Digital nature stands for the contemporary phase of communication technologies, one that follows 19th century print culture and 20th century electronic broadcast culture, and that is deeply amplified and accelerated by the popularity of networked computers, personalised technologies and digital images. The emergence of digital nature is usually associated with a set of practices based on the ever more intensive use of communication technologies. These uses imply more participatory behaviors on the user side, an ever more visually riched environment and connection features that excell personal dimensions. Digital nature stands first of all for the changes brought about by the emergence of digital, networked and personalised media in our society and the passing from communication phases centred on print and broadcast media, to more personalised and networked media, that use digital compressing and processing capacities at their core. The consequences of such processes in societal terms and the means via which media technologies transform our modes of interaction and representation, broadly constitute what is called “digital nature”.
Here we have an very beautiful example of how digital nature can be converted to an architectural object even to a building.
This series of experiments with simulated digital trees, hybridized into architectural elements, illustrates botanic forms and their morphological and mathematical attributes applied to design systems and structures. Using this generative process demonstrates how the transference of some biological properties, held in algorithmic notation, such as phyllotaxy, allometry, and phototropism, may be inherited by architectural and design elements derived from plant simulations and their corresponding biological maths.
The idea is not to make buildings look like botanic organisms. The idea is to interlace nature and architecture, enabling the design of hybridized, biological structures. In this process investigating nature is design research. And, the overall aim is to create new architectural species incorporating natural attributes ordered in performance, materials, mechanics, communications, and form. Designing prototype structures to remotely sense and execute tasks such as passive air filtration, heat transfer, and water reclamation justifies the expectation that experimental bio-architecture will necessarily collaborate with science and technology.
Buildings derived from growth algorithms, parametric design, and CNC fabrication, animating and nurturing bio-architecture, are inevitable. New architec - tural skins, panels, floors, and skeletal systems, taking on biological responsibilities, will evolve new bio-aesthetics. My perspective, filtered through today’s generative and computational software, is also historically influenced. I appropriate DIY scientific method from 18th- and 1 9th - century science while also looking to, say, the origins of modern buildings—specifically, to Louis Sullivan’s botanic shape grammars and morphological design sequences (Sullivan, 1 9 24. Dollens, 2005).
Over the last ten years I have digitally simulated experimental structures, grown from software, and projected them as bio-climatically operative. Toward this objective of responsive biological architecture, I use Xfrog, ParaCloud, Generative Components, and Rhino to develop branching tree structures (4-7). The software also comes into subsequent use for surfaces, panels, and pods with attributes appropriated from individual and/or massed leaves, roots, flowers, barbs, and tendrils. (Or sometimes from shells, skeletons, scales, and minerals.)
Digitally generated architecture, hybridized from computational plant simulation, is part of a process observation for ordering design forms infused with botanical properties. This search, linking design and nature, involves tracking ways to visualize and model algorithmically from plants and trees. Doing so addresses generative programming, biological structure, and environmental remediation in the context of biodesign, sustainability, and machine fabrication.
Biology and botany (or nature in general) are, of course, not new sources for architectural development. Design inspired by nature, articulated by idea-eye-hand material production has been used for tens of thousands of years. Architecture’s ancient craft origins viewed through ur-building technologies, such as weaving, knotting, and pottery, may be understood as appropriations from nature (Herrmann, 1984). But contemporary design looks less toward nature for inspiration than it does toward industry. Accordingly, design could learn from and collaborate with ecology, biotechnology, biochemistry, genetics, and material science. Designers might tap scientific research taking inspiration and visualization, from bioresearch that are second nature to scientists and engineers. Consider the design implications of ideas and information generated by scientists constructing synthetic bacteria that off-gas methane as an alternative to oil-based fuels (Ball, 1999; Benyus, 1997; Mattheck, 1998; Vincient, 1990; Wade, 2007).
Instead of burning fossil-fuel, heating oil and coal-produced electricity, buildings might eventually have tanks of bacteria farmed methane. Standard architecture may have vats of bacteria, processing sewage and gray water. Both of these bacterial scenarios bring life forms into mechanical devices. They hybridize biomechanical systems similar to ones organization needed for bio-architecture (Dawkins, 1982. Estévez , 2003. Wilson, 1999).
