Architects have long been fascinated with the bee and the beehive. According to architectural historian Juan Antonio Ramirez architects as different as Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926) and Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) drew inspiration from bees and beehives. Ramirez believes that Gaudi’s use of catenary arches in his organic, idiosyncratic designs –first represented in his Cooperativa Mataronesa factory– were directly inspired by the form of a natural beehive. He supports this claim is with the Gaudi-designed graphics that accompany the project: a flag with a bee on it and a coat-of-arms representing workers as bees – a symbol for industriousness and cooperation. Gaudi was building a hive for humans.
Noted minimalist architect Mies van der Rohe (whose work has been immortalized in Lego) was less inspired by the form in which bees built than by the ideal industrial society they represented. In the aftermath of World War I, a young, perhaps slightly more radical Mies was associated with a group of writers, artists, and architects known as the Expressionists. He published designs for innovative glass high-rises –the first of their kind– in the pages of the Expressionist publication Frülicht. Such buildings, Mies wrote, “could surely be more than mere examples of our technical ability….Instead of trying to solve the new problems with old forms, we should develop the new forms from the very nature of the new problems.” One of the most famous of these early unbuilt designs is the 1921 project nicknamed “honeycomb”. In Ramirez’s view, the angular glass skyscraper is evidence that Mies wasn’t only looking into the nature of the new problems, but looking into nature itself – specifically, to bees. Mies’s youthful belief that architecture could reshape society “brings him closer to the idea of the beehive, because in the beehive we find a perfect society in a different architecture.”
Architecture’s relationship with bees predates green roof hives, Mies, and even Gaudi. As evidenced by a recent discovery at Rosslyn Chapel, perhaps best known as the climactic location of The Da Vinci Code, precedent for bee-influenced architecture can be traced back to the 15th century. While renovation the chapel a few years ago, builders discovered two stone beehives carved into the building as a form of architectural ornament. There’s just a small entry for bees through an ornamental stone flower and, surprisingly, no means to collect honey. Appropriately, the church is simply a sanctuary for bees. Una Robertson, historian of the Scottish Beekeepers Association told The Times that “Bees do go into roof spaces and set up home, and can stay there a long time, but it’s unusual to want to attract bees into a building…Bees have been kept in all sorts of containers , but I have never heard of stone.” Maybe the 600-year-old stone hive should be a model for urban farmers and green architects everywhere. Instead of adding a beehive to your building, why not design one into it?
Unfortunately, much like the urbanization of the world’s population, urban beekeeping might not be sustainable. Overpopulation and limited resources is a problem for every species. In Europe at least, cities such as London, where there are are 25 beehives per square mile, just don’t have enough flowers to support the rising urban bee population. Perhaps urban bees will ultimately suffer the same inevitable fate as humans: replacement by robot.