Genomic Architecture Built From Simple Codes Of The Natural World

Dr. Haresh Lalvani talks to us about understanding how nature designs creations using generative principles and formal codes so that we can make our...

Kyle Studstill
Kyle Studstill on November 8, 2010.
Haresh Lalvani

Dr. Haresh Lalvani is a sculptor, architect, morphologist, visual mathematician, inventor and a professor at Pratt Institute, working for over 30 years to “decode the morphological genome” - identifying the principles underlying natural and manmade forms. Lalvani’s work is driven by a search to understand how Nature designs its incredible creations using generative principles and formal codes combined with forming processes, so that we can design our own. Dr. Lalvani’s aims at sequencing the morphological genome and sculpting works derived from it’s principles, resulting in compelling physical structures of genomic architecture.

Haresh Lalvani

Dr. Lalvani will be sharing his insight at the upcoming TEDxBrooklyn conference, and has an exhibit launching in Brooklyn this week featuring his unique sculptural creations, titled 2point5-D+. Dr. Lalvani shares his thoughts with us below:

What other projects or studies are currently inspiring your work?

I am greatly interested in physical emergence, not just computational emergence. That is, how new phenomena emerge not just from computational rules, but from physical processes. This is intimately related to the question the physicists have been asking: how do we get something from nothing. If the physicists cannot create matter from nothing, we as architects-designers certainly cannot. This inspires us to develop the next best thing. We have developed a shaping technology we call XURF (eXpanded sURFaces – see Images) that uses physical emergence as a free technology: we don’t pay for any of the emergent features like space, strength, curvature, openings, etc. which come free with the forming which we pay for. Remarkably, these are all made from single continuous sheets of metal which we can seam together as we increase size. The forming method uses force, and works in the same spirit when Einstein suggested that gravity bends space. So when a flat 2d metal surface becomes 3d curved surface via force, we get space (volume), curvature, strength and openings where there were none before. In this sense we get something from nothing, but also something for nothing. It is tempting to think that nature must be using such techniques which enable an economic distribution of matter in 3-dimensional space as an essential strategy for design. Force, it seems, is nature’s way of scripting matter.

I am also greatly interested in singularity, a point of convergence or divergence. This is used a lot in physics, say, in big bang origin or black holes, but it appears in string theory as well. My interest is in the shapes with a singularity and I have been developing these for several years. Interestingly, they lead to new mathematics, but we are looking at these from a design standpoint and see them as spaces and surfaces that could be of human use.

I am also looking at the periodic table of chemistry, a staple in the field, and have found a way to re-arrange the chemical elements in a new table which may be intuitively more accessible.

Haresh Lalvani

What has been the most interesting or surprising responses to any of your work at Morph Studio?

In the 1980’s, my wife and I were visiting Philip and Phyllis Morrison at their Cambridge home (you may know of them from the celebrated film “Powers of Ten” with Eames). I was showing them one of my higher-dimensional tables at which point my wife asked with impatience: “When will this work finish?” Phil Morrison replied instantly: “How can it? It goes to infinity, pointing to one of the axes in my chart.”

A leading algebraic topologist once said to me over dinner, sort of annoyed: You do the easy part, you just come up with ideas. We do the hard part, we have to prove them.

Terry Riley, when he was at MoMA (Museum of Modern Art, New York), seemed interested in what we were doing. So when he visited Milgo, I asked him: “Explain this to me: I thought I did my most important work in the early 80’s and practically no one noticed. Now, you bend a sheet of metal and it draws immediate attention.” He smiled. The next thing we knew was that MoMA was acquiring the AlgoRhythm columns for their permanent design collection and wanted them for their re-opening in 2004. This surprised us all.

The most surprising has been the unwavering support of Bruce Gitlin who has opened up his Milgo factory for all these open-ended experiments. This is unprecedented and very special. So has been the interest of my long-time colleague John Lobell. And, the number of brilliant assistants who have been drawn to the studio, contributing their enormous talents to the growing body of work.

Haresh Lalvani

Are there any emerging technologies or ideas that you’re looking forward to developing that will help your work in exploring the architectural genome?

I want to clarify that I am working on the assumption that the architectural genome is complex, and that a shape genome (or morph genome, the genome of all shapes) is its natural starting point. Shape can be formalized mathematically, and can thus have a universal basis.

In the mid-1970’s, Bucky Fuller mentioned to me that the atom will become a computer. I have been looking forward to developments where the morph genome can be applied to matter at the atomic or particle level so shape-encoded designs can grow and morph, and be scaled up to architecture so buildings can design themselves, self-build, self-shape and adapt. The integration of software and hardware, where the two are one, is a fundamental requirement for this and will be solved by nano-scientists. We, architects-designers, will need to work with them to realize this at our scale. I believe it will head in the direction of William Katavolos who, in 1961, proposed growing cities.

Another route is to use biology as a technology for architecture. The most relevant is the DNA level. Here there are two routes. The standard genetic engineering route will, at best, yield a kind of bio-forming where nature’s genetic machinery is the building technology. This idea, which occurred to me in the early 70’s, opens up the manufacturing of all bio-materials (via reverse engineering) which, at best, will convert all architecture into bio-mass. This may help with environmental issues, but doesn’t address shaping. Hence, the second route: DNA computing, following Leonard Adleman’s demonstration in 1994. Here too we need to work with scientists to find ways in which DNA can be shape-encoded to make desired shapes using the same process it uses to make proteins. An elegant test would be to code DNA so it can build a parametrically-controlled shape.

On a more immediate level, we need to build small and large-scale interactive digital environments within which we can continue to map and extend the morphological universe (morphoverse), navigate through this space, interact with it, and explore new design possibilities. No fundamental technological problems to be solved here, just a matter of scaling, and funding. More intuitively direct and speedier ways of interacting with the computing environment would be preferable so we can navigate through the morphoverse at the same speed at which our mind naturally processes spatial and design options.

Dr. Haresh Lalvani


TOPICS: Arts & Culture, Design & Architecture, Web & Technology
Kyle Studstill

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Kyle Studstill is a regular contributor to Kyle works as a consultant working at the New York office of PSFK. His background is in analysis, from the analysis of cultural and technological change, to analysis of consumer and human insight, to military intelligence analysis with the US Intelligence and Security Command. Kyle loves the future, much like O'Brien from Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.