[Assignment 2: Brenda M & Dan C.]

Biomimicry strives to apply biologically inspired functions into direct application. These are listed into three major categories of form, process, and system. Respectively, these categories deal with shape and structure, the steps taken to achieve an ultimate end goal, and how different organisms/processes relate together to achieve the goal or need of the organism.

Deep Patterns    We will look at two organisms found in and around the Schuylkill River as it passes through central Philadelphia and identify some recurring deep patterns underlying the strategies that these organisms use to accomplish specific functions.  This exercise is essential to biomimicry in order for us to not only learn from biology, but also to apply what we’ve learned.

Fish in the river itself and mosquitoes living near the river display similar deep patterns when we look at the function of transportation of materials in both organisms. In each case, the transportation of materials are driven by processes necessary for survival, are dependent on a very specific physical form to facilitate extraction of essential nutrients, and are externally powered by secondary systems.

Mosquitoes    Everybody hates mosquitoes.  And for good reason.  Even when they are not transferring deadly diseases, they sneak in generally undetected, inject you painlessly, and sneak off again before the itching begins.  The very specific form of the proboscis and the process of injection efficiently and effortlessly facilitates the efficient transfer of materials for a process necessary for the continual survival of the mosquito.

Female mosquitoes feed on blood to obtain specific proteins to produce eggs. Every bloodmeal produces  about 250 eggs.  The structure of the mosquito’s proboscis is composed of three parts, in such a way to effectively pierce skin with minimal pain, and simultaneously draw in blood efficiently.  As the mosquito pierces the skin, it injects both an    anesthetic and anticoagulant into the blood, to  help minimize pain and keep blood flowing within the narrow channel of her proboscis, respectively.  As soon as the mosquito goes on her merry way, the immune system on the victim will begin to break down those chemicals, causing that intense itch.

Researchers in Japan have been studying the painless effect of the mosquitoes proboscis as it injects the skin so they can replicate the form for a painless needle for medical applications.  In particular, they focus on the three-part nature of the needle, one straight and two jagged, and describe in very specific detail how a biomimicked needle does indeed effectively and painlessly inject the skin. [see diagram below]

From paper " Realistic imitation of mosquito’s proboscis: Electrochemically etched sharp and jagged needles and their cooperative inserting motion" by Hayato Izumi, Masato Suzuki, Seiji Aoyagi,Tsutomu Kanzaki published online 2010Feb10 in Sensors and Actuators

For the mosquito, the effective transportation of materials relies on an external source, and is effective because of the specific form of the proboscis and the specific process that form enables.

Fish     This piece will deal with how fish display the key elements of a model organism for biotransport of materials.   Often times, chemical reactions, to immune-body are triggered in direct response to the presence of a single enzyme or foreign matter.  The driving force of these materials, or specifically, the transportation of the essential materials often fuels the complex, multi-system relationships of the world’s biosphere.

Take for example the literal need for “fuel”.   Bodies demand oxygen in order to increase the efficiency of energy production.   So vital is this reflex that it is considered an involuntary action for many organisms. (Including people of course!)

Fish that reside in the Schuylkill river may not be as beautiful as the clown fish that reside in the ocean, but they analogously transport oxygen into their blood streams through from the water supply.  In order to maximize this extraction process, the fish employ a counter current system. In which the blood vessels run in the opposite direction of the flow of water.  By utilizing this system, the fish are able tominimize the amount of the work, while also increasing the total concentration of oxygen that can be dissolved in the blood. This is shown schematically in Rahn et. al’s paper theorizing of aquatic gas exchange. (Figure E)

"Aquatic gas exchange: Theory" by Hermann Rahn Department of Physiology, SUNY Buffalo Published in Respiration Physiology 1966, Vol 1, Issue 1 p.1-12

In order to further increase the system’s efficiency, the shape, or form, of the gill is designed for maximized surface area to ensure optimal efficiency.

Much like the way mosquitos  transfer blood to be used for nourishment, for fish, the process of transporting materials carries many similarities or deep patterns.

As previously mentioned, they are driven on the processes necessity for survival, the form of the gills, extraction of essential nutrients, and are externally powered by secondary systems. (Oxygen may be extracted while the fish isn’t moving, provided that there is a current of water)

In short, the fish is a model candidate to study for material transport due to its ability to be analyzed in form, process, and system across analogous patterns to its material transport counterparts.



Designed by Nex Architecture and landscape architect Marcus Barnett , this literal architectural interpretation of the cellular structure of a plant was modeled using computer algorithms mimicking natural plant growth.  The pavilion was designed for the Chelsea Flower Show in London, and located within the Eureka Garden: a garden with plants known for their specific benefits to society (medicinal, commercial and industrial).  The designers felt that the design would provide visitors with a unique opportunity to experience plant growth patterns at a human scale.

