Material witnesses: Natural selection

One of my first architectural impressions as a child was Buckminster Fuller’s dome in Montreal. Having always had a soft spot for it, I was drawn to a video of students conducting a laboratory experiment to see if silkworms could be used as biological printers to create the infill structure of a dome. That team is led by MIT Media Lab’s Neri Oxman, whose research group focuses on material ecology, which considers computation, fabrication, and the material itself as inseparable dimensions of design.

Watching the team shepherd thousands of silkworms and seeing the poetic pattern created by the insects’ efforts sparked my interest in Oxman’s work. Where a typical design effort might start with context and budget, her methodology takes materials exploration to a new level: Products and buildings are biologically informed and digitally engineered by, with, and for nature.

When I met the Israeli-born Oxman in 2014, I was inspired by her evolution from architect to scientist; in 2016, I realized she was further pushing the boundaries of design when her keynote address at the AIA National Convention sounded like an aspirational session for NASA Space Labs. Oxman is part guru, part rockstar, and part explorer; she makes the rethinking of materials and processes seem so natural, yet she has had to push through many obstacles and stay restlessly inquisitive in her research pursuits.

Oxman’s thinking is both organic and scientific. She looks at processes in nature to inspire new material considerations, describing her work as thinking about what parameters we need in a material first, then pushing the conversation to a “what if” place: What else could the material do, or what might it provide?

 

"Oxman’s thinking is both organic and scientific. She looks at processes in nature to inspire new material considerations, describing her work as thinking about what parameters we need in a material first, then pushing the conversation to a 'what if' place." Carole Wedge, president, Shepley Bulfinch

In a recent project, Oxman used chitin—a biological material found in the exoskeleton of crabs, butterflies, and the like—to answer these questions: What would design be like if objects were made of a single part? Would we return to a better state of creation?

She recalls her inspiration to work with chitin. It was 2012, and she was working on the Silk Pavillion, a project of her Mediated Matter group that explored the relationship between digital and biological fabrication using swarms of 6,500 silkworms. Meanwhile, Harvard bioengineer Don Ingber, director of the Wyss Institute, was working on creating a biodegradable plastic from shrimp shells and silk proteins for use in implantable medical devices. “Don handed me a speck of stunning amber-colored material and said, ‘This is shrilk!’ I was flooded with thoughts of tent structures designed to disintegrate by the first rain, returned to sea post-use.”

Neri Oxman's research group focuses on material ecology, which considers computation, fabrication, and the material itself as inseparable dimensions of design.

Oxman’s team got to work, ordering shrimp shells from a local seafood supplier and grinding the skeletons into paste. With a custom-made 3-d robotic printer, they created a wing-like multifunctional structure out of a single substance, chitosan, which is sourced from the ocean and returns to the ocean: “a true material ecology.”

Oxman tells me her process starts with science, using observation and testing to understand what natural processes are made of and how they react to their environment. These processes are building blocks that inspire an engineering phase to explore how to make new materials, which then leads to design and the broader cultural context of how these materials might be used.

Thinking about materials as a dynamic system—alive with their properties and at the same time responding to our needs — is the future Oxman and her lab imagine. If architects can evolve our way of selecting materials to a place of naturally aware design, perhaps we can arrive at more insightful solutions for our buildings.

Originally featured in Architecture Boston magazine.