Built By Nature: Organic Shapes And Forms In Timber Design

Built By Nature: Organic Shapes And Forms In Timber Design

Biophilic Beauty

While browsing Netflix recently, I came across the docuseries Abstract: The Art of Design. The episode that caught my eye? “Neri Oxman: Bio-Architecture.” It profiles professor and architect Neri Oxman and her work at the MIT Media Lab. Known for blending art and science in innovative cross-disciplinary ways, her work can be viewed at a number of public and private collections, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum.

At the Media Lab, Professor Oxman heads up the Mediated Matter group that focuses on the research area “Material Ecology” – effectively, nature-inspired design and design-inspired nature. According to the group’s website, their research is centered on “creating biologically inspired and engineered design fabrication tools and technologies and structures” with the aim of “enhancing the relation between natural and man-made environments.”

This design approach enables the mediation between objects and environment, between humans and objects, and between humans and environment. The goal? To enhance the relationship between natural and man-made environments by achieving high degrees of design customization and versatility, environmental performance integration, and material efficiency.

Alien and Beautiful

In Abstract, we get a peek at what this means in practice, although the episode focuses more on Oxman herself than the work at the Lab. We are shown a project called Aguahoja – a five-meter tall architectural pavilion that resembles an enormous insect wing, made of a programmable water-based biocomposite. It’s alien and beautiful, though its purpose is left rather vague.

According to the group’s website, the pavilion’s façade of structural skin is “manufactured out of organic materials like cellulose and pectin and can be programmed to degrade in water, thereby restoring its constituent building blocks to their natural ecosystem.”

While Abstract boasts some slick storytelling and artsy shots, it ended up raising more questions than it answered, leaving me wanting for a little more substance. For what it’s worth, it did pique my interest in bio-architecture and biophilic design more broadly, and inspired me to do a little research of my own.

Bringing the Outside In

In doing so, I discovered all sorts of projects and products – from furniture and lighting to buildings and revitalized waterfronts – that incorporate biophilic design in visually interesting and engaging ways. Well, get into some examples here soon, but first, a bit of background.

In a nutshell, biophilic design is a way of designing to bring the outside in and to foster connections to the natural world. At its core is the idea that human connection to nature is fundamental to our health and happiness, and that by embracing biophilic principles through such practices as incorporating plants, natural light, water features, and organic shapes and materials, we enhance our well-being.

Heralded as the antidote to corporate office drudgery and medicine to depressing hospital rooms, the documented benefits of biophilic design are manifold: reduced stress and mental fatigue, increased creativity and focus, improved health outcomes and mental state. While strategically positioning a few potted plants around a room is the most obvious starting point, biophilic design goes far beyond this to consider the structural and material elements, as well as the decorative.

A recent report by sustainability consulting firm Terrapin Bright Green identifies 14 patterns of biophilic design across three broad categories: Nature in the Space, Natural Analogues, and Nature of the Space.

Nature In The Space

The first of these, “Nature in the Space,” deals with the direct physical and ephemeral presence of nature in a space or place. This includes plant life, water, and animals, as well as breezes, sounds, scents, and other natural elements. Common examples include potted plants, flowerbeds, bird feeders, butterfly gardens, water features, fountains, aquariums, courtyard gardens, and green walls or vegetated roofs.

The seven biophilic design patterns that fall under this category are often the easiest to spot and some of the most accessible ways to cultivate a biophilic sensibility. Think lush greenery, the gentle gurgle of a water feature, or the flutter of butterflies – these direct connections with nature can have a profound impact on our well-being.

Natural Analogues

The second category, “Natural Analogues,” is concerned with the organic, non-living, and indirect evocations of nature. Objects, materials, colors, shapes, sequences, and patterns found in nature manifest as artwork, ornamentation, furniture, décor, and textiles in the built environment.

Mimicry of shells and leaves, furniture with organic shapes, and natural materials that have been processed or extensively altered (like wood planks or granite tabletops) – each of these provides an indirect connection with nature. These patterns include biomorphic shapes and symbols, material connections to nature, and nods to the complexity and variability of patterns like fractals that are found in the natural world.

Nature of The Space

Finally, “Nature of the Space” involves spatial configurations found in nature, like prospect, refuge, risk, and mystery. Such design patterns play on our innate and learned desire to be able to see beyond our immediate surroundings, our fascination with the slightly dangerous or unknown, obscured views and revelatory moments, and sometimes even phobia-inducing properties when they include a trusted element of safety.

