Biomimetic architecture uses nature as a model, measure and mentor to solve problems in architecture. It is not the same as biomorphic architecture, which uses natural existing elements as sources of inspiration for aesthetic components of form. Instead, biomimetic architecture looks to nature as a model to imitate or take inspiration from natural designs and processes and applies it to the man-made. It uses nature as a measure meaning biomimicry uses an ecological standard to judge the efficiency of human innovations. Nature as a mentor means that biomimicry does not try to exploit nature by extracting material goods from it, but values nature as something humans can learn from.
Milwaukee Art Musem
The elegant Milwaukee Art Museum’s most eye-catching feature is its huge sunscreen roof – the Burke Brise Soleil – which is reminiscent of great white wings thanks to an open and closing mechanism controlling the 90 tonne screen.
Architect Santiago Calatrava wanted to incorporate both the urban and natural features of Lake Michigan, which the building overlooks, and took into account the “culture” of the lake front including boats and sails.
Gabriel Tang, an architect and senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK, describes why this US building is among his favourites: “Although expensive and technically complex, this is a delightful way in which architecture can be inspired by observations and ideas from nature to create pieces which are interestingly functional, functionally practical, and practically beautiful.”
He adds: “I love the direct and straight-forward legibility of the building. The opening or closing mechanism is gracefully poetic, but yet performs a function – that of protection.”
2. The Gherkin
“This was one of the first environmentally progressive buildings in the UK city of London,” says Tang of 30 St Mary Axe, the UK’s iconic skyscraper more commonly known as “The Gherkin”.
Completed in 2004, the 180m tower has an air ventilation system similar to sea sponges and anemones, Tang points out.
These creatures feed by directing sea water to flow through their bodies. And similarly, The Gherkin is supported by an exoskeleton structure, and is designed so ventilation flows through the entire building.
3. The “algae house”
Germany’s extraordinary “algae house” or BIQ building in Hamburg actually incorporates living matter – microalgae – into its design.
One side of the green-hued tower’s largely transparent surface contains tiny, growing algae which can control light entering the building and provide shade when needed.
It’s the world's first example of a “bioreactor façade”.
Algae produced within the transparent shell are continuously supplied with nutrients and carbon dioxide by a water circuit which runs through the building’s surface.
The algae creates a sun filter, explains Cruz: “In winter for instance, when there’s hardly any light and Hamburg is pretty grey for a long period, then the algae will not propagate and the façade screens will be very transparent, and so light comes through.”
When enough algae have grown they can be harvested and used to make biogas (a renewable energy source made from raw materials) to supply the building.
The ingenious design was completed as a prototype for the International Building Exhibition in Hamburg in 2013.
4. Eden Project
The Eden Project, nestled in a clay pit near the hamlet of Bodelva in Cornwall, UK, houses an extraordinary collection of plant species from tropical rainforest and the Mediterranean.
But the domed building itself is a large part of the spectacle: its “curvilinear” shape is an example of “softer edge” geometries which fascinate architects today, says Cruz.
Architect Nicholas Grimshaw’s huge transparent semi-spherical creations were inspired by the shape of soap bubbles, and the building’s “Core” education centre mimics the Fibonacci spiral pattern found in many natural objects such as pinecones, pineapples, sunflowers and snail shells.
5. Downland Gridshell Building
The light and airy Downland Gridshell Building, part of the Weal & Downloand Open Air Museum in Singleton, Chichester, UK was completed in 2002 and uses oak laths bent into shape to create the double-curvature, lightweight shell structure.
“This is perhaps not a building that was inspired by natural observations but with its timber cladding on the outside and being located within the woods, this building strikes a very close relationship to its natural setting and has been described by critics and architects themselves as an armadillo,” says Tang.
Tang, having worked extensively with gridshell design, explains lightweight shells such as those seen in the Downland Gridshell Building, are typically made with timber or steel. “Imagine how a bird creates a nest from separate pieces of straw. These structures usually have light-filled interiors but because of the number of connections, can be difficult to make weather-tight.”