Thursday, January 19, 2012

Looking at a Plant

Southeast of London in the distant suburb of Down stands Downe House, the curiously named home of Charles Darwin. Standing In the garden at Down House, I learned that Darwin used to stoop and look at a flower for minutes on end, ten, fifteen minutes of rapt contemplation. The discovery of this anecdote was vindication for me. In crowded Cambridge, Massachusetts, my postage stamp garden with its sixty-odd plant families lies in the middle of a “village” of several family dwellings. Every time I study my plants someone is watching me, and since I don’t smoke or own a dog or water a lawn this makes me a little weird in the context of our neighbors. Standing in Darwin’s plant-loving shoes, or pretending to do so, somehow makes things a little easier.

Darwinian evolution (and all science) is based on a singular unifying principle: The Naturalistic Philosophy. Simply put, the Naturalistic Philosophy assumes that natural phenomena have natural causes. We can come to understand those causes through asking the right questions and studying nature in an appropriate manner. By “appropriate” I mean that we use our observations of nature as evidence for answering the questions we pose. This proviso simply means that nature is explained by nature, not by religious texts or belief systems. Corollary to the Naturalistic Philosophy is the Mechanistic Theory, which states that living (biological) systems are constrained by physical and chemical conditions. 

Water, light, nutrients, and temperature are some of the conditions that influence plants, and we’ll address all of them on these pages. But this is a space for designers, not scientists. When we look at plants, is it impossible to gain understanding without considering the Naturalistic Philosophy and the Mechanistic Theory? Do we have to reduce the plant to an evolutionary machine that eats, breathes, and reproduces? Of course, the answer is no, no more than we reduce humans to their separate parts, their functioning cells, or their molecular components. 

Plants are perhaps foremost things of great aesthetic beauty. Symmetry and asymmetry, modular growth patterns, rhythms of opening and closing, folding and unfolding, elongating, swaying, shading, creeping and standing; all of these define plants as well as any anatomic feature or molecular interaction. We are here to consider plants as design models. Always, and we want to keep in mind the aesthetic value of plants. Yet it makes sense that we want to understand something about their underlying function, because the evolution of functionality, in concert with beauty, grace, and harmony is the miracle of plants.

Looking at a plant we observe its outer facies, its shape and size, its visual nature, its place in the landscape. We may perceive its aroma, either of flowers or leaves, and perhaps we can hear it whisper in the breeze. But for design inspiration we want to go past “biomorphic” shapes. We don’t necessarily want to design leaf-shaped buildings, flower-shaped parks, or packaging that mimics plant ovaries, which grow into fruits. So I encourage my students to move beyond the popular concept of “biomimicry.” 

I assert that plants offer us something else, something much more valuable. Plants are radical living elements, the product of millions of years of evolution in the face of adversity. Plants offer us insights into how to make effective designs that have beauty, simplicity, and function. Beauty, simplicity, and function are wrapped up in the body of the plant. Darwin considered plant diversity--the array of physical patterns in plants--as an “abominable mystery.” Let’s harness that mystery for our own designs combine a study of botany with design.

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