Tuesday, May 14, 2013

"Biomimicry" and the built environment: a Renaissance perspective

I was delighted by the temporary exhibit at the Boston Museum of fine arts that features drawings of Michelangelo. The exhibit is only one room and most of the drawings are small. But they are not insignificant. The notes accompanying the drawings were skillfully composed and provide a lot of information.

I learned a lot from the show. For example, I didn't know that Michelangelo had been involved in number of architectural projects. Among these were plans for military fortifications.

For his inspiration in one of these projects Michelangelo chose to use the form of crab. What I learned from the notes was highly perceptive. If we think about a crab and its form we immediately consider the carapace of the animal. The outer shell is built for protection. At the same time it enables the crab to move flexibly in its environment. So the crab can attack or withdraw within its hard yet flexible shell. Thanks to the rounded shape of its carapace, the crab can sense and respond to stimuli from all directions. You can imagine that these features of nearly 360 degree visibility, flexibility, and protection with would all be desirable functions of a 15th- or 16th-century fort.

I don't know if this particular fortification was ever built. It gave me food for thought about some of my students' attempts to design using biomimicry. People tend to look at biomimicry from a visual rather than functional standpoint. Even when we consider function, we tend to forget that any organism or part of the organism functions in many overlapping, even contradictory ways. The way living systems interact and respond to their environment is complex and goes beyond visible features or any single function. The morphology or shape of an organ, for example a leaf, is only part of the story. Designing a building that is shaped like a leaf does not mean it will do photosynthesis or circulate water, nutrients, or gas efficiently. Part of the strength of Michelangelo's fort design is that he incorporated the shape and function of the crab around a suite of functional parameters. In a sense, he abstracted the crab's functionality and applied it to his design.

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