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MIT Better World

Neri Oxman is shown before a prototype for an environmental screen, Fibonacci’s Mashrabiya, work inspired by fractal patterns found in nature.


By Kathryn M. O’Neill

She even considered becoming a doctor, but after three years of medical school, she took up architecture.

“There is a productive synthesis between my love of medical science and nature, and the world of synthetic design. I definitely see design as a field where those two brains interact,” says Oxman, whose multidisciplinary background has enabled her to launch a new research area at MIT — material ecology — that merges architecture with engineering, computation, and ecology.

Oxman received an MIT PhD in architecture just two years ago, but her digitally fabricated creations have already been exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and included in permanent collections at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. For the MoMA exhibit, Design and the Elastic Mind, Oxman adapted natural forms from beehives, bone, and butterflies to create objects capable of reacting to light, pressure, and heat — work that could one day lead to environmentally adaptive building materials.

“What is important to me is the design approach, and how we translate principles from the natural to the synthetic world,” she says. The idea of material ecology is to computationally program properties at the macro and micro scale, designing material systems and structures to serve multiple purposes, as they do in nature.

Design is moving into a new “age of biology” — and MIT is leading the way, says Oxman, who founded and heads the Mediated Matter Group at the Media Lab and is the Sony Corporation Career Development Professor of Media Arts and Sciences. “The Media Lab was founded on the ideal of the designer as an experimentalist,” she says. “I can’t think of another place on earth that would support, promote, engage, and encourage the experimental spirit of design and design technology [to the same degree].”

Oxman creates prototype materials and objects using a digital 3-D printing technique of her own invention — variable property printing. Among her explorations are the creation of a therapeutic glove, which provides custom support to individuals with carpal tunnel syndrome by distributing hard and soft materials to suit the patient’s needs and anatomy; a prototype building “skin” that supports structural load; and the well-known work Beast, a reinvention of the chaise longue that provides form-hugging support for the human body.

The classic chaise lounge, developed in the 1920s by the modernist Le Corbusier, used metal for structure and leather for comfort. A prototype created in collaboration with Prof. W. Craig Carter of MIT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering and Objet Ltd., a 3-D printing company, Beast employs a single continuous surface both as structure and skin.

“Modern design celebrated the discrete assignment of properties by function” — a by-product of industrialization, Oxman says. Advances in technology have opened new avenues for design. “Today, automating variation is as cheap as stamping out carbon copies. Because of that, we can more effectively mimic nature’s language.”

Will architects one day grow buildings like trees? Oxman has said as much, but admits the concept is more fantasy than literal prediction. “It’s often the stuff of science fiction that determines [our] vision and enables us to realize it,” she says. “But growing buildings is the signature of a design revolution that is coming our way.”