“For buildings to be in harmony with the landscape, they need prolonged contact with nature. It could be said that exposure to sun, wind and rain produces a patina that affects them with time. The shape is born out of a combination of the constructor’s tradition and the essence of life.”
Javier Senosiain Aguilar, Bio-Architecture (Oxford: Architectural Press, 2003), 75.
With the advance of technological methods and techniques it has become clear that there really is no limit that the human race can’t reach especially in the domain of architecture. However, we have become so accustomed to suggesting that human discovery is the governing force that we fail to realise that a lot of these methods have been around as long as the existence of the earth, inspired by the production processes of nature itself.
Biomimicry is a process of evaluating the complex but useful processes of nature in order to create a more sufficient way of living in our existence today. The ‘Window Plant’ as discussed below is a source of biomimetic inspiration that can lead to the fabrication of a very specific architecture, tailor-made for the desert climates of Morocco. It is the catalytic starting point for the creation of an appropriate and
The Window Plant
Scientific Name: Fenestraria Rhopalophylla (Latin: Fenestra, derived from ‘window’) , Lithops.
Common Names: Baby Toes, Window Plant
Habitat: Grows in sandy and calciferous soils in dry areas with minimal rainfall of 100mm or less. Mostly buried in the sand especially in the wild. A geophyte meaning its storage organ is below ground protected from outside sources. Cannot survive in humid or poorly ventilated conditions.
Origin: Coastal South Africa from Namaqualand in the Northern Cape to Luderitz in Namibia. Even though the Window Plant is a naive species of Southern African parts, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the principles it uses to survive cannot be used as inspiration for the creation of a desert architecture dwelling. Namibian climate is not dissimilar to Moroccan conditions with low humidity and a generally dry, semi-arid environment where droughts are common.
Plant Analysis: With a leaf that extends mostly below the ground it is questionable as to how the plant actually gets any sunlight in order to survive. The secret lies in the thin membrane structure which is exposed above ground, acting as a window, allowing for sunlight to reach the photosynthetically active cells on the side of the walls of the plant’s body underground. Not only does the window act as a transitory light provider but it also prevents the penetration of harmful UV rays. Once the light reaches the interior surface of the plant, through the alignment of a series of transparent crystals of oxalic acid, it is redirected to the grains of chlorophyll, ensuring its survival in what is known to be hot and aid conditions. With its water storage below ground, the plant also fails to lose moisture and remains protected from predators.
Light Handling: Window membrane and transparent crystals within plant.
Surface Protection: Majority of plant is buried below the ground, protected from harmful weather conditions and predators above. Also camouflages with its surroundings.
Heat Avoidance: Buried below the ground where temperatures are more moderate and stores moisture within its confines.
Water Storage: Protected within the plant. Exterior skin also absorbs as much moisture as it possibly can when the opportunity arises.
Architectural Precedent 1:
Underground House, Gharyan, Libya
“In earlier times, the human dug a home under the ground where they could find water and protection against sandstorms and the heat. Later, they used the earth itself as a building material.”
Javier Senosiain Aguilar, Bio-Architecture (Oxford: Architectural Press, 2003), 72.
Housing Type: Troglodyte, dug out underground dwelling. Porous ground is dug into vertically 6-7 metres below the ground creating a cave like structure. Rooms circle around a central courtyard. Relatively new invention in terms of Saharan vernacular architecture.
Heat Avoidance: Through the thermal mass provided by the soil of the ground, the house is able to keep cool during hotter periods as temperature remain stable below the surface. This also means that cold winter days and cooler nights are also avoided within its confines as the ground also provides insulating properties. The house also has a lack of windows, preventing too much hot radiation from the sun entering into the cool environment. This could prove to be a problem with interior spaces almost certainly needing some kind of interior lighting. Natural light would be difficult to provide in a home entirely dug into a cave.
Surface Protection: As the home is built below ground, the only surfaces affected by the extreme weather conditions outside would be the walls facing on to the courtyard.
Architectural Precedent 2:
Aloni Residence, Antiparos, Greece
Housing Type: Mix between modern and Greek vernacular.
Light Handling: Due to the strategic placement of the courtyards, with openings to each of them, the house is able to receive quite a lot of natural light without allowing for any heat to enter. Openings may be small but still provide enough light to illuminate the living spaces of the house. The use of skylight on to the interior courtyard also introduces light into the house with minimal impact to its thermal properties.
Heat Avoidance: With the design’s response to the topography to the land, the house is able to nestle within the escarpment with the ground providing insulating properties and stable temperature conditions. Earth retaining stone walls provide further insulation. With four irrigated courtyards carved into the landscape, further cooling is provided for with vegetation completely surrounding the living spaces and even the way the walls meet the escarpment itself, also provides space for cooler shade in the hot and dry environment.
Architectural Precedent 3:
The Moroccan Riad
“Perhaps a desire for contrast is a reason why the gardens had to be contained by high walls. The garden with its flowers, shade trees, and fountains provided a cool refuge from the desert heat. The bright sun and hot desert air could not be completely excluded, but the walls sharply defined the limits of the garden and concentrated the sense of its lush coolness. Certainly the high walls were a way to ensure privacy, so important for the Muslim. But the walls’ highly visible presence also served to emphasise the difference between the cool garden within and the hot desert without.”
Lisa Heschong, Thermal Delight In Architecture (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1979),23.
Housing Type: Traditional Moroccan home built around an enclosed garden or courtyard usually containing some kind of water source such as a fountain or reflection pool. Designed to maximise privacy and cool from the outside Arabian sun.
Light Handling: With very little openings on the outside of a Moroccan Riad, the dwelling has to receive light for its interior spaces in some other way. The interior courtyard, therefore acts as a window, with all rooms facing towards that space and receiving ample light.
Water Storage: Just like the window plant, the Moroccan read stores its water within its heart, providing the rest of the host with views and atmospheric pressure of the cool and refreshing variety. The water increases humidity in the air, allowing for the space to feel a lot more comfortable.
Heat Avoidance: The lack of openings from the outside of the building and the use of masonry, clay or mud brick as a thermal mass unit means that the interior spaces don’t experience much overheating. These spaces also receive cool atmospheric pressure from the water source within the courtyard.
Conclusions and Discovery:
Earth, Water, Sun & Human Perception
Underground Courtyard Analysis
Material: Adobe/Rammed Earth & Alabaster
While adobe and rammed earth techniques would be the traditional method for construction in a Moroccan landscape, it would be interesting to experiment with stone naturally occurring in the context of the site chosen. In conjunction with the ‘Window’ plant analogy, why not use a semi-transparent stone such as alabaster and create a ceiling system that would allow for diffuse light to enter into the space without affecting the thermal properties of the architecture?
A form of fine-grained mineral Gypsum (calcium sulfate), alabaster is easy to work with, readily available and would possess the qualities needed to create a window plant like membrane ceiling for an architecture in need of light with heat avoidance. However, because of its vulnerability toward moisture and its soft composition, this material could prove to be problematic unless it is strengthened in some way which could be a catalyst for more research and experimentation.
As a final note, I think it’s necessary to highlight that despite the need to create an architecture that suits the purposes of the wider population, it is impossible to do so considering the complexities of human perception. This, nonetheless, can be used as an advantage where the play on perceptions, tricks the human body into feeling a specific way. When I transition from an extremely hot space such as a Moroccan street, to the confines of a cool courtyard, do i not experience the shift in my senses with more exaggeration? It is with this kind of play on senses that our spaces can deceive us into experiencing a state a comfortable bliss.
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