October 13, 2010
zoo bio
Penguin Pool ramps designed by Tecton, London Zoo, 1933-34 (source)


For someone with a natural aversion to synthetic materials (too much teenage pocket-money spent on Salvation Army polyester separates) it can sometimes be difficult to revel in the damningly artificial. And quite literally (uncomfortably) so: garments dating from the late 70s simply lack the sweat-wicking technologies of contemporary fabrics.


Yet every creation of the mind bears elements of the synthetic; from fashion to chemical engineering to fiction. Unfortunate products of man’s industry notwithstanding, the significance of the synthetic lies in its form as a verb, that is, as a process. Irrigation, industrialization and urbanization all require ongoing attempts to wrest control from nature, on the order of tipping the entropic equation to favor organization over chaos. As any city-dweller understands, the urban condition is above all unnatural. But of the ‘concrete jungle’ environments, the zoo figures to be most problematic.


László Moholy-Nagy’s 1936 film, The New Architecture of the London Zoo, features the modernist pavilions designed by Tecton for the Zoological Society’s penguins and gorillas. His intertitles silently affirm: ‘The new buildings provide a hygienic organic setting, the simplicity of which best displays the natural characteristics of the animals’, revealing the hubris and contradiction of early 20th century understandings of physiology. Whereas hygienic and organic might be easily mistaken for polar opposites, the artifice of the situation is summed up by its chief purpose for display. Thus, the Round House and Penguin Pool are embraced as entirely synthetic structures. Rather than approximate any naturally occurring habitat, Tecton’s pavilions paradoxically (even dialectically) synthesized two irreconcilable notions: unobservable nature and spectacle. At last, the fabricated complexity of modernity delights.*



*In 2004, the Zoo’s penguins were relocated to an alternative habitat although the Penguin Pool maintains Grade I listed status. Its current tenants are porcupines.


Kari Rittenbach


Bioform, Heather Roberge, 2008 (source)


‘Designers may now invent material qualities that produce what can be called ‘synthetic materiality’. This is a constructed set of surface effects resulting from the mixture of actual material properties and geometry induced properties of digital operations. These synthetic materialities are immediately sensible and exhibit unusual qualities due to the co-mingling of form and representation. Drawings inhabit form, first as geometric, sensible matter, and second, as tool paths drawn by machines. Actual material properties become a medium for the dissemination of effects achieved through digital means. In the most captivating mixtures, the real and the virtual become so intertwined that one perceives a new synthetic materiality.’

—Heather Roberge (Log N.17)



An acute attention to the phenomenal language of shadow, light, tactility and texture is found in a number of primarily West Coast based architects including Heather Roberge, Florencia Pita and Lisa Iwamoto. These architects are presently producing work which is intended to be devoid of meaning and induce a response by stimulating the senses.


While the tools to render similar architectonic effects and affects has been in development for many centuries, encompassing the work of the Mughal designers to those of the Alahambra to Gaudi and so on, it is the findings of late postmodern theory and contemporary technology that sets apart this current iteration of plastic production. Through the synthesis of abstract forms, current digital design software, tooling technology and various materials, architecture has the potential to be simultaneously more specific and abstract than it has ever been.


Erandi de Silva



Edited by Erandi de Silva




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