AMSTERDAM – The fifth edition of the Amsterdam Light Festival has been revealed in all its illuminated glory this month. A total of 38 installations are spread over the two exhibition routes across the city’s street and canals – Illuminade and Water Colours – each using light as the focus of their design. Artists, architects and designers from all over the world take part in the festival and submit works according to the theme, which for this year’s Illuminade is: Biomimicry. We caught up with two of the local firms participating in this year’s event – UNStudio and Benthem Crouwel Architects – to discuss how the dynamic use of light in their projects reveal the potential of biomimicry for the future of architecture.

What is your interpretation of the Illuminade’s theme of biomimicry?
MARTEN WASSMANN (Benthem Crouwel): Our piece is an investigation, in collaboration with designer Jólan van der Wiel, into the effects of natural forces. We took inspiration from the sea tinkle (Noctiluca scintillans) – a bioluminescent, cellular organism – which is affected by the impact of waves which create an impulse that causes these small animals to emit light. This is the idea that we have translated into our project entitled Lightwaves. There are sensors in the fabric that measure the movement created by the wind and this triggers over 3000 LED lights, in three different levels of brightness. Every individual LED is provoked by the wind, so there is no pre-programming and it can’t be manually influenced. In that way, it is completely unpredictable and, as the piece moves towards or away from you in the wind, it is mimicking the light emission of the sea tinkle.

How is light used as a key aspect in this work?
BEN VAN BERKEL (UNStudio): Light is more than what it used to be; today it is like data. What you can do with LED lighting now is unbelievable. I am fascinated by the idea of painting with light and so from the start this was integrated into our work. The location for our project (Eye_Beacon Pavilion at Brauwbrug) is a link between the water and the urban city, and the design integrates these two aspects of Amsterdam’s infrastructure. One end of the pavilion – the rigid, cube-like volume – moves towards the water and the more flowing end faces the cultural quarter the city. It’s a kind of metaphorical twist intended to flirt with the public’s perception of the two environments. The pavilion plays with soft changes in coloured light and the speed is programmed to change depending on the time of day so it could be different each time someone sees it; sometimes it is fast light, sometimes slow.

What lessons can we learn from biomimicry to take forward into architecture?
MW: The real secret of biomimicry lies in deeper aspects that still need investigation. I don’t think that architecture’s adventure into biomimicry will be about replicating behaviours in the patterns of nature but instead  it will be about the architecture that can adjust its behaviour based on changes in the surrounding environment. For example, copying a honeycomb structure is great and of course it works, but it is literal. If you don’t explore the full qualities behind how and why that works, then you are not really making full use of biomimicry. Though, hidden qualities in natural forces and how nature and animals deal with this is a very broad field.

What have you learned through your experience as a participant in Amsterdam Light Festival?
MW: The light festival gave us an opportunity to further investigate something that we have been interested in for a little while. We began a project in 2015 called Forces for Architecture, which allows us to research how nature’s forces can inspire the built environment by conducting experiments to open up the potential of architecture based on natural phenomena. That’s the point of our collaboration with Jólan van der Wiel; finding out how to make something that changes from only the forces around it..

An interesting question was raised by many of the artists involved with this year’s festival on whether the human race is part of nature or merely co-exists alongside it. Where do you stand on this?
BVB: I am a strong believer that we are part of nature. When we, as architects, talk about ‘the sustainable environment’, we should be considering more than just the external factors of the outdoors on the life of a building. Intelligent architecture is also about dealing with internal aspects of the local environment and that is something that we can learn by mimicking nature. Biomimicry is something that is adaptive; something that changes according to its situation. This will be a key element of architecture in the future – how we can imitate what is around us to improve the invisible aspects of architecture for the comfort of the inhabitants. Technology today means that we can do so much with sensorial design. Nature and the built environment have never been so connected.

The Amsterdam Light Festival continues throughout the city until the New Year. The projects of Illuminade will be lit up until 8 Jan 2017, with the Water Colour canal route continuing to illuminate the city until 22 Jan 2017.

Next year’s event is already open for public entries, with a submission deadline of 31 Jan 2017. Go here for more information.

Photos Lauren Teague/Benthem Crouwel