Case Studies

Metaphor & Inspiration

This studio continues the research of ‘organicity’, the digital generation of architecture using biological paradigms. To that end, the case study series focuses on biological concepts of differentiation and their potential for application within a tectonic context. Working in small groups, students must present an analytic case study to the class and reinterpret the research for architectural purposes.

Morphogenesis     Differentiation     Siphonophora Example
Other examples     Architectural Skin    Case Study Brief


from Architectural Design, vol. 78, no. 2, p. 27.

For our purposes, we begin to understand morphogenesis as the process and factors that produce shape. In a stricter sense, morphogenesis implies a concern with the cellular scale and the complex developmental changes that cells and tissues undergo induced by hormones and other chemicals. Our interest lies less in these chemical mechanisms – for here the application of metaphor becomes less rigorous in an architectural context – but in the idea of multi-scalar development over time. Combining the two, we have a framework of investigation very relevant to archi-tectonic assemblies, namely the process and factors that produce multi-scalar development over time.
This definition identifies five key concerns that inform our methodology:

  1. Process: a system of steps or actions to achieve some effect, or algorithm;
  2. Factors: the elements that contribute to the outcome of the algorithm, or parameters;
  3. Multi-scalar: the integration and co-dependency of formation from the individual component to the entire building;
  4. Development: implies a generative, or bottom-up, emergence a system’s capabilities or potentials;
  5. Over time: firmly positions our studies in the realities of fabrication, assembly, and construction.

Introduction to Mechanisms of Morphogenesis by J A Davies
‘Metabolism and Morphology’ by M Weinstock (pp 80-87)
‘Digital Morphogenesis’ by N Leach (pp 114-119)
Scholarpeida ‘Morphogenesis’ Entry
Scholarpedia ‘Cellular mechanisms of morphogenesis’ Entry
Wikipedia ‘Morphogenesis’ Entry


from Architectural Design, vol. 78, no. 2, p. 32.

In biology, differentiation, is another key concept for understanding development.

In developmental biology, cellular differentiation is the process by which a less specialized cell becomes a more specialized cell type. Differentiation occurs numerous times during the development of a multicellular organism as the organism changes from a single zygote to a complex system of tissues and cell types. Differentiation is a common process in adults as well: adult stem cells divide and create fully-differentiated daughter cells during tissue repair and during normal cell turnover. Differentiation dramatically changes a cell’s size, shape, membrane potential, metabolic activity, and responsiveness to signals. These changes are largely due to highly-controlled modifications in gene expression. With a few exceptions, cellular differentiation almost never involves a change in the DNA sequence itself. Thus, different cells can have very different physical characteristics despite having the same genome.

It is important to note that biologists generally consider differentiation as distinct from morphogenesis. We will not seek to maintain this strict separation but simply understand that both processes contribute to formation.
Here again, we identify some key concerns:

  1. Production of complexity: both an aesthetic agenda and a functional tactic, a system’s capacity for complexity should always emerge from inherent simplicity
  2. Changes in cell size, shape, and functional properties: a means of relating architectural elements such as walls & floors, windows & doors, structure & ornament
  3. No change to DNA: critical for our purposes, differentiation should be integral with the formation process in that the same algorithm produces different features

‘Differentiation and Performance’ by (pp 146-155)
‘Polymorphism’ by A Menges (pp 134-143)
Wikipedia ‘Cellular Differentiation’ Entry

Siphonophora Example

siphonopora morphogenesis

morphogenesis in siphonophora

Siphonophora zooids can reproduce through an asexual budding process in which the membrane divides into two organisms. This morphogenetic process can produce free floating medusoids from a stationary polyp.

siphonophora differentiation

cellular differentiation in a siphonopohre membrane

The membrane of the siphonophore is composed of two layers of specialized cell walls separated by a thickened mucus layer called mesoglea. This pattern is reproduced at a smaller scale within the cell walls between the cells and the nerve net

colony diagram

interdependency diagram of siphonphore zooids

The siphonophore colony is an extreme case of specialization, each individual zooid responsible only for movement, digestion, hunting, or reproduction relying on the rest of the colony to supply all other functions.

nanomia cara

In this sense the colony can be thought of as a scalar version of the membrane where the zooids occupy the place of the cells gathered around the nerve axon.

Other Examples

inspiration: Hyaline Cells in Algae, by Chris Talbott

inspiration Lichen, by Darina Zlateva

inspiration Radiolaria, by Sangwook Park

inspiration Tent Worm Silk, by Jessica Lisagor

Architectural Skin


Several metaphors exist for the architecture that separates a building’s interior from the external environment: the face, the envelope, the skin. Each has its implications for the roles of that architecture: the face having to do with identity, the envelope having to do with privacy. We choose the skin as point of departure because of its facile biological associations, but also because, considered earnestly, the skin demands thickness. Biologically, the proverbial skin is actually deep, not surfacial. In order to perform its many functions, the skin is composed of several layers, varying thicknesses, and differentiated cells and features. To make this understanding explicit, Marcos Cruz and Marjan Colletti refer not to ’skin’ but to ‘flesh’.

from Architectural Design, vol. 78, no. 4, p. 41.

More visceral, the notion of architectural flesh connotes striking patterns, assemblies of functional layers, variety in shape and scale of openings, and smooth joints between body and appendage, feature and feature. These are the four topics that organize our first phase of research and also form the structure of your case study brief.