Conducting research at the intersection of computational design, digital fabrication, materials science, additive manufacturing, and synthetic biology, Dr. Neri Oxman is a Sony Corporation Career Development Professor, Associate Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, MIT, and the founder and director of Mediated Matter Group at the MIT Media Lab. Dr. Neri Oxman and her team have won various awards and acclaims for their works, internationally. Been named ‘Revolutionary Mind’ by SEED Magazine, she has also appeared in many ‘topmost’ lists- ‘Most Creative People’, ‘Top Most Influential Designers and Architects to Shape our Future’, ‘Best and Brightest’, ‘100 Global Minds’ and the ‘10 Most Creative Women in Business.
Some of her works are on display as permanent collections at many prestigious museums in the world. Her team works across disciplines, media, and scales and she is most renowned for coining the term ‘Material Ecology’. Digitally engineered by, with and for nature, the products and structures in this field are designed integrating computation, fabrication and the material.
TED Talk by Dr. Neri Oxman
Dr. Neri Oxman received her Ph.D. in Design Computation as a Presidential fellow at MIT. Initially a student at Hebrew University’s Hadassah Medical School in 1999, she switched to study architecture at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology (Hons.), after 2 years. Earning her diploma in 2004, she graduated (RIBA 2) from Architectural Association, London.
A piano player and a lieutenant in the Israeli Air Force from 1996-99, Dr. Oxman dropped out of medical school to pursue architecture. A daughter of two famous architectural professors, her father, Robert Oxman, is a theorist, whereas her mother, Rivka Oxman, was an early pioneer and booster of artificial intelligence in architectural design. To complete this family of creative geniuses, her younger sister, Karen Oxman is an artist, a graduate of the Royal College of Arts, London.
Believing that architects and designers are trained and cultured to think of architecture and objects as assemblies of discreet parts with distinct functions, she is working towards transforming this culture of assemblies into growth, creating a new kind of design language. Dr. Oxman and her team are employing and implementing design principles inspired by nature in architectural, product, and fashion design, along with designing new technologies for digital fabrication and construction. Her designs integrate biological, material, and digital domains, manifesting into objects and structures that are ecologically sympathetic. Her approach to consciously design objects and structures to degrade over time and provide nourishment along the process- in seas for marine life and in the soil for plant growth, is exemplary.
“Evolution not by natural selection, but by design.” Edited biology-Combining scientific insight with a mystery to designing something organic and not imposed, created in the environment, designed by nature. Designs that grow to function and to replicate. Her intrinsic research and experiments into single materials, growing with varying functionality, not by assemblies or adding material, but by continuously and delicately varying its own material property, like human skin, remains to date, unparalleled.
“What does it mean to design a living object? How can you have a single material system that is multifunctional, that is not made of parts and that can vary over space and time for different conditions? Can you make architecture that behaves like a tree?”
Dr. Neri Oxman aims to bring together analysis and synthesis in a single tool and fabrication technology-Capturing analytic data from the environment-optical, thermal, magnetic, and electromagnetic waves and incorporating this data as part of the fabrication process. To design and print a building corresponding to these environmental conditions, that breathe, sweat, and grow to respond to load, heat and light, simultaneously.
Dr. Oxman and her students at the MIT Media Lab are an eclectic bunch: a biomedical engineer, a glassblower, a material scientist, a computer scientist with a specialty in wet artificial intelligence, an architect, a marine biologist and, a beekeeper, among other specialists.
“We treat design more like a gardening practice”
Selected WORKS of Dr. Oxman and Mediated Matter at MIT Media Lab:
Being an admirer of Buckminster Fuller, one of her designs reinvents a geodesic dome-like structure, being made from silk fibers woven by a robotic arm and finished by live silkworms. The dome was constructed using an arrangement of 26 panels. The robotic arm was programmed to imitate the way a silkworm weaves silk to build its cocoon, thereby spinning a kilometer-long silk fiber across flat polygonal metal frames to create those panels. 6500 live silkworms were then placed on the structure to fill in the gaps and complete it. Researching extensively, such natural processes, conclusions were drawn from further experimenting with silkworms, their interaction with the environment and their process of spinning their own cocoons.
The structure of the cocoon was directly dependent on the environment and the context. Silkworms were placed in different frames, templates, and scaffolds, resulting in different shapes of their cocoons, concluding their composition being directly informed by the environment- Finding a form naturally upon contacting its context, becoming a structure that would seamlessly transition from one architectural element to the next. Hence, developed a concept of containing naturally growing organisms and controlling their flow and growth- a ‘Healthy Morphosis’. Attaching tiny magnets to the heads of the silkworms, they motion-tracked their movement and used this data to program the robotic arm. Concluding from their painstaking research about silkworms’ instinctive preference to darker areas, fibers were laid more sparsely on the sunnier sides of the dome. This project evidently exhibits an attitude towards analyzing and understanding the intrinsic intelligence of natural ecologies and translating them into a design approach for the embodiment of the built environment.
