Arch 5250: Topics in Design
University of Minnesota School of Architecture
2015 Spring Design Module—first half of semester, 4 credits
Instructors: Blaine Brownell and Marc Swackhamer

“[Werner] Sombart pointed out, in a long list of contrasting productions and inventions, that the clue to modern technology was the displacement of the organic and the living by the artificial and the mechanical. Within technology itself this process, in many departments, is being reversed: we are returning to the organic; at all events, we no longer regard the mechanical as all embracing and all-sufficient.” — Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization, 1934

Hypernatural addresses the changing relationship between the designed environment and the natural world—as well as the opportunities that arise from this transformation. Today, many fields of human industry are infused with a growing enthusiasm and reverence for nature. Scientists craft photosynthetic cells made from trees, engineers encapsulate stratified clouds within buildings, architects design structures that simulate the phototropic behavior of plants, and artists grow rooms made of mineral crystals. In both academia and practice, the conviction that nature holds the keys to the advancement of technology and design is now a primary motivator. Moreover, endeavors guided by a sophisticated knowledge of natural systems have the potential to counteract the increasing fragility and degradation of the natural environment.

In this 4-credit design module, we will interrogate architecture’s new relationship with nature. Students will start by researching a natural system – either biological or non-biological. Design proposals will unfold from this initial exploration. Throughout, students will alternate between two modalities – design synthesis and natural systems research – to develop an architectural construct that evolves from the combined input of the designer and the authorial will of a natural system. The course will examine how a partnership with nature might yield unexpected, novel solutions to difficult architectural problems; a scenario in which the designer takes on the role of project strategist, relinquishing a degree of control over his/her work.

The workshop will culminate in a fully developed architectural project, communicated through drawings, models, diagrams, and material experiments. Students will work in teams of two (or three) throughout the semester. Teams will iteratively work between various modalities throughout (research and synthesis, scaled drawings / models and full-scale prototyping, reading and diagramming, etc.).

Learning Outcomes / Objectives
The programmatic vehicle for exploration in this design module will be open to each individual team. Note that in this studio, program is often useful as a starting point, to catalyze a research exploration, but that program will often migrate as further discoveries are made. This is fine and is expected. What is important is that you grow familiar with the art of synthesis (applying what you learn in your research to what you are exploring spatially / architecturally) and that you are continually producing work. In a 7-week module, there is little time for spinning your wheels. We will expect to review developed work on a daily basis and will promote a culture of fearless and iterative high-volume production.

To develop your work, from its research phase to a developed architectural expression of that research, the course will be divided into three distinct parts. In the first part (3 weeks), you will work in teams of two to develop an over arching approach based on research into a natural system. Focus will be placed identifying a problem with existing models (sound, light, ergonomics, materials, character) and then identifying a natural system through which that problem will be explored. From that point, in part two, you will spend some time exploring the material / architectural translation of that system at full-scale (2 weeks). In this phase, you will acclimate yourselves to the material consequences of research assertions and develop a tacit understanding of a material or material assembly system. In part three (2 weeks), each team will work through their project architecturally, through scaled drawings and models. Note that this is not to be viewed as a “production” phase. Rather, it is an opportunity to further develop your project spatially and architecturally, as an architect. As such, the following learning objectives correspond with each studio segment:

• develop ability to translate between design and research, and vice-versa
• understand architecture as a dynamic, responsive, organic proposition (not static / unchanging)

Part 1
• effectively diagram / visualize written research
• clearly understand three approaches to Hypernatural design (behavioral, genetic, epigenetic)
• develop a critical, iterative process for testing research findings through design responses

Part 2
• explore an architectural idea through full-scale material testing
• understand how full-scale material exploration can come to bear on architectural decisions

Part 3
• develop an architectural expression of previous work that incorporates, but is not limited to the research
• further develop ability to explore effectively through drawing, diagramming, and modeling

Assignments and Grading
Studio projects will be weighted according to the following percentages, with the addition of an educational progress metric used for the determination of the final grade:
• Stage 1 Review: 15%
• Stage 2 Review: 25%
• Stage 3 Review (Final): 30%
• Educational Progress: 30% (Overall ability of a student to develop and improve throughout the semester)

Studio work will be assessed according to the following general criteria:
• The ability to conduct meaningful creative research
• The ability to generate sophisticated conceptual approaches and architectural form
• The ability to develop architectural ideas by becoming critically engaged with a design as a process of discursive and iterative exploration, developing designs informed by prior explorations
• The ability to integrate diverse and complex building components and systems
• The ability to understand and engage with issues of representation, explore appropriate techniques and develop commensurate skills in representation

• W. Brian Arthur, The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves (New York: Free Press, 2009).
• Reyner Banham, The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1969).
• Reyner Banham, “A Home is Not a House,” Art in America 2 (1965).
• Janine Benyus, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature (New York: Perennial, 2002).
• John Tyler Bonner, Morphogenesis: An Essay on Development, (New York: Atheneum, 1963).
• Samuel Butler, “Darwin Among the Machines,” Letter to the Editor of the Press, June 13.
• Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi, The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014).
• Daniel Chamovitz, What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses (New York: Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013).
• Manuel De Landa, A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (New York: Swerve Editions, 2000).
• Robert Frenay, Pulse: The Coming Age of Systems and Machines Inspired by Living Things (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006).
• Luis-Fernández Galiano, Fire and Memory: On Architecture and Energy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000).
• Jay Harman, The Shark’s Paintbrush: Biomimicry and How Nature is Inspiring Innovation (Ashland, Oregon: White Cloud Press, 2013).
• Steven Johnson, Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software (New York: Scribner, 2002).
• Kevin Kelly, Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World (New York: Basic Books, 1994).
• Kevin Kelly, What Technology Wants (New York: Viking, 2010).
• Neil Leach, “Swarm Tectonics” in Digital Tectonics (New York: Wiley-Academy, 2004).
• George S. Levit, Biogeochemestry—Biosphere—Noosphere, (Berlin: VWB-Verlag für Wissenschaft und Bildung, 2001).
• Gottfried Semper, The Four Elements of Architecture, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011).
• Lewis Thomas, “Living Language,” The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher (New York: Penguin, 1974).
• Koert Van Mensvoort and Hendrik-Jan Grievink, Next Nature (Barcelona: Actar, 2012).
• Steven Vogel and Kathryn Davis, Cats’ Paws and Catapults: Mechanical Worlds of Nature and People (New York: W. W. Norton, 2000).
• Steven Vogel, The Life of a Leaf (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).