Material Ecology

Azure magazine included MIT architect / artist / researcher, Neri Oxman, in its “Ten Designers = Ten Great Ideas” feature. Oxman is pursuing a Ph.D in the computation group in MIT’s architecture department. According to Azure, Oxman’s research is so cutting-edge, it doesn’t quite have a name yet. Oxman uses the term “Material Ecology,” which explores “the idea that artificial matter continuously informs our environment and therefore should be informed by it.” Oxman describes material ecology as “an interdisciplinary research initiative that undertakes design research in the intersection between architecture, engineering, computation, biology and ecology. Material is interpreted merely as any physical entity which corresponds and reacts with its environment.”

Azure explains how Oxman develops computer algorithims to create shapes that are printed using rapid prototyping, and then built up, layer by layer. In comments to Fast Company magazine, she said: “we’re taking a bunch of environmental constraints and throwing them into computational software and letting the computer generate the form for us.” Fast Company argues that it’s a form of biomimcry. “One of her working metaphors is bone: The same rods of calcium phosphate grow stronger to support extra weight during pregnancy, or get slighter when astronauts spend time in zero gravity.” In comments to Fast Company, Paola Antonelli, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, said: “What was amazing about this work is that it uses the computer to transform the secrets of nature into algorithms, and in a biomimetic way to try to use the same stratagems nature uses.”

In terms of furniture, Oxman is inspired by Le Corbusier’s steel and leather chaise longue, with its functional use of two simple materials. Azure says one of her goals is to create a piece of furniture from just one material “that integrates structure and function,” thereby reducing material, energy, and resource use. In search of a material that can combine structure and function, Oxman developed Monocoque, a honeycomb-like material in which structure and skin are fused together. In “Cartesian Wax,” Oxman developed a waxlike membrane similar to how leaves grow.

“Instead of designing a building and then determining the construction technologies, I thought, let’s try it the other way around,” says Oxman. 

Read more about Oxman, and Azure magazine’s “top ten” design ideas, including sun-harvesting fabric developed by an architect and photovaltaics expert.

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