ARC 486 / 598: The Architecture of Biology

Terra cotta detail by Louis Sullivan.

Terra cotta detail by Louis Sullivan 

The fusion of biological, technological and design expertise present in alternative practices today has a robust history. That history, in turn, draws on an alignment of architecture with the natural world that has prevailed since Alberti declared that nature demonstrated reproducible principles of harmonious unity. What was designated by the term nature, however, has changed with time. The focus on anatomy and classification, for example, yielded to evolutionary reasoning in science and design with the emergence of the biological disciplines early in the nineteenth century. 

As that century progressed, the theorization of architecture along the developmental lines of an organism was increasingly correlated to its articulation as an industrial technology. By the turn of the twentieth century, form could be construed as a biological process that was the functional outcome of technological optimization. Biological concepts thus laced the technologically oriented writings of a wide range of modern architects, from Louis Sullivan (1856-1924) to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), without raising a contemporary eyebrow.


Associate Professor - Department of Architecture - Hayes Hall 215 - (716) 829-5888

Modernism was relegated to a mechanical logic in the decades that followed its establishment as the prevailing mode of architectural practice. The repressed integration of biology, technology and design of the modern period is now reemerging in response to societal and disciplinary transformations. Design practices that deploy computation in ways that mimic natural routes of growth have proliferated, as have the software platforms that support the generation of biomorphic forms. Conservation-minded practices have promoted the emulation of organic systems as an antidote to the extensive environmental pollution that is caused by the construction industry. Experimental practices seek to isolate moments where design acts as a catalyst for biological developments that augment, rather than replicate, the natural state of things. Participants in this seminar will study the biological roots of modernist and avant-garde practice, with the aim of understanding the intellectual context of contemporary practice. We will consider how the legacy of the technological promise for a better way of living advocated by modernism came to be thoroughly bound to the consumer model as promoted by software engineers and developers. Finally, we will evaluate the costs of developing design principles inspired and engineered by nature in the effort to integrate built, natural, and biological environments.