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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Book Review: Inspired by Nature: Animals

Inspired by Nature: Animals by Alejandro Bahamón & Patricia Pérez
W.W. Norton, 2009
Paperback, 192 pages

In an exhibition of Andreas Gursky's photographs years ago one image made me think of the relationship between the habitations of humans and other creatures. Shanghai portrays a building's atrium, with its yellowish tone and curving form immediately recalling beehives. Trying to move beyond a merely formal comparison, I thought at the time that the "human nature" that drives us to live collectively is not too far removed from other creatures, be they insects, mammals, or maybe even birds. So the formal morphology of what we build will find a number of resonances with habitats made by animals lacking the consciousness that is our blessing and curse. This idea links us to the creatures we share the earth with, but it also makes our harmful practices excusable to a certain degree. (We are doing things naturally, just like other creatures, so we don't need to worry about the impact of our actions.) Counter to this would be an approach to building that finds inspiration from all creatures great and small, thereby leading to an appreciation and respect of their lives, too.

The Inspired By Nature series by Alejandro Bahamón, Patricia Pérez and others can be seen as an embodiement of this approach. What at first glance sounds like a rational for another collection of contemporary architecture is actually a thoughtful investigation of the myriad ways designers are influenced by their surroundings. Previous titles looked at Plants and Minerals, with this latest installment focused on animals. The survey of 26 projects is split into four sections (Anatomical Structures, Animal Constructive Structures, Social Animal Constructive Structures, Temporary Animal Structures) with the first loaded with nearly half of them. The naming clearly indicates that structure is what influences architects, be it the skin and bones of animals or the habitats they build individually, collectively or temporarily. Nevertheless, not all of the projects included are necessarily inspired by nature, meaning the architects did not set out to replicate the anatomy or habitats of animals. As well, the book does not include obvious projects by the likes of Santiago Calatrava, whose sketchbooks illustrate his fondness for the elegance of animals' skeletal structures, or Herzog & de Meuron, whose Bird's Nest clearly spells that stadium's influence.

What is included ranges in size, location, and building type, from well- and lesser-known architects. Highlights include a renovation of a pig barn by FNP Architekten, a bus station curved like a shell by Justo García Rubio, an apiary by Marlon Blackwell, and a house with a kangaroo "pouch" by Hiroshi Nakamura & NAP Architects. These illustrate the range of projects presented, respectively showing how concept and process are as important (or more so) than form in human/animal comparisons, how form and structure can find a symbiosis readily found in animals, how animals can actually be part of a building's function (in this case bees), and how a playfulness can extend from finding inspiration in the animal world. The text by Bahamón and Pérez does a good job of explaining each project's inclusion in the book, without belabouring the point. Color photos and drawings predominate, alongside sketches of the animals and habitats that give architects inspiration free of charge.

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