental building surfaces inspired by animal skin: a research programme carried out at SCI-Arc.

Drawing enables you to analyse, learn and know. A process of initial research leads onto a codified design through a process of graphical synthesis and component reconstruction.
For a group of architecture students at the Southern California Institute of Architecture , under my guidance, the analysis of animal biology was the starting point for a multidisciplinary creative process that applied methods of scientific research to architectural design. The young designers were profoundly enriched by this process of synthesis, reconstruction, appropriation and re-elaboration.
The students were inspired by his- tory's greatest naturalists, including Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Conrad Gessner (1516-1565), Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) and Diderot, whose Encyclopédie dedicated a good 12 volumes to tables (planches ). He demonstrated that through observation and scientific research, it is possible to create a graphical summary of the knowledge acquired from analysis of the animal world.
The work undertaken resulted in succinct drawings from which the key elements could be picked out, using a minimal colour scheme to indicate the characteristics that had been explored. Taking the animal's body as a starting point, the drawings grew step by step like architectural plans, retaining the scale of the original and concentrating on one part of the body to define it in detail. The aim is thus to create a stratigraphic sectional exploration of the main organ of investigation – the skin.
the Violet-Tailed Sylph (<i>Aglaiocercus coelestis</i>). Alina Amiri and Joanna-Maria Helinurm investigated the theme of colour through the morphology and colour characteristics of the bird’s feathers. This led to the design of a cladding panel for a pavilion with iridescent colours (left and above).
the Violet-Tailed Sylph (Aglaiocercus coelestis ). Alina Amiri and Joanna-Maria Helinurm investigated the theme of colour through the morphology and colour characteristics of the bird’s feathers. This led to the design of a cladding panel for a pavilion with iridescent colours (left and above).
The skin is a sophisticated, complex and fascinating organ. As well as encasing, containing and protecting us, it is also a sensory and tactile organ that regulates and maintains thermal equilibrium. Reproducing and assessing the skin's characteristics, the drawings depicted each of its parts and strata in their specific dimensions and interrelationships.
The animals chosen for this purpose (hippopotamus, elephant, carpenter bee, desert fox, banana slug, starfish, humming bird and moth) originate in different climatic regions. This geographical variety is reflected in a wide range of skin types, representing the many ways in which fauna has evolved in response to the pressures of environmental adaptation. Hence evolution has resulted in fur, scales, exoskeletons, feathers, etc., depending on the animals' specific habitats. Aside from their beauty, the exploratory drawings that ensue from this process appropriate scientific knowledge and make it accessible to the designer. This in turn leads onto biomimetic design, or design inspired by nature. Indeed, observation of nature allows us to understand how a complex system functions. This can then be used to inspire the creation of new systems designed by and for humans, increasing comfort while respecting other forms of life.
The skin of the Banana Slug (<i>Ariolimax columbianus</i>) inspired Astri Bang and Maya Alam to design a porous envelope, a dynamic and homostatic protective layer which can collect rainwater and use it in the building’s functioning cycles. The envelope is made
up of a rigid grid structure and a system of inflatable air and water cushions. This allows the discontinuous wall to determine a “climatic” interaction between internal and external by altering the levels of light and humidity, according to environmental requirements.
The skin of the Banana Slug (Ariolimax columbianus ) inspired Astri Bang and Maya Alam to design a porous envelope, a dynamic and homostatic protective layer which can collect rainwater and use it in the building’s functioning cycles. The envelope is made up of a rigid grid structure and a system of inflatable air and water cushions. This allows the discontinuous wall to determine a “climatic” interaction between internal and external by altering the levels of light and humidity, according to environmental requirements.
For designers, this new way of approaching architecture not only entails learning to observe and create models of surfaces. By becoming familiar with other, more complex environments, it is possible to identify profound ideas that can be synthesised and reused in design.
