“Somewhere between a pine tree and the Parthenon”: Neri Oxman’s vision


Architects, planners and developers often refer to the built environment, a term in art meant to explain all the buildings and places that make up our urban world. The “environment” part of this term, however, rarely refers to the actual environment, otherwise known as nature. Buildings, from the carbon-intensive concrete in their foundations to the excessive energy needed to create and operate a skyscraper, tend not to function in harmony with the natural world.

oxman, Aguahoja Pavilion (rendered on the terrace of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), 2018. [Photo: © Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2018, The Mediated Matter Group (Image)]

Architect Neri Oxman thinks it’s possible. Through bio-based materials, she envisions a new approach to construction that uses organic matter to form literal building blocks while allowing structures to naturally decay when no longer needed. It’s a radical overhaul of how we make, use and dispose of buildings – a concept she calls material ecology. named one of fast business Most Creative People in 2009, Oxman continued to push the boundaries of architecture, engineering and materials science.

Until recently, Oxman led the Mediated Matter Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She continues to explore the intersection of biology, materials science and architecture through her practice Oxman Architects, founded in 2020. These ideas are the subject of a new solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art of San Francisco, from Saturday to May 15. features 40 works of art dating back to 2007, including pavilions made from shells designed to decay, and masks that capture and visualize a person’s last breath.

Here, says Oxman fast business on how biomaterials and emerging manufacturing technologies can inject more nature into the built environment.

Quick business: Architects and builders are increasingly concerned with green building, that is, reducing a project’s embodied carbon or using materials that reduce a building’s energy consumption at over time. The focus is on impact reduction, it seems. Is this the best we can hope for?

Neri Oxman: It is not the best we can hope for. the reduction of carbon involves producing a lesser amount of it per building. The problem with this approach is, first, that it is incremental – it does not solve the problem – and, second, that it is agnostic to categories of energy consumption: all carbon-based “currencies” are not consumed in the same way. Jhe the carbon footprint associated with food is different from the footprint associated with building or heating a home, and trading between them can only make the problem worse.

Since 2020, “anthropomass” – the mass embodied in our built environment – has exceeded the biomass of our planet. What if all anthropomass could be transformed into biomass, and vice versa? If and when biomass can be used by the product and building industries, we will end the war on climate change for good. In doing so, we eliminate our impact and hopefully even reverse past damage; we will consume what we grow and grow what we consume.

This is precisely the idea behind material ecology: to enable full synergy between the cultivated and the manufactured by deploying digital manufacturing technologies using natural bio-based materials for large-scale construction.

Neri Oxman, Gemini Daybed, 2014 ; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. [Photo: Katherine Du Tiel]

What would it mean for part of a building to break down programmatically? What uses does it have and what opportunities does it create for new types of buildings?

The bones and muscles that make up our body are constantly changing. Bone remodeling is the process by which mature bone tissue is removed from our skeleton and new bone tissue is formed throughout our lives and after injury. The same is true for extracellular muscle, where fiber remodeling removes damaged cells and replaces them with new tissue. Consider these forms of remodeling and adaptation in product and architectural design.

Neri Oxman and The Mediated Matter Group, Aguahoja II prototype2019. [Photo: © Massachusetts Institute of Technology, The Mediated Matter Group (photo)]

Oin the Aguahoja collectionwe demonstrate how the breakdown of structure could be made programmable so that nutrients are released back into the environment to nurture new growth. In a nutshell, programmed decay occurs when the process of degradation or dissociation of a building or object – in space and time – is encoded by the intentional design of its form, materiality and of its chemistry. The components of a building can then decay in sequence, at different rates and in different places on the surface of the structure.

For example, materials with high dissociation rates and hydrophilicity may be specified by the architect for use in areas of the building where decomposition is desired to begin, upon exposure to a certain level of precipitation. In contrast, lattices of mechanically strong materials can be used to reinforce the building where structural strength is required. Environmental data and functional requirements would inform the computational design of buildings, with variables that can be parametrically tuned to induce programmed and graceful degradation by design. This allows the predictable and responsible design of a structure and its interactions with its ecological niche, throughout its life, including, even, its beyond.

