"If we were to transfer a large termite nest to human scale, their tower would rise to the height of a mile and would house the entire population of New York."
But, of course, that is turning it the wrong way. Though proposed by an architect the title has other roots. It alludes to Karl von Frisch's book published under exactly the same title already in 1974. A 'reprise'? More precisely said, the second title is in continuity with the first, wants also to honour it. Von Frisch had received the Nobel Prize in 1973 for his pioneering works in the field of animal behavior and environment studies (ethology).
Von Frisch's book was a milestone in the curriculum of Juhani Pallasmaa, the main author of the presently reviewed book. Von Frisch stimulated him to further develop deeprooted childhood experiences related to animal constructions. He began to collect materials himself and later invited von Frisch to take part in a then-planned exhibition on 'Animal Architecture'. However, von Frisch at that time was already over 90 and had to decline. Pallasmaa did not drop the project, but continued himself with some counseling zoologists and ethologists. The book we deal with, is at the same time the catalogue of this exhibition held in 1995 at the Museum of Finnish Architecture, Helsinki.
An interesting 'story', without doubt! It is rather unusual - we could even say 'very rare' - that an architect 'intrudes' scientifically into zoology and, there, has something to say! Note that Pallasmaa is professor for architectural design in Helsinki. No records in 'zoology'. Intrusion, a good word: just look through the illustrations. Animals as 'architects'! You find them present nearly on every page, proudly standing on their building sites, creeping or flying around their 'age old', at the same time recent 'architectural design'. Often these 'architects' are as colourful and extravagant like human architects!
Animal architects! Though Pallasmaa's book shows something unusual, his 'intrusion' is successful, even a pioneering one. It brings very surprising results: there ARE Corbus, Mies' and Wrights among animals! That is to say, if we manage to stretch the content of the word 'invention' from seconds to millions of years.
Evidently in sequence of von Frisch, and using earlier works of other authors (Hancock 1971, Hansell 1984) Pallasmaa has collected considerable materials showing results of constructive behavior throughout the whole animal world. The main point is: he essentially uses the architectural terminology to describe things. Pallasmaa looks at all this tremendous constructive activities in the animal world with the sharp eye of someone who knows what a building is, what structural conditions are, what kind of functions are involved. Everyone feels familiar. He looks at animal constructivity with the eyes of an architect.
Projections from one discipline on another? Doubtless, there is a danger, but Pallasmaa avoids it clearly by adapting his optics to the object. He emphasises technological, structural and environmental aspects on one hand, and behavioral, or social conditions, on the other. Aesthetics are integrated in this grid. No doubt also, the terminology fits. There is a structural homology between animal and human architecture.
In a first group of topics Pallasmaa describes the landscape of 'animal architecture' from various viewpoints and aspects. In 'significance of architecture' he gives examples where architecture is intimately interwoven with animal existence. It can contribute to the economy of life, e.g. by protecting eggs of fish against predators. The egg production of the female appeares reduced. 'Architecture' protects life! In regard to scale and precision of animal constructions Pallasmaa makes interesting comparisons to human architecture and shows that animal architecture, e. g. of termites, expresses similar trends to spread punctually over the earth, often producing 'skyscrapers' comparatively much higher and more efficient than those of humans (s. motto).
A second part shows a surprisingly wide spectrum of functions related to animal architecture. We hear of "temperature control", of "water management", of "water proofing and humidity control", of "ventilation and gas exchange" etc.. And, in fact, if one follows his descriptions, many animals seem to dispose of a considerable technology.
In the third part seven basic methods of construction are illustrated with many examples. Pallasmaa describes processes like excavating and carving, piling up, moulding, rolling and folding, sticking together, weaving and sewing. Here too, there is a tremendous technology in all this.
His descriptions are very fascinating. Far from any architectural reductionism, he reports on things with a competent complexity, zoologically as well as architecturally. In plausible ways he relates behavioural characteristics of particular animals and conditions of the environment showing their impacts on 'architecture', sometimes at the same time indicating how this relates back on the animals. Pallasmaa often describes such dominantly 'constructive environments' of the animal world with great sensibility, to an extent , that we may feel fairly close to them: "Termites have tender skins and have to maintain fairly constant temperature and humidity levels in their nests; in the nests of Macrotermes the humidity level is between 89 and 99 per cent. Termites also need water for their fungus gardens and for making mortar. In dry regions termites dig to incredible depths to reach the ground-water level, some desert termites have been found to make wells forty metres deep in the ground."
With many of such insights, the book lets the architect have a hunch that, maybe, he is not the only ingenious builder in this world. On the other hand, in zoology it might pave the way for the idea, that constructive behavior is spread much wider in the animal world than usually thought, and that it is of great importance in many respects.
An important category in this paradoxical term 'animal architecture' is time. 'Animal' implies a history of more than 500 Million years. Architecture, in the sense of the history of art, comparatively, a very short life. Pallasmaa writes: "I was struck by the fact that there were animal architects tens of millions of years before Homo sapiens made his first, clumsy attempts at construction. Animal constructions may surpass our achievements in their functionality, ecological adaptability, stuctural strength, efficiency of energy systems, economy and precision."
Last but not least, the illustrations! In this respect too, 'Animal Architecture' is clearly the book of an architect. It works with plans, sections, 'facades', the - conventionally underestimated - documenting tools of architecture. In other words, the book is very lavishly illustrated, including marvellous photographs. A wonderful book that widens the horizons of architecture from a very unexpected angle.
