Biophilia, or the “love of life or living systems”, describes the intimate and innate relationship between humans with nature as deeply rooted within our biology. These connections are attributed to earlier evolutionary origins, but continue to manifest in behaviors today: a physical retreat to nature, formal and informal representations of nature, or an organizational replication of natural systems. The affinity for nature is also a valuable and capable source for informing the design of a built environment. Sites with a connection to nature are not a new concept, noting the Garden Cities, Art Nouveau plant forms, and Olmstead as examples of humanity’s desire for the proximity of nature for respite, beauty, and health, but it seems a resurgence of interest has begun to emerge.
Though Erich Fromm is credited for coining the term biolphilia, the Biophilia hypothesis is the term and idea more commonly known today. Developed and introduced in the 1980s by biologist, theorist, and author E.O. Wilson, the biophilia hypothesis expands upon Fromm’s singular definition, outlining the evolutionary connections between our care and concern for animals and the desire for plants in our personal and professional environments in detail.
Furthermore, design built upon the principles of this hypothesis is referred to as “biophilic design“. According to William Browning, Catherine Ryan, and Joseph Clancy of Terrapin Bright Green – an environmental consulting and strategic planning firm – biophilic design integrates the relationship between nature, human biology and design of the built environment for the physical, psychological, and emotional betterment of the human user. Browning et al define 14 patterns of biophilic design, each fitting into three categories: Nature in Space (a direct connection to nature), Natural Analogues (a formal evocation of nature), and Nature of the Space (spatial configurations found in nature).
Amazon unveiled The Spheres, three glass domes located in Downtown Seattle operating as an escape for their tech employees into a biosphere housing 40,000 plants representing 400 species from around the world.
Of these principles, the one of most personal interest is the natural analogues, which Browning et al describe as:
- Biomorphism – a formal design principal that seeks to replicate natural forms, those found in nature, or in other life forms. These forms can create a harmony evocative of life without directly imitating them in a recognizable way.
- Natural Material – connecting to a site’s sense of place or to a larger natural environment through the use of minimally processed local.
- Complexity and Order – replicating spatial and pattern diversity and hierarchy like that found in nature.
Biophilic design and biomorphism play on our innate connection to nature as humans, seeking to satisfy design harmony and beauty through symbolic references in texture, patterns, contours, and arrangements. Nature is inherently rich and complex through its integrated ecological and geological systems. Replicating this diversity and interconnectedness can yield richly built spaces capable of evoking similar conscious and subconscious reactions.
It should be clear the principles are not simply formal as explored here. Each can be applied to functional systems by designers in realizing sustainable solutions. Natural imitation is a valid and effective strategy within green design and green infrastructure. A holistic approach to applying natural forms and systems into/onto our built environment for building sustainability is well worth investigation.