These configurations – think a cantilevered walkway over a cliff or a glass viewing platform – arouse our attention and curiosity and trigger small doses of dopamine that enable motivation, memory, and problem-solving. It’s a delicate balance, but when done right, these spatial elements can transform a space, making it both intriguing and restorative.

Organic Inspiration

With this understanding of biophilic design and these patterns in mind, let’s take a look now at examples of spaces, structures, and objects that embody these principles. The following designers draw on sources of inspiration like plants and sea creatures to craft beautiful pieces of furniture, lighting, and other organic objects.

The work of David Trubridge is a prime example. His airy, organic pendant lights are made from sustainably-harvested timber in customizable sizes and finishes. Many of his designs take their inspiration from the sea, such as “Kina,” based on a type of saltwater sea urchin shell, or “Navicula,” modeled on microscopic diatoms that float around in the oceans. The 2015 Red Dot Award-winning “Nīkau” is inspired by the Nikau palm tree native to New Zealand.

Another studio, Nervous System, employs computer simulation to generate designs and digital fabrication to create art, jewelry, and housewares that are drawn from processes and patterns found in nature. The “Arboreal Pendant,” part of their lighting collection, is 3D-printed to resemble the formation of veins growing in leaves. Inspired by the structures built by the microscopic organism radiolaria, their “Radiolaria” and “Cell Cycle” lines digitally customize cellular structures to create jewelry and homewares like the “Radiolaria” table.

The “Shell” lounge chair by Portuguese designer Branca is also worth a mention. Composed of ribs of exposed birch plywood in a cocoon shape that resembles some sort of giant mollusk, it’s designed to accommodate a varying number and configuration of pillows and cushions to the preference of the individual user. It’s part technology, part craft, with the pieces digitally cut and then assembled by hand by artisans.

Biophilic Buildings

In the following projects, designers and architects incorporate an array of biophilic principles to create buildings and spaces that emulate natural materials and processes.

The UK-based Oliver Heath Design studio is a leader in biophilic design. A woodland sanctuary bathroom they recently designed for the Kohler Design Centre showcases how biophilic design can improve health and well-being in the built environment.

Starting with the concept of the bathroom as a place of personal sanctuary and retreat, the team created a total sensory experience that is customizable to the individual user. Behind a bamboo grove that shelters the bathtub, concealed lighting mimics the dappling of light playing through a bamboo forest. Leaf cut-outs in the timber ceiling above allow the light to reflect and filter through a canopy of trees. The lights may be dimmed or changed color to suit varying moods – from bright morning light to soft lighting to help induce relaxation – all accompanied by a soothing audio soundtrack.

The Garden School in Hackney, also by Oliver Heath, is an institute for children under 16 with special educational needs. In redesigning the school’s gym, nature had to be brought in without the use of delicate plants and greenery. With that challenge, the team incorporated natural analogues like textured carpets with varying pile heights, a honeycomb wall with cubbyholes for sitting, and wallpaper with images of a forest. Even without the use of plants, such design features provide tactile and visual references to nature that support learning and engagement of the students.

At Textúra Restaurant in Budapest, design studio Hello Wood and interior designer Anett Ficzere worked together to create a central parametric installation that mimics the form of a tree, branching outward from the center of the room to form a canopy over diners’ heads. The same parametric design, generated using the geometric logic of Voronoi cells, is also incorporated on the walls in partitions and as hanging light fixtures. The effect is formal and mathematical while retaining a playful and organic quality.

Another standout is the Allen Lambert Galleria and Atrium in Toronto, which connects the two office towers of Brookfield Place. Designed by Santiago Calatrava, this steel and glass cathedral-like structure features an arching roof that is complex and intricate, reminiscent of a tree-lined road. Sunlight streaming in through the canopy creates interesting patterns of light and shadow that filter throughout the courtyard where patrons linger.

The Nature of Beauty

While their methods and applications vary, in common among all of these examples is a guiding principle to promote well-being through interaction with and connection to nature. Of course, these projects represent only a fraction of the work being done in this space, and with the ethos of biophilic design continuing to grow in popularity, we’ll soon start to see more and more of the natural world springing up in our built environments.

As a company that embraces timber as the world’s foremost natural building material, Timber Building is a big supporter of biophilic design. After all, what better way to bring the outside in than with the organic beauty and warmth of wood? From sculptural light fixtures to striking architectural elements, the possibilities are endless when you let nature be your guide.

Now, ain’t that a breath of fresh air?


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