Who would have ever thought that termites have the answer to beat the summer heat?
“They build these hills naturally and intuitively or intelligently create these openings in these hills because they know it creates a crosswind and it cools their environment,” said Chicago architect Alicia Ponce. “That is an example of biomimicry and what we are doing in this project. Ironically, it’s called The Magical Town in Mexico. And it will be magical once it is built.”
Ponce uses a rammed earth process for the Mexico project, which she describes in an installation currently on display as part of the exhibit “Nature’s Blueprints: Biomimicry in Art and Design.” It will run until August 14 at the Elmhurst Art Museum in Elmhurst.
“It’s more than just an inspiration from nature, it mimics it, or emulates it in designed art, architecture, you name it,” said biomimicry museum director John McKinnon. “How cobwebs inspired suspension bridges or burrs stuck to pants then inspired the creator of Velcro.”
The touring exhibit features a dozen interactive learning stations that help illustrate the connection between nature and design in real products, he said. For example, the way small mammals are studied to create a better type of wetsuit for surfers or how the teeth of a chainsaw take inspiration from how a beetle can gnaw through wood.
“There are many different moments when you realize that there are products you use every day that are inspired by nature, like the Velcro example…that you may not have thought of before,” McKinnon said.
Visitors can learn about different ways in which scientists, designers or architects have been inspired by that in nature over time.
“The earliest work I’ve seen in it is a copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s diary with drawings of flying machines inspired by bat wings. And it goes all the way to the present with a remix of a song by this musician called DJ Spooky,” said McKinnon.
“There is a listening station with a song that he remixed and inspired by nature. I think there are many different points of interactivity, but also of approachability throughout the show.”
Below the stations is an area where the visitors can stand and it will get a thermal reading of your heat signature and see different ways pythons or other animals can see, he said.
“And you can hold up different pieces of clothing or jump in front of them and see how that can change the heat signature or the thermal image your body might create,” McKinnon said. “That would be great fun for kids.”
For the Elmhurst exhibition, the art museum asked Ponce, which specializes in using nature in design, to create an installation.
“I started 15 years ago to design architecture that is inspired by nature and respects nature. In the sense of biomimicry, there is 3.8 billion years of evidence that nature works,” said Ponce, founder and director of architectural firm APMonarch.
“As an architect, I like to observe nature and its systems, study the science behind it and imitate those systems in architecture. We don’t have to depend on mechanical systems, or we can be less dependent on them because nature doesn’t put itself in a wall, right? So we mimic those systems.”
In her installation she explains the rammed earth process step by step.
“It’s functional because the rammed earth is structural, it heats naturally when it’s cold and it cools naturally when it’s hot. It’s a technology, if you will, that’s been used for thousands of years, but now it’s perfected for the modern age,” she said.
Modern materials such as reinforced steel can be used to make it structurally sounder, but the bulk of the material is soil, she said.
“And even the way it’s built, you ideally take the soil from where you’re building and you use that to build the walls,” says Ponce, who hosts the YouTube YouTube “Designing Healthy Environments” podcast. APMonarch’s channel.
The process involves compacting seven inches of soil.
“There’s a way that humans can do it with their bare hands, or there are now more sophisticated ways of doing it with machines,” she said. “The idea is not to use any energy while you’re also building it, so we’ve strived to reduce CO2 emissions as much as possible.”
Another project Ponce, author of “Latinas in Architecture: Stories of raise the 1% one Latina a time,” highlights is the North Park Village Nature Center on Chicago’s north side. APMonarch designed the lobby of the center. Visitors can walk through four different ecosystems and learn about nature. As part of the project, bark damaged by the Asian longhorn beetle was used to finish the lobby.
“They leave this very intricate pattern… we took that and we save the damaged wood and we show visitors what nature is doing,” she said. “But instead of throwing away the damaged wood, we took it with us and applied it to the lobby as a finish. Kids can run their hands through it and feel the texture. So it is a way for children and adults to learn from nature how to turn the bad into something good.”
The “Nature’s Blueprint” exhibition is included in the price of the museum admission for adults.
“Kids are always free and free on all our shows that are current,” McKinnon said. The museum, which is currently celebrating its 25th anniversary, also has two additional wildlife-related exhibits — a solo art show by Chicago painter Raúl Ortiz titled “More is More” runs through August 14 at the museum’s historic McCormick House and the Elmhurst Artists’ Guild Summer Members’ Show, featuring the work of 35 local artists, runs through July 23.
Concurrent with the exhibition, a full summer of programs will run, including summer camps, classes, STEM and STEAM workshops for teens, and more. A full list is available on the museum’s website.
“I think this exhibition will inspire people to advocate for this kind of architecture. Because as architects, as contractors and engineers, we have the resources, we have the tools and we can be innovative to build buildings that are good for the environment.
“There’s no reason we should do it the way we always do it — because it’s the easy or the cheaper way,” Ponce said. “Realize that this can be at your home, where you work. And we just have to advocate for this kind of work.”
‘Blueprints of nature: biomimicry in art and design’
When: until August 14
Where: Elmhurst Art Museum, 150 Cottage Hill Ave., Elmhurst
Tickets: $15 adults; $12 seniors 65+; 18 years and under free
Information: 630-834-0202; elmhurstartmuseum.org
Kathy Cichon is a freelance reporter for Pioneer Press.