Biomimicry History: 19th Century Spain

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The natural weight-distribution pattern of trees can inspire building design.

Though biomimicry can be thought of as a new term, coined in the late ‘90s, it is not a new practice. Engineers and inventors from as far back as Leonardo da Vinci were looking at birds to design flying machines, some more successful than others (if you recall, Leonardo da Vinci never actually got any of his flying machines to fly).

In December 2010, National Geographic magazine featured another proponent of biomimicry from history: Atoni Gaudi, famed architect of many Spanish buildings, but perhaps best known for the yet-unfinished church, the Sagrada Familia (the Sacred Family.) A religious man, he held the belief that, “If nature is the work of God, and if architectural forms are derived from nature, then the best way to honor God is to design buildings based on his work.”

Biomimicry forms the basis of the entire structure’s design. There are columns designed after the natural weight-distribution pattern of trees, stairways that mimic the recurring theme of spirals in nature, honeycomb windows that allow for effective passage of natural light, and many more nature-inspired aesthetics that make up the building’s exterior beauty. All of these designs were Gaudi’s vision in 1883, when he became the chief architect of the church. Even though he passed away in 1926, his designs live on in the Sagrada Familia. The church is set to be completed in 2026, on the centennial anniversary of his passing.

The tale of the Sagrada Familia and Antoni Gaudi’s use of natural form in architecture shows that biomimicry is not a new movement, nor one that is isolated to New Age technology. Emulating nature can be both functional and beautiful, as this Barcelona monument can attest.

Dena Emmerson is a biomimicry research assistant at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous postBiomimicry: A Look at Snakes. Be sure to visit the Biomimicry section of our Web site for more information about this exciting field of study.