A spider’s web is stronger than almost any material manufactured by man. Yet the spider produces it with nothing more than dead flies and a little water. Is homo sapiens so clever? Or do we have a lot to learn from nature?
One person who makes his living by drawing inspiration from God’s handiwork is Michael Pawlyn, the founder of Exploration Architecture, which specialises in biomimicry. As someone who has devoted his career to studying shapes, materials and designs, he says it would be foolish for any architect to ignore nature’s 3.8bn-year research and development programme. His work on creating the biomes at the Eden Project in Cornwall was partly inspired by studying the structure of soap bubbles and dragonfly wings. More recently he has been looking at urchin spines, molluscs, Amazon water lilies and boxfish exoskeletons for fresh ideas.
“Nature is absolutely ruthless in rooting out all the failed mutations and variations. What we have left is an amazing catalogue of success stories,” says Pawlyn, 48, who speaks crisply in carefully constructed paragraphs. “We often think that humans are all-knowing and all-powerful but there is still a huge amount we can learn.”
We are talking in Pawlyn’s minimalist apartment in Shoreditch, east London, which he and his photographer wife bought for £85,000 in 1996 “with the largest mortgage we could ever contemplate”. The couple ripped out the old floors, ceilings and interior walls, and redesigned the former industrial space to make the most of its natural light. “We loved the idea of open-plan living,” he says. As you would expect from such a visual couple, the apartment is studded with eye-catching furniture, such as a sculptural Isamu Noguchi coffee table, and some striking art.
On one wall hangs a black and white print of a Ken Adams drawing of the war room in Dr Strangelove. On another, a painting resembling a Rorschach inkblot, by the artist Cornelia Parker combining a snake’s venom and its antidote. “The way she describes it is that this has the potential to kill you and save your life. I love the idea of pieces of art that allow a richness of interpretation, that have a polysemic quality,” he says.
As a teenager (accompanying his oil executive father to various postings in mainland Europe and the Middle East), Pawlyn developed an interest in three areas: design, biology and the environment. But these interests diverged as he pursued a conventional architecture training at the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London and at the University of Bath.
It was only while working at the Grimshaw architectural practice on the Eden Project that he realised he could recombine his three teenage passions. After David Kirkland, one of the project’s chief architects, dreamt up the concept of building intersecting spheres, Pawlyn set about making it work. Most of the examples of spherical geometry in nature involved hexagons or pentagons. “So, we developed these geodesic grids [inspired by the work of Buckminster Fuller and Jay Baldwin] for the spheres and there was quite a complex resolution to achieve at the junctions, and for that we looked at dragonfly wings.”
Such was the simplicity and efficiency of the design that — remarkably — the entire structure weighed less than the air inside it. “It saved resources, it saved energy and it actually worked out a lot cheaper than a conventional glass approach would have been,” he says.
His belief in finding natural solutions to architectural challenges was reinforced in the early 2000s when he attended a short course at Schumacher College in Devon run by leading environmentalists Amory Lovins, co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, and Janine Benyus, author of one of the first books on biomimicry. “I learnt more in those five days than in the previous 10 years of going to conferences,” he remembers.
So strong was Pawlyn’s conviction that in 2007 he set up his own architectural practice inspired by biomimicry. The aim is to produce “biologically inspired architecture to address some of the key environmental challenges of our age”, such as climate change and mass urbanisation.
Exploration Architecture’s current work includes the Sahara Forest project, attempting to restore natural vegetation to desertified regions in the Middle East by evaporating seawater to cool the land and provide distilled water. Just as startling is its Biorock Pavilion project, which is “growing” new buildings in the sea by passing very low-level electric currents through a steel frame to attract mineral deposits. “You can produce bits of structure that are as strong as reinforced concrete but it’s all grown in seawater using available calcium carbonate and magnesium hydroxide,” he says.
Pawlyn acknowledges that it can be a struggle to fund such futuristic ideas. After all, in most cases architects can only be as creative as their clients — and their finances — allow. But he senses there is a growing appetite for more creative environmental solutions and longer payback periods. “I think we really do need to promote a longer intergenerational idea of timescales,” he says.
As inspiration, he points to the example of a 17th-century church in Oxford which was able to repair its roof because the church elders planted a grove of oak trees at the same time as the construction of the building, providing the wood necessary for the repair.
“There’s still an unhelpful divide between economy and ecology at the moment. They are seen as polar opposites and what we really need to do is to try and bring the nomos [management] of the economy together with the logos [knowledge] of the ecology to develop solutions that are fit for the long term.”
After almost 20 years in Shoreditch, Pawlyn and his family are decamping to Dartmouth Park, north London, to gain access to more space and a wider choice of schools for his two children. But Pawlyn says he will retain his attachment to what is now a fashionably cool district popular among start-up tech entrepreneurs.
During his time in Shoreditch, Pawlyn has observed a process of urban evolution, common to many parts of London, which he likens to the natural world. Artists are the first people to move into semi-derelict areas as they search for cheap space and characterful buildings, he says. The next wave of “colonisers” are often the architects and designers, followed by media types and creatives. “They go through this process very like ecological succession and the ultimate gentrification is when it’s all become merchant bankers,” he says.
Pawlyn argues that London house prices are “out of control”, with many foreign investors piling in to snap up rapidly appreciating properties, which then stand empty. “I think that is a shame in all sorts of ways, not least because it makes it difficult for young people to buy houses but also because — to use a biological metaphor again — it affects the biodiversity of an area.”
One of the other astonishing features of modern architecture is the increasing use of sophisticated computers and artificial intelligence in the design process. Machine learning can be used to model all kinds of different parameters in a building’s design — surface area, daylight, distance to escape stairs etc — that works as a form of “accelerated evolution”. “In theory, that could supplant quite a bit of work that an architect does,” he says.
But he does not believe that he will be out of a job just yet. There are always human dimensions to consider in all buildings, be they cultural, historical or psychological. “Architecture is much more than just a technical discipline,” he says.
John Thornhill is deputy editor of the FT
Photographs: Kelly Hill/Veronica Rodriguez for The Plum Guide