Architecture’s Scientific Revolution

Materials & Process / by Sanford Kwinter /

Seed presents five examples of contemporary architecture that have been influenced by science.

archphaenobody.jpgMalmö Tower. Credit: Turning Tower/Calatrava

From Sweden to Botswana, Germany to Japan, master builders are incorporating recent developments in math and physics, as well as elements of biology and other fields, into their designs. The result has been some of the most innovative and interesting constructions of the last several decades. Seed presents five examples of contemporary architecture that have been influenced by science. Welcome to the new architectural revolution.

No shift in architectural practice in recent times has been more fruitful or astonishing than the profession’s current embrace of scientific models and ideas. While the Modern movement of the last century famously incorporated the latest advances in technology and industry, there were remarkably few attempts to come to terms with the more radical scientific developments of the era, such as relativity or quantum mechanics.

Today’s architect, however, is increasingly schooled in cutting-edge developments in science and mathematics, from neuroscience and computation, to complexity theory and embryology. Indeed, there has been a surprising turn in architectural thinking during the last 15 years that has brought it far from its ancient roots in mechanics—say from the post-and-lintel methods that remained nearly unchallenged for 3,000 years—to what one might call a biological habit of mind. Today’s architect is more likely to study problems of form in the natural world than those within the history of his or her own discipline.

Yet the relationship between science and building is neither new nor strange. One could even argue from its pervasiveness that it began in our Stone Age past: Think of the precise snow domes of the Canadian Inuit, the densely thatched conical structures of the Kalahari’s San bushmen and the felted hair yurts of nomads on the Chinese and Eurasian steppes.

The right angle, born 3,000 years ago, would continue on through even the great flowering of classical times. While building science remained essentially the artful deployment of columns and beams, the Greeks could not help but add exquisite refinements such as the famous entases—the artificial bulges near the middles of columns that counteract the concaving effects of vision. This beguiling idea was derived from complex calculation systems based in geometry. Later, the Age of the (Gothic) Cathedrals would bring an unprecedented virtuosity and expressiveness to bear on the production of architecture, as well as new techniques of templating stones in order to master the very subtle mathematics required for progressively-changing angles and massing of material. If the late Medieval period was not yet the heyday for science, it was certainly the high point in the technical arts; the cathedrals were among the very greatest expressions they found.

What is commonly known as the ‘scientific revolution’ is rarely thought to have had an origin in architecture, yet the very idea of the homogeneous and regular space that underlay Galileo’s measurements of motion came from the building arts: Two architects in 15th century Florence, Filippo Brunelleschi and Leon Battista Alberti (particularly Brunelleschi), devised the modern system of coordinates that made it possible to relate every volume, vault or volute of a building within a single integrated whole. Brunelleschi’s insight, based on the power of the vanishing point—the mathematical concept of infinity—that became so popular in painting (and, later, photography), also led to Brunelleschi’s solution to the decades-old debate of how to complete the unfinished dome of Florence’s Duomo (a combination of measuring wires fixed at the centers of curvature, and dual, self-supporting horizontal rings of stone). Brunelleschi’s Santo Spirito Church, the other Florentine “miracle,” remains a tour de force in scientific modeling and exposition, using the space of the eye very much like the telescope and microscope did 200 years later.

From this point on, however, the happy marriage of science and design began to part ways. Architecture increasingly came to answer social, political and purely aesthetic callings, while the art of engineering and the thrills of infrastructure went separate ways, serving as less-glamorous spinoffs of the once noble unity. What we see emerging around us at present—itself a kind of “renaissance”—is arguably the remarkable but delayed response of the building arts to the Copernican revolutions of the last two centuries: to the time and information sciences of 19th-century evolutionary theory and thermodynamics, and to the legendary spatial and causal dislocations that are the hallmarks of 20th-century physics.

The buildings presented here are among the finest examples of this trend—and let us hope it is more than just a trend.

MALMÖ TOWER (pictured above)
Malmö, Sweden • Santiago Calatrava
Drawing on the structure of a person’s rotating spinal column—think John McEnroe in mid-serve—Santiago Calatrava’s residential apartment building in Malmö, Sweden is a remarkable torqued axis that reflects a biomechanical view of form. (The motif was also seen in Guy Nordenson‘s proposal for the Freedom Tower at Ground Zero.) Interest in natural forms can also be seen in Calatrava’s World Trade Center transportation hub proposal (bird in flight), as well as in many of Frank Gehry’s buildings (fish), and several of the other buildings shown in these pages.

archphaenobody.jpg Nox

Neeltje Jans, Netherlands • NOX
This work, by the Dutch firm NOX, was ostensibly designed to demonstrate the hydrologic cycle-phase transitions of water to and from its liquid, solid and gaseous states. In so doing, the architects created a work with an extraordinary maritime form. By placing the user into this new continuum, issues dealing with how the body senses and orients itself in space are brought into play. The result is a building designed to be incorporated into the user’s nervous system just as a surfboard is into that of its rider.

archphaenobody.jpg Zaha Hadid Architects

Wolfsburg, Germany • Zaha Hadid Architects
This recent project in Wolfsburg, Germany, from Zaha Hadid’s London office, is essentially a study in the displacing of the horizon. Hadid’s sweeping, ever-so-gradually arcing curves have for years provided an ecstatic form of vertigo for lovers of architecture. But here the strategy is pursued by a variety of means, including the deep scooping voids of varying orientation; the nested lines of diverging parallels; and the exhibition spaces, whose traditional homogeneity is refigured as a quasi-random scattering of particles, like billiard balls on a crooked table. Quantum indeterminacy and undecideability reign.

archphaenobody.jpg Coop-Himmelblau

Lyon, France • Coop-Himmelblau
The astounding paradox of buoyancy and colossalness that animates this project finds its model in the everyday cloud. The architects’ formal interest is in the shifting imprecision of these mesmerizing and continuously varying natural forms, but it carries well beyond this. Philosopher Karl Popper famously referred to clouds as a different and necessary style of scientific knowledge (derived from the analysis of gases) appropriate to a world in which unpredictability, and therefore openness, reigns. Here is an architecture that celebrates the human and scientific emancipation from the “clockworks” of classical physics—one which seems to deny the laws of physics themselves.

archphaenobody.jpg Roy Design

Near Maun, Botswana • ROY Design
Both the individual forms and the site planning of Lindy Roy‘s Delta Spa project are driven by the same coordination dynamics and algorithms used by termites in Botswana’s Okavango Delta—including pheromone radiation, flight trajectories, wind patterns and sun movements—to control the formation and distribution of their mounds.

Originally published March 29, 2006

Tags creativity design fabrication innovation technology

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