Soft House: Home Grown
Architect Greg Lynn's Embryological House is at once
made and born, a hybrid of computer simulation and genetic mutation.
One thing bothers him: How do you keep a biological house from eating
Nov-Dec 2000 ¦ Visionary architect-theorist Greg Lynn is at the bleeding
edge of what has come to be known as "hypersurface" or "waveform
architecture"a postmodern, organicist style inspired by evolutionary
biology and the science of turbulence and made possible by the computer's
ability to generate warped or fluid forms. The result of three-dimensional
curves defined by mathematical formulae rather than of straight
lines specified by fixed, two-dimensional coordinates, Lynn's soft
buildings look as much like modernist monoliths as an amoeba does
a mass- produced widget.
As precedents for his hyperarchitecture, Lynn cites
the creature in the '50s sci-fi film The Blob, Art Nouveau
architects such as Victor Horta, and Expressionists such as Hermann
finsterlin and Bruno Taut "because they were the first to break
with the classical orders, the first to jump right into new methods
of fabrication, and they also worked with abstractions of nature."
The founder of FORM, a "paperless" design studio based
in Venice, CA, Lynn also teaches architecture at UCLA. He led the
team of UCLA students whose exhibit, "The Embryological House,"
sent shock waves rippling through this year's Venice Biennale. Using
Alias Wavefront's Maya software, Lynn's students created complex,
blob-like images, which a model shop then jig-saw cut into wood
and plastic models. Writing in The New York Times, Herbert
Muschamp called the student works "a genuine mutation, a natural
response to the displacement of bricks and mortar by virtual space."
Lynn calls it a vision of things to come. In the following
interview, the architect offers a preview of his forthcoming book,
Embryological House (Princeton Architectural Press, 2001),
a meditation on "design in the age of genetics" that is itself a
gene-splice, a monstrous hybrid of architectural theory and cyberpunk
science fiction.Greg Lynn: The Embryological House represents
a new approach to fabrication and growth. Historically, a modern
house would be thought of as a kit-of-parts. Each part is distinct
and discreet, and you customize the house through the addition or
subtraction of parts from the kit.
Over forty percent of all the new houses in America
are built in factories and assembled on-site. The Embryological
House would try to participate in that economic reality, but with
a completely different implicit lifestyle and relationship to the
I wanted to take a more biological approach, where
there would be no discreet components. They'd all be in the same
morphospacethe same form-spaceso that a change in any
component would inflect every other component within the system.
The structural concept of it comes from the auto and airplane industry.
It's an integral shell and framea monocoque shell, which means
that the structural members can be lighter and thinner and the shell
ties it all together, making it into a rigid skin.
The Embryological House draws on manufacturing techniques
from the auto and airline industries. The goal is to build a design
system that supports free variation. The trick is to set up a design
program that would control changes. You do the working drawings
for what I call the "seed" of the house, and then the computer generates
all the mutations. You never really see the norm; it's all monsters.
That's why it's called an Embryological House. You can have young
ones, egg-like ones that haven't been mutated much, but when these
things get adultin other words, after they've been designed and
customized for their context, the client, the whims of the architect,
whateverthey mutate into full-blown monsters.
I went to the anthropologist and cyberneticist Gregory
Bateson's father, William Bateson, a biologist who helped pioneer
the synthesis of genetics and evolutionary biology. In the mid-
to late-1800's, William Bateson was writing about proportional regulation
and asymmetry. He was the first person to argue the notion of symmetry
breaking. He was a teratologist, so he studied monstrosities and
went to collections of mutations. His theory was that the logic
of organization was better exhibited in mutations than in the norm,
because there you'd see the operations you'd take for granted in
the norm. He wrote a really interesting book on the subject in 1894,
called Materials for the Study of Variation: Treated with Especial
Regard to Discontinuity in the Origin of Species, and the images
that he used in it were images of the mutation of the human thumb,
where instead of a thumb you got four more fingers mirrored bilaterally
to the normal four or a double thumb mirrored bilaterally to itself.
His argument was that mutations exhibit higher levels of symmetry
than the norm. He flipped the whole genetic universe upside down:
instead of saying that symmetry was the regulation, he said that
symmetry is the lack of information. As you put information
into a system, it breaks the symmetry; in the absence of information,
you default back to symmetrical organization.
