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3 Spectacular Examples Of Architecture We Could Learn From Insects


Insects are the true architectural masters on this planet, as just a few examples will show.

Insects, who for millions of years have dominated the world of the small scale and whose fate is so intertwined with our own, should be again and again placed beneath the magnifying glass until we finally understand their extraordinary social organization. The quantity of insect life that happens under our noses in any square centimeter of earth is extraordinary. And extending our analysis just for a moment, it’s fascinating to see how well they work to build their tiny societies. Insect homes, cities, and ultimately insect kingdoms make our own presumptuous cities pale in comparison.

The cities of termites, for example, or of ants, are more like our ancient cities that acquired their forms organically by self-organization instead of through a master plan. In terms of materials, methods and goals, their construction is similar to the “vernacular” design that have often been marginalized in the history of architecture. Made from the materials at hand (earth, clay, fiber…), assembled quickly, constantly refurbished and recycled, and exquisitely attuned to the environment, their homes are logical and perfectly admirable.

Being that architects today can no longer ignore greenhouse gases, energy costs, water shortages or flooding when developing their ideas, they’ve been forced to return to a pragmatic approach. And as Philip Ball noted in a recent study, architects are looking at models not only from ancient traditions but also in nature, and particularly in the spectacular projects of social insects. It’s true that insects employ systems of chemical signals (primarily pheromones) so that each can respond to what its neighbors are doing (and we do not), but this approach begins to attract human architects, too. It opens the possibility of adapting the construction process to respond to the changing limitations that occur during construction and to factors such as wind, temperature and light. That is, the idea allows environmental conditions to change the design in situ according to what is happening as things are being built. Finally, in imitating social insects a local architecture of the here and now is permitted. The building process of architecture is paid tribute while the surrounding ecology remains unthreatened.

These are some of the most amazing buildings from these tiny beings whose cooperation has plenty to teach human beings in generating a functionally and aesthetically successful social organization.

image of hill with engravings


 1. The “cathedral” mounds of Macrotermes bellicosus


These termites build their nests several meters high to store wood, to cultivate fungi that help them to digest the wood, for nurseries and for the care of the queen. The columns function as external “lungs,” one being a central heating where the temperature remains relatively constant, and the rest acting as thin flutes where temperatures fluctuate. During the day, these external ducts heat up much faster than the inner chamber, forcing air up the flutes and then down the chimney. At night, the process is reversed.


2. The magnetic termite hills of Amitermes meridionalis


From a distance, they can seem like giant crypts in a cemetery. Measuring up to 3 meters high, they’re all magnetically oriented on a North-South axis. This orientation provides the mound with sunlight on the western side each morning and at night they remain warm, without ever overheating. Outside, the mounds are tough and durable while the material dividing the inner chambers and galleries is a kind of paper the termites make themselves.


3. The paper-wasp nests of polistes dominulus

paper wasp nest


wasp nest

In the shape of an upside down umbrella, these nests are almost always sheltered under the eaves of roofs, attics or crawl spaces. As the name suggests, they’re made of paper processed by the wasps to form perfect hexagons in which to raise their young. As the colony grows, the nest expands. But the fascinating thing is that in deciding where to build new cells, wasps use information provided by local configurations of cells in the outer circumferences of the hive. They can feel these with their antennae. The resulting nests are extremely safe, warm and mathematically perfect.

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