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MIT Better World

Neri Oxman’s field, “material ecology,” unites principles of nature with those of engineering to create new materials for architecture and design.


By Sarah Wright

Every natural form she studies suggests a revolution in building and design to this director of the Mediated Matter Group and the Sony Corporation Career Development Professor at the MIT Media Lab.

“What nature accomplishes in bones or trees, we could achieve in products and buildings. Every solution to any design problem is a function of changes in scale.” Gigantic or microscopic, she says, “Nature is so beautiful and efficient.”

Oxman’s field, which she named “material ecology,” seeks to unite principles of nature with those of engineering to create new materials for architecture and design. The process of getting from nature to novel materials, known as computationally enabled form finding, is “where all the fun is,” she says.

In her current research, Oxman starts on the microscopic scale, analyzing, say, a butterfly-wing’s microstructures. She translates these into a 3-D printing environment; this generates a composite material that behaves like the butterfly wing but exists in a whole new form. Scaled up, such composites could transform our built landscape.

“My work is the antithesis of Bauhaus modernism,” she says. “My dream is to generate technology to build innovatively.”

Two samples of Oxman’s work sit on a table in her office. Both were produced by 3-D printing, and both apply her work to human-scale problems. “Bodies are so handy,” she says. “A great design site to occupy.”

One sample, a swatch of rubbery tan stuff traversed by vein-like trenches is the basis of Oxman’s carpal tunnel splint. Having endured the syndrome and the cookie-cutter splints available, Oxman “printed” her own. In her splint, a patient’s “pain map” becomes a program that tells the printer to inject stiffer material into the “veins” and leave the rest soft and flexible. A second sample stands in for her best-known prototype, a chaise lounge called “Beast.” Built in collaboration with MIT materials scientist Craig Carter, Beast is composed of five materials, each providing a specific degree of support. Ultimately, Oxman hopes to produce single materials of variable density — that is, materials that can multi-task.

The daughter of two architects, Oxman, 35, grew up near Haifa, Israel’s northern seaport. Her childhood bedroom overlooked the Mediterranean, and each day in Boston she still seeks the sight, sound, or smell of the sea. In summer, she regularly swims across Walden Pond. “For me, water and the sea are spiritual: Anything — infinitely — is possible.”

Like all Israelis, Oxman spent three years in mandatory military service. “One achieves instant maturity as an officer in the Air Force,” she says.

Post-military, she planned to become a medical doctor. “Studying human tissues has certainly helped my work. But I was more at home with synthesis than analysis,” she says. “I realized good design is a social contribution.”

She switched to the Architecture Association School in London then came to MIT, earning a Ph.D. in design computation in 2010. At the same time, she earned distinction as a designer: The Museum of Modern Art displayed her work in 2008 and has 10 pieces in its permanent collection.

At MIT, Oxman relishes the freedom to work creatively. She challenges her students to look anew at familiar objects, the better to learn from what’s inside.

Consider the eggshell, she tells them. “Freeze it. Burn it. Check the microscope. What is the material doing? What does it want to be doing?”

Micro-structurally, an eggshell looks like the guts of an old golf ball. This delights Oxman. “It’s a fibrous reticulated mesh! It’s a system of variable density!”

Nature lights the way, she says. “In fifty years, we could have cranes that can ‘weave’ a skyscraper, optimizing both stability and flexibility so it can twist with a tornado.”

And in 2111? Oxman smiles. “Materials will become the new software. Buildings will grow like trees and self-repair like bones.”