So, this idea that you can start with a primitive
(in other words, highly symmetrical) form, like an egg, and start
to develop rules for breaking the symmetry, is the strategy I took
with the Embryological House. It's designed as a roughly spherical
form, which has all the linkages and connections of components to
it, and then you set maximum and minimum limits for each of those
components, and then the interaction of all of those things is what
gives you the endless possibilities of mutation.
The Embryological House has a double skin. The first
skin, which is the building enclosure, is built of aluminum and
glass. I wanted to avoid punching windows, so the skin has very
fine shreds in it; the wall can go from something like punched windows
to something like a glass wall, depending on far apart you have
these shreds. The wall is translucent and filigreed, like a screen.
Because of that fenestration system, there's a second
skin over the first, a shading skin. We take the solar data for
any region in the world, put it in the computer, and calculate where
the daylight and shadows will fall on the form. Then, we use that
information to map a double skin onto all those undulations and
indentations. This second skin is a system of strips, almost like
a Venetian blind, but in 3-D, wrapping around the contours of the
house. Looking at it from the north of the house, you can see between
those strips; from the south, they overlap to generate opacity.
The door to the house is a sphincter-like aperture
that irises open and shut. It uses counterweights; all you have
to overcome is the inertia of the weight of the door and then it
basically opens itself. Inside, it's like being in a jungle. The
way the light enters the housethrough fronds, and through
the arbor of the shading systemmake it very aqueous.
The inside of the Embryological House is like a car
interior. You have a surface that is upholstered, carpeted, veneered
and has instrumentation and technology built into it. The floor
of the upper level can inflect, bulge and gastrulate to form furniture,
storage, cabinets, tables, chairs, tubs, and so forth, and is embedded
with appliances, furniture and equipment. The floor finishes include
cork, artificial leather, wood, MDF, Maderon, stainless steel, rubber,
carpet, fabric, ceramics, gel padding and plastic.
The lower level, by contrast, is completely planar.
It's really two kinds of living space: the lower one is very uncustomized,
open to all kinds of quick modifications. You move from one level
to the other via ramps or stairs that you can plug in. The lower
level of the house is half in and half out of the ground. The house
can generate its own "nest," in a sense; when you set the form on
the ground, whether the site is flat or sloped, the shape of the
house pulls the ground up to meet it. In the computer, you can set
the geometry of any one of the house formations on any kind of ground,
and the interaction of the two will make a unique kind of a nest
that surrounds the house.
A sea of mounds planted with alternating strips of
decorative grasses surrounds each house. Nestled within these wave
mounds, an undulating berm of earth receives the house. The berm
slopes from the lower level to the upper level of the house in order
to meet the front and back entries. The house appears to be buried
in the ground from some orientations while appearing to float above
it from others. Wherever the exterior form of the house is indented,
a corresponding garden pod is formed, off which a formal garden
flows. These microclimate pods, with their corresponding formal
gardens, are ringed by a perimeter of drift gardens that feather
into the wave landscape of grasses.
¤ ¤ ¤
The whole biological approach, the whole ecological
approach, is our last master narrative. Kids don't say prayers in
school, but they talk about freeing whales. The Embryological House
is invested in this master narrative. You really should feel as
if you're living in an animal.
Embryological House concludes with "A New Style
of Life," a science-fiction story describing the domestic life of
an occupant who has been consumed by his Embryological House, as
in swallowed. The interference between its digital and biological
systems gives rise to a house that is animal-like in structureand
behavior. Chaos ensues.
At 4:15 A.M., it breathed in. It awoke to the faint
burning of a flickering blue light in its gullet and a general feeling
of indigestion. It rested fitfully, as if it had eaten a bad meal
the night before, with the persistent feeling that an agitated animal
was living in its gut. The irritation of a muffled grinding sound
from within itself continued, until it was inevitable that the day
would begin in the dark. Its surface began glowing as electrical
impulses crisscrossed its skin. Warm water began coursing through
the capillary tubes beneath its surface and its body walls began
to radiate heat. The acrid smell of brewing coffee wafted from its
pores as its skin began breathing out the previous night's stench.
Its iridescent skin shone as the morning's coating of dew formed
on its metallic curves. It would be several hours before the sun
rose and penetrated its scaly protective skin for the first few
hours of the day. Until then, squeaking with the sounds of an awakening
digestion system, it would twitch and hum in its earthen nest, warming
and activating from the inside out.