Finally, according to Pallasmaa, what are the lessons of animal architecture?
CONTINUITY: "I want to suggest that we could learn from studying the gradual and slow development and adaptation of animal constructions through the course of millions of years, since we, human architects of the electronic age, tend on the contrary to invent a new architectural style for each new season."
ECOLOGY: Pallasmaa maintains that cultural, psychic and aesthetic factors compromise functionality in human architecture. Consequently architecture has developed away from the ecological balance. He thinks that "examples of animal architecture represent an uncompromised ecological functionalism". Concluding then, he says: "In the face of the urgent demand for ecologically better adapted forms of life and architecture, we may have to reverse the image; we should, perhaps, begin to imagine ourselves inhabiting houses inspired by the animal master-builders."
Without doubt, the strengths of this book are in its ethological materials described by an architect. This wealth of new materials, of animal technology and its corresponding structural forms should, however, not cover up the cultural backgrounds of human architecture. In the framework of this huge and fascinating materials of animal architecture, man's architecture tends to become one among many. Man the builder against animal architects! Structural analogies. So, why not learn from it, borrow concepts from it for human architecture. Pallasmaa suggests it. Frei Otto and the spider's web - architecture? Evidently, here, the view is too narrow. Pallasmaa's a-historic program with its dominantly techno-/function-/structure-parameters can not cover the culture of human architecture adequately. The program is too tightly adapted to its specific object, animal architecture.
This problem fully comes up in comparisons between 'animal architecture' and 'human architecture'. Really, I have doubts about the graphic presentation of "predecessors to the architecture of man" (1 + 2; p. 14/15; 122/23). In my own worldview, "layered roofs" of Nepali temples can not be compared with layered roofs of termite nests. Also, the analogy of the 'facade' of a peasant storehouse and the casing of a fly larva (trichoptera) is questionable in my view, as well as the comparison of the panel construction of a Japanese house in Kyoto with the "house" of caddis fly larva "showing panel elements precut from water plant leaves".
My personal view differs here. Forms are not just mere forms, isolated from the rest, whether cultural or natural. They have 'histories', which bind them down on earth, particularly in the animal world. In former times, such 'histories' could easily be mixed on deductive common factors. In the 19th century nature was still close to written history, the whole universe and the world being considered some two to three thousand years old. This has greatly changed today. There are at least seven different histories with different names (cosmo-, geo- bio-, anthropo-logy, pre-, and written history proper, finally ethnology and folklore studies both focussed on surviving traditions), using different methods, different periodisations. The animal 'histories' therefore are different from the 'history' of human architecture. Forms cannot easily be compared. If thus the affinity between human architecture and animal architecture are questioned, the reasons to borrow, become problematic too. Doubtless, this affinity is, to some extent also, influenced by the method used.
In spite of such differences, we must fully agree with Pallasmaa, that modern and post-modern architecture have manoeuvred the architectural 'laics' into a virtual system of urban environment which got out of control, threatening the human existence as a whole with its cancerous growth. Without doubt, Pallasmaa's pioneering 'intrusion' into the new domain of 'architectural zoology', and/or 'zoological architecture' and its ecological conditions, will greatly contribute to pave an important new way. Namely, to develop architectural theory out of its myth, out of its merely aesthetic evaluations and towards objectively scientific grounds.
The beautifully illustrated book is warmly recommended to architectural students who feel that present architectural 'theories' provide 'too limited' views on the architectural 'reality'. The book offers a wealth of discoveries!
von Frisch, Karl,
Animal Architecture; Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, NY and London, 1974
Animals and Architecture; Hugh Evelyn, London, 1971
Hansell, Michael H.,
Animal Architecture and Building Behaviour; Longman London and NY, 1984
DOFSBT, Chorgasse 19
CH-8001 Zuerich, Switzerland
I was prompted to ask by the comment in your book review: "Pallasma maintains that cultural, psychic and aesthetic factors compromise functionality...". I believe I understand and in fact agree with this idea, that human designs have "developed away from the ecological balance". I merely question the use of the term aesthetics in this context.
4GL -- SQL -- New Era
---- There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, ----
---- Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. ----
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Thank you for your book review. I assume it is submitted for publication in Architronic. It will require some editing--word structures are organized in Zurich-deutsche (?) and need to be smoothed out a bit. However the language use is accurate, and it was a delightful book to review. I will forward it to our reviews editor who will handle the editing and decisions on publication.
If we were to publish the review we will need to know where it has been available on the net, and reference that address. In essence by placing it on a home page you have "published" it, although not through a review process. Let me know where it has been available so that we can reference it properly.
Thank you for your submission. It should spark lively debate and interest amonst our readers.
Thanks for sending your review of Pallasmaa's book. I have transmitted it to some of my colleagues for whom he is an important reference. Best regards, Maurice Amiel.Dept of Design. UQAM.
Hello, Nold ! Pallasmaa's work sounds so interesting. Have you ordering and price information?
I received today, by the way, the article you sent on to me. Multumesc! (as those happy folks in Romania say). I will be unable to read it for a few days, but it's near the top of the list for next week's reading.
Lovely early evening light here. Rainstorm which was predicted went somewhere else. We have only cool, soft breezes. August is the nicest month sometimes.
very interesting review. Have you published the actual review on your site? If so, we would like to mention it in our news area.