Informing Form

The Influence of Morphogenesis and Performativity in Practice

Authored by: Alvin Huang

The Routledge Companion to Paradigms of Performativity in Design and Architecture

Print publication date:  December  2019
Online publication date:  December  2019

Print ISBN: 9780367076191
eBook ISBN: 9780429021640
Adobe ISBN:




Morphogenesis, the biological process that enables an organism to take shape, has inspired a genre of architectural design research that leverages advances in computational design, fabrication technologies, and material systems to explore an architecture that is informed by performance. In this chapter, we will examine the intellectual antecedents and design precedents that led to the development of Digital Morphogenesis in architecture. Further, we will attempt to understand the legacy of this movement by exploring a series of projects produced by four boutique design practices that have been informed, inspired, and influenced by morphogenetic design in architecture. These projects illustrate how the influence of the original protagonists of this mode of thinking and working has served as a precedent for a generation that has brought the paradigms of computational design practice out of the academy and into the world of industry as a form of specialized (and spatialized) practice.

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Informing Form


Ironically, it is the natural world that has provided some of the most relevant inspirations for the computational paradigm in design and architecture. Morphogenesis, the biological (and geological) process that enables an organism (or landform) to take shape, has served as the catalyst for a genre of architectural design research that leverages advances in computational design methods, fabrication technologies, and material systems to explore an architecture that is informed by performance. This paradox of merging two seemingly contending territories is a trait of this genre of architectural design that extends far beyond the irony of the technological (and inherently artificial) being informed by the natural (and inherently organic), including issues of representation vs. materialization, architecture vs. engineering, and academia vs. industry. As such, this biologically inspired point of view has emerged as an exploration of representational mediums and material determinacy, as a blurring of the boundaries between architectural design and design engineering, and perhaps most importantly (in terms of actual impact) as both a form of applied research and as a form of experimental practice that has continued to both evolve and expand beyond the academy and the periphery of architectural discourse towards the mainstream of normative contemporary architectural practice.

In this chapter, we will examine the intellectual antecedents and design precedents that led to the development of what has come to be known as Digital Morphogenesis in architecture. Further, we will attempt to understand the legacy of this movement by exploring a series of projects produced by three boutique design practices that have been informed, inspired, and influenced by morphogenetic design in architecture. These projects (and practices) illustrate how the influence of the original protagonists of this mode of thinking and working has served as a precedent for a generation that has brought the paradigms of computational design practice out of the academy and into the world of industry as a form of specialized (and spatialized) practice.

Morphogenesis, Animate Form, and Evolutionary Architecture

When one speaks of Morphogenesis in contemporary architectural practice, one immediately thinks of the catalytic ideas and design research of the 2000s spearheaded by the Emergence and Design Group of the Architectural Association in London led by Michael Weinstock, Michael Hensel, and Achim Menges. Though they were not the first to use the term “Morphogenesis” in regard to architecture (we will get to that later), the research, writing, and projects produced by this trio of design researchers have become synonymous with the term and have paved the way for an entire generation of designers who have taken inspiration from their pioneering work that merges concepts borrowed from nature with techniques enabled by technology.

The work of the Emergence and Design Group was catalyzed by two critical observations regarding natural systems—the first is that the global behavior of the system as a whole is understood as the cumulative product of multiple independent and discrete localized actions operating in parallel; the second is that a high degree of performative agency is embedded in the material itself. In short, the cumulative understanding that is reached via these two critical observations is that the reactive, sensory, and evolutionary responses of natural systems occur at localized levels—but collectively inform an emergent global behavior that results in form that is informed by performance.

These concepts are taken from developmental biology and biomimetic engineering, informing the morphogenetic approach to architectural design proposed by Weinstock, Hensel, and Menges. This approach gives rise to an architecture that is understood as the product of dynamic material systems that operate as generative drivers in the design process. By rejecting the conventional understanding of material systems as the by-products of standardized building systems and mass-produced components promoting the proliferation of pre-established design schemes, the thesis of a morphogenetic approach leverages the capabilities of computational design processes to privilege the evolution of morphological complexity and performative capability from material elements without distinguishing between processes of formation (shape-making) and materialization (fabrication).