One program for simulating plant morphology is Xfrog. The software is generally employed to computationally “grow” lifelike digital trees, shrubs, and flowers for special effects in film. Xfrog has the ability to produce forms based on botanic attributes, imparting to its 3D files selected attributes of living organisms—for example, branching, leafing, and spiraling. But its design-growth parameters can also be tasked to generate original structures based on the organic-derived algorithms it uses to mimic, say, an oak or an elm. Metaphorically, such manipulation may result in species of digitally grown design. For example, branching in trees may be transformed—in a sense, computationally hybridized—to produce experimental structures with a botanic performance and heritage.
On pages 8-9 you see an STL model of a building’s frame, originated as a simulated grove of four eTrees, then prototyped from an Xfrog file. For this frame, selected tree branches were programmed to loop as braces reinforcing the central trunk (eliminating the collar beams, straight braces, tie beams, and queen posts from a traditional truss). Alternating with the looped branches, others were programmed out-stretched, as cylindrical tubes configured into a rectangular plan, like a multistory building frame minus joists and floor platforms.
The eTree trusses employ simulated tree trunks and branches following natural geometries formulated by both the software’s modified L-systems and Xfrog’s proprietary growth and environmental rules (Prusinkiewicz and Lindenmayer, 1990. Lintermann, 1998. Dollens, DBA, 2005). The tree-to-truss design process relies on natural proportions and processes, such as phyllotaxy, phototropism, and/or gravitropism. While this process does not copy nature, it numerically models facets of nature’s growth patterns, calculated from the biological analysis of plants and trees (Jean, 1995. Niklas, 1994).
The digitally grown and STL-modeled trusses have implications for machine fabrication. Their curved, looping, tubular forms (left) have springlike qualities causing them to continually curl and fuse back into their trunks (or to each other in later versions¬—opposite); this spiraling, looping operation equally braces the structure in X and Y directions. The overall structure is a self-reinforcing, three-dimensional brace—effectively a flexible, asymmetrical truss.
Stabilization of seismic movement is one obvious requirement that the eTree trusses look to fill. Equally valuable, if further away, are shape-shifting facades reconfiguring themselves as weather conditions change. These types of environmental response are directly inspired from observing plants—bringing to mind Claus Mattheck’s idea for “trees as instructors for designers” (Mattheck, 1998). The idea behind such design research is to fuse botanical aesthetics, biological function, digital programming, and structural performance—looking first to natural forms and organisms, then finding useful properties, and finally interlaying that information in a project’s design.
Initially I attempt to identify design principles, generative strategies, or aesthetic logic secreted in plants; second, reflect that information in digital simulations; and third, develop the simulations as responsive projects with physical models. In a recombinatory sense, to hybridize biological ideas with architectural forms—evolve new systems from them—and then articulate the new design into parts and pieces capable of supporting and sheathing experimental buildings. For example, developing projects to clad the eTree structures with leaflike skins, bio-membranes, or monocoques.
Design experiments of this kind lead toward botanically-informed architectures carrying the generative heritage of digital files originally modeled as simulated plants. The projects do not exactly mimic a plant’s aesthetic, morphology, or anatomy but are, nevertheless, algorithmic cousins infused with plantlike proportions and morphological mathematics.
Mobilizing environmental conditions asks a building’s structure and surface to sense changes and address them. Integrated components such as remote sensors, robotic actuators, and digital intelligence are currently options—and good ones-—but ultimately, biological living materials, prosthetic organs, and hybrid, semi-living/semi-mechanical systems will be necessary. Then botany, technology, experimental gardening, chance-via-software, aesthetic decisions, citizen science, and DIY ingenuity can result in visual hypotheses aiding emerging architectural species.
Beyond trusses and structural design, digitally-grown component façades, panels, surfaces, pods, and modular units are subjects of this research. By morphologically transforming simulated leaves, flowers, stems, roots, and seedpods, the resulting design components retain simulated plant attributes for clustering, massing, fusing, and connecting. I think of these transformations as a procedural set of digital operations encoding biological-like properties into final projects and models. Additionally, the procedures help reveal how spaces, digitally generated from plant simulations, can environmentally enhance aesthetic ends while assuming environmental goals.
