Pattern or Purity: Organized Chaos in Material Application

The bio-inspired studio I’m currently in is providing much food for thought in terms of materials in architecture. The more I learn, the more it is clear that nature has a plethora of material strategies that have not been or are under explored in terms of architectural approaches.  A presentation of the Korean pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo in tonight’s Material Strategies class provided the needed provocation for this post. In the design of the pavilion, architects Mass Studies created a facade full of texture and variation that operates on several scales. Made of a massive amalgamation of machined and painted aluminum panels, the facade has a character that seems in direct contradiction to much of the last one hundred years of architectural and societal focus on pristine, homogenous surfaces on our buildings. In fact, while entirely man made, the facade of the Korean pavilion begins to take on visual characteristics found in nature.

The characteristic, known as pattern diversity, is referred to as biological strategy by the Biomimicry Institute.1 A clear example of the strategy in nature can be seen in how leaves on a forest floor create aesthetically seamless surfaces through a sort of organized chaos2(also check out this info on the forest floor). While our building industry and home owners alike have spent countless amounts of research, money, and time trying to achieve standardization, and interchangeability of parts used to clad the inside and outside of buildings, nature has and continues to exhibit an alternate method. According to AskNature.org, “Standardization in carpet tile design and color made matching of replacement tiles with pre-existing carpet extremely difficult, resulting in greater waste as even tiles in good condition had to be replaced for aesthetic reasons. On the other hand, no matter how you rearrange the elements of a forest floor – the leaves, twigs, etc. – the forest floor still looks seamless and natural.”3 The potentials of applying this strategy in architecture are three-fold.  First, it opens the possibility to create beauty without the necessity of exacting and repetitive detailing that still often allows our eyes to pick out the small discrepancies. Second, it offers a strategy for replacing material of a surface on a localized level without the need to resurface the whole building.  Finally, the use of a multitude of non-uniform materials provides a strategy that may minimize waste by maximizing use of all material through a celebration of oddities and inconsistency’s.

In addition to the Korean Pavilion, two other projects, the British Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo by Heatherwick Studio and the Ningbo Museum by Wang Shu, are examples of pattern diversity. In the British Pavilion project, the architects worked with an astroturf company to create a highly textural surface made up of , partly spongy, and partly crunchy, that provided a seamless surface for visitors to relax on. While mainly uniform in color, the surface doesn’t rely on specificity of spacing of its tiny components for a successful outcome. The Ningbo Museum facade uses the materials from the village that was torn down on the site in order to build the museum. Ignoring potential political statements, the facade reuses a host of different and viable materials in order to create a visual effect that while not perfectly seamless, contains a strong textural quality and beauty.

Recent examples seem to suggest that the idea of pattern diversity as a strategy has the potential to become more prevalent in architecture. In regards to this, it is important that we make a distinction between where the success of the strategy lies, and seemingly similar strategies that are decidedly not employing the technique. It is important to note, that in all the discussed examples, none of the success of their facades relies on specificity of pieces, and in fact they would be able to use many different arrangements of the same pieces to create visually similar effects. While the process of digital fabrication may allow for time and cost effective production of facades that consist of many unique pieces used to create one seamless whole, this should not be considered pattern diversity. These systems require each unique piece to be placed in a specific location in order to obtain the desired effect. While both strategies are likely to become more widespread, the use of pattern diversity re-considers notions of control and precision and ultimately, their necessity in architecture.

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