The concept of the material system can be extended by considering material properties (what parts are made of), geometric logics (how parts are defined and connected), fabrication protocols (how parts are made), and assembly logics (how parts are put together), as both the performative inputs that inform the system as well as the formal output that is the performative result of the system. In this capacity, the fundamental shift is that form, material, and structure are not considered as independent design studies that can each have a multitude of options—but rather, as the result of complex and parallel interrelationships in a polymorphic system that responds to a variety of environmental, contextual, and performative influences.

However, when discussing the work of this trio we must also understand the context of their intellectual antecedents. While the protagonists of the Emergence and Design Group may have introduced Morphogenesis to a wider audience, the term was first introduced to the lexicon of architectural discourse in the seminal book An Evolutionary Architecture by John Frazer in 1995. Illustrating the work of Diploma Unit 11, the academic design research studio taught by Frazer and his wife Julia at the Architectural Association from 1989 to 1996, the book argues for architecture as a form of artificial life—proposing computational code (the programming of design instructions) as a genetic representation of DNA-like design information that is subject to developmental and evolutionary processes that respond to both users and environmental factors. Frazer was not interested in an aesthetic project of biomimicry—he did not believe in the superficial zoomorphic analogy of architecture looking like nature or the natural world; rather he was interested in an architecture that behaved or operated like the natural world. The stated goal of Evolutionary Architecture was to produce the symbiotic behavior and metabolic balance of the natural world in the built environment. As a result, the book also speculates about a fundamental shift in the role of the architect—moving away from the author of static buildings and cities, and towards a role that curates the dynamic evolution of a building’s behavioral characteristics as a performative response to environmental conditions.

Similarly, Greg Lynn’s Animate Form (1999) also pairs the lessons of the natural world with the opportunities of the technological world. Lynn leveraged computational techniques enabled by high-end motion graphics software against inspirations taken from performative conceptions of form that came from organic forms found in nature. Lynn was deeply inspired by the arguments made by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson in On Growth and Form (1917/1952), where Thompson positions that the “action of force” acting upon an organism is the catalyst for not only its form, but also the evolution of its form over time. As a result, Lynn capitalizes on the possibilities afforded by digital media, namely animation software packages, to apply motion dynamics as a generator of architectural form. In this capacity he leverages the computational power of the machine to procreate forms that respond to the complexity of forces in the urban context, thus mirroring Thompson’s argument that physical form is the singular resolution in one temporal instance of multitudes of forces governed by rates of change.

Contending Territories and Expanded Definitions

One could argue that within the discipline of architecture, there has been a historical divide between the act of representation and the act of materialization. In his seminal book Translations from Drawings to Building (1997), Robin Evans illustrates the unique conundrum of architecture as a discipline of making—unlike our colleagues in the fine and applied arts, architects are identified as having the unique distinction of never working directly with the medium of their creation (buildings). In short, Evans posits that an architect’s work is the product of intermediate representational mediums such as drawings or models. Stan Allen also makes the distinction between what he identifies as discursive practices (those that are engaged with the mediums of representation and text) from material practices (those that utilize the abstract codes of representational projections and notations to produce new objects or organizations of matter). However, within the paradigm of Digital Morphogenesis, design tools and design processes converge to simultaneously engage both representation and materiality to create form with physically performative traits that can be adapted to particular environmental contexts. By utilizing computational design processes that not only represent the material world (as output) but which also simulate material behavior and environmental performance (as input), the product of the work is simultaneously representational as well as inherently material. This shift in thinking changes the conception of architecture away from object or artifact to that of a system of interwoven components and elements, and perhaps more importantly considers the feedback loop between the physical artifact and the computational simulation as the product of the material system.