Through this project, we propose a way to temporarily divert organic materials from natural resource cycles, augment them with precise physical properties, and shape them into functional designs before allowing their programmed decomposition.

oxman, Man-Nahāta (detail), 2021. [Photo: © OXMAN, 2021]

Some buildings have stood for centuries, and others, especially newer buildings, are becoming obsolete and at risk of demolition within decades. Is there a middle ground, where buildings can have a planned lifespan based on a more environmentally friendly use of building materials?

Architect Carl Elefante is known for coining the phrase “The greenest building is the building that is already built”. The reason for this is that carbon emissions during construction are large, compared to the operational emissions of a given building – the embodied carbon of buildings is estimated at 11% of global carbon emissions and 75% of building emissions. a building over its entire life cycle. But, again, if man-made mass qualifies as biomass and vice versa, the statement becomes meaningless.

The built environment of the future is a forest biome where you will find multi-layered, rich eco-niches made up of soil, grasses, shrubs, saplings, and trees that all coexist in a healthy, biodiversity-rich environment. . Now consider a similar range in the urban fabric with programmable tent structures to support the homeless, semi-programmable structures to support semi-permanent social functions, such as markets and towers that can stand the test time. This is the kind of future I envision; it’s somewhere between a pine tree and the Parthenon.

oxman, Cinema Gemini (model), 2021; in collaboration with Stratasys, Ltd. on the production of Gemini Cinema[Image: © Neri Oxman, 2021]

Along the same lines: are we stupid to think that buildings have to be permanent?

We are crazy enough to bequeath the sixth extinction to our children and vain enough not to question it. We are all responsible. The concrete forest looks too much like a monoculture and too little like the thriving ecological niche it must become.

Neri Oxman and The Mediated Matter Group, Aguahoja Pavilion (front view), 2018; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, gift of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. [Image: © Massachusetts Institute of Technology/The Mediated Matter Group (Photo)]

Four years after its manufacture, the Aguahoja I pavilion shows minimal signs of degradation. In our exhibit at SFMOMA, we are finally exposing the architectural-scale Biopolymers Pavilion to the elements for the very first time, measuring the transfer of calories as it decomposes. Located outside in a rooftop garden, the pavilion is accompanied by a suite of instruments designed to visualize the measurement of sound decomposition rate in the context of its exposure to wind, humidity, temperature and precipitation. The matter and stored energy embodied in the pavilion will gradually reintegrate the garden bed at its base, transforming into biomass, nourishing plant growth and thus increasing the ecological niche of the garden. In this way, the loss of built matter is recovered through and in the environment, contributing to a true material ecology.

oxman, Model of the Biodiversity PavilionSouth Africa, 2021. [Photo: © OXMAN, 2021]

Although the approach is not yet capable of “reshaping” after decomposition, it shows promise for disposable products and structures, such as packaging and tents. Are we ready to live in disposable buildings or use disposable products that blend into their surroundings? Can we program their decline to align with ours? Can we take advantage of this approach to increase biodiversity? These are all valid questions that inspire our work.

Neri Oxman and The Mediated Matter Group Vespers Series II, Mask 01 for the new antique collection, 2018; manufactured by Stratasys; private collection. [Photo: Yoram Reshef]

At the risk of asking the question “what is the practical application” of an art exhibition, where do you see the most promise in applying this concept of material ecology in the built environment?

The ability to digitally adjust the mechanical, optical, and chemical properties of nature-scale structures will enable architects to overcome the existing dimensional mismatch between physical matter (e.g., sheet glass, homogeneous concrete, single-property metals) and environmental forces.

The materials ecology approach offers methods and technologies for the digital design and construction of structures with variable properties such as variable-optical glass, variable-density concrete, and variable-strength metals.

Harnessing solar power on an urban scale by 3D printing optically transparent glass in the creation of architectural “computers” would be one such breakthrough. Another could be the application of 3D printing in variable-density concrete for the construction of lightweight, high-performance structures. NASA’s acquisition of our digital construction platform for constructing buildings from lunar regolith indicates the relevance of our design approach. Robotic fabrication with bio-based materials will allow for higher levels of customization and functionality in built structures that can be made to break down in a controlled and “programmed” way.


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