Neri Oxman’s Materials Revolution

At the 2011 GreenBuild, Neri Oxman, director of Mediated Matter at MIT Media Lab and one of the few who made Fast Company’s top 100 creative people list, wants to “introduce a new dimension or sensibility” into materials production. Proposing to turn the design and engineering worlds on their heads, she said we should no longer “design against an objective function, but instead design for multiple functions in one system. It’s about continuity, not repetitive, modular approaches.”

Oxman is focused on how to use design processes to “mediate between matter and the environment.” She said the natural world uses a range of principles, which is why we easily recognize so many forms. Natural objects are the result of some internal logic that generated the form. She thinks this logic can be harnessed to create building, medical, and even furniture innovations, but is still trying to figure out whether this would lead to a more sustainable future.

She used a few examples that demonstrate how nature creates forms that serve multiple functions. A chicken egg, for instance, is nearly impossible to break if squeezed at the vertical ends. This is because it needs to be strong while it’s being warmed. The horizontal edges are soft, though, and easy to crack: This is because the chick will eventually need to break through. This is a smart “material distribution strategy.”

People, in contrast, aren’t that smart when creating their own buildings and cities. “Nature has not designed buildings, habitable environments at mass scale.” (some sociobiologists may disagree with that statement). She said that biologists and architects have been discussing the ideas of architecture and ecology since Darwin released his theory of evolution. In recent years this dialogue has led to biomimetic design, a term she called “over or mis-used,” but is used to explain how to design and build using natural systems. For example, she showed images of a pine cone, and how the structure could be inverted to serve as a new can for Coca-Cola. It would hold more soda and be impossible to crush in transit. Shark skin, with its “micro-dermal teeth” served as a model for a new wall with patches that can respond to its environment. She also explored the idea of “form-finding, or discovering the form that a material wants to take.”

Within the architecture profession, she said there was a divide between the “formalists” and the sustainable designers. Formalists are primarily focused on, well, form, while sustainable designers are interested in following criteria, which usually leads to “new glass boxes that are more and more efficient.”

Also, since Mies Van Der Rohe first offered a design for a skyscraper in Chicago, the idea has been to create a form and then apply material. (However, some architects would disagree and say his skyscraper wasn’t possible without one material: steel). She said this skyscraper shows a process that hasn’t really changed for a hundred years: model, analyze, and then fabricate. In contrast, in nature, the modeler, analyzer, and fabricator are combined in one. A leg bone in a pregnant woman expands and grows denser as she puts on more weight, responding to signals from the body. Tree fibers change form depending on how much structural load is required to hold up a plant. “From trunk to leaf, it’s the same material.”

Some examples from her studio show her using natural logic to digitially fabricate forms that can serve multiple material functions. A chaise lounge is made up of just one silicon-like material broken into two types – soft and hard. Using the body to determine where the structural load would be greatest, she created a Zaha Hadid-like undulating form. “It varies its properties – it’s stiff and soft where it needs to be.” For the medical world, she said eastern medicine celebrates “continuity,” while western medicine separates everything into body zones. Using an eastern approach, she asked people suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome to create their own “pain map,” which she uses to generate a material, again, with hard and soft zones to provide both structural support and flexibility. In the realm of buildings, she wondered why concrete columns are solid all the way through, wasting materials, when they can be like bones or palm tree trunks, which are denser at the base and more hollow at the top. “We can relate to loading patterns instead of forms or ornamentation.”

Some future predictions: In 10 years, Oxman sees materials as “the new software,” and integrated into everything we do. The circuit board will be obsolete. The material itself will be smart. Materials will know how to change for its distributions. For example, buildings could have breathing skins that help modulate the interior temperature. By 2100, there will be “biofabrication and construction.” Then, one thousand years in the future, there will be “CAM-DNA.” In this example, a chair would be created out of DNA material and would grow with humans over their lifetime. Materials would think, respond, and compute things themselves. When hearing all of this, one professor at Harvard told her that the ideas were great, but the cost would be out-of control high.

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