Natural selection

A fascinating and worthy subject is shortchanged by some random examples and shortage of criticism, says Michael Pawlyn

Bio Design focusses on a dynamic and very worthwhile area, the incorporation of living organisms into design. It showcases a wide range of interesting projects – from Magnus Larsson’s Dune Project to Studio Mathieu Lehanneur’s ‘Local River’ and Tomáš Libertiny’s ‘Honeycomb Vase’ – structured into coherent chapters and all well illustrated. The author shows just how much work is under way and demonstrates that the field explored is fertile.

The opening essays set the scene well although a couple of discordant notes detract from what follows. First, the authors claim that bio design goes beyond other biologically inspired approaches, stating that the latter are merely form-driven. There is a world of difference between biomorphic design, which is indeed form driven, and biomimetics, which all serious proponents define in terms of engaging with the way functions are delivered in biology. There is also a surprising statement in the foreword that ‘designers’ fascination with science is today reciprocated by a generation of scientists eager to get their brains dirty with reality’. Many scientists would argue that they engage with reality full time and probably have frustrations collaborating with designers.

Magnus Larsson’s Dune Project
Magnus Larsson’s Dune Project

More critically, I find the tone rather, well, uncritical. A number of the proposals are written in prose that seems to beg for wonder but actually conveys confusion. It could be argued that all the projects, even the wildly optimistic or unrealistic, will inspire what will surely be an interesting realm of collaboration between biologists and designers but the counter-argument is that this relatively unfiltered portfolio could result in considerable creative talent being wasted on developing ideas that are non-starters.

Some surprising omissions are made stranger by baffling inclusions. Excluded are  Francois Edouard, surely one of the boldest architectural exponents of what this book espouses, Claus Mattheck whose work on understanding living structures is worthy of a place, artists such as Ackroyd and Harvey and numerous writers and scientists like Janine Benyus (who only gets a passing reference), Julian Vincent and Steve Vogel. Another surprising oversight is the absence of any reference to Susannah Hagan who has written persuasively that ultimately buildings will be not like living organisms but actually be living organisms – an argument that would have bolstered the author’s assertion that bio design is more advanced than other biological design disciplines. Baffling inclusions include a rather pedestrian green roof project and a couple of projects that are frankly cobblers in terms of basic thermo-dynamics, for example a car proposal with on-board algae growth tanks.

Chapters start with good introductions but the book would have benefited from a conclusion that could have said ‘so what?’ and ‘what next?’. Both could have had very positive answers.

Michael Pawlyn is founder of Exploration Architecture


Biodesign: Nature, Science, Creativity
By William Myers, Paola Antonelli 
Thames and Hudson £28