Q&A: Neri Oxman’s Radical Vision for the Future of the Built Environment

With her latest exhibition at SFMOMA, the MIT professor, artist, and architect sends a dire (but hopeful) message: In order to move ahead, we must return to nature.
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Neri Oxman comes about as close to being a rock star as a designer, architect, and scientist can. She once designed a 3D-printed mask for Icelandic musician Björk, who performed in it. Her 2015 TED Talk on design at the intersection of biology and technology has garnered millions of views. When paparazzi started hanging around her MIT lab due to rumors about her friendship with fellow architecture lover Brad Pitt, Oxman used the opportunity to spotlight science, carrying around a copy of The Feynman Lectures on Physics and a duplicate pressing of one of the Golden Records—phonograph discs containing sounds and images from earth that were sent aboard the Voyager spacecrafts in 1977.

Science professor, designer, architect, and artist Neri Oxman’s exhibition, Nature x Humanity: Oxman Architects, is now on display at SFMOMA and runs until May 15, 2022. The retrospective includes nearly 40 works developed with her lab at MIT and her new company, Oxman, all of which focus on material ecology as a means for a more sustainable future.

When she’s not in the public eye, Oxman is in New York with her new company of same name, furthering her design philosophy of material ecology—a field of study that blends computational design, synthetic biology, and digital fabrication. Since 2010, she’s been creating new material systems that harmonize with, and deftly imitate, building blocks of the natural world.

It’s all brought to light in Nature x Humanity: Oxman Architects, a retrospective spanning from 2007 to the present that’s now on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Herein, Oxman views nature as a co-client. The 40 or so artworks and installations in the show include Biodiversity Pavilion, a model of a proposed structure that’s infused with melanin to protect against ultraviolet rays; the Aguahoja pavilions, vertical structures made with shrimp shells, apple skins, and fallen leaves that, as they decay, will nourish the soil where they stand; the Wanderers series, a set of glass wearables designed to respond to extreme environments on different planets; and Man-Nahāta, four models that show a biomass evolving over 400 years and rewilding New York City.

We spoke with Oxman about how innovation is possible when we suspend our disbelief, her use of ancient materials like melanin, what it means for a building to decompose, and how all of this coalesces as a new trajectory for how we approach the built environment.

The SFMOMA exhibit features two Aguahoja pavilions: this one, fabricated in 2018, which is now outside on a terrace, and another, fabricated a few months ago and set inside the gallery. Both are made of biopolymers sourced from shrimp shells, apple skins, and fallen leaves. The pavilions are programmed to decay when exposed to the elements, and when installed in a natural setting, will feed back into their ecosystems.

Dwell: What does it mean to say that nature is a co-client? What does "design-inspired nature" mean as opposed to nature-inspired design?

Oxman: The onset of the Industrial Revolution is considered the most important moment in the history of humanity since the domestication of plants and animals. Ever since, we’ve been creating a rupture between humankind and nature. And that divide has been instigated by products of our creation: wearables, tools, buildings, and cities.

All of these and more compose what is known as anthropomass—the mass that is created by humankind by technological means. A study by the Weizmann Institute shows that in 2020, that mass exceeded the biomass on our planet, which means that there are now more phones than bones buried in the earth [sic]. The technosphere has taken over the biosphere. This is a very critical moment in time. We must reorient ourselves with the natural environment, or else perish.

Can we envision a landscape of many businesses and companies that really question the lineage of mass manufacturing and systemization, from the Industrial Revolution all the way to renewable energies? Could we be designing or spinning wearables out of silkworm-made silk, but allow the silkworms to metamorphose healthily instead of being exterminated? That’s just one example.

Oxman’s Vespers series features 3D-printed masks that map the external features of those that have passed. They invite viewers to think of ways to honor the dead that have a minimal impact on the planet.

You talk about that in your TED Talk—how silkworms are often boiled to death in their own cocoons, but you had them spin flat cocoons so that wouldn’t happen. You also talk about generating multifunctional structures out of biomatter such as shrimp shells. How do you come up with ideas like that?

Rigor and imagination. We attempt to impart the design philosophy of nature as co-client upon all material systems that we can find in the natural world. For example, cellular solids, fiber-based materials like silk, or aggregates. Among those materials, we identify an organism in a particular kingdom of life, and we start researching how that organism creates these structures. In the world of fiber, silkworms and spiders are the heroes. So we look at how silkworms generate silk that is so rich in its variation of properties. How can we learn from that chemically, and how can we not only collaborate, but also cohabitate?

The exhibit at SFMOMA takes you through a walk in the woods, as it were, across different material systems. You move from fiber-based materials with silkworms to cellular solids like the glass structures, to biopolymers with the crustacean-based materials. Every project or model represents one of these systems. One of the pavilions was actually made out of the most abundant biopolymers on our planet, which are sourced from crustaceans as well as other organisms. It’s made partly of the same material as shrimp shells, except it’s done in a computational manner. We can program the shells’ properties in extremely high resolution to achieve the same variation of mechanical and optical properties.

Talk about using melanin in your structures. 

Everything in the show is made of ancient materials that are being used in novel and new ways. Melanin is one of these materials. It’s considered a biomarker of evolution, meaning it appears in every kingdom of life, and is anywhere between 53 and 250 million years old. It first appeared in the Mesozoic Age, and it was found in dinosaur fossils. To this day it’s considered one of most protective materials on our planet. It protects from radiation, which is what makes it attractive for use in interstellar voyages, but it also protects from ultraviolet rays, which is why we my team and I were intrigued to use it as a kind of biological façade for our pavilion in South Africa. The melanin provides shade when the sun rises, and allows the structure to become transparent when the sun sets.

