Ever imagined an army of silkworms building a pavilion? Or a printer printing a semi-transparent material, say Glass? It seems like something out of a fairy tale but this is what happens inside the MIT Media Lab of Neri Oxman. Neri steps out of her comfort zone to push the boundaries and discover new technologies that could transform the way we build. Neri is inspired by nature and hopes to create nature through design. Neri has brought nature and culture together in her lab to design new materials for, by, and with nature. She talks about a time where manufacturing can be done at a scale of a single living cell, and to design big one requires thinking small.
A fusion between art, science, Engineering, and Design; wherein the output of each discipline serves as an input for another. The four quadrants form a clock, which transcends information to knowledge to utility and behavior. When the clock strikes twelve, the integration of culture and nature is complete. Coining the term “material ecology”, her research relooks at designing new materials – biological and editable as opposed to a non-editable geological resource. There is a paradigm shift in their research from looking at materials like single-use to multi-function able.
Neri Oxman is a professor at MIT Media Lab. She’s a biomedical student who has graduated from Architecture from Architectural Association School of Architecture, London. She grew up in Haifa, Israel, “between nature and culture”. Her team is like Noah’s ark, two of everything from architects to graphic designers to computing analysts to biomedical engineers. She’s known for combining art and Architecture which involves the design, biology, computing, and material engineering. Her works are displayed all across the globe, with permanent collections at MoMA, Centre Pompidou, Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, and the Smithsonian to name a few. She was the winner for Cooper Hewitt Design Awards 2018 for Interactive design.
Silk Pavilion (2013) is a suspended dome of silk fibres completed by 6500 silkworms. The design philosophy looked at a sculpture in terms of growth instead of assembly. The design was developed as a solution to the growing issue of plastic disposal. The design considers materials to be multi-functional and returned to nature. Silk pavilion is a parametric and contextual design process. The scaffolding is 3d printed and the complex mathematical formulas are used to understand the formation of silk pavilion with the help of the silkworms. The design challenges the existing culture of killing the silkworms to extract the silk. As a designer amplifying the relation between cellular biology and architecture, Neri has been criticized one too many times. The arrival of FedEx-ordered silkworms boosted the condemnation of the whole team. Neri “natured” the whole team to rise above the assertions and transgress to newer dimensions left unexplored.
Aguahoja is crafted from a series of 3D printed membranes. The sculpture was developed to show the inefficiency of the usage of materials in the current scenario. The materials are extracted and appropriated far away from its native location and the exploitation rate is high. Once the use of the material is over, it finds its way to a landfill or ocean permanently. Aguahoja is composed of the planet’s most plentiful materials according to the lab- PECTIN, CELLULOSE, and CHITOSAN. The five feet skeleton is designed and robotically printed using molecules found in tree branches, insect exoskeletons, and human bones. The molecules have been altered at the microlevel to be as flexible as leather and as rigid as wood. The sculpture looks at the complete return to nature with the help of water. Water dissolves the membranes, allowing it to decompose and initiate the next cycle. The design looks at uniting natural and man-made through computational design. The semi-transparent material is the fractal to go from the micro-level to a building level. The membrane responds to external factors like light and humidity.
Growth is inevitable. Can this growth be used to create new structures around us? Can these structures replace the use of plastics? The Neri Oxman’s swarm of fibrebots autonomously build 4.5m self-supporting composite tubes. The fibrebots 9cm long and 10cm in diameter consists of an inflatable silicone membrane. The fibrebots produce fibres formed by a mixture of a fibreglass thread and resin. The fibres are spun around the bots with the help of the inflatable silicone membrane, which propels itself upward or in the required direction. The fibrebots are inspired by silkworms and spiders which produce their own fibres to weave into a cocoon or web. A computational program ensures no collision between the sculptures. The sculptures can last up to 7 months in an external environment. Oxman believes fibres to be bricks of the future, in micro-scale to macro-scale. Fibreglass can provide green, efficient, and sustainable solutions for enclosures.
Neri Oxman is a woman ahead of her time. She’s is enthusiastic about altering the rules and set norms to create something new. Her design philosophy involves complete cycles starting from nature and leading back to nature. She likes to play with the cellular level to alter things at a micro-level which only nature could do till now. She has broken free of the shackles applied to her to achieve so much more. She believes in the spirit of magic and living a life filled with miracles. And like she said, to design big one requires thinking small!