BIOMIMICRY AND DESIGN THINKING
Design Thinking has long drawn creative inspiration through biomimicry. One of the first examples was the design for the Crystal Palace by Joseph Paxton at the end of the 19th century. Inspired by the leaves of water lilies, and following structural testing, it became possible for the engineer to develop a fully glass building that set the bar for what was possible for many of the world exhibitions that followed. By sourcing his inspiration directly from a natural structure, Paxton was able to develop, not just a new type of building, but a new style of architecture.
Cover image: Raffles City Hangzhou, China © Seth Powers
Following the construction of the Crystal Palace, many biomimetic-inspired structures became part of well-known and iconic works of architecture: the buildings of F.L. Wright, the Eden Projects, the Aquatic Stadium and the Bird’s Nest, to name just a few. Yet alongside structural performance, there is so much more that can be learnt from nature and it has become a seemingly bottomless pool of inspiration for many design disciplines.
One of the most fascinating strategies that nature has revealed is the fact that some species can change and adapt to their immediate circumstances, be it through colour, texture, or mechanisms of mutation or bifurcation. These are biomimetic strategies that involve remodelling and adapting, thus serve as perfect examples and inspiration for design thinking for remodelling building projects.
REMODELLING TOWARDS A BETTER PLANET
The remodelling of existing buildings and structures has become one of the ‘greenest’ and more sustainable approaches adopted in recent decades. Rethinking the possibilities of retrofitting and adaptively reusing available building stock has slowly but surely become a commonly embraced approach in the field of architecture and engineering. While the technical requirements and energy saving benefits of such an approach have long been known, until recently the constraints and unpredictable risks served to work against its widespread adoption. While these constraints have not changed, a growing awareness of the extent to which demolition and the construction of new buildings impacts our planet has considerably changed attitudes as to how we can design-think buildings in such a way that they not only better fit their purpose, but can also be better constructed and dismantled. And of course, remodelling existing buildings saves both costs and energy.
In recent years, thinking about the waste streams of construction, CO2 emissions and lifecycle costs has triggered a process of considering old buildings in a new way. But what does either retaining or transforming the look and identity of such buildings mean for the creative aspects of the architectural challenge? In a sense, this new awareness requires that architects – instead of designing from scratch – need to bring a great deal of technical and detail knowledge into the remodeling project right from the start. For many, questions arise concerning the overall importance of aesthetics, or which fresh ideas could be added to the mix to create outstanding projects on multiple levels.
SO WHAT ABOUT BEAUTY?
How does nature approach remodelling? Shark’s teeth always grow back, while human teeth only grow once. We have learned that this is due to natural evolution, on a need to survive basis called divergent evolution. However, when it comes to remodelling buildings, we look for a form of design thinking that is based on the need for adaptation. Adapting to the environment, to external circumstances and integrating technical requirements and solutions in such a way that the remodelling will always improve the performance of the building. This leads to best practice applied in reference to what we know as convergent evolution. The fascinating thing about nature however, is that next to the natural evolution of the characteristics inherent to a particular species, there is also a form of evolution of beauty in nature. In his theory of evolution, Darwin proposed a separate process alongside natural evolution that he called ‘sexual selection’: “Females choose the most appealing males according to their standard of beauty” and, as a result, “males evolve toward that standard, despite the costs”. Darwin did not think it was necessary to link aesthetics to survival. Many scientists however disagree still. How and why beauty has been one of the characteristics of evolution is still an area for research and many scientists remain fascinated by this subject. Translated to the evolution of a building, and thus a remodeling project, the aesthetic appearance of such design may originate from the underlying technical characteristics, or it may have been sparked by some external source of inspiration.
CHAMELEONIC DESIGN THINKING
Through evolution, nature has provided much evidence of the fluid development of many different species. The chameleon is the perfect example of a species that has the ability to adapt its skin colour almost instantaneously, in order to protect itself and survive. What if our buildings could adapt to changing seasons, changing weather conditions and changing energy requirements as instantly as nature prompts them to do so? But even if our buildings are not yet capable of such immediate adaptation, should not we, as designers and architects, at least think and design in such way that one day such transformations could be possible? After all, one day the new buildings of today will become the old buildings of tomorrow, and will themselves require retrofitting. This is a new reality that architects need to face and it requires a wealth of background knowledge concerning the constraints of building and remodelling, in addition to design thinking in a chameleonic way.
In essence, we need to approach any new build we design today as if we are creating a chameleon: a building that may well be retrofitted and altered in the future, and we have to incorporate this thinking into the design from the outset in order to facilitate such transitions.