In Biodiversity Pavilion, an installation proposed for South Africa that’s represented by this model in the exhibit, Oxman used melanin, a naturally occurring pigment that provides protection from the sun.

You and your team want to prioritize growth over assembly. How does technology serve this initiative? 

As opposed to simply extracting a material and using it carte blanche in a preconceived way, technology allows us to recreate its properties at the resolution in which it was biologically formed. This means we can leverage robotic manufacturing to create these ancient materials with tunable properties, which in turn allows us to produce a very wide range of mechanical, optical, and functional gradients. So as opposed to carving wood or stone and disposing of the waste, we’re treating construction or fabrication as a growth process where we overlay properties. We can design the hierarchical nature of the materials in a similar way to nature.

You talk about "programmed decomposition"— allowing buildings or infrastructure to break down and generate new growth. What does this look like? What is the first step, and what is the last?

The idea of programmable decay-enabled design is much easier to imagine in the product scale than it is in the architectural scale. There are many products that we dispose of in our lifetime. With regards to buildings or habitats, we should look at an urban landscape, for example, much like an enriched forest. Over centuries, buildings could decay side by side with tents or huts that are perhaps designed as refugee camps. After the refugees find a safe haven, the camps "melt" in the rain, and in their place would be a forest growing in celebration of the beauty of the natural world. The notion of material ecology can find its way across multiple product domains, and across all scales.

As for the first step and the last step: These structures can be made to decay, or they can be made to remain intact simply by using a material such as beeswax, which slows the process of decay. I think ideologically we are reluctant to embrace and adopt these processes because our own bodies are going to decay, but decay is what makes growth possible. Every organ in our human body undergoes decay and regeneration, including our skin. With the exception of our brain neurons, which remain with us into our 70s and 80s, every other element of the human body undergoes decay, renewal, and regrowth.

In the same fashion, we must rethink how we design the built environment to enable decay where it makes functional sense. Once something has served its function, it can be exposed to the elements and either dissociate or biodegrade, depending on its material condition. Once a structure or product begins to decay, it is ingested by organisms in the soil such as fungi and bacteria, feeding the ecology from which it was sourced to begin with—and the cycle continues. We’re not recycling material goods, we’re regrowing them.

Glass II was manufactured with a glass 3D-printing platform invented by Oxman and her team at the Mediated Matter Group, her MIT lab. The pieces are stacked in the exhibit to form columns that refract light in unique ways.

All your work upends traditional modes of thinking. How do you get people to change how they think about architecture and design and become open to new ideas?

The challenge is getting people to suspend their disbelief. It’s creating the Cinderella moment when the vehicle becomes a pumpkin. It’s a moment of magic, and only in that moment can innovation take place. Innovation requires humility and wonder, and a great deal of rigor and hard work. 

I think my team and I have excelled at that over the years, mostly because we’ve managed to contextualize our work at the center of what we call the Krebs Cycle of Creativity. Instead of dividing art, design, engineering, and science into four different unrelated rubrics, I created a circle between them and said, Look, the input for one domain is the output for another. The input for science is information, and science converts information into knowledge. Engineering takes that knowledge and converts it into utility, and design takes utility and converts it into a product that has a cultural context. Art looks at that cultural context to question our perception of reality. From art and back to science again, the cycle continues.

What I’ve found is that if you contextualize these design projects through the lenses of art, science, and engineering, it allows the public to nourish an openness because, A, they appreciate the scientific novelty and the technological sophistication, and B, they’re able to appreciate them as objects of desire that are artful and masterful.

In Man-Nahāta, the newest addition to the show, a generative biomass starts in Hudson Yards and spreads across New York City over the course of four centuries. It imagines a rewilding of the territory, with nature and humanity coexisting harmoniously.

In the newest addition to your exhibition, four models depict a generative biomass growing over Manhattan over the course of 400 years. What’s the idea here? 

In the early 1600s, before Manhattan was Manhattan, it was home to Lenape people, who referred to the island as Mannahatta, or the "land of many hills." It was one of most biodiverse places on our planet. It rivaled the Smoky Mountains in terms of biodiversity. Manhattan is an exemplar of an urban hub that is so culturally diverse and alive, yet it has lost touch with the natural environment. We asked, What have we lost from 1600 up to today, and how can we project 400 years forward? What kind of city do we envision living in? If we could start over, how could we build a symbiosis between humanity and nature, between the made and the grown?

This projection centers on computational growth algorithms applied across material scale, architectural scale, and urban scale to bring us back to the primordial landscape of Mannahatta. It spans four centuries—2100 through the end of 2400—and factors in global climate change predictions saying the temperature will increase by 10ºF and sea levels will rise 16 meters. We’re basically mapping hurricane zones against Mannahatta and providing the viewer with a choice of where things might end.

Really, the show ends at the urban scale, calling on us as a community to question and reorient architectural practices in an age where only two years ago the anthropomass superseded the biomass of our planet. It’s a sad moment. But hopefully this is a call to arms to rebuild the symbiosis that existed before the onset of the Industrial Revolution and reenvision the future as one of synergy between nature and humankind.

Related Reading:

Q&A: Neri Oxman Sees Buildings of the Future as Being Designed More Like Organisms Than Machines

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