Looking back at the recent past…

Structure in Nature: Reflections on my Book Twenty-Eight Years Later

Submitted by admin on Wed, 2006-04-26 16:05.

by Peter Jon Pearce, Architect and author of Structure in Nature is a Strategy for Design

My book, Structure in Nature is a Strategy for Design, was published by The MIT Press in 1978. This book was based upon work that I undertook in 1965, supported by a fellowship from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies. The title of my original proposal to the Foundation was, Structurally Autonomous Geometrically Adaptable Cellular Systems.

It was an effort to forge a theoretical basis for the design of high-performance building system using Nature as a model. My interest at that time, as it still is today, was the design of adaptive energy efficient buildings.

In those early years the most dominant influences on my work, from the field of design, were Charles Eames, Konrad Wachsmann, and Buckminster Fuller. With respect to Fuller’s influence I was particularly interested in his building experiments and their relationship to his “Energetic Synergetic Geometry.” As I became more familiar with this work in the early 1960’s, I could not help but wonder what the next step might be beyond the Geodesic Dome and other of Fuller’s building design efforts. Of course, this was relative to my search for a more expansive and rational view of architectural and building possibilities. This search was directed towards a concept of high-performance design that I had been harboring for years.

I undertook to develop an understanding of spatial geometry and its structural implications beyond what Fuller had presented in his “Energetic Synergetic Geometry”. As I became more informed in the area of spatial geometry, Fuller’s approach seemed to be more of a philosophical treatment than an exhaustive examination of spatial geometries. That is not to diminish the significance of Fuller’s work in this area, I just thought of it as a starting point – an important precedent – but not an end game.

In the process of this pursuit I was able to develop the theoretical underpinnings for my later work in structural design, manufacturing, and construction. This work, along with other building systems developments resulted in over 80 architectural projects completed over a 15-year period from 1980 to 1995. Perhaps the most well known of these projects is the Biosphere 2 project in Arizona.

The research that I had undertaken with the Graham fellowship also gave rise to some original geometric and morphological developments. These developments, which are reported in my book, include the invention of the saddle polyhedra based upon minimal surfaces (later investigated by others) and some discoveries concerning optimized cell shapes in naturally occurring structures found in the morphology of plant and animal cells. On this latter subject, scientists have independently discovered similar phenomena in the late 1990’s that I had reported in my book from work I had done nearly 30 years earlier.

An interesting aspect of the subject of morphology, which I would define as the systematic study of form, is that it is a subject that is not linked to particular time frames. The geometric content of morphology is so fundamental that it is not subject to “new” scientific discoveries such that the obsolescence of principles is an issue. As an example, the topic of cell shapes in plants and animals, which is still an active area of investigation, references work back to the 19th century. The work of Lord Kelvin (AKA Sir William Thompson) is still a prime reference on the subject of optimum cell shapes. Of course, the study of polyhedra goes back to Plato, and even earlier.

The unexpected result of the publication of my book is that I have received much more acknowledgement and citations from the scientific community than from the design/architecture community. Indeed, other than a few book reviews in design magazines there has been virtually no discernable interest from the design/architecture community. This is particularly perplexing, even troubling, to the extent the fundamental content of the book was driven by design intentions, not scientific discoveries and insights.

This suggests that from the point of view of book sales, or perhaps even the validation of my work in morphology, that it might have been better if the book had been directed towards a broad scientific audience (and marketed by The MIT Press accordingly). After all, the book is essentially about morphology as a cross-disciplinary endeavor. Back in the 1960’s, I did participate in a few scientific conferences concerned with morphology and crystallography. Although I might have pursued the purely scientific aspects of this work, I saw this as an important opportunity for the advancement of building construction directed towards high-performance results.

I worked for many years, working with architects, building many architectural enclosures with advanced technology through the aegis of my company, Pearce Structures, Inc. Although there were “moments of glory” along the way, and certainly an amazingly useful “learning curve”, in the end I was not able to get beyond the fundamental conservatism that dominates protocol, methodologies, and the limited design visions that constrain the design of buildings in our culture. There was a disheartening lack of interest in high-performance design – with what is now loosely referred to as sustainability. And this is still true, with some notable exceptions (mostly European). Certainly many of the most iconic architects of our day continue to exhibit little interest in design for sustainability.

My design strategy has been driven by a restless quest to discover and understand first principles. In any given problem-solving effort, what are the underlying and immutable principles, independent of cultural bias, that truly govern optimum design possibilities. My book, Structure in Nature is a Strategy for Design, is about this effort to discover and understand first principles. It is a strategy that continues to guide my design efforts today.

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