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Biotechniques: Form Follows Flow?
Unites States Green Building Council / Greenbuild 2003 Conference and Exposition (2003)
  • William Braham, University of Pennsylvania

Sustainable design is well characterized by Sim Van der Ryn’s compelling aphorism “form follows flow,” but flows of what? New forms of practice have emerged from quite different conceptions of “flows” in architectural design. A nearly identical proposition was formulated by the designers of Sweets Catalog, referring to the flow of information within the building industry, and also by neo-avant-garde designers referring to the flow of people, products, and images within the “network society.” This presentation compares those different ideas of flow, adopting Frederick Kiesler’s provocative term “biotechniques” to describe this dynamic approach to design.

Architectural biotechniques are those methods and conceptual models with which buildings are examined as participants in dynamic, “living” systems, whether of the biosphere or of “machines, social systems, and the economic world.” Parallel work in ecology, cybernetics, general systems theory, and operations research in the decades after the Second World War has developed into much broader and more nuanced understandings of the non-linear, non-equilibrium dynamics that characterize both biological life and complex artificial systems. Such techniques have propelled environmental design--from the Limits to Growth simulation of global resources to CFD studies of air flow--though they are in no way limited to the environmental or even technical aspects of architecture.

This paper compares three radically different forms of biotechnique in contemporary architecture: the interdisciplinary-team practices of sustainable design; the management of “information flow” developed by Sweets Catalog; and the dynamically responsive animations developed by members of the neo-avant-garde (Van Berkel Bos). Each of these practices begins with the premise that conditions are ever-changing and that complex animate systems are rarely efficient and their results inherently provisional. The conclusions of the paper are both practical and ethical. Practitioners of sustainable design have much to learn from the sophisticated techniques of animate design and information flow used in these other practices, beginning with the acknowledgment of the similarities between the dynamics of natural and artificial systems. Viewing sustainable design only as the practice of resource efficiency or the preservation of health reduces it to a technical expertise, loosing many of the more powerful lessons of ecological phenomena—self-organization, symbiosis, co-evolution, and adaptive resilience. Biotechniques succeed precisely where they achieve the vitality of living systems, vigorously spending excess energy and materials to produce newly meaningful forms (and information).

  • sustainable design,
  • information flow,
  • Sweets Catalog,
  • neo-avant-garde design,
  • biotechniques
Publication Date
Citation Information
William Braham. "Biotechniques: Form Follows Flow?" Unites States Green Building Council / Greenbuild 2003 Conference and Exposition (2003)
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