At MIT, Professor Neri Oxman researches material manufacturing methods that mimic naturally occurring processes. She suggests that her work might yield new armor or insulating materials, and she hopes that it will one day be scalable to apply to entire buildings.
Oxman’s name might be familiar. She appeared on the cover of Fast Company and the pages of Interview, and when you Google Neri Oxman, the most popular results reveal an interest in her marital status before returning back to MIT, the place of her professorship.
Not comfortable being merely a medical student, materials designer, computer programmer, artist, and public speaker in her fewer than forty years, Neri seems to also have time to appreciate Borges. Her latest exhibit, the deliciously titled “Imaginary Beings: Mythologies of the Not Yet,” explores the surrealist’s creatures each as the embodiment of a trait toward which humans aspire. The powers that have eluded humans so far, personal flying wings and elective invisibility, are embodied by each of her sculptures at the Center Pompidou in Paris.
That a woman so well-composed by nature would hold the latter’s processes in such high regard should not be surprising. In truth, it would be easy to dismiss her ideas as yet another speculative fancy never to have bearing upon society-at-large. Whether one thinks she is a prophet of what is to come, or another sensationalist academic is not the argument here. Instead, her ideas should be read and shared because they dare to start from scratch rather than polish old paradigms.
Amidst features on blonde Swedish DJs and this summer’s best sweaters, GQ still hosts a 2009 article about Oxman on its webpage. It might be the best place to begin to understand her past, present, and future. The daughter of two architects, Oxman went to medical school before deciding she did not wish to be a doctor. After a bout of architectural studies, she landed at MIT’s Media Lab, where she develops new building materials:
One of her big inspirations? Human bone. Bones get thicker when a woman is pregnant and thinner when people are in outer space. It’s exactly this process she’s trying to mimic with her latest project: composite walls made of rubber, plastic, and other materials. They’re designed to react to structural and environmental factors like weight and wind, forming columns and windows in the ideal places.
In a lecture given to a Pop! Tech audience, Oxman says that she is not interested in designing objects, so much as she is concerned with processes that create forms. After millennia of teasing scultpures and buildings out of marble and glass, we are now close to having 3D printing technology that is scalable for multi-level projects. If that is the case, why shouldn’t our buildings be made from materials adapted to the climate they inhabit? Oxman would say that we shouldn’t find materials to fit our climates, but that we should instead design processes that allow us to assess local conditions and create materials that respond to climate. Just as organic evolution led to a vast diversity in sun-determined melanin levels responding to light and shade, so too should we demand designers to create efficient and sensical building materials.
But will it ever be feasible to patiently calibrate and print building materials when there is concrete to be had? “Nature knows how to organize matter,” into muscles, silk, trees, and other systems. But nature is stranger to what Oxman calls pumps (“that which enables us to build taller) and wheels (“that which allows us to move faster”). We humans opt for targeted single-function design and building, whereas nature supports the calm unfolding of adapted processes. If animals and atmosphere could speak, they might ask us, if you please, to slow down and give them tie to adjust to our rapid expansion of population, needs, and resource use.
Oxman asks whether, by emulating nature’s methods, we might also mirror its pace and, as a result, become a more sustainable race.
Until she finds the manufacturer willing to employ her methods toward building these new materials, Oxman is likely to continue working on smaller projects for art museums and academic audiences. These works are no less innovative. One recent project, Second Skin, aims to map the pain profile of individual patients. Inspired by animal coding patterns, such as the colored spots on a cheetah or Dalmation, Second Skin is a customized healing device 3D printed according the pains of the injured. Instead of color, the finished product would control the stiffness of each printed bit of the Second Skin garment. For example, Oxman’s specially designed 3D printer would proffer a protective glove to ameliorate carpal tunnel syndrome. If in the future we can map the pain profile of each patient, we will have the power to create a brace that will best help the patient in a way that no mass produced tool ever can.
Oxman’s work provokes more questions than she has time to pursue, and it leaves one wonder whether there are others attempting to integrate biological senses and mechanisms into mechanical production and analysis. Should we rest at finding methods for printing variegated surfaces that are responsive to all natural elements, or should we also think of ways to automate their building beyond the 3D printer? Would it be possible ever to seed the slow accumulation of a house, defined loosely by a programmable substance that grows as thick as a tree’s wood? Could we experiment in ghost towns, using them as sites for testing technologies that “grow” a network of transit tunnels and roads? There are robots that wear their lifelessness without artifice, but there are also those that approach, asymptotic, life. But do we have many that work random neural misfires and revelations into their programming? Are their computer programs that, when they reach an error, troubleshoot it with human perspicacity? Will a robot ever kick the computer it seeks to fix out of frustration, much in the way that a man might hit a cathode ray TV stuck on static?
The following explore designs inspired by nature, rather than processes.