The field of biomimicry is vastly expanding its domain in architecture as it encompasses the quest for innovative solutions and sustainable living. However, the use of biomimicry has been in use for centuries, often in the most renowned architectural marvels. Biomimetic architecture is beyond utilizing nature as inspiration for the aesthetic components of built form but it seeks to use nature to solve problems of the building’s functioning.

Today, use of biomimicry has increased drastically, to an established sustainable system but all these advancements have taken place because of the changes in techniques and technologies.

But still the question remains, what about the ancient structures? How where they constructed?

Did the architects use nature’s inspiration to erect all the magnificent buildings we see today around us?

Here are 15 instances of historically significant buildings about different aspects of biomimicry.

1. Sakyamuni Pagoda of Fogong Temple, Shanxi Province, China.

World’s tallest and oldest wooden pagoda built during the Liao dynasty circa 1056 in China, Sakyamuni Pagoda is 67.31m high as noted by Guinness book of world records. The architectural marvel rests on a stone base with octagonal tiers forming the tower. One of the most interesting features of the pagoda is Dugong brackets used for its construction. “With a series of interlocking bow-shaped wooden brackets placed perpendicular to each other, each bracket sustains the load of the bracket above it which is generally longer and extended as a cantilever. The system finds its inspiration from the branches of trees which are a sequence of cantilevers.” (Iasef Md Rian, Mario Sassone, 2014).

Sakyamuni Pagoda of Fogong Temple, Shanxi Province, China
Dougong Brackets used in the Sakyamuni Pagoda ©

2. Gloucester Cathedral, Gloucestershire, UK

Gloucester Cathedral was built in 1351 AD becoming an important example of gothic architecture. It manifested an important interior detail, fan vaults. With ribs of equal curvature, rotated at an equal distance, fan vaults were developed around a central axis. Space in between subsequent vaults was detailed with spandrels. The structure derived its form from the trees. Imitating the dense formation of trees, the fan vaults created a similar impression in the cathedral.

Gloucester Cathedral, Gloucestershire, UK
Fan vaults in Gloucester Cathedral ©

3. Temple of Luxor, Egypt

The ancient temple complex was constructed around 1400 BCE on the east bank of the river Nile. The complex consists of a peristyle court, halls, and chambers. It was commissioned by the Amenhotep III; however, it was completed by the contribution of Tutankhamun, Horemheb, and Rameses II over several years. The most striking feature of the temple is the forecourt which is adorned with a series of columns along the three sides. The column capitals imitate the bud of a papyrus tree made in sandstone. With 14 columns as high as 52 feet flanked the central nave.

Temple of Luxor, Egypt
The columns imitating the form of a papyrus bud in Luxor Temple ©Encyclopedia Britannica

4. Classical Orders of Architecture

Of the five classical orders, Corinthian order replicates the features of acanthus leaves which were intricately carved to manifest the iconic style of the column we know today. Jackie Craven explains, “Not all Corinthian capitals are exactly alike, but they are characterized by their leafy flowers. The capitals of Corinthian columns are more ornamented and delicate than the tops of other column types.” (Thought co., Feb 11, 2020).

Composite order, a composition of volutes from Ionic order and decoration of Corinthian order is another example of inspiration from nature. Historical landmarks such as the Arch of Constantine in Rome, Library of Celsus in Turkey, Church of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, have the latter orders.

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A GreekCorinthian order ©
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The library of Celsus with Corinthian order, Turkey ©Low cost Europe Travel

5. Sagrada Familia, Spain

The astounding Sagrada Familia designed by Antoni Gaudi began its construction in 1882 and it is expected to be completed by the year 2026. An amalgamation of gothic architecture and art nouveau, the roman catholic church drew numerous inspirations from nature which are structurally and aesthetically implemented. Amongst many such details, one such notable one is the columns along the nave have been designed imitating the branching trees. Furthermore, minuscule details have been evolved such as lights embedded in the columns replicating tree knots. The nativity façade is another element of Gaudi’s design dedicated to the birth of Jesus, which is adorned with exquisite ornamentation of natural forms.

Sagrada Familia, Spain - Sheet1
The columns of SagradaFamilia with the tree knot shaped lights ©
Sagrada Familia, Spain - Sheet2
The nativity Façade ©Flicker

6. Sainte Chapelle, Paris

Built during 1238-1248, the gothic chapel is known for its richly colored stained-glass windows and decorated interiors. The most iconic feature of the chapel is the western rose window, completed in the 15th century, which details the Book of the revelation of St. John. (Pierre, French Moments) The design of the window resembles the Dahlia flower petals.

