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Animal magic

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Zoomorphic At the Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7, until 4 January Zoomorphic: New Animal Architecture

By Hugh Aldersey-Williams. Laurence King, 2003. 176pp. £19.95

Call them what you like - zoomorphic, biomimetic, organic - buildings based on animal forms are multiplying fast these days.

The designs featured in this exhibition and book are mostly less than 15 years old, yet there seem to be few things that creep, swim or fly that don't have their architectural equivalents.

In London we have Foster's Swiss Re building - the 'erotic gherkin' (its structurally more similar to a sea sponge, with natural ventilation created by spiral wells within the building). There's the same architect's 'armadillo' (the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre in Glasgow), and Grimshaw's Waterloo International Terminal, articulated like a pangolin.

Further afield we have Calatrava's birdlike Milwaukee Art Museum and Gehry's Guggenheim Bilbao, with its fishy curves and scales.

For the show's curator, Hugh AlderseyWilliams, this burgeoning of animalinspired designs is a sign of the times. We now have books on evolution in the bestseller lists. We have advances in genetics so rapid that legislation is struggling to keep up with them. We even have geneticist Steve Jones appearing in TV ads, telling us how Renault cars have 'evolved'.

And this broad cultural preoccupation with biology is in rare conjunction with an opening-up of technological possibility. New computer modelling techniques mean that the structural properties of irregular forms can be calculated precisely. Evolutionary algorithms can be used to generate 'organic' shapes.Add to this advances in materials, and there is much greater scope for architectural designs to follow natural form.

As Aldersey-Williams is careful to point out, though, a distinction needs to be drawn between architecture that merely refers to nature, or that bears only an external resemblance to animals, and that which draws on science more profoundly. This is the difference between style and substance, between using biology as a source of metaphor, and using it to suggest new structural and functional possibilities.

After all, we've had buildings that just look like animals for some time. Take, for example, the Big Duck, built in the 1930s - a New York shop in the shape of a fowl, celebrated by Robert Venturi (it sold duck decoys). Or New Jersey's Lucy the Elephant from the late-19th century, with her trunk, tusks and windows. Architectural zoomorphism has always had its elements of literalism and kitsch.

But the current trend towards biomimesis is based on more interesting possibilities.

Of course, in some instances animalistic architecture merely gives an appearance of environmental concern - biomorphic buildings aren't necessarily 'green', or vice-versa.

But at its best, zoomorphism involves using the results of nature's million-year-old experiments in efficiency, as she tries to find the most economical course possible within physical constraints.

This is what leads Aldersey-Williams to describe the zoomorphic trend both as leading to a kind of 'biological Baroque' and being, in a sense, a continuation of Modernism. Though they are a million miles from the rectilinear designs of the International Style, many zoomorphic buildings are carrying on the tradition of Functionalism, aiming as they do for the near-perfect efficiencies in use of materials brought about by evolution. The largest of the bulbous 'biomes' of the Eden Project in Cornwall weighs less than the air it encloses. We have some way to go, though, before we can match the relative strength and flexibility of a spider's web, or the insulating properties of a penguin's feathers.

So is zoomorphism here to stay? Judging by the people peering at the photos, models and stuffed animals (courtesy of the Natural History Museum) in this excellent, enjoyable show, there is much in these developments that people find appealing. Rarely can an exhibition of building plans have elicited so many smiles. Architectural forms that are both efficient and broadly popular are surely likely to thrive.

Matt Shinn is a writer and editor in London

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