At UNStudio we continuously learn from nature and over the years have explored how biomimetic design strategies and natural phenomena can provide clues and direction to the design of new builds, remodelling and retrofitting projects. More often than not, glass has played a leading role in these design solutions. A number of the following examples are remodelling projects, while a few are new builds – which one day will eventually themselves be remodeled and upgraded, and therefore require a strategy to enable this in the future.
Examples of biomimetic inspirations:
- Optical illusion
Galleria Department Store, Seoul, South Korea
Nacre (/ˈneɪkər/ NAY-kər also /ˈnækrə/ NAK-rə), also known as mother of pearl, is an organic–inorganic composite material produced by some molluscs as an inner shell layer; it is also the material of which pearls are composed. It is strong, resilient, and iridescent.
Galleria Department Store, Seoul, South Korea The concept for the new facade of the Galleria Department Store in Seoul was to think of it as a new dress for the building, a dress that is made up of shimmering pailettes with a constantly changing surface, inspired by the iridescent qualities of mother-of-pearl. To create such an effect, a special dicroic foil was laminated between the two layers of glass on each of the 4330 discs that are mounted on the existing concrete skin of the building. The effect is based on the perception and reflection of light and the spectral colours scheme. At nighttime, each disc is illuminated from behind by controllable LED lighting and the effect of the iridescence of the glass discs adds to the overall appearance of the mediated façade
Galleria Centercity, Cheonan, South Korea and Talee Star Place, Kaohsiung, Taiwan
A moiré pattern is a basic optical illusion in which two similar (but not exactly the same) patterns are placed over one another. When the topcover is moved, the pattern comes to life.
The facade of the Galleria Centercity shopping plaza in Cheonan, South Korea was inspired by the simplicity of the trompe l’oeil effect of overlaying patterns to create a visual distortion. For this project we experimented with a glass, double-skin facade comprising an outer shell and inner skin, both of which feature linear patterning from vertical mullions. The layered profiles generate three-dimensional depth and a moiré effect, which changes depending on the viewpoint. By day, the building has a monochrome, reflective appearance that changes depending on the location from which it is viewed. This effect becomes animated as you move alongside the building and the fluid waves appear to come to life all across the facade.
Talee Star Place is located on a busy roundabout in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. This location and the constant flow of passersby generated the idea to create the perception that the building was constantly changing. Due to its curvature, and the view lines to and from the interior void of the building, the facade is set up with a twisted frame system that acts as a sunscreen and weather barrier. This frame system consists of horizontal aluminium lamellas and vertical glass fins that are combined with the curtain wall glazing into a fully glazed and curved skin. The concave front of the building displays different fluent forms when seen from varying distances and directs the visual field of the customers traveling on the spiraling escalators. Edge lighting on the vertical glass fins spreads soft colours onto the facade at night. The lighting intensity and colour effects are choreographed and controlled digitally, which adds an additional layer of fluidity to the building’s skin.
Raffles City Hangzhou, China
Pangolins are the only mammals that are wholly covered in scales and they use those scales to protect themselves from predators in the wild. If under threat, a pangolin will immediately curl into a tight ball and will use their sharp-scaled tails to defend themselves.
The design of the tower and podium facades of the Raffles City Hangzhou project in China interplay contrasting textures. The cladding elements act as a protection shield for the building and create recognisable scales for the different areas of the facades. Clad in a shimmering scale-like skin of aluminium tiles, the podium facades offer pixelated perspectives and reflect the building’s activity and surrounding landscape. The two twisting towers feature an outer layer of rotated, vertical solar shading fins that are placed atop the curtain wall system. Accentuating the towers’ characteristic twists, these fins also frame internal views.
Hanwha HQ, Seoul, South Korea
Ecdysis comes from the Greek word ekdusis, which means “put off.” It describes the process by which arthropods and insects shed their outer cuticle (exoskeleton), or how reptiles shed their old skin. This process is necessary in order for the organism to grow.
The building skin of the existing Hanwha HQ building in Seoul became technologically outdated and required a number of upgrades with respect to changes within the interior. The new skin for the building had to take the inherent structural parameters as a given and the new facade skin had to be based on existing constraints. The existing facade consisted of horizontal bands of opaque panelling and single layers of dark glass. In the remodelling, this is replaced by clear insulated glass and aluminium framing to accentuate views and daylight. The geometry (pattern, size and reveal) of the framing is further defined by the movement of the sun and further orientation factors, to ensure user comfort for the occupants and reduce the energy consumption of the building. This led to the design of a new pixelated field of varying elements that follow a smaller division of the base grid and come in various sizes and combinations. These elements are allocated at various areas in the facade, depending on where they would best benefit the performance of the new building skin.