Similarly, this trajectory of work blurs the perceived disciplinary boundaries between architecture and engineering by extending the design research legacies of analogue form-finding in the works of Frei Otto, Antonio Gaudi, Heinz Isler, and Felix Candela by appropriating conceptual, formal, and performative concepts from nature and merging them with the power of computation and the possibility of digital fabrication processes. Whereas all of the previously mentioned protagonists operated in analogue through the study of natural forms, empirical research, and a healthy dose of material computation (where the material itself processes physical inputs and outputs formal results), the new generation explores form-finding through digital simulation and an understanding of structural performance as the result of dynamic and adaptive computational systems. This shift towards understanding architecture as the product of dynamic systems of interrelated components allows designers to develop a unique logic of parts-to-whole relationships where the static pattern of structural order (tessellations, configurations, etc.) can be mediated into a system of both generative and differentiated potential, also known as structuring (Oxman, 2010).

Ultimately this type of design thinking, along with the technological advancements in design computing and digital fabrication that have enabled it, is now bridging the gap between architectural academia and architectural practice. While the catalyst for nearly every major advancement within the discipline of architecture has been a parallel development of technology, computation has often been a divisive instrument in terms of its applications in our design institutions and in our design practices. When computational processes were initially introduced into the practice of architecture, they were seen almost exclusively as tools for efficacy—digital protocols for automating existing methods of working. Meanwhile, in the academy the appropriation of animation software brought about another paradigm shift as the modeling techniques afforded by the software began to drive novel geometries and new modes of thinking as techniques for the conceptualization of the design process. However, in the past two decades the evolution of computational design research as both an academic endeavor and as a form of industrial R&D is merging the worlds of scholarship and practice as a way of thinking—connecting the digital avant-garde with the mainstream built environment. The initial explorations and advancements in Digital Morphogenesis combined with an evolving definition of the performative have given birth to a form of architectural design research that references biology and leverages computation as both a form of architectural scholarship and as a form of architectural practice. This territory between scholarship and practice explores the reciprocity between form (geometry), force (performance), matter (organization), and craft (fabrication).

Morphogenetic Form and Performance

Form in architecture has traditionally been understood as a composed response to utility (function) and gesture (expression), whereas performance in architecture has traditionally been understood as the analytical result of engineering criteria applied to the architect-imposed preoccupation with planning, skin, and symbolic gesture, while materiality on the other hand might be best understood as the specification of either finishes or building construction. From the perspective of conventional architectural practice, the performative information is thus a result of the design of form, rather than a driver of form in itself, while the materiality of form is merely one of many options in defining the finish or construction method of the form. In this capacity, the traditions of architecture operate in a hierarchical and top-down process of defining form, engineering form, and specifying materials. Meanwhile, in the natural world, performance, form, and materiality are all inherently inseparable and considered in parallel as systemic responses to external environments. This reciprocity between form and performance and materiality is the foundation for understanding morphogenetic practices in architecture. Morphogenetic approaches to design embrace an architecture that is the result of a material system that embraces the combined relevance of form, materiality, and performance as generative drivers in the design process.

“Emergence”, a term borrowed from the disciplines of developmental biology, physical chemistry, and mathematics, refers to the emergence of forms and behaviors from self-organizing complex systems in the natural world. In biological systems self-organization is defined as a process in which patterns at the global level of a system emerge as a result of interactions among the lower-level entities of the system. These processes develop through the localized interactions of discrete elements that can be simulated through mathematical models and computational environments. As a parallel, these same models can be utilized to explore generative design and evolutionary processes for the discovery of both form and structure. In computational systems interactions between components can be defined as localized rule sets which drive the global organization of the system. Complexity increases when integration and differentiation increase (Hensel, Menges, and Weinstock, 2006). By integrating the self-organizing material performance of form-finding with the logics of advanced file-to-factory fabrication protocols, morphogenetic architecture understands buildings as the formalized and structured results of complex performative systems of material and energy.

A fundamental characteristic of self-organizing systems in nature is their inherent ability to evolve, adjust, or respond to stimuli in their environment. In morphogenetic design, this is achieved through the development of a dynamic geometric model that is able to adapt and respond through associative relationships to the distribution of structural forces both internally within the system and externally within its environment. This can be seen in processes of form-finding. Common form-finding methods deploy the self-organization of material systems exposed to physics to achieve the simultaneous optimization and expression of performative capacity. These systems often display emergent properties or behaviors that arise out of the coherent interaction between lower-level entities, and the aim is to utilize and instrumentalize behavior as a response to stimuli towards performance-oriented designs.