For the software-grown, parametric BioTower (28-35), I concentrated on an interlocking branch armature protruding out of the facade (resembling a woven cylindrical basket 30, top #1). From the branches sprout a series of spiraling and clustered digital leaves and biomechanical systems acting as filtration membranes for the building’s interior. The sensor-activated façade was inspired by, and modeled on, the stalks of blooming flowers from narrow leaf yuccas (Yucca glauca). The yucca’s floral spikes express a growth pattern following Fibonacci spiraling up the stalk (opposite). They illustrate sequential and punctuated placement of forms responding to environmental orientation for heat/shade/light/air distribution around a cylindrical core. This pattern information, genetically determined in the yucca and numerically translated through Xfrog, strengthens the BioTower’s botanical heritage. The plant geometries and hierarchies inherited through Xfrog help map potential shapes for enhancing or avoiding heat and light while maximizing photovoltaic and passive wind control. And, experientially, from the inside of the building looking out, the view is like that filtered through a tree’s canopy
From a design perspective, the thrust of the ArizonaTower represents an attempt to hypothetically root a building—to bring into an architectural dialogue, not only the aesthetics of what is seen, but also the potential of what is hidden (14-15). Yet, to be clear, I am not, at least at this point, suggesting that there are, or should be, architectural roots. My intention is to think of underground anchoring, low-pressure pumping, and water circulation. And reasons for investigating root networks are multiple: they anchor and foot, and they are biological ecologies counterbalancing above-ground components. Equally important, underground biological systems bring to mind mechanisms for water storage and distribution, bacterial sensors, and information circulation. New underground forms and configurations may be inspired not only by roots, but also by rhizomes, tubers, and bulbs (as well as their bacterial symbiants), culled for ideas to model facilities, such as cisterns, for harvested and recycled water, as well as for on-site sewage and bio-reactor filtration.
An overview of the prototype STL models made between 1999 and 2009 (6-7) illustrates a strand of digital tree evolution and potential structural and aesthetic direction. From the first simple tree with two gnarly branches, the eTree’s complex branching increases until models illustrate design pushed for growths scaled to habitable, if hypothetical, spaces. For example, in the final image of the sequence, the ArizonaTower sprouts forms at forking botanical nodes, where pods and polygons, grown enormously out of scale, become roomlike, and are eventually reprogrammed from pod to cube to architectural capsule (see also 14-15).
Leaves and Monocoques
Leaves as shifting, aggregate clusters, responding to directional winds, or as profile- and surface-reducing organisms in heavy storms (or wilting in extreme heat), have implications for architecture and industrial design. I have been examining the physiological pores (stomata) that leaves use to breathe—millions on the underside of a single leaf (opposite). Using images from scanning electron microscopy, you see individual, biomechanically organized cells tasked with opening and closing (as in a camera’s aperture) low-pressure hydraulic (turgor) systems.
Scientists use information from microscopes in specifically professional ways—designers could respond to it in equally legitimate, if differently visualized, ways (but do not usually have channels to such information). With information from microscopy, designers might grapple with visualized translations of biomechanics for architectural structures, materials, and fabrication methods; thus re-envisioning molecular and cellular nature for hybridizing buildings with embodied biological functions. We don’t need to wait twenty years for Dupont to develop a stomata panel distributed through Home Depot—one should be DIY-started and tested now
It is to the cellular level I sometimes look for ideas to translate leaf (and other plant) functions into design potential. Ideas for developing architectural skins, not as lungs but as breathing membranes, has occupied a place in my thinking since 1996 and continues today on two fronts. One—though not a focus for this text—involves formulating, envisioning, and making prototype organic adobe products that are thin, lightweight, and strong; specific electron microscope research (62-63) for this project focuses on the prickly pear cactus, Opuntia. Another parallel line of design I began in 1999 with the observation that almond shells have different inner and outer surfaces (polished inside, rough out) connected by a filamentous, porous structure. After grasping how almond shells breathe and ventilate through their shell pores, I fit them into an investigation for seedpod bio-models influencing monocoque and panel design (64-65). I came to think of them as my test specimens for design research: akin to botany’s Arabidopsis or biology’s genetic test fly, Drosophila. I am now considering the aesthetic and technical performance of porous surfaces across a range of shapes and folds, as found naturally in the forms and curvatures of leaves, bark, and seed pods—leading to monocoque prototypes whose bio-perforations inhale, filter, and exhale.