The Times Eureka Pavilion - pattern study diagram

Kayakers on the Schuylkill with the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the background

The Schuylkill river is ten blocks from my urban apartment.  It is nature in the middle of the city and a thriving habitat for every type of organism.  The Schuylkill River Walk is a paved path that runs alongside the river for 1.2 miles as the river runs through the heart of Philadelphia.

Despite its urban location, the river supports diverse wildlife and plant life. If we look at a list of biological functions, we can find numerous organisms that accomplish those functions in this environment.

WATER PURIFICATION/ CLEANING. River. The built-in tidal SYSTEM of the water in the river assists with water purification in the Schuylkill. Plants includes reeds, water hyacinth, iris and duckweed filter and clean water through their roots using a PROCESS called phytoremediation.  Marsh plants absorb contaminants through their roots and store them in the root biomass, stems or leaves. Algae in particular removes nitrate, phosphate, nitrite, ammonia and ammonium from the water. The long, spiky FORM of Grass assists in filtration and cleaning of rainwater as well.

ABSORBING. The particular FORMS of Grass, Trees, & Plant Life provide nooks and crannies that absorb rainwater that prevents excess water from overwhelming the river.

TRANSPORTATION OF MATERIALS.  The FORM of the river, using a SYSTEMATIC PROCESS, quite literally transports materials, from a macro scale of moving boats, people, driftwood to a micro scale of moving tiny organisms and chemicals great distances.  Humans are another very effective and very literal example of an organism who performs this function very well, for better or worse.

PROTECTION FROM BIOTIC FACTORS. Both the river and the trees that grow along it are excellent examples of protection from biota.  They do this in multiple ways.  The FORM of the trees and water provides protection for many animals from their predators.  River Otters are an animal that can occasionally be found in the Schuylkill river.  When in the water, there are very few predators that can catch a river otter.  The shell on a turtle is its protection from predators, especially considering its slow movements. The grass does this as well by providing shade and cover for smaller bugs and animals.

COMMUNICATION SYSTEMS. The Schuylkill River Walk’s most obvious communicating organisms are the humans.  Using many SYSTEMS, humans excel at sending and giving information, both verbally, physically and technologically. Another good example would be  geese, who can be found along the river walk as they migrate north or south, depending on the time of year.  Their SYSTEM of communication includes numerous types of migration calls and flying formations.

FEEDBACK SYSTEMS. The Schuylkill river itself is a feedback SYSTEM.  Natural water cycles consist of rain flowing into the ground, surface runoff flowing into the river, water evaporation into the air, turning into condensation, which becomes rainwater.  Rivers are an essential part of this process. At the most simplistic level, the oxygen-carbon dioxide feedback system between humans and trees is arguably the most important feedback system there is.  Humans and their buildings give off carbon dioxide. Through photosynthesis, trees and plants convert that carbon dioxide into oxygen.

PROTECTION FROM ABIOTIC FACTORS.  Turtles have the perfect protection from abiotic as well as biotic factors.  The FORMAL properties, which include shape. material, and color protect turtles from any harmful external factors.  Trees offer limited protection from abiotic factors for humans and their pets, and more extensive protection for smaller animals, like birds.

PACKAGING. Dandelions may be a pesky weed, but are excellent examples of efficient packaging with a specific goal of reproduction. Their essential FORM consists of seeds that easily scatter in any strong wind. Turtle shells are another example of efficient packaging with a very specific goal: physical and literal protection from external elements.

For architecture students, what would be end of term papers for most students, are  graphic papers, pinned to the wall to the wall to be critiqued by visiting critics.  My first semester in grad school, I took a seminar in which I presented a poster which addressed issues of Chinese farming in Africa. As part of my research, I came across hundreds of creative farming ideas. 

Vertical farming might be one of my favorites.  The vertical farming guru is a Columbia University professor named Dickson Despommier, but there are numerous examples of theoretical skyscraper farms for urban environments, where space is limited, and food needs are plentiful.

Discovering potentials for developing closer-to-life artifical limbs for the medical industry as it is inspired from the incredibly flexible contraction abilities of the spider’s web  reminds me of an entirely different architectural “artifical muscle” designed by Decker Yeadon:  a homeastic facade system to regulate heat gain passively for any transparent facade system.

The cycle between man-made and nature-formed processes is never-ending.  Below are examples of some back-and-forth inspirations.

Nature processes translated to Human processes.  

