Biophilia and biomimicry


Deep in the trenches of architecture, classicists and modernists are battling for the right to don the mantle of science. If you google “architecture biophilia” you will see a lot of stuff – including buildings – covered with greenery. That’s a form of biophilia – literally donning trees or shrubs to appear natural, hence scientific. But in sussing out the truly natural in design, and the difference between how modernism and traditional architecture embrace natural processes in the design of buildings, Erik Evens posted an e-mail on the TradArch list in a discussion of this topic that brings clarity to the matter. Here is most of his short passage:

I think the nomenclature is really important in this arena.  I think that traditional architecture is “biophilic” (is that a word?) in a deep structural way, where the current avant-garde neo-modernism employs a shallow sort of biomimicry. In other words, I see a lot of the neo-modernist avant-garde adopting some of the aesthetics of biological form, in their curving parametric buildings  (Hadid, Gehry, etc.), or giving lip service to fractal geometry with surface tiling (Liebeskind, and others).  But none of the mimicry of the superficialities of biologic form is more than skin deep – it’s pure aesthetics divorced from any deeper conceptual basis.  

On the other hand,  it seems to me that the language of classical architecture aligns with nature on many levels of meaning … not just with aesthetics – i.e., engaging detail at a variety of scales, self-similarity, alignment with the human form, sophisticated proportional systems, allegorical and symbolic content with references to the natural world, etc.  

… I would call the neo-modernist work “biomimetic” and the traditional architectures “biophilic.”

I am working my way through a book by Nikos Salingaros, the mathematician and architectural theorist at the University of Texas, San Antonio. His work, as suggested within the thread of this topic on TradArch, may offer the most sustained thinking on this subject. I will soon be reviewing his Anti-Architecture and Deconstruction (2014).

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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2 Responses to Biophilia and biomimicry

  1. Clem Labine says:

    I, too, look forward to your review of Salingaros’ book. I have two of his volumes on my reference shelf. From what I have read to date, I find Salingaros one of the most original and profound writers about architecture I’ve encountered — mainly because he approaches the subject not from an ideological stance, but rather from his background in mathematics and social sciences. His “scientific” approach to architecture is a rational breath of fresh air compared to the archibabble that dominates so much architectural discourse.


  2. Erik Evens says:

    Looking forward to your review. The original edition of Nikos’ fine, fine book has been a profound influence on my point of view on architecture.


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