This understanding might best be illustrated by the seminal soap film studies of Frei Otto, where he illustrates evidence of the material system’s capacity to compute its own form through the self-organizing behavior of its material condition. The material system itself discovers the minimal surface of equal force distribution that is generated through the surface tension of a given boundary. The protagonists in this system are the soap film and its boundary condition, each working in constant feedback with the other to find the moment of structural equilibrium that results in the emergent form.

The Pure Tension Pavilion (Figure 3.1) applies this sensibility. This portable, solar-powered tensile membrane structure is designed to not only charge electric vehicles, but to also collapse to fit within their trunks and to assemble in less than one hour. Similar to a concept car, it is a working prototype that explores a future of personal mobility and alternative energy sources, while also investigating digital design methods and innovative structural solutions.

The Pure Tension Pavilion for Volvo by Synthesis Design +

Figure 3.1   The Pure Tension Pavilion for Volvo by Synthesis Design + Architecture.

Photo by Mosca Partners

The pavilion is an expression of the tensioned equilibrium between its elastic membrane skin and rigid perimeter frame. Its perimeter structure is framed by 24 Computer Numerical Controlled-bent (CNC-bent) aluminum pipes with swaged slip-fit connections. This frame is wrapped in vinyl-encapsulated polyester mesh membranes with a zippered seam and spandex sleeves. The continuous form of the pavilion was developed through a parallel process of analogue form-finding (through physical models) and digital form-finding (through dynamic mesh-relaxation techniques) to explore the assumed material behaviors of a tensioned membrane skin against a bending-active frame. This relationship between unique form and form-found material enables efficient and effective structural performance, produced as an extension of Frei Otto’s seminal lightweight tensioned membrane structures. In both cases, the process facilitated the application of basic engineering principles and material properties to inform and develop an intuitive design process that iteratively generates, tests, and refines design options. Rather than using these tools to develop a scientific method to find form, they were used to help develop a design intuition to help guide the discovery of form that aligns with design intentions.

This pairing of form and performance can also be understood in the work of Matsys Design at Confluence Park (Figure 3.2). Located along the Mission Reach section of the San Antonio River, Colorado, Confluence Park is an educational park that focuses on the critical role of water in regional ecosystems. Designed by Matsys in collaboration with Lake|Flato Architects, Rialto Studio, and Architectural Engineering Collaborative, the park spans 3.5 acres of native planting, and hosts a 2,000 square foot multi-purpose building, a 6,000 square foot central pavilion, and three smaller “satellite” pavilions distributed throughout the park. The central pavilion is composed of 22 concrete “petals” that form a network of vaults, providing shade and guiding the flow of rainwater into an underground cistern used for the park’s irrigation. Inspiring the design of the pavilion are the many plants in the region that harness the structural efficiency of curved surfaces to direct rainwater to their root systems. Each petal was cast in digitally fabricated fiberglass composite molds on site using a modified tilt-up construction technique, then lifted into place in pairs to form structural arches. The pavilion is an example of form, fabrication, and performance integrating.

Confluence Park by Matsys Design.

Figure 3.2   Confluence Park by Matsys Design.

Photo by Casey Dunn

The central pavilion aims to create an inspirational and aspirational space that helps the client educate the public on the topic of water conservation. Using the biomimetic principle of looking towards nature for inspiration, the pavilion geometry is modeled after the doubly curved fronts of some plants, which cantilever out, collect rainwater and dew, and redirect the water towards its roots. A modular system of concrete “petals” was developed that collected rainwater and funneled it to the petals’ columnar bases and then on to a central underground cistern.

A central concern in developing the petals was to ensure that they were modular yet seemingly non-repetitive. In order to resolve this tension between cost-effective modularity and the desire for spatial richness, the design employs the Cairo tile, an irregular pentagon, as the underlying base grid. The pentagon is subdivided into five triangles to produce three unique modules: one equilateral triangle and two asymmetrical triangles that mirror each other. From this irregular triangular base grid, a parametric model was used to create the three-dimensional solids of each petal. Structurally, each petal is half of an arch which transitions from being a 16-inches-thick column and tapers to a four-inches-deep curved roof. The double curvature of each petal helps it achieve structural rigidity. Two structural pin joints connect each petal to its paired half-arch. The petals’ capacity to shed water in the proper direction was tested using particle simulation, a technique in water flow analysis.

