People make Places: Valentina Rognoli and Barbara Cuerden

It has been almost a month since I returned to Ottawa from Europe. Yet, what inspired me to finally sit down and write about my experiences was a stapled copy of references from the book “Il Progetto della Natura” by Giuseppe Salvia, Valentina Rognoli, and Marinella Levi. Thus, it is only fair that I begin my story with Politecnico di Milano.

Roma to Milano

The blast of horn came from terminus 25 at about 5pm – a piercing, penetrating sound that flew out from The Eternal City of Rome and died mournfully in the field of poppies. That was the signal for the departure of the coach. I silently bid farewell to my wonderful cousin Ekaterina and her family – whom I have last seen in St. Petersburg, Russia twenty years ago – and shook hands with a spruce Italian businessman. He looked with distaste at the deep cyan of the Roman sky arching over poppy fields and began a typical “stranger on the train” conversation. Massimo was headed home, whereas my aim was to reunite with Valentina and see for myself a vast library of materials that she so diligently put together for the department of industrial design.

Valentina Rognoli

“Welcome home, welcome home!” – said Massimo in perfect English, as the train dashed past mansions and ironwork fences with wild vines.

“Here is my number, and you let me know what you think of Milano tomorrow.”

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Bionics ≠ Biomimetics ≠ Biomimicry

Did you know Otto H. Schmitt and Jack Steele both lived to be 84 years old?

They were very close to celebrating their 85th birthdays, but never got a chance to. They did, however, get a chance to become fathers of biologically inspired design movements and bring such terms as ‘bionics’ and ‘biomimetics’ into existence.

In fact, the term ‘bionics’ (biology + technics) describing the process of “copying, imitating, and learning from biology” was conceived by Jack Steele in as early as 1960 prior to the infamous Bionics Symposium.

United States Air Force, Wright Air Development Division 1961 (Kline 2009)

Steven Vogel in his book “Cats’ Paws and Catapults” defined bionics as being mostly concerned with systems design:

… [bionics] is based on living systems. The word ‘systems’ came naturally to those, mostly engineers, initially involved; neural systems and physiological controls formed biological parallels to human technology’s cybernetics and systems theory

Daniel Wahl  took  a radically  different approach to the evaluation  of the term, describing it from the perspective of ‘nature-culture relationships’ and indicating the deficiency of “salutogenic design  approach that increases human, societal, and ecological health synergistically”. One of the most interesting quotes by Wahl examines the place of ‘bionics’ within the biologically inspired design:

Unfortunately the focus [of bionic-centred conferences] was so exclusively on technological innovation that it almost actively tried to discourage ecological concerns and the issue of sustainability.

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Illustrated guide to biopolymers: structural elements of biological systems

This is my favourite leisure activity: pulling together information I find of natural materials, processes, systems and trying to understand them by using visual tools. Because, you know, as designers, we learn visually. Or so the urban legend goes. One of the most popular things I hear design students say is how complicated and out of reach they think biology is.

There is a common misconception that once you have chosen the path of designer, a path of science is closed for you once and for all.

I would love nothing more than to dispute this myth. Let’s start with materials.

  • Break the overwhelming list of natural polymers into manageable sections. Draw associations with these materials and their generalized properties.

Author: Alëna Konyk. General sources and properties of some natural polymers. Inspired by (Ratner, Hoffman, Schoen, & Lemons, 2004).

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1. Uncomfortable reading list: Biologically Inspired Design

You are probably wondering what I have been doing for the past four months. And I’d better be doing something productive, otherwise I have no excuse for relinquishing my mania for writing. Well, I’ve been reading. A lot. And designing. A lot. I will do another entry on the latter, because I can’t wait to share the former: all the books and articles I have found extremely useful in my biologically inspired design endeavours. Why, you ask?

Because there is such concept as comfort reading when you don’t want to read anything challenging or too full of ideas. Well, my list is the opposite of that. It’s the kind of literature that energizes, excites, makes you highly uncomfortable, causes you to down a bottle Nyquil at night just to fall asleep, and continuously generates opposing ideas in your mind. And you will never look at comfort reading again. If you’d like to give uncomfortable reading a try, proceed further.

As a side note, I am omitting my reviews of books by Janine Benyus, Joseph Bar-Cohen, Michael Braungart and William McDonough and would like to focus on the lesser known literature. Chances are, if you are reading this list, you are deep into biomimicry, biomimetics, and nature inspired design already.

Author: Alëna Konyk, 2010

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Open your mind to a world of complex challenges

Did I mention there is a Canadian Science Policy Conference happening in Ottawa right now? Did you know, hardly any designers ever attend such conferences? Opening night – and I happened on one lone industrial designer from Montreal. When I mentioned my affiliation with the trade, he just stared at me in admiration and I could almost see his eyeballs transform into heart shapes, like in cartoons.

Events like these are a perfect opportunity to connect science and technology into one big pile of innovation strategies. Where else would a designer find an access to information on not only the key challenges and opportunities, but also explore the role of science, technology and innovation that can help address them?

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Foraging in an unstable economy or why we have to move past the Occupation of Wall Street

Introduction

Foraging Theory states that animals search and obtain nutrients in a way that maximizes their energy intake E per unit time T spent foraging, producing an expression that looks something like this: E/T. Of course, there is always a seesaw play between optimizing the net rate of energy gain and conserving the most amount of energy. Here is an example:

A colony of ants is following a short trail to obtain profit (they, as a group, have found the shortest path possible to optimize their energy expenditure and maximize nutrient intake). A colony of corporations has chosen a path of greater resource depletion and energy consumption as a foraging strategy. Who survives in the end?

The Occupationist Manifesto

Occupation of Wall Street Movement is a successful demonstration of a problem, but the solution lies elsewhere and is long overdue. I am not an economist. I have a formal training in product design, in a post-industrial economy, where most of the production is being done offshore. This really makes you sit down an re-think your career path. It is either time to adapt existing foraging strategy and go into a tumbling mode, or learn the characteristics of the environment and start a saltatory search.

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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

Source: mecanoo.nl

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