The Architecture of Life: April 2008

The Architecture of Life - Christopher K. Travis

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Build a Dome for Bucky's Birthday!

Okay geodesic dome design aficionados. Here's your chance!

I got an e-mail today from the C. J. Fearnley, Executive Director of the Synergetics Collaborative, which is a non-profit dedicated to bringing together people interested in Buckminster Fuller's Synergetics.

At their 6th annual conference this summer, July 11-14 at SUNY in Oswego, New York, they are inviting designers to design a shelter that must include a geodesic dome for a family of your choosing and submit it.

Here is a poster with the entry requirements, and here is the information about the workshop. If your design wins, you can attend the four day workshop free!

Either way, check it out. A lot of big "Bucky" people will be there, so a great chance to learn more about his work and the ideas that have sprung from it.

Homeostasis, Tensegrity and the Physiology of Home

In architecture, which is an applied practice, there is little discussion of universal mechanisms.

Particularly in academic architecture, the issue has been settled for the most part - with only fringe voices like mine complaining around the edges.

Philip Johnson said "architecture should be art," and it is so. A previous paradigm from my view had more power and applicability. It was "form follows function," and all of my work is directed towards understand how the form of a built environment can follow the functionality of human beings and their day to day lives.

By this I mean not "human beings" collectively, but individuals and the small social groups with common interests who actually share a single living or working space.

In my work with clients, I have indeed found many commonalities in terms of how people relate to their most intimate environment - the home. But I have also discovered that each person's genetic and developmental experience - and how that effects their "experience of home - is unique.

There are still plenty of designers and academics that give credibility to Louis Sullivan's first principle of "form follows function" but once the modern movement emerged, it was largely been left in the dust.

The quest I am involved in, and have been involved in for many years, is a simple one in concept...but incredibly complex in practice, simply because human beings are so complex.

You cannot design a package if you do not understand the nature of its contents.

So I am very interested in what might be called "universal mechanisms" in systems, because that is what a human being is - an interdependent complex adaptive system. That is also what human systems of relationship - a family, a neighborhood, a city - are at the core.

These types of systems - which exist at all levels of life - have what are called "emergent properties," which means they exhibit behavior that cannot be predicted from the parts. In other words, the whole is bigger than the sum of the parts.

And many people smarter than me are interested in such systems and have been for a long time. I am particularly interested in general biological principles that might apply to our bodies - because it seems to me the cells that are our building blocks - and the mechanisms that explain the behavior of how a cell works and therefore how it cooperates with other cells to form a collective organism - are the arena most likely to bear fruit.

After all, a home is - at least metaphorically - a lot like a cell membrane. It keeps toxins out and allows nutrients into our safest place. It is the place most of us see as the center of our family's existence.

Isn't it interesting we call the basic reproductive unit of society a "nuclear" family? Enough said.

Other people relate in similar ways to their offices. So for a long time I have been interested in mechanisms at the level of the cell and how those mechanisms might have a parallel in how we relate to our homes.

I have posted before about the process of homeostasis, which I believe to be one of these
mechanisms. Homeostasis is the property of either an open system or a closed system, especially a living organism, that regulates its internal environment so as to maintain a stable, constant condition. I have talked about a physiologist named J. Scott Turner, whose work with animal built structures greatly influenced my own. He has written a great book on this subject called The Tinkerer's Accomplice: How Design Emerges from Life Itself.

Think the thermostat in your home. It maintains the homeostasis within your home in terms of temperature. If you think about it you can see that you also have mechanisms in you behavior that allow you to maintain your own psychological and emotional "homeostasis" and the social "homeostasis" within the relationships you have with those who share your living space.

Recently, I have run upon another mechanism I find interesting. A concept called Tensegrity.

Fuller's geodesic domes exhibit this property in their structural integrity, but then so do cells. Both are mechanically stable because of how their structure distributes and balances mechanical stresses.

It was first explored in architecture by sculpture Kenneth Snelson. Snelson's "Needle Tower is shown in the image towards the top of this post.

It does not take a lot of imagination to see how this concept my relate to personal relationships. I experience a lot of tensegrity in my relationship with my wife and children. Our relationships are constantly in states of "tension or compression."

So is my head. How about yours?

