The Architecture of Life: Homeostasis, Tensegrity and the Physiology of Home

The Architecture of Life - Christopher K. Travis

Sunday, April 6, 2008

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.