Studio MAKE in Conversation

CONVERSATION #3: Dr Chengzhi Peng and Dr Tsung-Hsien Wang with Philippos Michael, January 2017


About the projectPhilippos Michael is inspired by Black Mamba’s scales - Dendroaspis polylepis

Led by Dr Tsung-Hsien Wang, Inspired by Nature is a five-week long project to explore the underlying formal elements and rules of pattern-forming found in nature.

Beginning with a small scale study, each student investigates a chosen topic of natural evolution through Rhino-Grasshopper based parametric modelling.

The goal is for each student to develop 3D parametric models that simulate the pattern-forming process or behaviour observed. The outcomes are expected to inform further Studio MAKE projects later in the semester.

Philippos Michael is inspired by Black Mamba scales - Dendroaspis polylepis


CP: How did you choose this rather unusual topic of investigation?

PM: Snakes have a unique attribute; they have evolved through the ages in such a way that they can move without limbs. This is mainly achieved based on the snake’s skin and its function. Its form creates friction when force is applied backwards, however it provides minimal friction when moving forward.

CP: What is the key question in your investigation of the skin of a Black Mamba?

PM: The Black Mamba is one of the fastest snakes on the planet. As such, it has a snakeskin formation that provides the ability to generate more friction than other snakes. Through an investigation of the Black Mamba, I tried to explore the structure of skin and to extract the logic behind its function (Figure 1). The concept behind this research was to replicate this procedure and to apply it into design projects so that friction between components of a system can be increased or reduced.

Extraction of parameters from Black Mamba’s snakeskin

THW: How did you translate the ‘pattern-forming’ phenomena seen in the scales of a Black Mamba into parametric models?


Parameterisation and digital modellingPM: The research began with a comparison between several patterns of snakeskin, with a focus on the Black Mamba. Noting the differences and the assets of the Black Mamba’s skin, I identified first all the parameters that govern the pattern. Using these parameters, a parametric model was created in Rhino-Grasshopper, where it was further explored to test its abilities and limitations (Figure 2). The parametric model did not aim to generate a replica of the snake’s pattern but to re-evaluate its functionality and to adapt the resulting model to possible architectural projects.

CP: You seem to have adopted a modelling strategy that combines two types of geometry (quadrilateral and octagon polygons) to explore the pattern-fitting in terms of surface tessellation. Has this strategy worked well in this project?

PM: Resembling a snakeskin, the surface created by the octagon pattern could adapt to several schemes of tessellation. The resizing and twisting of octagons allows the pattern to be coherent in almost any surface shape. That was one of the primary goals of this research. The second goal has been achieved through introducing a depth/height (extrusion) to the octagonal pattern to emulate the friction function produced by a snakeskin.

CP: Does the 3D parametric modelling reveal why the scales of a Black Mamba serve this particular species of snake well?

PM: The advantages of the Black Mamba’s snakeskin pattern are apparent in Figure 3. Mainly, the gaps between the octagonal scales provide the capacity for more deformation than common snake scales, thus more differentiation in friction can be created.

CP: This is truly remarkable. The underlying geometric patterns give rise to different ‘performances’ among different species. We can reason why the Black Mamba can produce movements at such a high speed compared with the others. Because of its scale patterning, the Black Mamba’s muscle contractions can generate greater curves, which in turn can exert more expansive relaxations, so maximising the friction between the body and the ground surface. This network of little ‘quadrilateral gaps’ as you have characterised seems to hold the key to the snake’s athleticism (Figure 4).

Differentiation between species of snakes The gaps between the scales enable the Black Mamba to produce more deformation

THW: Does the scale pattern-formation contain a generative procedure that produces the ultimate snakeskin system as we see in Black Mamba?

PM: For the snakeskin, as for every organism and procedure found in nature, the evolutionary process has been happening for millions of years. The Black Mamba’s snakeskin is now the ultimate system and that relies on the scale pattern-formation, generated by a procedure based on simple parameters. Some of those were revealed through the investigation and modelled in parametric design.


Physical model-making using the laser cutting machine at the George Porter WorkshopCP: Have you tried building physical models as material manifestation of the underlying pattern-forming principle found in the Black Mamba?

PM: After having completed the investigation on the scale pattern-formation and the digital model had been created and tested, the project proceeded towards constructing a model to further support the hypothesis of the design (Figure 5). At first, a double curvature surface is constructed, consisting of planar octagonal elements. The physical model, that has been created using only laser cutting procedure, proved the functionality of the design and revealed the prospect of using it in various architectural projects, such as facades, shading systems, pavilions and many more (FPhysical Models: Double Curvature surface (left), Compression only structure (right)igure 6).

THW: How would you summarise the work-flow you have experimented with throughout the project? Is this work-flow new to you? What was the most challenging part?

PM: In a way, this project was about reverse engineering natural procedures and adapting them into architectural design. As in every architectural project, the process of design is never linear. Through analysis, some conceptual designs started to emerge. Those in turn, needed to be justified through the parameters that governed the snakeskin pattern-forming production system. As a result, the initial designs were once again altered, and at the same time I also had in mind further uses of the design. This workflow feels a bit familiar in the way of adapting existing references to the needs of your design. However, reverse engineering natural procedures and putting them into a design for a totally different use was a new and interesting concept. Reverse engineering the natural process was relatively straightforward, yet choosing which components and which of those parameters would be helpful for your later experimentations was more challenging.

CP: Given that you had only five weeks from start to finish, you have been successful in showing us how you translate Black Mamba’s scale formation into a parametric model. Do you see if this outcome can be further developed into an adaptive pattern-forming production system mimicking how nature makes such extraordinary scales and skin for the awe-inspiring Black Mamba?

PM: All the work that was done for this project was completed at a quick pace. The analysis and investigation of the pattern-forming procedure has been accomplished in an abstract way, collecting only the basic elements that comprise it. A more in depth analysis may reveal parameters and functions that can be used to further enhance the production system that has been designed. Through the conceptual model that was created for the project, a new species of pattern-forming has been brought to life. Similar to natural evolution, this process should undergo changes to reach an optimal degree of adaptability.

Philippos Michael studied Architecture at the University of Cyprus gaining PG DIP in June 2016. One of the highlights of his career so far was the Gold Medal awarded by the IOC/IPC/IAKS for the category of Architecture and Design for Students and Young Professionals 2015. He experienced a turning point in his third year of study when he first engaged with parametric logic and digital fabrication technologies.