Elemental Cities and Exotic Architectures

By Melissa Sterry

Melissa Sterry explores how mimicry of the behaviors, relationships and systems of flora and fauna species can help us construct cities that are more sustainable and resilient.

[© Paul Price/Getty Images]

When fact and myth are integrated, the "head" and "heart" can open up realms of human knowing we never could otherwise have imagined. Such is the epistemology--the theory of the structure of knowledge--that can expand human experience into new paradigms of insight.

--Alistair McIntosh

The future city of science fiction is a place without a past. A tabula rasa, its foundations rest on the belief that in and of itself technology will solve all of society's ills. All neon lights and jetpacks, this city is the apex of materialism, a place where "bigger is better." But this is the city of science fiction, not of science fact, and as the saying goes, "Science is stranger than fiction."

Since 2009, I have been exploring the question of how nature would design a city. My research has focused on the potential to develop city-scale resilience to major natural-hazard events through the mimicry of the behaviors, relationships and systems of flora and fauna species. The inspiration to explore how ecosystems respond to meteorological and geological phenomena came in part from a lifelong love of the natural world. But more significant still was a compelling body of data that indicates humanity has much to learn from nature.

Prior to embarking upon my research, I perceived natural hazards in much the same way as others--they were a problem to be solved. However, the more I read and the more observations I made, the clearer it became that there might be another way to perceive natural hazards.

Disruptive Innovation

Meteorological and geological events are fundamental components of Earth's operating system. When a natural hazard occurs, it releases and/or redistributes nutrients, clears space for new growth and allows for experimentation. In places where natural hazards occur with frequency, we find indigenous flora and fauna species that have evolved novel ways in which to harness the potential of these events while mitigating some of the threats. For example, several species of Australia's national flower, the Banksia, have seed-bearing follicles of which the opening is stimulated by wildfire. These and other native species are thus able to rise like a phoenix from the ashes. Seen from this perspective, natural hazards become phenomena that allow for "disruptive innovation," sometimes being integral to biological evolution.

However, it's not only in respect of natural hazards that flora and fauna show immense capacity to adapt to changing environmental conditions, and we see evidence of this all about us, recorded both empirically and anecdotally. We see it in the way in which flora and fauna respond to the changing seasons, shifting their behaviors, relationships, locations and, in some instances, even their colorations and/or their forms to both mitigate problems and harness opportunities. In a forest, the trees' survival is a consequence of myriad mutually beneficial symbiotic relationships with diverse flora and fauna species. Below ground, tree roots intertwine with fungi to form mycorrhizal networks through which nutrients are exchanged. Above ground, insects, birds and mammals inadvertently participate in a tree's reproductive cycle by propagating pollen and seeds.

In these and many other ways, ecosystems, and the indigenous, migratory and invasive flora and fauna they comprise, exhibit resilience to environmental change through perpetual adaptation. As a martial artist, this behavior brings to mind the Bruce Lee quote, "You must be shapeless, formless, like water," together with the question of how future cities and their various components might also "be like water," such that they work with and not against elemental forces. Ideologically, this city is the antithesis of the tabula rasa of science fiction. This is a future city with a past and a place in which all that came before contributes to shaping all that is yet to come. But neither the past nor the present defines this city, for this city is and will always be a work in progress.

Catalyst for Creation

My research has led me to believe that the most profound difference between the organization of ecosystems and anthropogenic systems, such as cities, is in the nature of their materiality. Life isn't built to last; life is built to reproduce and, as and when necessary, to evolve.

Ultimately, the question of how nature would design a city has led me to explore the concept of destruction as a catalyst for creation. While the concept of the city as ecosystem is nothing new, scientific and technological advances have created radical new ways and means of designing, producing and distributing the fabric of our cities. For example, breakthroughs in nanotechnology have enabled material scientists to replicate manifold biological mechanisms, including superhydrophobicity (high water repellence), as found in species including Nelumbo nucifera (Indian lotus); self-repairing membranes, which are a function of all flora and fauna species; and thermoregulation through evaporative cooling, as found in many mammalian species including primates. In the years and decades ahead, we can anticipate lifelike materials becoming a common feature of our day-to-day surroundings. Self-repairing materials will extend the life of wide-ranging items. Passive thermoregulation in buildings reduces the need for air conditioning and heating. Amongst other things, superhydrophobicity more or less mitigates the need for cleaning some surfaces.

Many structures will appear more lifelike, both in respect of their engineering and their architecture. In mimicking the composite structure of living materials, such as bone, scientists have equipped designers and architects with the means to create entirely new forms, the construction of which is far more efficient than conventional practice today. Whereas the industrial revolution brought mass-produced homogeneity, the postindustrial era will bring back bespoke design, often informed by the end user. Most goods will either be produced locally using microproduction technology, such as in-home and in-office 3-D printers, or made in factories set up to mass-produce one-off designs. In either scenario, the citizen becomes integral to the research and development process and is presented with manifold more capacity to design their personal and community environments.

Whereas the past several decades saw cities around the world become more uniform in their design and operation, the latest scientific and technological developments point to a more diverse, interesting and individual urban future. We might consider a smart city platform, such as the Urban Operating SystemTM developed by Portugal-based technology company Living PlanIT, as the equivalent of a mycorrhizal network in a forest. The UOSTM is able to aggregate and process real-time data from many millions of sources around a city. In doing so, it is able to inform such things as the management of resources including water, energy, waste and transport. In short, the UOSTM joins the many dots that comprise the connected city of the future.

We find ourselves at the beginning of a new epoch, an ecological age in which we are increasingly equipped to unravel life's mysteries and, in some instances, to replicate the seemingly magical phenomena to which we bear witness.

Consequently, that which was so readily discarded during the Industrial Age, yet which took at least 3.8 billion years to evolve--biodiversity--is once again held in the high esteem it so deserves. The cities of the future are being defined by science, but it is spirituality that will, in the words of Alistair McIntosh, bring "head" and "heart" together to expand our "human experience." What lies ahead will likely defy imagination and, yet, will exhibit some of our very oldest and most universal beliefs.

Melissa Sterry is an independent design scientist and PhD researcher at the Advanced Virtual and Technological Architecture Research Laboratory at the University of Greenwich, UK.