One vision for integrating buildings and biological design includes inventing new architectural systems—thinking of them as natural; thinking that architecture is part of nature. A parallel strategy fosters collaborations between design, biology, and industry thereby encouraging designers to enter industrial and manufacturing production in order to create new biomaterials. Biology and technology will define our buildings’ increasing ability to interact with nature. Such buildings are likely to be nurtured, and their functions guided, from software, computation, environmental sensors and actuators, and later from living systems. In this scenario, software and scripting become interpretive tools for generating, analyzing, and integrating design into nature.
Presently, branches, leaves, and flowers are pushing me in new directions. In 2007 I began using ParaCloud, not only to populate components onto irregular surfaces, but also to understand parametrics as a way of generating iterative, individually-scaled panels, hybridized with natural properties. On pages 20-33, I’m illustrating tests for parametrically linked components of façade panels as possible elements for deformable skins. These units, based on leaves, are self-supporting and, in their shape variations, require ParaCloud’s or GC’s generative abilities. For example, the LA Tower (20-25) exterior was generated from an Xfrog grown tree-truss whose branch tips defined a point cloud that in turn articulated a glass surface and that surface defined the underlying matrix hosting the façade’s 2,000 plus panels.
Buildings, cities, and their infrastructures are going to be environmentally beneficial, contributing to cleaner air, their skins functioning like leaves, alerting us to pollution and allergens. Architectures will be adjusting, folding, accommodating, and reorienting themselves to reduce solar gain in hot periods and heat loss in cold, as well as aerodynamically reconfiguring in response to shifting wind loads. Such biomechanical functions may also assist interior air exchange with passive ventilation, noise abatement, and toxic filtration. And, I see no reason why, eventually, buildings should not contribute to carbon sequestration, photosynthesis, and watershed reclamation while, at the same time, providing new habitats for urban bird and native plant life.
If we consider design as part of nature, we need to begin reconceptualizing nature without artificial categories—consequently realigning design/nature in education and design practice. Using the tools of technology, science, and nature to give buildings and cities biological properties, architecture may be reanimated as an environmental asset, rather than a liability. We may look to digital generation and fabrication as one pathway from toxic, formulaic architecture, seeing it instead as a driver of architectural speciation. Viewing design in an evolutionary frame holds promise for creative, technical advancement as today’s highly lethal species of buildings, products, and urbanisms die out, replaced with fitter species.
Before bio-architecture or cities can be tested or publicly and professionally considered, before residents and viewers can react to biologically living structures, there have to be examples or prototypes to consider, debate, and refine.
What has preceded is a set of ideas realized as drawings and models for contemplating nature, architecture, digital nature, and the integration of botanic functions into cities, buildings, and lives. In an elemental way, the work samples an ongoing experiment in generative biodesign from plants to software. Such works also illustrates potential directions for environmentally related design linked to botany and biology while encouraging research for living and hybrid architectures. In a metaphorical sense, I hope my studies are digital-seeds for a next generation of ideas and designs.
Ball, Philip. (1999) Made to Measure: New Materials for the 21st Century. Princeton University Press. Princeton.
Benyus, Janine, M. (1997) Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. Quill. New York.
Dawkins, Richard. (1982) The Extended Phenotype. Oxford University Press. New York
Jean, Roger V. (1995) Phyllotaxis: A Systemic Study in Plant Morpho genesis. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.
Cover: BioTower. 2009. Dennis Dollens. Digitally grown tree, branches, leaves, and flowers programmed as an experiment dealing with environmentally active functions in order to create biomechanical, living, achitecture. Generated in Xfrog, edited in Rhino, and rendered in 3DS MAX. 28-35.