Hanwha HQ, Seoul, South Korea
Glow worms derive their name from their ability to produce light naturally, a process known as bioluminiscence. Their blue-green glow of light is emitted as a result of a chemical reaction between several components: a waste product called luciferin, the enzyme luciferase, an energy molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP), and oxygen.
As the renovation of the building skin included a solar analysis of the tower, a study was first carried out into the effects of sunlight on the new facade. Direct solar impact on the building is reduced by shading which is created by angling the glazing away from direct sunlight, while the upper portion of the south facade is angled to receive direct sunlight. The window to wall ratio achieves 55% transparency across the entire facade. Based on the ambition for better energy performance, the next step was to investigate the possibilities for energy generation. As a result, PV cells are placed on the opaque panels on the south / southeast facade to harvest the most direct sunlight possible. Further PV panels are angled at strategic points on the facade, where energy from the sun can best be harvested. The bioluminescent character of the facade would then come into play at nighttime, when some of the energy harvested during the day would be used to bring the intricacy of the facade to life.
In our most recent renovation projects on the famous P.C.Hooftstraat in Amsterdam, we worked for two different clients on two neighbouring shopfronts. The design for both ‘The Looking Glass’ (No. 138) and ‘The Brick Pixelation’ (No. 140-142) had to strictly adhere to the style of a typical old Amsterdam townhouse. As such, we were required to follow both the three-windowed vertical division and the horizontal stacking of a plinth-zone. A transition zone and a residential facade were also a strict requirement. The desire for transparency and impressive show windows in both projects led us to focus on the magical properties of glass. We saw opportunities in the possibility to create small-scale effects and in how the new facade elements could be crafted to ensure both buildings would have their own unique expression.
In the case of The Brick Pixelation, we devised a layered facade, where bricks made of stainless steel were inlayed with milky glass to create a layer of semi-transparency; a sort of exoskeleton that could be experienced differently from relational distances, while keeping in step with the architectural heritage of the city.
In the case of The Looking Glass, we focused on the fluidity of glass, its inherent liquid properties and the optical effects that the three double-storey high glazed boxes could generate. Flowing down from the second floor, the three glass panels curve as they pass the retail plinth, reminiscent of a flowing stream, while simultaneously referencing billowing fabrics. This fluid design expands on the idea of absolute transparency with seamless detailing and the structural abilities of glass.
TOWARDS A BETTER PLANET
When considering the examples of the pangolin and the ecdysis, there is a strong relationship between the design concept inherent to an existing structure and the transformation into the next stage of a chameleonic process; a consideration that eventually leads to designs that can one day be disassembled, re-used or recycled. When we are given the possibility to remodel buildings, the opportunity for architects is in the staged approach, and therefore in an evolution of the project – an evolution that is safeguarded by a technical and aesthetic upgrade. The opportunities for safeguarding the planet are in the reduction of waste, careful sourcing of materials and the life-long added value that keeps such remodelled buildings in use for years to come. Unlike the renovation and restoration of buildings which must remain true to their ideal (designed) form and be preserved for their monumental and cultural value, the more recent projects requiring a retrofit offer the potential to approach remodelling as a staged sequence.
If we design for the benefit of our clients, we have to design with the future in mind and for future generations also. Chameleonic design thinking is therefore required. In such a process, it would seem that the magical properties of glass lend themselves in the most versatile ways to creating special design features for building facades. Whether these design features are visual effects inspired by nature, or glass combined with other materials to display media, block the sun or harvest energy, ultimately the designs must consider how these building skins will be perceived, how the performance of the buildings will affect and benefit their users and the cities that host them, and how they will eventually become part of the circle of resources. So, let’s be inspired by the metamorphosis from a caterpillar to a butterfly and bring design and construction in cyclical sync with nature!
This article was originally published in IGS Magazine’s Autumn 2021 Issue – Glass Retrospective: Read the full Magazine here for more thought-leadership from those spearheading the industry
Astrid Piber is a Partner at UNStudio and Senior Architect in charge of several design projects globally. Since joining UNStudio in 1998, she has worked on numerous projects, from the initial urban study and competition phases through to realisation. In projects such as the Arnhem Central Station masterplan and the Raffles City mixed-use development in Hangzhou, China, the interdependency of functional, economic and future-proofing criteria has led to building organisations that go beyond segregated typologies.
Working with a trans-scalar approach – from large-scale projects to their interiors – designing to add value through user experience has been key. The completed projects in China, Singapore, Taiwan, South-Korea, Germany and the Netherlands display this holistic approach to buildings and their envelope connect the scale of the environment with the scale of the user. In all cases, the projects are designed to be inherently contextual, while commanding their own unique presence.