Tom Wiscombe, 2008
Design today must find ways to approximate … ecological forces and structures. To tap, approximate, burrow, and transform morphogenetic processes from all
aspects of wild nature, to invent artificial means of creating living artificial environments.
The history of architecture reveals a constantly shifting relation of structure to space. Structure is sometimes latent,
sometimes expressed, other times dematerialized at great effort. Whatever the case, considerations of efficiency
alone are never enough to explain the role of structure in architecture. In the contemporary digital environment, vital,
adaptive, formative potentials of structure have begun to emerge. There is a growing acknowledgement that
structure, when removed from a state of equilibrium, can become as unpredictable and varied as natural phenomena.
When released from critical states of suppression and representation, structure can become fluid, color-variegated,
cross-pollinated, and hybridized, in a jungle-like ecology. Such wildness has been theorized by Sanford Kwinter, who
is a tireless promoter of the dynamics of animal packs, storms, and guerilla tactics—all that is untame—as a way out
of the mechanistic dilemmas of architecture.
One way to frame a discussion of wildness is through Mies van der Rohe and Pier Luigi Nervi, who offer two
divergent approaches to structuration. Mies’s canonical National Gallery in Berlin (1968) appears to be about
structure, with its exposed beams and fetishistic steel detailing, but it doesn’t exhibit any intensive material or
structural logic per se. The project is about the universality of flat planes, and the purity of endless metric space. In
this sense, it is a conceptual project. Columns are removed from the interior and dissolved with his trademark crosssection;
there is no response at the location of maximum shear where column meets roof, and the roof structure is
equally deep, independent of the variable bending forces at work within it. Nervi’s Giatti Wool Mill (1951), in
comparison, begins to exhibit a materialist flow of forces, a proto-wildness. In this project, the structural ceiling
morphology begins to organize in response to force flows along its surface. The vertical is not suppressed, but rather
begins to effect transformation in the horizontal. The variability and elegance of the relief can be experienced on a
conceptual level, as intensive forces at work, but also on an immediate, sensate level. Jeff Kipnis has referred to this
kind of simultaneity as a “dual-ontology.”
Wild structures are not simply expressive structures. The drive toward legibility, in the sense of being able to trace a
genealogy of forces back to a source, is actually quite tame. Wild structures are instead a seething combination of
behaviors that coalesce into an emergent whole with effects that may exceed the structural. Butterfly wing structures
are wild in that sense: their porosity is certainly related to structural lightness and aerodynamics, but it is also
unpredictably related to the production of visible color effects. It turns out that color-variegated wing patterns are
often not based on pigment, but on the micro-patternings of variable-depth pores modulating wavelengths of light.
Structural Expressionism, as a movement in architecture, has been more about zero-sum, one-to-one legibility—no
doubt a late permutation of the modernist instinct toward transparency. But it also must be noted that its practitioners
have often gone to great lengths to produce legible images of efficiency at the expense of actual efficiency. This drive
toward excess for the sake of producing affect in terms of structure is quite interesting, and re-examined in the
contemporary environment, opens up ways of thinking about legibility versus obfuscation in structural design. I would
argue that engineering efficiencies do not have to exclude excesses, that these territories can cross over, creating
complex formations that might do unexpected work, and might be felt as well as read.
While the term “wild” is easily associated with the biological, it is important to remember that in architecture, we are
talking about artificial, inorganic constructions that don’t literally grow. Wild behavior can be synthesized through any
number of opportunistic processes, however, wherever material logics operate within shaping environments. In a
military-industrial setting, exactly where we would expect not to observe wildness, we find salient examples. The F-
22A Raptor is a radically heterogeneous construction that reflects local, opportunistic thinking in terms of materials,
engineering, and manufacture. Instead of one continuous material system, this aircraft was designed using several
interwoven materials and structural morphologies. Boeing made the fuselage from a deep-celled aluminum and steel
egg-crate system and the wing spars from cast titanium, while Lockheed Martin made the wings, fins, and duct
manifolds from formed thermoplastics and carbon-fiber composites. The structural patterning that results is patchy
but nonetheless coherent. This is not an ‘exquisite corpse’ or collage of parts, but a radically responsive model for
structuration that injects variable materiality into a system of variable patterning. The result is technically intelligent,
but also beautiful, articulated, exotic.