by Anmol AhujaDec 18, 2021
A larger than life pavilion spun by an army of silkworms, forms of materials that can be mistaken for sculptures of art, design inspired by nature and nature grown by design, Neri Oxman: Material Ecology at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, presents all of that and more through an intriguing investigation of the relationship between design and science. It is a collection curated by Paola Antonelli (organiser, senior curator, Department of Architecture and Design, Director of Research and Development, MoMA) - a collection that surveys the illustrious career of American-Israeli designer, Neri Oxman.
Material Ecology contains seven stimulating, ground breaking projects of the scientist-architect’s The Mediated Matter Group (which she found and currently directs), a research department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, Massachusetts. Neri Oxman is the Sony Corporation Career Development Professor and Associate Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at the MIT Media Lab as well. The Material Ecology collection has some of their old works as well as the new commission Silk Pavilion II, a site-specific installation, all of which sit at the magical intersection of design, synthetic biology, digital computation and additive manufacturing. Oxman explains, “Computation allows us to design complex forms with simple code. Additive manufacturing lets us produce parts by adding material rather than carving it out. Material engineering lets us design the behaviour of materials in high resolution. Synthetic biology enables us to design new biological functionality by editing DNA”.
Oxman can, at best, be called an interdisciplinary designer – an extraordinary one at that. The architect (who studied medicine and has also served in the Israeli military force) takes the interdisciplinary nature of architecture (for isn’t architecture an evolution of art and engineering?) and simulates within it, a world of possibilities – she, along with her brilliant team (The Mediated Matter Group) fuses biology, architecture, computation and digital manufacturing to create new materials that can one day take over the ones that we employ now.
“From tree bark and crustacean shells to silkworm webs and human breath, nature has had a singular impact on Neri Oxman’s innovative design and production processes. Over the course of her 20-year career, Oxman has developed not only new ways of thinking about materials, objects, buildings, and construction methods, but also new frameworks for interdisciplinary—and even interspecies—collaborations," reveals the official statement. These fresh and dynamic materials look nothing like the ones that we are accustomed to seeing – Oxman’s materials are produced with technology and abetted by nature – not just a blatant mimicry, but as an impetus and protagonist.
“The field operates at the intersection of biology, material science and engineering, and computer science, with emphasis on environmentally informed digital design and fabrication.” Neri Oxman established The Mediated Matter Group (MMG) at the MIT Media Lab, which consist of computer scientists, architects, product designers, biologist, medical engineer, mechanical engineer, an artist, a marine scientist and a weaver. This team unites research, advanced technology and engineering with science art and design. Across all their projects till date, they have worked with tools, species, and materials as diverse as silkworms, incandescent glass, ants, bitmap printers, bacteria, robotic arms and bees. They are focused on “inventing and developing new design tools, techniques, and technologies that have the potential to redefine the way we make things.” Seems too good to be true, right?
According to Antonelli, “the term Material Ecology, (coined by Oxman) encapsulates one of our priorities in collecting and exhibiting design in the 21st century. Material Ecology is a pragmatic philosophy: a method of design and production that brings together humans, automated processes, and nature to transform architecture into a hybrid act of building and growing.”
“The seven projects on display are 'demos' for a library of materials and processes that might someday be available to all architects and designers, offering visions of a future in which buildings are capable of responding to variations in light and temperature, and objects age and decay organically, returning to nature once they have served their purpose,” shares the Museum of Modern Art. These projects come under two categories – extrusions, that is, materials that have been ‘extruded’ by a machine or an animal, and infusions, which are objects that are 3D printed, engineered to be permeated with organic materials such as pectin or bacteria. The creation and manufacturing process of each project/ material has been highlighted more than the end result, through a documentation of its development, including videos, test samples and prototypes of works in progress.
Entering the Material Ecology
These materials and structures are all designed as if grown—no assembly required, envisioning a future built by bio-architecture. One such is the site-specific installation called Silk Pavilion II (2019), which was built by a crew of humans, 3D printers and 17,000 silkworms. Oxman and her team created a geodesic dome on which biological printers, the silkworms, were urged to get to business. The silk industry sees these wriggling creatures boil and not reach metamorphosis – the construction of the pavilion enabled the silkworms to do what they do best, spin thread, hatch, lay eggs and metamorphosise in peace, all while playing architects!
Another project, Aguahoja (2018), sees the employment of one of the most abundant biomaterials on earth such as cellulose, chitin, calcium carbonate, cornstarch, and pectin, which are derived from shrimp shells and fallen leaves. These were 3D printed, shaped by water and augmented with natural pigments. This resulted in a light weight, flexible material, which was biodegradable, and also fuels new growth after it is printed and manufactured.
Other projects include Glass I and II (2015 and 2017) and Totems (2019). The former is produced through a high-fidelity, large-scale, additive manufacturing technology for 3-D printing optically transparent glass structures, which harness solar energy at architectural scales. Totems chemically synthesise the pigment melanin and programs it across scales.
Imaginary Beings (2012) foretells that someday, human organs and entire organisms would be digitally designed and developed, with augmented functionality such as flight, underwater breathing and changing colour. These experiments propose skeletal, pulmonary and muscular improvements and additions, showing a library of algorithms for the digital fabrication. Vespers (2016–18) is a collection of 15 3D-printed masks, exploring the idea of designing with live, biological materials. Consisting of three series which reinterpret a death mask, the collection is fabricated using algorithms and employed by 3D printing photopolymers, and aided by bacteria.
These composite, organic, single skin materials urge the design community to free its own potential, and practise peaceful and intelligent co-existence on earth. Oxman envisions a new, and maybe better future for design, which doesn’t fill the earth with more things that it doesn’t need or have use for – these materials, at the end of their life cycle go back to the earth – they decompose, dissolve in water, or become manure for plants, much like everything in nature that plays a role even after its demise. What the exhibition heroes is the vantage position that designers hold, to aid and abet change, for a way forward in a socially and environmentally ethical system.
Neri Oxman: Material Ecology is closed to the public until further notice as MoMA shut its doors following the outbreak of COVID-19. The exhibition will run online from May 14, 2020, reveals the official website of the Museum of Modern Art.