“To build big, think small”, says Neri Oxman seeks to redefine the relationship between matter and environment. Hailing from Haifa, Israel; educated as a doctor, trained as an architect, she is currently a professor at MIT’s Media Lab. Her research pioneers in pursuit of new materials that are designed for, with, and by nature. Drawing inspiration from the assembly line manufacturing processes during the Industrial revolution, she aspires to cater to design products, clothes, and cities “in parts”. Oxman’s interest in Bio-compatible structures resonates with her team at Mediated Matter research group of computer scientists, graphic designers, biomedical engineers, neuroscientists, architects, and mechanical engineers. Together they build a library of experiments for every project before it is realized. They strive to bring nature and culture together. Bio-Architecture lies at that junction.

Neri Oxman and the Silkworms: Collaboration with Nature - Sheet1
Image 1-Neri Oxman in her lab at MIT – ©surfacemag.com

A lieutenant in the Israeli air force for a brief period, she says her biggest take away from that redefining phase of life was, “the discovery of innocence is its loss”. From life-changing experiences such as these, she acknowledges her interests in this domain of research were shaped by her innocent inquisitiveness as a child which she continues to retain. All her projects today demand the invention of new technology for their execution. She envisages art, science, engineering, and design as quadrants of a circle that completes any wholesome result in her field of work. 

Neri Oxman takes pride in collaborating with nature’s construction workers, like bees and silkworms. The team calibrates modern technology-based off the learning from these nature’s engineers. One such exploration which started in 2013 has now given rise to an interesting series of experiments over the years. This is reputed to be groundbreaking research in “additive manufacturing” traces back to humble beginnings and improves consistently over the years.

Neri Oxman and the Silkworms: Collaboration with Nature - Sheet2
Image 2-©surfacemag.com

 SILK PAVILION I 

This experiment set out to combine digital and biological fabrication into producing architectural structures. 26 panels suspended to form a dome, wherein a CNC (Computer Numerically Controlled) arm spun 1 km long silk thread was aided by 6500 silkworms to deposit silk to complete the structure. (Howarth 2013)

Tiny magnets fitted onto silkworm bodies’ motion recorded their movement throughout the spinning process on the apparatus which data set then fed into the system to operate the CNC arm. The mapping shows worms attracted to darker areas. The desired light effects thus informed variety in material organizations across the surface area of the structure. Season specific sun path stimulations dictated location, size, and density of apertures in the structure. Fibers were sparsely organized towards the south and east elevations. The central oculus was located against the east elevation acting like a sundial. (Howarth 2013)

This silk pavilion found its way from the MIT lab to MoMA and started a ripple in the debate about the use of nature in a manner unfathomable to many. What followed was a flurry of new ideas for Neri Oxman and her to take this concept a notch higher.

SILK PAVILION II 

Neri Oxman and the Silkworms: Collaboration with Nature - Sheet3
Image 3- ©mediatedmattergroup.com

The investigation was furthered in this 6mt tall and 5mts wide model, which combined kinetic manufacturing and biological construction. 17,532 silkworms were a part of this experiment brought in from the Veneto region of Italy where silk rearing is in practice since the 12th-century renaissance. 10 days later the project spun a thread longer than the diameter of earth in collaboration with man made technology. (Gibson 2020)

The mechanical apparatus which constantly rotated clockwise on a mandrel facilitated silkworms to move upward in motion. Holes formed by chemical reactions between silkworm excretions and the underlying yarn layer released tensile stress of the structure. This was a kinetic hyperboloid made of 3 interrelated layers which are proof of concept for silk woven in sheet form. (Lab n.d.)

Silkworms are exterminated in their cocoon for extraction of silk as single strands as it dissolves the adhesive that glues one strand of silk to the layers below. This process, therefore, is disruptive to the silkworm’s life cycle.  

Silk Pavilion II proved to the world that silk rearing can be augmented and controlled in ways that benefit both the silkworms and man. 

FIBERBOTS 

Throughout these explorations, Oxman’s focus didn’t waiver for her larger goal which was to revolutionize additive manufacturing. And so she did with the help of automated swarm robotics, “Fiberbots”. 

This project aggregated sixteen, 4.5 meters tall FRC (Fibre-Reinforced Composite) tubes which were made from reusable footings of steel tubing. Each of these “robotic chimerical silk mite arms” was assigned a pre-planned trajectory and it runs on electricity. The inspiration for this manifestation was drawn from cocoon crafting skills of a silkworm. Fiberbots also constructed self encapsulating tunnels similar in technique. (Lou 2018)

Neri Oxman and the Silkworms: Collaboration with Nature - Sheet4
Image 4- ©architectmagazine.com

The 90-millimeter long cylindrical mandrel was the mitochondrial unit of this apparatus. It spun around itself the fibreglass thread which used photo-curable resin as an adhesive, stored within the system. The mandrel moved up and down with help of its inflatable silicone membrane which allowed it to deflate and detach from the tubular shell created then crawl up the same tube and start spinning the next segment. The entire installation at the end of 12 hours across 2 days spun about 81miles of fiber, resulting in 10 times the tube length than the robots themselves. (Lou 2018)

The fiberbots are the tip of the iceberg of the potential of swarm technologies. This was a new way of 3D printing inspired by nature and helped overcome the limitations of additive manufacturing techniques on an architectural scale. There are plans to add external sensors, laser, or cameras to the system which could then respond to environmental conditions and morph accordingly. The winding pattern, direction of the tubular path, density of structural lattice could then be guided by external stimuli. (Hitti 2018)

The purpose that self-constructing robots serve is potential construction in extreme terrains, disaster struck regions, or even another planet. These technologies are the future of sustainable, responsive building elements that could someday change the face of the construction industry.

Neri Oxman at the beginning of her academic career coined a term, Material Ecology (Dvir 2019). It is the augmentation of products and building elements with biological materials that adapt to respond and engage with their externalities. Her sustained efforts at the MIT Media Lab certainly appear to have sown the seeds to a new expression of material and form in the realm of bio-informed design.

Works Cited

Dvir, Noam. Surface Mag. July 26, 2019. https://www.surfacemag.com/articles/neri-oxman-material-ecology/ (accessed August 2020).

Gibson, Eleanor. Dezeen. June 29, 2020. https://www.dezeen.com/2020/06/29/neri-oxman-silk-pavilion-ii-video/ (accessed August 2020).

Hitti, Natahsha. Dezeen. October 05, 2018. https://www.dezeen.com/2018/10/05/neri-oxman-fiberbots-mediated-matter-lab-mit-architectural-structures/ (accessed August 2020).

Howarth, Dan. Dezeen. June 3, 2013. https://www.dezeen.com/2013/06/03/silkworms-and-robot-work-together-to-weave-silk-pavilion/ (accessed August 2020).

Lab, Mediated Matter. MediaLab MIT. https://www.media.mit.edu/projects/silk-pavilion-ii/overview/ (accessed August 2020).

Lou, Wanda. ArchitectMagazine. October 08, 2018. https://www.architectmagazine.com/technology/3d-printing-and-swarm-robotics-merge-in-neri-oxmans-fiberbots_o (accessed August 2020).

Ananya Nayak
Author

Ananya Nayak, a student of architecture, a young writer, an avid reader and a gregarious conversationalist seeks to express her architectural understandings in writing. Architecture for her is a conversation; refreshing with a new guest, comforting with a loved one and unique with a co-passenger. And to write about architecture is to address a letter to multiple post boxes, the arrival of which will ring a different tune for each reader.

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