In 1998, a Harvard professor named Donald E. Ingber wrote a landmark article for for Scientific American with the same name as this blog - The Architecture of Life - that expounds on this property. I didn't come up with the name of this blog from that article, but I might well have it I had been familiar with it before I started blogging.

The article is definitely worth reading, but here is an except that talks about how general this principle is in the human body. I would invite readers of this blog to consider how this same mechanism might apply to their internal psychological experience and to their experience of their relationships.

"What does tensegrity have to do with the human body?

"The principles of tensegrity apply at essentially every detectable size scale in the body. At the macroscopic level, the 206 bones that constitute our skeleton are pulled up against the force of gravity and stabilized in a vertical form by the pull of tensile muscles, tendons and ligaments.

"In other words, in the complex tensegrity structure inside every one of us, bones are the compression struts, and muscles, tendons and ligaments are the tension-bearing members. At the other end of the scale, proteins and other key molecules in the body also stabilize themselves through the principles of tensegrity.

"My own interest lies in between these two extremes, at the cellular level."

And my interest is in how tensegrity and homeostasis might exhibit themselves in our relationship with our most intimate environment, the home.

And in our relationships with those who share that "cell membrane" with us.

Food for thought.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Anthropology, Design and the Big Picture

I have recently been asked to participate on a panel that will be presenting before the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association next November.

I came by this honor as the result of an invitation from Dr. Elizabeth Tunstall of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Dr. Tunstall, known as "Dori" to those she works with, has a background in both anthropology and design.

Her blog is here if you want to learn more about design anthropology.

Dori's panel at the AAA meeting is exploring a subject she technically calls "Trans-disciplinary theory and praxis" of design. In plain language, that means our panel - which includes both academics and "real world" practitioners like me - will be exploring how a multi-disciplinary approach might uncover practical ways to inform the design of products, and in my case, of buildings.

If you are a reader of the posts on this blog, you will know I am way into that conversation.

The panel includes a NASA anthropologist (did you know those existed), a business consultant, an innovative designer, a socio-cultural anthropologist and a guy who runs an architecture firm and an Internet startup (me), so there will be a variety of perspectives presented.

The framework for the discussion about design theory - set up for us by Dori - follows Alan Barnard's QAME format. (See History and Theory in Anthropology)

Barnard defines theory as made up for four elements: questions, assumption, methods and evidence. (QAME)

I expect to learn a lot. Every day it seems I find this conversation about how design and human factors are being explored in new ways in another discipline. For someone like me who runs a Google Alert search on keywords related to this subject daily - and has for almost 18 months - it is clear to me there is a very large trend in this direction not only in academia, but in business.

It only makes sense that it would be a major focus in anthropology, given the perspective of ethnology, but until the last couple of months, I honestly had no idea.

I am sure this will cause me to brush up on my anthropology. It has been a long time since those two anthropology courses I had in college, and for the most part my attention as a freshman was on beer, ping pong and poker...which perhaps explains my misbegotten academic past.

Here's the abstract for my small portion of that discussion.

Truehome - A Transdisciplinary Approach
to Designing Homes as Fitting Eco-systems


The eco-system humans call “home” is the most endemic environmental niche created by large organisms on the planet. Yet in academic architecture and the many academic disciplines that study behavior and environment - it is sadly neglected.

Consequences of this are:

Home improvement consistently tops all industry sectors in the U.S. as a source of consumer complaints. Architectural services remain beyond the means of a majority of the population, yet there is high demand for habitats that fit consumer needs, values and sensibilities. Correlations between ill-adapted living space, increased stressors, and health effects have been well established, but research in health care and corporate environments is seldom applied to the fragmented housing industry.

Design criteria self-reported by clients are notoriously inaccurate. To solve this problem, the presenter went on a decade long multi-disciplinary quest through fields as diverse as environmental and clinical psychology, human factors, physiology, neuroscience, ecology, personality research and evolutionary theory to find answers.

The result was a workshop with a “systems” approach to creating home environments that fit inhabitants. Results of anecdotal research in the field - and an emerging theory - will be discussed using the Barnard's QAME framework. Client case studies and images of projects designed will be displayed.

The process is currently being adapted to web-based software that combines surveying tools, a value-based recursive database, and high level analytics. The challenges of such an approach in an online medium – and how they are being faced – will also be discussed.