Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Challenge of Plants: Simple Form: Complex Function

Plants are structurally simple but functionally complex. The plant we see seems to be a simple form. As we look closer we see more simple shapes, sometimes in isolation but more often in combination with other shape. In isolation the shape of the plant-the leaf, the twig, the flower, appears even simpler that the whole plant. We can come to see the plant as a collection of fairly simple modules whose growth and development is under a strict but flexible kind of control. Somehow the living, functioning plant is built from these modules. Special cells called the meristem (similar to stem cells in animals), which we’ll discuss in a later chapter, exert that control. Meristem control is itself rather simple. Grow, stop growing, divide, excrete, die, harden. A limited number of “orders” choreograph a few limited activities. But taken in concert, these activities allow plants function in ways that belie their simple form. Plants have come to rule the terrestrial environment by fitting into an almost unimaginable range of habitats and growth conditions.

In this chapter we’ll begin to explore some of our basic ideas about plants, the capabilities of plants, the constraints they face, and the paradoxical relationship between their simple form and complex behaviors. As we lay the groundwork for design inspiration we will also explore the paradoxical, sometimes contradictory, ways in which plants betray our expectations and assumptions. I’d like you to keep in mind a couple of design-related ideas as you look through this chapter. These relate directly to plants. First, remember that the design you make may not always function in the way you expect. Second, consider that like plants, relatively simple designs may function in complex and unexpected ways. Finally, consider that plants are open systems that interact with their environment. In a similar fashion, your design, your built environment no matter how large or small, is a dynamic system that exists in relationship to an outside world full of demands, constraints, and expectations. Always questioning, always thinking “out of the box,” we keep in mind our goal of drawing useful lessons from plants and how we might apply them to our thoughts about design.