Morphogenetic Form and Digital Tectonics

The term “tectonics” is widely understood within the discipline of architecture in reference to the design expression of architectural parts (building components) that collectively form the whole of the building. However, within the paradigm of morphogenetic design, one might extend that definition to also include the relationship between the design of architectural parts and the expression of their structural performance. Digital Morphogenesis provides a platform for understanding form, material, and structure as symbiotic relationships that can drive a form-generation process. As a result, digital tectonics are the expression of architectural elements, structural performance, and geometric relationships that are enabled by the digital modeling and behavioral simulation of tectonic elements (Oxman, 2010).

This paradigm shift can be illustrated in the work of TheVeryMany, a boutique design studio operating at the intersection of architecture and public art. In particular, this understanding is expressed in their unique approach to generating, articulating, and building performative form as “structural stripes”. This term was invented by the studio to describe a computationally enabled “topological-walking stripe-based material system”, where thousands of unique parts collectively describe a form that is defined by its structural performance. Each of the parts is digitally fabricated from flat sheets of aluminum and fastened to its neighbors, collectively achieving the double curvature that is necessitated for funicular form and constructing the digitally generated form into a physical reality.

Minima/Maxima is a permanent installation designed by TheVeryMany for the World Expo 2017 in Astana, Kazakhstan (Figure 3.3). The project achieves its unique form and structural performance through ultra-thin (6 mm), self-supporting assemblies, which find strength in the double curvature of their form. In this approach, curves win out over angles. Columns and beams become irrelevant and are replaced with branches, splits, and recombinations of double-curved surface conditions. A “networked” surface rolls in, on and around itself, transforming into a space that upends preconceived notions of enclosure, entrance/exit, and threshold, while also providing its own support. It bends in all directions, but still manages to stand upright on its own. The project is a multi-layered composite of three layers of flat aluminum strips collectively bending in multiple directions. In isolation, each layer is unable to achieve the required double curvature or structural integrity. However, collectively as a network of layers working in multiple directions, the network of isotropic material forms an anistropic composite assembly.

Minima/Maxima for the World Expo 2017 by TheVeryMany/Marc

Figure 3.3   Minima/Maxima for the World Expo 2017 by TheVeryMany/Marc Fornes.

Photo by NAARO

Polymorphism and Patterns: Adaptive Differentiation and Data

Polymorphism is the state of being made of many different elements, forms, kinds, or individuals. It is an understanding of form, materials, and structure as complex interrelations in polymorphic systems that result from the response to extrinsic influences and are materialized by deploying the logics of advanced manufacturing processes as strategic constraints upon the design process.

Patterns have always been a part of the reading of architectural surfaces and the articulation of architectural form. From the decorative patterns of gothic architecture to the articulated joints of modernism, Patrik Schumacher covers the history of patterns as both decoration and ornamentation, and proposes that parametric articulation is an opportunity to consider the pattern as device for communicating social order and spatial orientation (Schumacher, 2009). We can also consider the pattern as a communicative architectural device—but one that leverages the potentials of associative geometry to generate variable fields which can not only produce visual engagement (optical effect) but can also register latent information (embedded data).

Patterns are an inherent feature of morphogenetic forms that have performative roles in a performative architecture. In the natural world, the language of both pattern and form is mathematics, yet the distribution of pattern is rarely (if ever) uniform. Patterns (as with behaviors and forms) are seen as the result of simple local interactions that produce complex global results. The localized interactions are responses to performative stimuli. As a result, patterning in morphogenetic forms can be identified as adaptive design features that are responding to performative data sets.

