Natural-born architects

12.01.09 NOT SINCE the 1890s have architects had such a fascination with natural forms. But where art nouveau was a purely decorative movement, the New Organics are dealing with the highest of high-tech.

The British engineering firm Ove Arup started it in the 1980s, with its research into the strength of natural structures. Now buildings inspired by spider's webs, giant hogweed, bird's nests, coral reefs and termite mounds are on drawing boards everywhere.

The reasons are not simply poetic. A spider's web is amazingly tough. A fragile-looking plant can withstand a gale that will blow the roofs off buildings. House martins can build lightweight, durable homes very rapidly. Coral reefs shape themselves according to climatic conditions. And termite mounds - cities in microcosm - have sophisticated natural ventilation systems that could provide an alternative to power-hungry air conditioning.

Architects are combining new engineering techniques and new lightweight materials - some being developed to build bases on the moon and Mars- to produce a new aesthetic.

Plans to create the world's first branching, flexible skyscraper in Melbourne - a building that spreads out as it rises, unlike the rigid tapering columns of 20th-century towers - look likely to succeed, given the new economic boom in the Pacific Rim and Australia's determination to outdo resurgent Japan and Korea. HP

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