This, in essence, is animal biomimetics – a form of scientific exploration performed by designers with the support of biologists, and carried out with precision and a spirit of curiosity. Designers can exploit biomimetics to inspire a form of design that respects environmental interrelations and physical statics, a necessary characteristic if buildings are to be inserted in a built environment in a non-invasive way. Effectively, learning from nature allows us to restore to nature an environment, albeit a modified one, which is in harmony with it – and to develop a more responsible attitude towards the design and redesign of the future built environment.
In the skin of the Side-Blotched Lizard (<i>Uta stansburiana</i>), the scales are interconnected in a continuous surface, varying in number, size, shape and thickness according to their function and position
on the body. Using these physiological characteristics, the building designed by Yuan Yuan and Juan San Pedro is covered with special photovoltaic panels that can alter their orientation and dimensions thanks
to a flexible membrane connecting them. This promotes thermoregulation and helps to satisfy the users’ need for a comfortable environment.
In the skin of the Side-Blotched Lizard (Uta stansburiana ), the scales are interconnected in a continuous surface, varying in number, size, shape and thickness according to their function and position on the body. Using these physiological characteristics, the building designed by Yuan Yuan and Juan San Pedro is covered with special photovoltaic panels that can alter their orientation and dimensions thanks to a flexible membrane connecting them. This promotes thermoregulation and helps to satisfy the users’ need for a comfortable environment.
Although this new type of design draws inspiration from the animal world, it is not intended as a mere experiment in the formal and aesthetic manipulation of nature. It aspires instead to have a performative value. First, by studying the functioning of a specific animal's skin, it discovers the physiological and behavioural strategies used for adaption and survival in a particular environment. This knowledge is then transferred to the "organism" of the corresponding architectural envelope – or the skin of the building. Consequently, the designer's approach to the design strives to identify a more complex and coherent fit between form and function, finding in biology an inexhaustible source of knowledge.
The resulting proto-architectural biomimetic research and design is both performative and interactive. In other words, it pays attention to the dynamics of environmental conditions, improving and supporting them (rather than simply exploiting them), and thereby creating a more sustainable way of building and living.
The designer's sensitivity therefore lies in knowing how to observe the world from a different viewpoint. This means learning to look beyond what is visible – translating and taking inspiration from nature, which is unsurpassed in the perfection, variety and complexity of its systems. Observe the invisible and recreate it in a range of ways – and, why not, make a sectional drawing of an elephant's skin!
The study of the Urania Moth (<i>Chrysiridia rhipheus</i>) inspired the design of a building which functions as a distribution point for drinking water serving local communities in Madagascar. In the project by Benedetta Frati and Nir Zarfaty, colour is used as
a communication strategy: rainwater is collected and purified by the building’s skin, which is made up of reused plastic bottles that change colour according to weight. In this way, the building facade indicates when water is available by changing colour thanks to the different angles of light refraction.
The study of the Urania Moth (Chrysiridia rhipheus ) inspired the design of a building which functions as a distribution point for drinking water serving local communities in Madagascar. In the project by Benedetta Frati and Nir Zarfaty, colour is used as a communication strategy: rainwater is collected and purified by the building’s skin, which is made up of reused plastic bottles that change colour according to weight. In this way, the building facade indicates when water is available by changing colour thanks to the different angles of light refraction.
Biomimetic Envelopes:
Innovation in Architecture Inspired by Nature, Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc)

Team leader: Ilaria Mazzoleni, architect (instructor)
Scientific consultant: Graham J. Slater, Ph.D., evolutionary biologist
Editor: Elisabetta Oprandi Students: Maya Alam and Astri Arntzen Bang; Mesrop Alimazyan and Tigran Barsegyan; Adrian Ariosa and Paul Mecomber; Javier Alfredo Cambron and Dohnbi Kim; Francisco Barron and Yu-Pei Li; Nir Zarfaty and Benedetta Frati; Ross Ferrari and Thomas Carpentier; Alina Amiri and Joanna-Maria Helinurm; Erin Lani and Jordan Su; Carlos Rodriguez and Emily Chen; Stephen Sun and Shohei Sakurai; Sarah Månsson and Worrawalan Raksaphon; Joakim Hoen and Ghaiti Mamoune; Yuan Yuan and Juan San Pedro

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