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The rose window at Sainte Chapelle ©Flicker
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The Sainte Chapelle, Paris ©Reisroutes

7. Paris metro entrances

Designed by French architect Hector Guimard during the late 19th century, the Paris metro entrances seamlessly interpreted organic forms from vine plants and flowers. With glass canopy, motifs like balustrades, floral lights made in cast iron, the entrances became an important example of art- nouveau style.

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An entrance to the Metro station designed by Hector Guimard©
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An example of biomimicry of wine leaves by Hector Guimard©My Modern Met

8. Ancient Korean houses and their landscape geography

From the understanding of landscape which comprised high mountain viewing towards the river which ran across the village to provide health and abundance, the ancient Korean villages replicated the latter ideology in their planning principles. The ancient Korean houses were made with roofs resembling the form of a mountain with a series of courtyards and water ponds imitating the geography. (Jin Kim, Kanggeun Park, 2018)

Ancient Korean houses and their landscape geography
Hahoe Village based on the traditional landscape theory ©UNESCO World Heritage Center

9. Ancient Indian Architecture

The rock-cut caves of Aurangabad, dating back to the 6th-9th century were Buddhist shrines. Amongst several caves, an important example of columns in a hall decorated with floral and vegetal motifs. While another series of columns have fluted capitals in the form of a lotus.

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Columns at Aurangabad Caves bearing resemblance to the lotus ©Amazing Maharashtra
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Ellora Caves in Aurangabad ©Pinterest

10. Alhambra Palace, Spain

The palace originally built in 889 AD was rebuilt in the 13th century is an important landmark of the Muslim era lead by Al Andalus. The palace details comprise a perplexing detail known as the ‘honeycomb’. In nature repetition of a module to form a composition such as a honeycomb allows structural stability. Using similar criteria, the palace encloses such iterated modules in brackets, domes, and squinches. (Archnet- IJAR, Nelly ShafikRamzy, 2015)

Alhambra Palace, Spain - Sheet1
Detailing inside the Alhambra Palace, Spain like a honeycomb structure ©
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Repetitive use of modules in the Alhambra Palace ©emiphotostock

11. The Crystal Palace, London

Built-in 1851 for the Great Exhibition at Hyde Park, London, the crystal palace was an exemplary structure designed by Joseph Paxton. Inspired by the water lily Victoria Amazonica, the structural framing of the Palace using cast iron aligned with the natural form of lily leaves, ribs, and stems. The replicating pattern integral to the form was enhanced with sheet glass. (Urban Biology, 2016)

The Crystal Palace, London
The Crystal Palace, London ©

12. Eiffel Tower, Paris

The cultural icon of Paris built from 1887-1889 is yet another astonishing example of biomimicry. The latticework found in the thigh bone structure was observed by anatomist Hermann von Meyer and engineer Karl Cullman in 1850-60s. The strength provided by the bone with an intricate network to withstand the weight of the body was further developed by Gustave Eiffel to design the form of the tower. (Archnet- IJAR, Nelly ShafikRamzy, 2015)

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The Eiffel Tower ©Renfe-SNCF
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The thigh bone structure that inspired the design of Eiffel Tower ©

13. Gothic Towers

Bamboo, as a plant grows with nodes located at shorter intervals towards the base, widens through the middle and at the top retains nodes at shorter intervals. Furthermore, the light outer mesh provides its structural stability which allows it to grow taller. A parallel design structure is observed in Gothic towers, which has stabilized outer mesh with fractals like the bamboo plant. (Archnet- IJAR, Nelly ShafikRamzy, 2015)

Gothic Towers
The construction process of Cologne Cathedral highlighting the nodal repetition in facade like Bamboo ©

 14. The Colosseum, Rome

To provide shade from the sun and rain, the colosseum had velarium, which was a canvas-like mast sloping from the top of the structure till the end of the seating casting a hole in the center. It was a close imitation of the spider’s web which also created a ventilation effect. (Archnet- IJAR, Nelly ShafikRamzy, 2015)

The Colosseum, Rome
The use of Velarium in the Colosseum ©ThinkingLink

15. Ribbed Vaults in Gothic architecture.

Bearing a close resemblance with the skeletal structure of a turtle, ribbed vault is a common feature of Gothic architecture. The design of these vaults evolved to bear the load of the structure through concentrated points throughout giving an impression on being on legs with counter thrusts provided by flying buttresses. (Archnet- IJAR, Nelly ShafikRamzy, 2015).

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Rib- Vaults, Six parts in the Cathedral of Canterbury ©
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Ribbed Vaults used in the Rouen Cathedral ©

Aditi Sharma is an architect, researcher and amateur photographer based in Mumbai. Through RTF she is expressing her ardent thoughts in the domain of culture, history, gender, and architecture.