A conversation with architect, artist, and MIT Media Lab professor Neri Oxman.

The Industrial Revolution heralded a new paradigm: “the World as Machine.” Material Ecology pioneer Neri Oxman proposes a model for the Digital Age: “the World as Organism.” This view aims to impart “a living quality” to the built environment, she explains. The resulting creations could be buildings made of a single surface material that can integrate multiple functions—”not unlike the human skin, which serves at once as both a barrier and a filter,” she says. But it is also the process of design that thrills and inspires the 42-year-old architect and artist, who studied medicine in Jerusalem and architecture in London before earning her PhD in design computation at MIT, where she heads the interdisciplinary Mediated Matter research group. “Design is bigger than ‘form follows function.’ It can lead to technological and even scientific progress,” she says. “A good designer can, by virtue of design—both the noun and the verb—not only solve problems, but also seek them out, long before they emerge.”

Your work melds numerous disciplines. How do you decide what to explore?

We don’t distinguish between the disciplines. Rather, we cycle through them—from science through engineering through art; from exploration through invention through expression. The Material Ecology approach is always present and acts as a set of guiding principles no matter the scale, the materiality, or the context. It’s a system to address manifold issues without categorical delineation, whether it’s curing malaria or populating Mars.

Inspired by the myth of Arachné, who was transformed into a spider by the goddess Athena, this 3D-printed, multimaterial corset, made in collaboration with Stratasys and W. Craig Carter and part of the permanent collection of MoMA, is imagined as a flexible armor optimized for both mechanical protection and flexibility.

Inspired by the myth of Arachné, who was transformed into a spider by the goddess Athena, this 3D-printed, multimaterial corset, made in collaboration with Stratasys and W. Craig Carter and part of the permanent collection of MoMA, is imagined as a flexible armor optimized for both mechanical protection and flexibility.

Photo by Yoram Reshef

Walk us through your process.

Each of our projects is explored as a twosome: the technology to create the project and the material composition to be employed—whether naturally sourced or synthetically engineered. Our projects necessitate that we invent the technologies to create them. Our 3D-printed glass pavilion, for example, could neither be designed nor built without first inventing a glass printer. Then, through experimentation, we discovered that when the nozzle releasing the stream of molten glass is raised above a certain level it begins to wobble, and we can trace out waves or loops. Unlike blowing or forming glass, printing enables the creation of internal and external surface features that are nonidentical, that can concentrate and disperse light by virtue of their geometry. So really what we’re printing are optical lenses. We also collaborated with [Princeton professor] Pierre-Thomas Brun to create a reduced mathematical model describing the fluid dynamic behavior of the high viscous liquid “ropes” generated by our printer. So, the technology for 3D printing with glass generated new scientific knowledge that did not exist prior to this technology, and that’s very exciting, since it is usually the case that the technologies are invented upon scientific exploration. The opposite rarely occurs.

Members of the The Mediated Matter Group who contributed to the design and construction of the Aguahoja Pavilion, a full-scale architectural structure made primarily of biopolymers.

Members of the The Mediated Matter Group who contributed to the design and construction of the Aguahoja Pavilion, a full-scale architectural structure made primarily of biopolymers.

Photo by Jonathan Williams

How would you like to see 3D printing evolve? How useful is it for architects?

Our inbox is bursting with appeals to design perfume diffusers, vases, you name it. But why print small when we can dream big? In terms of utility for architects, we still have a way to go, but there are several paths we’re excited to explore in the near future, including, for example, more complex geometries on a facade scale that can reflect and transmit light in interesting and meaningful ways, including solar harnessing. Equally exciting is the ability to print spatial pockets and channels to contain fluids or other media, augmenting an architectural facade with photosynthetic media, for example, or biofuel. Imagine the Centre Pompidou in Paris without functional or formal partitions, where the structural support, environmental sensing, and visual connectivity are all coalesced within and expressed through a single materials system.

Photo courtesy The Mediated Matter Group

See the full story on Dwell.com: Q&A: Neri Oxman Sees Buildings of the Future as Being Designed More Like Organisms Than Machines

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