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 its occupants?

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 environment.

I wanted to take a more biological approach, where there would be no discreet components. They'd all be in the same morphospace–the same form-space–so 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 frame—a 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 adult—in other words, after they've been designed and customized for their context, the client, the whims of the architect, whatever–they 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 house–through fronds, and through the arbor of the shading system–make 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 structure–and 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.