This understanding of performative patterning is applied in Data Moiré (Figure 3.4), a large-scale data-driven feature wall that merges the territories of data spatialization (Marcus, 2014) and data narrative (Segel, 2010). It uses the cognitive computing capabilities of IBM Watson to inform a data-driven generative design process to transform vast quantities of data into a spatial experience and marketing narrative for the IBM Watson Experience Center in San Francisco, California. The result is a digitally fabricated physical installation that represents monthly spending cycles by mapping the growing influence of mobile devices on all digital sales from 2013–2015. The data is materialized as a CNC-milled, double-layered aluminum, backlit screen wall of the Watson immersion room. It achieves a moiré-like effect—a visual interference pattern produced by the overlay of two mappings of the same data.

The Data Moiré installation for IBM Watson by Synthesis Design +

Figure 3.4   The Data Moiré installation for IBM Watson by Synthesis Design + Architecture.

Photo by Jeff Maeshiro

The project introduces a dynamic architectural feature that provides identity and enhances the visual and spatial experience of visitors to the Watson Experience Center, while simultaneously providing a spatial marketing narrative which emphasizes Watson’s ability to analyze large quantities of unstructured data. Data Moiré takes advantage of two computational paradigms: the capacity of cognitive computing and machine learning to analyze and provide insight into massive amounts of unstructured data, and the ability of generative design processes to drive geometries that are informed by data. However, the analysis and the geometries by themselves do not produce the impact of the project, but rather their combined capacity produces a meaningful reading and provides a visually stimulating experience.

Another example of the articulation of variability and difference is also found in the work of TheVeryMany (Figure 3.5) and their efforts to explore the concept of “coloration” as opposed to “color”. Computation and procedural protocols of tessellation have opened up a new paradigm for color. “Coloration” is defined by the studio as the procedural art of applying multiple colors across sets of parts.

Vaulted Willow by TheVeryMany/Marc Fornes.

Figure 3.5   Vaulted Willow by TheVeryMany/Marc Fornes.

Photo by Marc Fornes/TheVeryMany

The possibility for coloration lies in the distinction of “fuzzy” color vs. “stepped” color. The former is a smooth and continuous gradient (like an airbrushed painting), while the latter (like a low-resolution eight-bit graphic) capitalizes on part-to-part relationships. With a kit of parts that is variably coded through a chromatic spectrum, the method of coloration enables a continuous skin made of multiple components to engage in games of rhythm, contrast, and variability.

Material Systems and Digital Craft

We are now in an era where digital fabrication processes have become pervasive—laser cutting and CNC cutting have become the norm, and 3D printing is near ubiquitous. Their uses have become commonplace, but more often than not, this prevalence has led to a widespread overuse and a lack of a priori consideration of the constraints and opportunities presented by each machinic process or material behavior. Alternatively, a material-based design process utilizes computation to integrate the logic of fabrication technologies with structure, material, and form (Oxman, 2012). With a material-based design process, the capabilities and limitations of both matter and fabrication become latent design opportunities which can drive the design process.

This reversal of both fabrication and material as design catalysts is evident in two projects: the Durotaxis Chair (Figure 3.6), a half-scale prototype of a fully 3D-printed multi-material rocking chair, and the 3D-printed Burbuja Lamp. Designing a 3D print, as opposed to 3D printing a design, was the fundamental challenge posed in both projects. Our goal was to produce structures which could not be manufactured by any other process. By prioritizing this fabrication method and materiality as the generative design constraints to inform geometry, both projects were experiments in 3D-printed three-dimensional space-packing structures that have been designed specifically for these machines and materials which they are manufactured by and with. They have each been pre-calibrated to capitalize on specific design opportunities that are derived from the capabilities and constraints of additive manufacturing.

The fully 3D-printed Durotaxis Chair by Synthesis Design +

Figure 3.6   The fully 3D-printed Durotaxis Chair by Synthesis Design + Architecture

Photo by Impstepf Studio

In this capacity, both projects are experiments in structuring—defined as the process whereby the elements of architecture develop a unique logic of parts-to-whole relationships where the static pattern of structural order (tessellations, configurations, etc.) can be mediated into a system of both generative and differentiated potential (Oxman, 2010). As a material-based design strategy, these projects operate within the contingencies of design research where the model is the goal. As explorations of structuring, they can be viewed as scaled representations for larger architectural objectives.

