Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
Wheaton College

Academics

Connections 20029. Living Architecture

These biology and art history courses share the assumption that architecture, whether built by humans or by nature, follows simple structural principles. These shared principles, termed “Rules to Build By” in these courses, are illustrated in the common characteristics of structures as different in scale as living cells and Gothic cathedrals.

For example, the first Rule to Build By states, “To maximize flexibility, assemble complex structures from simple repeating units.” In Cell Biology, this principle is illustrated by cell skeletons, which exist in countless shapes by recombining common identical subunits in different patterns. In medieval architecture, the principle is illustrated in Romanesque buildings that were constructed from modular units to create additive architecture that was efficient, flexible and diverse. The second posits that “To construct self-supporting structures, balance forces of tension and compression,” a principle manifested in cells by mitotic spindles and the arched stable scaffolds that support cell division, and in cathedrals by flying buttresses that support stone walls.

Living Architecture students work together in Wheaton’s Imaging Center for Undergraduate Collaboration (ICUC) in several joint laboratory exercises. One lab utilizes techniques of polarization imaging to detect the forces at work on skeletons of cells and of cathedrals. In another lab, digital image analysis is used to detect patterns in visual data in diverse objects and materials. For example, this versatile technique can be used equally well to find hidden patterns in neural networks–webs of interconnected nerve cells–as in the Bayeux Tapestry (a 230-foot-long embroidery that records the Norman Conquest in 1066). Studying dramatically different subjects through the shared approaches available in the ICUC lab will crystallize students’ understanding of important relationships in methodology between these apparently disparate fields.

Connections:
ARTH 253 Castles and Cathedrals
and BIO 219 Cell Biology