Thursday, September 4, 2008


Part 1 of 2
Note: This post is broken down into two parts. Today's post will be primarily a textual description of the recent use, and future potential of geology in architecture and urbanism. The next segment will feature a series of projects illustrating the discussion.

Architecture might be said to have a mimcry complex. No, I'm not referring to a psychological affliction. I'm using it the phrase the way that evolutionary biologists use it - to refer to the collective act of a group of organisms, mimics, evolving to share common perceived characteristics with another group, the models.

Or maybe it is a mimesis complex? (and by this I do mean it psychologically) Plato and Aristotle's description of mimesis as the representation of nature in search for truth by the carpenter and the artist can be spread to architecture. For as long as architecture has existed mimesis has been used as a common technique by architects for the production of architectural form.

In the beginning was automimicry - one popular theory states that the stone details in ancient Greek temples were built to resemble vernacular wooden structures. In this case architecture mimics architecture. Then mimicry slowly crept into architecture's foundations - literally - as the use of rusticated stone and quoins were used to represent the earth growing to form a building's solid base during the renaissance. Much more recently biomimcry has been a technique used by architects. On the one hand by ecologically minded designers who want to imitate natural processes to produce sustainable architecture, and on the other hand by the avant garde, particularly digital formalists like Greg Lynn, Hernan Diaz Alonso, the Ocean collective, Andrew Kudless, Tom Wiscombe, and others.

In the past few years a new approach has emerged that appears to signal a new mimetic direction in the production of architectural form. Recent projects by architects such as Snohetta, MVRDV, and Vicente Guallarte (this list is by no means exhaustive) all t(r)end to use geological formations as inspiration. While geomimicry is a term used by some to "describe processes and technologies that mimic long term geological processes," these projects tend to use geology as a purely visual metaphor. Which is why I use the hyphenated form of Geo-Mimicry - to distinguish it from the single word geomimicry. I am also careful not to call the projects "geological" in the way that I used "geographical" in the post on New Geographies. For it seems to me they have left the logic part out of the equation (one notable exception could be Vicente Guallart, the designer who appears to be most invested in developing a geological architecture). What I mean by this is that the projects seem to mimic only the aesthetics of geological formations and not the complex processes of geology and geophysics.

But still I am drawn to these projects and excited about the possible new directions it could lead designers. The main reason for this is that it just so happens that I am currently reading John McPhee's Assembling California and I have been thinking a lot about the relationship between geology and design as I read. I think it is a lost opportunity for designers not to think about geology in terms of its processes and less formally, although I have to admit that geo-aesthetics are quite amazing in their intricacy and complexity (despite my recent questioning of the use of complexity in urbanism).

Now, the one question to be answered is why the sudden rash of geological metaphors in architecture?

While I don't know for certain, I do have a hunch as to why geology has recently become such a popular formal metaphor. And I have a couple of ideas of how designers might expand the notion of geo-mimicry.

To start, here are a few reasons why I think that architects might be drawn to geology:

1. Permanence
- Any reader of John McPhee will know that the notion of permanence in geology is suspect, but most of us still view mountains and terrain as perpetually static. I think some architects are still drawn to permanence as a virtue, despite (or perhaps because of) architecture's ever-increasing impermanence.
2. Context - This I think is one of the main reasons architects have been mining geology for new material. One of architecture's most common (and easiest?) ways of dealing with context is through mimicry and assimilation. With the increased amount of city building in the untouched regions of the Middle and Far East (UAE, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, etc), it is natural that architects would look to the natural environment for source material.
3. Beauty - Let's face it - rocks just look good! If you don't know what I am talking about just Google any of the following: geology, rocks, geological folding, geodes, or virtually anything else related to geology and see for yourself.

And here's a few ideas of how designers could start thinking geologically to enhance the idea of geo-mimicry:

1. Plate Tectonics
- the idea of plate tectonics and all its implications are so full of material for architects it's ridiculous. Here is just one example - I have been thinking of the idea of a geological suture and how it might relate to border conditions in urban areas. In geology the suture is the place where two plates 'dock' together and usually results in the most remarkable topography and rock formations. Sometimes the suture can be as wide as 50 miles. How might the idea of a suture be applied to urban design? Can the notion of an exceptional, thickened border with amplified intensity in form and program be an antidote to gated communities and other walled-off enclaves segregating our cities?
2. Transformation - We designers love thinking about form as part of a transformational processes. Since the earth is actually in a state of perpetual motion, the process of this motion and the morphological impacts it has on geological formations are full of interesting architectural metaphors: collision and convergence, spreading centers, subduction, shearing and strike-slip faults, transform faults, convergent/divergent margins, just to name a few.
3. Temporality - McPhee often speaks of the asynchronicity of geological time and human time. Sometimes though they can synch up, often to disastrous effects. Thinking about temporal variety can be useful in urbanism for manifold reasons: when thinking about the disparate time frames of urban districts (their metabolism, if you will), the processes of urban transformation (political time vs developer time vs implementation time, etc), or just to put everything in chronometrical perspective. Also, geological time is not linear or consistent-- temporal uncomformities and simultaneities abound and the results are rarely predictable. Additionally, geology is essentially an act of reverse engineering--figuring out what happened to the world, when, and how. The more we understand about this, the more we can project what will happen in the future. I think this is another way to think about the relationship between the disciplines of geology and design.
4. Deep Structure - The recent fascination with landscape in design has lead to thinking about architecture in terms of surface and topography. In geology, "one must develop a talent for seeing through the topography' and into the rock on which the topography was carved." (McPhee) Thinking geologically forces designers to think fully three-dimensionally construct mental maps of terrane. For rocks, "their unit-to-unit relationship--their stratigraphy and other juxtapositions--pondered as a whole is structure." (McPhee)


Ross said...

1. where does Taliesin West fit into the discussion? if at all?

2. i´m intrigued by the possibilities of buildings using a weathering strategy as part of geo-mimicry. HdM´s caixa forum in madrid seems to be going after this very thing? how does a building change over time? how can that change acutally be benecifial or more interesting?

Dave Brown said...

Hi Ross, thanks for the comment...

1. Yes Taliesin is a glaring omission on my part, as is a lot of Wright's southwestern lineage--Bruce Goff, Will Bruder, the entire 'Arizona school' in fact. Part of that is just ignorance on my part. But I also wasn't sure how I felt about it--sure Wright wanted his project to relate to nature, often times in fantastic ways (think Falling Water), but did he want it to look like nature and geology? I'll have to read some of his writings on Organicism to better understand it.

2. Yes, weathering could have a really interesting impact on geo-mimicry thought, as it deals with the temporal aspect. It's often an extremely overlooked part of contemporary architecture with it's emphasis on slick renderings and such. You should look at Mohsen Mostafavi's book on weathering if you have not yet--it's a great resource on the subject.

Dave Brown said...

btw, i have to admit i only started really thinking about this subject very recently and welcome any new references and ideas. if anyone more knowledgeable wants to write a guest post on it please contact me.

Ross said...

"on weathering" is one of my favorites. i've never been a fan of white buildings. it's always seemed arrogant to assume that those crisp clean white surfaces will remain that way over time.