Another project that explores the notion of a material system is Lumen, the temporary pavilion designed for PS1 in New York by Jenny Sabin Studio (Figures 3.7A and 3.7B). Suspended in tension within the matrix of walls of the PS1 museum courtyard, Lumen applies concepts and understandings from biology, materials science, mathematics, and engineering to suspend over 1,000,000 yards of robotically woven and digitally knitted fiber in the form of two large cellular canopies with 250 hanging tubular structures. Knitting and textile fabrication offer a fruitful material ground for exploring these nonstandard fibrous potentials. As with cell networks, materials find their own form where the flow of tension forces through both geometry and matter serve as active design parameters.

Lumen for the Museum of Modern Art and MOMA PS1 by Jenny Sabin

Figure 3.7A   Lumen for the Museum of Modern Art and MOMA PS1 by Jenny Sabin Studio.

Photo by Pablo Enriquez
Lumen for the Museum of Modern Art and MOMA PS1 by Jenny Sabin

Figure 3.7B   Lumen for the Museum of Modern Art and MOMA PS1 by Jenny Sabin Studio.

Photo by Pablo Enriquez

The structures create opportunities for visitors to interact with the work. The design incorporates 100 robotically woven recycled spool stools and a misting system that responds to visitors’ proximity to produce a refreshing micro-climate. Socially and environmentally responsive, Lumen’s adaptive architecture is inspired by collective levity, play, and interaction as the structure transforms throughout the day and night, responding to the density of bodies, heat, and sunlight. The result of collaboration across disciplines, Lumen integrates high-performing, form-fitting, and adaptive materials into a structure where code, pattern, human interaction, environment, geometry, and matter operate together.

Material responses to sunlight as well as physical participation are integral parts of our exploratory approach to new materials, embodiment, and a transformative, adaptive architecture. The project is mathematically generated through form-finding simulations informed by the sun, site, materials, and program, and the structural morphology of knitted cellular components. Resisting a biomimetic approach, Lumen employs an analogic design process where complex material behavior and processes are integrated with personal engagement and diverse programs. Through direct references to the flexibility and sensitivity of the human body, Lumen integrates adaptive materials and architecture as a conceptual design space. Lumen undertakes rigorous interdisciplinary experimentation to produce a multisensory environment that is full of delight, inspiring collective levity, play, and interaction as the structure and materials transform throughout the day and night.

Performativity Expanded

By now, it is clear that at the root of morphogenetic practice is the notion of performativity. Performative architecture, in this essay, is understood to be an architecture of self-organization, with a capacity for systemic adaptation, and perhaps most importantly a multiplicity of performative capacities. Menges uses the term “performative” to define the quality of material systems that perform through adaptation, variation, and self-organization in response to external forces (Hensel, Menges, and Weinstock, 2012).

Whereas the origins of morphogenetic practice are clearly in the academy—from the work of Weinstock, Hensel, and Menges in the Emergence and Design Group at the Architectural Association, to the work of John and Julia Frazer in Diploma Unit 11 at the Architectural Association, to the work of Greg Lynn Form—they have since evolved beyond the academy and infiltrated the practice of architecture to define a realm of performative architecture.

Illustrated in this chapter is the work of four independent boutique design firms that are incorporating these strategies as a form of applied design research through the medium of commissioned projects. However, the scope of this influence is far greater than these four firms. From corporate design firms with specialist teams to boutique consultancies, a new form of design practice focused on the application of performance-centric design research has emerged. This form of practice has evolved from its roots in morphogenetic design research and is ultimately defined by the overlap between the experiments of exploratory architectural design research and the conventions of traditional design practice.

In the innovation-driven society we currently occupy, these practices are leveraging the power of computation against the inspirations of nature to forge a path towards design that is both innovative and performative in multiple capacities. By embracing a position of “form follows performance”, these firms seek to both capitalize on the potential of form to shape and engage the world around us while simultaneously expanding the definition of performance beyond the scientific to include the experiential, fiscal, social, and cultural.


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