Science, Meet Storytelling—Stanford’s Morphogenesis

Read Time: 7 minutes

“Morphogenesis,” a generative installation at the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Biology Research Building on the Stanford University Campus designed by Knot (Portland, Ore.) and artist Jonathan McCabe, is the first installation that connects user interaction with a large-scale media mesh platform—built by GKD Metal Fabrics (Cambridge, Md.).

With the completion of the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Biology Research Building at Stanford University in 2019, biology faculty and students that were once spread across campus were brought together under one roof; the five-story structure is dedicated to research in life sciences, providing a shared environment that fosters intellectual and social interaction. The final goal of the project for Stanford, was to crown the new building with a fitting public installation—something visible, large and interactive.

Knot, a Portland, Ore. firm specializing in landscape architecture and experiential graphic design, was brought on to lead the conceptual charge. “Stanford’s approach was very thoughtful,” says Michael Yun, Knot principal, director of anti-disciplinary design.* “We were tasked with telling stories of science in a non-literal, abstract way and were given broad artistic license to explore multiple themes and variations.”

The building sits as the cornerstone of Stanford’s new science quad, connecting with the School of Medicine wth a three-story glass pedestrian bridge called Discovery Walk. The team recognized the opportunity to emphasize this relationship, making it a focal intersection and a defining moment for the visitor experience.

The design team engaged stakeholders in a series of workshops to explore conceptual directions, which, when distilled down resulted in a placemaking concept the team called “Patterns in Nature.” Named for Alan Turing’s seminal work, Morphogenesis is in essence a mechanism for how patterns can evolve from initially homogeneous biological systems. Certain substances can react with each other, changing their concentrations and self-organizing into a stable pattern; this inspired the team to create graphics that mimicked patterns found in nature: waves, symmetry, spots, stripes and spirals.

Part of a larger scope which included signage, wayfinding, donor, and a series of additional placemaking installations, Morphogenesis is a single installation with two primary components that provide two points of engagement between the Biology Department and the public—one at a personal scale and one at a landscape scale. At a personal scale, the interactive interface allows users to control a complex six-layer animating Turing pattern-based algorithmic art piece, and at a landscape scale the two-story tall media mesh screen which plays an evolving video art piece to which users can contribute their designs.

The interface is comprised of three touch screens integrated into a custom-fritted glass curtain wall. The first screen provides background on Alan Turing’s theory of Morphogenesis and a tutorial for how to create your own works. The second plays an animated pattern which correlates to the settings on the parametric controls on the third screen. This third piece, coded by artist Jonathan McCabe, functions as a video synthesizer that users can play—much like a musical instrument.  

By adjusting values of variable inputs, the resulting patterns can evoke the stripes on a zebra, spots on a tropical fish, vegetation patterning, and even environmental conditions like cloud and wave formations. It’s accessible enough for first-time visitors to have fun with, but also provides deeper possibilities for nuance and composition for those returning. By saving the patterns they create, visitors populate the permanent generative art piece shown on the large Mediamesh display. As a result, the longer the installation is in place, the more diverse its content will become.

GKD Metal Fabrics was charged with fabrication and installation of the 32-foot-tall Mediamesh façade display composed of four panels that span the expanse of the Discovery Walk. Mediamesh is a stainless steel mesh interwoven with LED lights, which does not create noise or heat. It also has the benefit of using less electricity than traditional media displays while still allowing for natural light to pass through—an ideal choice for this application and the very first installation to connect user interaction with a large-scale Mediamesh platform. Yun remarks that the GKD product was the most appropriate architectural material and “perfect for the scale of the piece.” 

In order to construct Morphogenesis, the team had to resolve a series of unique design challenges including: networking interactive computers to communicate with the media mesh panels and display servers, resolving signal latency that occurs across long wiring runs between system components, mounting a large scale mesh structure across a major seismic joint, discretely housing numerous electrical power supplies, structuring the system to allow interaction while maintaining consistent content on the large scale screen, and applying touch sensitive film on exterior-rated glass.

Designers worked in parallel tracks in order to achieve this task; one track focused on developing the artistic content and technology to drive it and the other was focused on architectural integration and coordination. The team developed technical schematics to understand the complex data transfers required. These schematics were accompanied by product specifications and detailed network diagrams that conformed to Stanford’s rigorous security requirements.

Mike Leonard, GKD’s technical director of Mediamesh systems, says that it comes down to being detail-oriented. “With it being located in one of the worst seismic zones in the United States, and knowing that we were going to have potentially thousands of people interacting with it every day, we had to make sure the whole thing is clean and safe.” Because of seismic building codes, the Mediamesh wasn’t allowed on the building’s exterior; their solution was to hang the media facade between large glass panels located just inside the building envelope.

Visibility was evaluated as well. Because the mesh was behind glass with the intent to display to an exterior viewing audience, an especially careful calculation of brightness to the outside as well as reflection level into the room behind it was required.“With every project we evaluate the viewing angles of the display and customize where the LEDs are targeted.” Leonard continues, “We conduct a viewing angle analysis of the site and the location of the screen to ensure the impact of the display is at optimal brightness.”

Morphogenesis not only realized Stanford’s vision for abstracted storytelling—it also established a new visual identity for the Biology Department that reaches beyond the facade of the building. Morphogenesis serves as a beacon that draws visitors from Stanford’s medical campus into the science quad and engages passersby in a moment of creativity and wonder.

And, the resulting display was also completely in line with the design team’s expectations. “From the beginning, we had an idea of how we wanted it to look and feel,” Yun remembers. “The first day we had the display up and running the piece, we were standing on Discovery Walk to see how it looked. I said, ‘Wow, this looks exactly like the rendering. It’s exactly as we envisioned it.’”

In the first year of installation, over 8,000 user contributions saved to the permanent database. These creations continuously cycle, recombining randomly to create a seamless stream of the unique animating biomorphic patterns, turning the building’s visual identity into an ongoing, open-sourced collaboration—one that sets an ambitious precedent for creative storytelling at the union of science and the arts.



Project Name: Bass Biology Building, Stanford University
Client: Stanford University
Location: Palo Alto, Calif.
Open Date: March 2019
Project Area: 512 sq ft
Project Budget: $650,000
Architect: Ennead Architects, Flad Architects
Experiential Graphic Design: Knot
Design Team: Michael Yun (principal in charge); Amber Offir, Bil Jenak (designers)
Fabrication/Digital Integration: GKD Metal Fabrics, ADVG Audio Visual, TSI Touch Sensors, Daktronics Display Servers, Whiting Turner
Planning: Ennead Architects, Flad Architects
Collaborators: Jonathan McCabe (artist); Oleg Pashkovsky (creative coder); Stephen Pond, Ian Grossman (project managers); Annette Jannotta, Parisa Navidi (interior designers); Eddie Kelley (systems integrator)
Photography: GKD Metal Fabrics, Knot, Jonathan McCabe, Gabe Border, Tim Griffith
Videography: Knot, Oleg Pashkovsky, Jonathan McCabe, Gabe Border, Misty Seminara


*Why Anti-Disciplinary? Knot’s website describes their process thusly: “In order for people to connect to environment and place, designed experiences must be more than the sum of their parts. This requires the expertise of thoughtful, anti-disciplinary problem-solvers. We are committed to the co-mingling of ideas across disciplines; acting as members of a diverse, interdependent ecosystem of ideas.”