Francine Houben: culture and nature in landscape design

Designers love to build prototypes. So do architects. Let’s imagine the farmer to be one of such prototypes. “He prospers only insofar as he understands the land and by its management maintains the bounty. So too with the man who builds. If an architect is perceptive to the processes of nature, to materials, and to forms, his creations will be appropriate to the place; they will satisfy the needs of social process and shelter, be expressive and endure.”

Vincenzo and I went to a lovely lecture by Francine Houben, an architect who loves and builds for people. The lecture series, organized by Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism and held at spacious National Gallery of Canada Auditorium, feature such prominent architects as Edouard Francois – the author of Flower Tower; Gregory Burgess – the proponent of architecture as a social, healing, and ecological art; and other inspiring urban innovators.

The Forum Lecture Series kicked off with an inspirational quote by Wim Wenders “If Buildings Could Talk … ”

… some of them would sound like Shakespeare.
Others would speak like the Financial Times,
yet others would praise God, or Allah.
Some would just whisper,
some would loudly sing their own praises,
while others would modestly mumble a few words
and really have nothing to say.
Some are plain dead and don’t speak anymore…

Buildings are like people, in fact.
Old and young, male and female,
ugly and beautiful, fat and skinny,
ambitious and lazy, rich and poor,
clinging to the past
or reaching out to the future.

Don’t get me wrong: this is not a metaphor.
Buildings DO speak to us!
They have messages. Of course.
Some really WANT a constant dialogue with us.
Some rather listen carefully first.
And you have probably noticed:
Some of them like us a lot, some less
and some not at all.

What a perfect introduction to Miss Houben’s lecture about buildings “that are eager to welcome, to help, to be of service”.  The famous Library of Delft University of Technology has brought Francine an international recognition in 1998.  Her reasons for undertaking the project seemed to revolve around the issue of public spaces and natural settings that would welcome people to walk, feed on sunlight, and enjoy the company of each other.

TU Delft Library


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RuBisCo, Doom, Google Chrome: Unlikely connections?

I have a tendency to use my bed as a great place for lengthy lights-out conversations, especially when it is 39°C outside, and the only effective way to fall asleep is by sprawling on a window ledge in a precarious position. And I’m glad nights like these exist. I’m also glad I have a husband, who continuously stimulates my mind and questions my ramblings.

A while back, I wrote a post about how optimize rather than maximize strategy in nature should be an essential part of Life’s Principles Circle. However, after reading Tim McGee’s thoughts on Resilience vs. Efficiency, my train of thought slightly modified its path and headed toward the crossroads.

Form follows function is one of those elegant phrases, which fell victim to overuse by designers and engineers. Optimize rather than maximize is also not as straightforward of a phrase as I thought at first. Seems, elegant phrases always have a danger of being misinterpreted for the lack of appropriate context.

Tim gave an excellent example of the importance of context in nature:

The most plentiful protein on earth RuBisCo, is not overly ‘efficient’ at capturing CO2, but does an effective job given the context. In fact some genetic engineers are trying to figure out how to increase the efficiency of RuBisCo, and I wonder if as a result it would lower the resilience of the photosynthetic system as whole?

So, RuBisCo is:

  1. The most abundant protein on earth (40-60% of plant leaf protein content)
  2. The only link between inorganic and organic carbon (turns over more than trillion tons of carbon dioxide each year)
  3. One of the most painfully slowest enzymes known

Does that mean, that if genetic engineers find a way to speed up RuBisCo, they may find a way to increase plant production? Eradicate famine?

Now, here’s a question that I would like to ask:

Why is it, that nature – over millions of years of intensive selection process – failed to increase the rate of carbon fixation to improve efficiency? Did it just find an answer at random through mutation – and that answer may be far from the best possible – but the mutations required to find better solutions were so unlikely, so out of range, that it got stuck optimizing RuBisCo rather then finding a more efficient solution?

Also, if genetic engineers truly wish to improve the rate of plant production, doesn’t it make sense to look for a completely separate solution? The chances of RuBisCo being improved are very slim – nature was all R&D about it over a much greater period of time.

This is where the conversation with my husband comes in

Myk is a game programmer, interested in memory allocation and optimization in games. He basically wants games to run faster, so you don’t have to be subjected to a sight of patchy Elf Paladin (while he is busy loading himself), when all you want is to get a new quest and be on your way.

The conversation I had with him at 2 a.m. was about the difference between memory allocation in offline games – where the environment is extremely predictable and static – and memory allocation in internet browsers  – where the environment is unpredictable and dynamic. Think, scripted scenario in Doom vs. what-the-hell-did-i-click-to-end-up-here scenario on internet.

I thought it was a perfect example of optimization vs. resilience in the world of computer science. Web browsers employ a much slower, dispersed (but much less vulnerable to disruption) memory allocation algorithms, whereas game designers always strive for a much more compact, efficient solution, which also is more prone to disruption.

Unlikely comparison? Not so much, when it comes to optimization algorithms. In Doom, you are pretty much predetermined to end up in the web of this adorable brainy spider. In contrast, you really never know where you'll end up in the forest of google interwebs. Funny, how today I started reading an article about tar sands of Alberta and ended up reading about William Windsor the Royal Goat and his daily diet. If you're interested in connection, it went like this: Tar sands – Tar percentage in cigarrettes – Daily acceptable amount of tar in human diet – Royal goat and his ration of two cigarettes per day, which he eats.

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Life’s Principles: Optimization vs. Resource Efficiency

Just returned from Biomimicry Education Summit in Cleveland, Ohio with a brand new treasure chest of inspiration and knowledge – ripe for exploration. Humbling connections, heartening speakers, challenging discussions.

I’m glad there was an activity with a Life’s Principles Circle, which turned out to be not a circle at all, but a linear pattern of nature’s strategies (Jawa, you would appreciate!):

Participants self-organized in four groups and arranged strategies into the most appropriate groups. Some new and modified ones emerged out of discussions.

I’m also glad this exercise took place, as many interesting debates were put on a table from representatives of many disciplines. There were some interesting discussions around the word “shape”, and what this term means in different professions. A debate around the term “recycle” was an expected one. Yes, nature truly recycles, but do we? Can we equate our understanding of “recycling”  to its phenomenon in “nature”?

I was particularly interested in the Be resource efficient  on 2011 version of Life’s Principles vs. Optimize rather than maximize on the old 2009 version, which I would like to discuss.

Top: Life's Principles version 2011 and Bottom: Life's Principles version 2009. Diagrams: Biomimicry Guild/Group

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