A.  [NATURAL WETLANDS]  I was (un)fortunate enough to live in New Jersey for a year, commuting to Manhattan every day, and ironically enough, the drive through this prototype of a polluted, urban, smelly landscape also became my exposure to beautiful, natural wetlands. There are amazing and quite lovely moments along Route 3 as you pass though the Meadowlands, that despite years of dumping, landfill, shopping centers, and sports arenas still retains its natural beauty.  Clearly, there has been major damage done to the multiple ecosystems, and much work to be done, but for me, those trips exposed a truer and more beautiful side of New Jersey

.Wetlands are defined as areas that are saturated by ground and/or surface water which support extensive plant life, ultimately providing habitat for hundreds of reptiles, birds, and animals.  Perhaps more essential for humans, though,  is the natural process of water absorption and water purification.   Acting like a sponge, wetlands soak up excess rainwater that would otherwise flood our dense urban hardscapes. Working together, the plants, roots and soil remove contaminants from the water, thus keeping our water sources clean.

Philadelphia architecture firm Kieren Timberlake‘s Sidwell Middle School in Washington DC is a particularly wonderful example of biomimicry.  The School features an on-site constructed wetland which cleans wastewater and filters rainwater.  Assisted by green roofs and sewage settlement tanks, the building has enabled an incredibly efficient and sustainable building that is an integral part of the student’s education. [More details here


These images are photos I took on the way back from my SEPTA subway stop to my apartment.  Living in the city, I am continually inspired by nature’s ability to fight back, in an overtly hostile environment.  Despite smog, pollution, acid raid, concrete, steel, paint, manholes, buses, humans…, somehow there are thousands of instances in every city where plant life triumphs over the man-made.

For architects and landscape designers,  the lesson should be blatant: architecture that ignores the natural processes of the landscape will never triumph.  The fight between man-built and nature-made is a losing battle, on many levels.  Landscape Urbanism is a new-ish discipline (coined by Charles Waldheim) that (rather non-specifically) argues that urban planners would be better off understanding cities as a natural landscape, in its continually evolving nature, than as a collection of everlasting buildings.


The High Line in Manhattan and Fresh Kills Park in Staten Island are both projects by James Corner, a passionate advocate of Landscape Urbanism.

Human processes translated back to nature.

A. [PHILADELPHIA’S SEPTA TUNNELS’]    My daily commute to Temple on SEPTA’S subway is usually uneventful, although always fascinating.  Mostly this is because Philadelphia has the most bizarre collection of people on a subway I’ve ever seen.  The built environment is just as compelling and um, weird.  Disregarding the guys who ignore the fact that smoking in a subway tunnel is a bad idea, as well as the (typically) Philadelphian SEPTA workers who won’t tell them to stop smoking, the tunnels themselves are longer and more extensive than most people realize.  There is a huge network of tunnels underground City Hall that are blocked off and never used, mostly for security and safety reasons.

Of particular interest is the unofficial homeless shelter that is located underneath Broad Street between Locust and Chestnut Streets.  This particular tunnel is quite large, and used daily for commuters, but after nightfall, SEPTA (unofficially) permits 20-50 of Philadelphia’s homeless use of the tunnel for shelter, as long as they disappear in the early morning when SEPTA opens.

Human-made tunnels have a direct correlation to tunnels made by our animal world co-residents.  Animals who tunnel include worms and gophers and moles and mice and of course, rats (who, of course, feel right at home in human-formed subway tunnels. There are numerous advantages to this tunneling skill, including the ability to create climate-protected environments, warm in the winter and cool in the summer.  Space is sprawling and cheap, plus (and this is not to be relied on in most human subways) tunnels provide extra protection from predators.

Some amazing human-created underground structures.

This just released proposed underground park in Manhattan is fantastic.

And then there’s what happened to Hobbiton.

Situations like the small disaster of Boston’s Big Dig present some of the harsh realities of pretending we are moles.  Architecture critic Witold Rybczynski discusses some of the issues here.

So we have lots to learn from animal architects.


The Elevators in the Engineering Building at Temple are a source of frustration to students on all nine floors.  It rattles and shakes, is not particularly well-ventilated, occasionally gets stuck between floors, and can take a ridiculously long time to arrive and depart.  Worse, it will often catch its passengers between its doors as it closes.  Somehow the sensors that are supposed to catch the doors before they close on a person are faulty.  And yet, those of us on the 9th floor feel like we have no chance, because no matter how incompetent, it is generally perceived to be more efficient to use the elevator than walking up 9 flights of steps.

Skyscrapers of course, could not have been built without the elevator.  The invention of the modern elevator is credited with Elisha Otis, who invented the safety catch that prevents the elevator from plummeting to the ground if a cable breaks. File:ElevatorPatentOtis1861.jpgT

There must be a few ways in which biology can help design more efficient, cleaner, and sustainable elevators.  Ideas about natural ventilation are key here, but I also found a reference to the frog’s ability to store energy in its legs pre-leap to be released during the leap.  This lesson of energy efficiency has great potential specifically for elevator design, but can be applied to any number of man-made inventions.