“Phillip Ritterbush in his essay The Art of Organic Forms outlines a number of suggestive approaches to the use of metaphor in biology, in particular the use of the crystal analogy (1968). Nehemia Grew (1628-1712), an early plant anatomist, regarded regularities in natural forms as evidence that the processes of growth consisted of the repetition of simple steps, in which forms might be successfully analyzed. Ritterbush notes that in the nineteenth century Ernst Haeckel, operating on a permutation of the crystal analogy combined with an idea of ideal types, analyzed the radiolarians. His drawings show animals that are “wonders of symmetry and design. Under the influence of his aspirations to discover strict symmetry, Haeckel altered his drawings to conform to his belief in the geometrical character of organic form”. Bütschli (1848-1920), still influenced by the crystal metaphor, analyzed protoplasm in terms of a geometrical space-lattice. Belief in his paradigm led to his seeing structures that could hardly be confirmed today. This fact does not belittle Bütschli’s contribution to cell biology but points out the importance of his aesthetic predispositions and the power of a metaphor.”
Source: Donna Jeanne Haraway, Crystals, Fabrics, and Fields: Metaphors That Shape Embryos (Berkeley, Calif: North Atlantic Books, 2004) (first pub. 1976).
The drawings, prints, and paintings of the German zoologist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) occupy a high position in the echelons of digital formal references. In this, his work Kunstformen der Natur (1904) falls in the category of the masterpiece. It is hard to imagine a design studio using digital tools where his work does not come up a single time. At least more often, than other masters’ work.
Over the past twenty-five years organic morphologies, driven by invisible force-fields, became paradigmatic for digital architecture. The critical reflection on the use of generalised systems such as Voronoi or crystallisation in digital architecture is relatively new. The discussion within the field of embryology as highlighted in Donna Haraway’s book Crystals, Fabrics, and Fields, traces back further. Haraway, a science and technology theorist, referring to Ritterbush, highlights the risks that derive from using generalized forms inspired by nature. For Ritterbush, a science historian, the result is an “artistic motif,”(1) for Haraway a “metaphor […]; the vital spirit of a paradigm.”(2)
The reception of Haeckel’s work was ambivalent. According to Ritterbush, D’Arcy W. Thompson accused Ernst Haeckel of aligning form with simplified and idealized physical processes. René Binet, on the other hand, used Haeckel’s drawings as a master-template for the Porte Monumentale (1900). The result is a building that is a “direct transposition of a microscopic sea creature copied from a Haeckel plate to the scale and material of an architectural object.”(3) Detlef Mertins accounts those relationships in detail in his contribution to Lars Spuybroek’s NOX: a quasi bible of the digital. In his text, Mertins illustrates the impact of this thinking of nature as a template on what he calls “bioconstructivism;” a major axiom of early modernism.(4)
A founder of environmental design as we know it, Victor Olgyay uses Thompson’s Didion to illustrate design through environmental impacts. (5) The architect Greg Lynn refers to the Didion when writing about the impact of invisible forces on visible form.(6) Today, Thomson’s and Haeckel’s drawings of transformations are often unquestioned templates for digital amorphous shapes. While the impact of Haeckel’s Radiolaria fades, new (and already old) generalized masterpieces are already waiting in line. René Descartes’ Universe (1668) says “Hello” to Fräulein Voronoi (est. 1907).
1. Philip C. Ritterbush, ‘The Shape of Things Seen. The Interpretation of Form in Biology’, Leonardo, 3/3 (1970), 305–17, 305, accessed 7 Nov 2020.
2. Haraway, Crystals, Fabrics, and Fields (above, n. 1), 9.
3. Robert Proctor, ‘Architecture from the cell-soul. René Binet and Ernst Haeckel’, The Journal of Architecture, 11/4 (2006), 407–24, 407.
4. Detlef Mertins, ‘Bioconstructivisms’, in Lars Spuybroek (ed.), Nox. Machining architecture (London: Thames & Hudson, 2004), 360–9.
5. Victor Olgyay, Design with Cimate: Bioclimatic Approach to Architectural Regionalism (New and expanded edition, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015) (first pub. 1963), 84.
6. Greg Lynn, Animate form (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999), 26–7.
Haraway, Donna Jeanne, Crystals, Fabrics, and Fields: Metaphors That Shape Embryos (Berkeley, Calif: North Atlantic Books, 2004) (first pub. 1976).
Lynn, Greg, Animate form (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999).
Mertins, Detlef, ‘Bioconstructivisms’, in Lars Spuybroek (ed.), Nox. Machining architecture (London: Thames & Hudson, 2004), 360–9.
Olgyay, Victor, Design with Cimate: Bioclimatic Approach to Architectural Regionalism (New and expanded edition, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015) (first pub. 1963).
Proctor, Robert, ‘Architecture from the cell-soul. René Binet and Ernst Haeckel’, The Journal of Architecture, 11/4 (2006), 407–24.
Ritterbush, Philip C., ‘The Shape of Things Seen. The Interpretation of Form in Biology’, Leonardo, 3/3 (1970), 305–17, accessed 7 Nov 2020.
Andreas Körner is an architectural designer and researcher based in Austria. He is currently committed to his doctoral thesis at Universität Innsbruck. Andreas is an assistant at the Institut für Experimentelle Architektur – Hochbau, and teaches environmental design strategies in the Bio-integrated Design programme at the Bartlett. His research and design experiments explore the relationship between the built and the natural environment through layers, materials, and environmental simulations. His focus lies on the impact of weather on surfaces and their textural articulations. The results are highly intricate interfaces that communicate invisible environmental parameters to humans in the built environment.