Information Sources: https://mediatedmattergroup.com/silk-pavilion;https://www.media.mit.edu/projects/silk-pavilion/overview/
“A moment will come where you will find material ecology singularity — was this made, was it built, or was it grown, and does it matter?”
The FIBERBOTS are a swarm of robots designed to wind fiberglass filament around themselves to create high-strength tubular structures. Building simultaneously, interweaving, to rapidly create livable structures. The main body of each robot is encased in an inflatable silicone membrane, which later deflates in order to detach itself from the fiber layer, once it has been solidified. It then moves upwards along the tube to repeat the process, building the tubular structure segment by segment. These mobile robots use sensory feedback to control their length and curvatures, in accordance with the path, pre-determined by a custom flocking design protocol, providing designers to control design parameters that govern the shape of the resulting structure. Developed in-house, 16 robots were deployed autonomously to create a 4.5 m tall structure. This enabling technology demonstrates great potential for future collaborative systems to create designs in far-reaching environments. With swarm sensing and actuation, systems can become more responsive and adaptive to environmental conditions. Following Nature’s example, a swarm offers reliability and efficiency through distributed tasks, parallel actuation, and redundancy.
“Fibers are the bricks of the future, we will see fibers appearing everywhere, across scales and applications, including carrying and transferring data between bodies, buildings, and environments.”
Information Sources:https://mediatedmattergroup.com/fiberbots; https://www.media.mit.edu/projects/fiberbots/overview/
As mentioned, and explained in detail in her most acclaimed TED Talk, the structures are made of a single material system derived from chitin – the most abundant renewable polymer in the ocean. Ground arthropod shells are transformed to form a variable property aqueous solution. Each component will find its shape upon contact with air and become biodegradable upon contact with water. Potential applications include the fabrication of fully recyclable products or temporary architectural components such as tent structures. This project completely demonstrates the Material Ecology approach to shape and property formation by design, ‘from Earth to Earth’. This research presents water-based robotic fabrication as a design approach and enabling technology for additive manufacturing (AM) of biodegradable hydrogel composites. Derived from organic matter, printed by a robot, and shaped by water, this work points towards a future where the grown and the made unite.
Information Sources: https://mediatedmattergroup.com/waterbased-digital-fabrication;https://www.designboom.com/technology/neri-oxman-mit-mediated-matter-water-based-digital-fabrication-05-14-2018/
“I believe that, within two decades, buildings will be designed and constructed as biological tissues”
4. Aguahoja I
Comprising a pavilion and associated artifacts, Aguahoja I has been acquired for the SFMOMA’s permanent collection. Digitally designed and robotically fabricated, this collection was built from molecular components found in tree branches, insect exoskeleton, and human bones. Standing 5m tall, Aguahoja I pavilion’s skin is composed of the planet’s most abundant materials, shaped by water and grown with no assemblies. Composed of biocomposites constructed with varying degrees of stiffness, flexibility, and opacity acting as façade or “structural skin”- these properties mediated by humidity. The Aguahoja I platform is comprised of a robotic gantry for 3D printing biomaterials where shape and material composition are directly informed by physical properties (e.g., stiffness and opacity), environmental conditions (e.g., load, temperature, and relative humidity), and fabrication constraints (e.g., degrees-of-freedom, arm speed, and nozzle pressure), among others. Catering to the problem of obsoleteness and waste, these artifacts are designed to decay at the end of its lifecycle, thereby restoring their constituent building blocks to their natural ecosystem, augmenting the natural resource cycles that enabled their creation- “from dust to dust”.
Information Sources: https://mediatedmattergroup.com/aguahoja;https://www.media.mit.edu/projects/aguahoja/overview/
“To move away from the age of machine towards a new age of symbiosis between our bodies, the micro-organisms, products and buildings”
5. Glass I
Additive Manufacturing of Optically Transparent Glass-G3DP is an additive manufacturing platform designed to print optically transparent glass. The tunability enabled by geometrical and optical variation driven by form, transparency and color variation can drive; limit or control light transmission, reflection, and refraction, and therefore carries significant implications for all things glass
Information Source: https://mediatedmattergroup.com/glass-i
It is Dr. Oxman’s grand ambition, said Moshe Safdie, “to transform the methodology of building. Today we have materials that are translucent and we have materials that are load-bearing and she is hoping we would reach the day when we have materials that could behave in multiple ways. Release light and store energy.”
A visionary, ahead of her time, Dr. Oxman plays a momentous role in shaping the future of designing, through pioneering Material Ecology. Her approach towards innovation and design is highly inspirational and, much admired and respected in this age of obsoleteness, imperishable waste, and redundant desired artificial endurance.
“Here’s to a new age of design, a new age of creation that takes us from a nature-inspired design to a design-inspired nature.”- Dr. Neri Oxman