Chemical Signaling as a Model for Digital Process in Architecture

Chris Chalmers will be presenting the following essay at ACADIA 2008. It is based on research done for the Master of Architecture program at California College of the Arts, San Francisco. download it here.

More background & supporting research can be found at Chris’ thesis blog site.


Vegetation is divided into natural sets in which diverse species reciprocally limit each other and in which, consequently, each contributes in the creation of an equilibrium for the others. The set of these plant species finally forms its own environment. In this way exchanges between plants and the atmosphere eventually create a sort of screen of water vapor around the plant zone which limits the effect of radiation, and the cause gives birth to the effect which checks it in turn, and so on.
The same views should be applied to the animal and man. However, the human reaction to the challenge of the environment happens to be diversified. Man can bring several solutions to a single problem posed by the environment. The environment proposes without ever imposing a solution. Certainly, the possibilities in a definite state of civilization and culture are not unlimited. But the fact that what at one time is seen as an obstacle may later prove to be a means of action is ultimately due to the idea, the representation that man forms – collectively, of course – of his possibilities and needs.

-Georges Canguilhem – The living being and its environment (milieu)

The role of the architect is quite literally one of assembly: synthesizing the various parts of a project into a cohesive whole. It is a difficult job, often requiring the architect to weave many seemingly contradictory concerns into a solution that benefits them all. It is not surprising then, that the many elegant and effective systems found in nature should be inspiring to the architect. Emerging fields like biomimicry and systems dynamics model the patterns of interaction between organisms and their environments in terms of dynamic part to part and part to whole relationships.Observations of real relationships between organisms and their environments, as they exist in nature, reveal complex feedback loops working across multiple scales. These feedback loops operate by the simultaneous action of two observed phenomena. The first is the classic phenotypic relationship seen when organisms of the same genetic makeup instantiate differently based upon differences in their environment. This is the relationship that was originally proposed by Charles Darwin in his theory of natural selection of 1859. Darwin’s model is unidirectional: the organism adapts to its environment, but not the other way around. It operates at the local scale as individual parts react to the conditions of the whole. (Canguilhem, 1952).The second phenomenon, which sees its effect at the global scale, is the individual’s role as consumer and producer in the flows of energy and material that surround it. It is the subtle and incremental influence of the organism upon its environment, the results of which are often invisible until they reach a catastrophic threshold , at which point all organisms in the system feel global changes.The research presented in this paper addresses the dialectic between organism and environment as each responds reciprocally to the others’ changing state. Such feedback loops act in a non-linear fashion, across nested scales in biological systems. They can be modeled to act that way in a digital design process as well. This research is an exploration into one such model and its application to architecture: the simple communication between organisms as they affect and are affected by their environments through the use of signal chemicals.

Scripted “Cell” Aggregation Within a Site Boundary

Exploded axon of prefab panel system

Scale models of laser-cut plywood panels and 3D printed rubber gaskets

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