From 3-D printing exoskeletons to creating biodegradable architecture, the MIT Media Lab professor is pioneering new hybrids of engineering and biology.
BY NOAM DVIR
Last March, on the day of Zaha Hadid’s death, Neri Oxman’s inbox exploded with emails. Although Hadid — the late Iraqi-born architect and grande dame of architectural asymmetry — and the Israeli-born, Boston-based designer had never met, their work shares a common ground: an original research into the secrets of the natural world. The work of both has, in turn, translated into formidable new expressions of material and form.
And just as Hadid was, Oxman is a highly visible woman in an otherwise male-dominated field. Their work doesn’t just comprise a rare talent; it’s ingrained in rigorous labor and perseverance. “I got so many emails the day she passed away, encouraging me to move forward with the same thinking and intensity,” Oxman says. “It was incredibly empowering.”
To Oxman, Hadid’s legacy is the prelude to a much larger revolution currently sweeping through the design world: the departure from biomimicry — imitations of models, systems, and elements of nature — toward the realm of bio-informed design (put simply: the augmentation of objects and buildings with biological materials that can adapt, respond, and potentially interact with their surroundings). Imagine you buy flowers and put them in a vase that can fertilize them, change color according to their lifecycle, and help them biodegrade after they’ve withered. Oxman calls it “Material Ecology” — a term she coined at the very beginning of her academic career, and that still remains relevant.
“Digital technologies cannot and should not serve only our formal aspirations,” she says. “We can now compute the chemical and physical properties of materials, in order to connect the periodic table to the genome. Molecular biologists can now share pieces of the DNA code with designers, for example. It creates a common language that is not only metaphoric but rather explicit. We never had this ability before.”
Oxman, 40, is an associate professor of media arts and sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, where she directs the Mediated Matter research group, which she founded in 2010, the year she joined the faculty. Ever since, she has sat comfortably in the crossroads between architecture, engineering, computation, and science, providing a distinctive model for a contemporary design practice. The group includes 25 affiliates and visiting students from fields such as computational design, architecture, marine science, molecular biology, and physics. She conducts multidisciplinary research, moving seamlessly between synthetic biology and art, and applying that knowledge to design across scales. This research marries digital form-finding strategies with biologically inspired fabrication. In order to materialize the research, the group has been building 3-D printers capable of printing biological matter and even glass.
Numerous recognitions, including the Vilcek Prize in Design in 2014 and an Emerging Voices Award from the Architectural League of New York in 2015, have resulted from this research. Oxman’s charisma and self-confidence secured her a prime spot in the TED conference last year; the video of the talk has hit nearly 1.4 million views so far. In May, she was one of three keynote speakers at the American Institute of Architects Convention in Philadelphia. The two others were the actor Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the Pritzker Prize laureate Rem Koolhaas.
We sit down at her office in the Media Lab, switching between English and Hebrew. A beautiful and graceful woman, Oxman speaks as enthusiastically about her work as she does about the ethics of genetically modified organisms and her love of Beethoven.
Her desk is packed with specimens from the natural world: delicate butterfly wings, wasp nests, a sizable pinecone collection, and an array of Crustaceans. I ask her which one is her favorite. She picks a horseshoe crab from the tray and puts it in the palm of my hand. “It’s a beautiful creature because it has a complex internal structure, yet it’s incredibly light and feels almost like a piece of paper.”
The crab’s skeletal system — carapace, legs, and tail — is made of chitin, the second-most abundant biopolymer on earth. Through millions of years of evolution, chitin was chemically composed to generate stiffer and softer areas, accommodating different functions around the crab’s body. It’s as if concrete could have been manipulated to not only form walls, but also become as transparent as glass to form windows. Oxman and her team explored how to apply chitosan — deacetylated chitin — to an architectural scale. They asked a local Boston seafood restaurant to ship over shells, and then ground them in the lab to create a paste. The team built a chitosan printer with a resolution of 20 microns — as thick as a human hair.
Then the fun really started.
Among the products already produced in the lab are fully recyclable grocery bags, wearable objects, and early experiments at an architectural scale, structural creations more than 12 feet tall. All of which are completely biodegradable when put into contact with water. Seeing the first prints coming out of the chitosan printer, Oxman experienced her eureka moment. She had taken a shortcut over millions of years of evolution.
“Since the Industrial Revolution, design has been dominated by the rigors of manufacturing and mass-production,” she says. “Assembly lines have dictated a world where designers have been taught to think of their product in terms of assemblies of parts, each made from a different material and fulfilling a predetermined function. We’re now moving from a world of parts, of separate systems, to architecture that combines and integrates between structure and skin.”
Oxman was brought up in Israel in a family of architects, engineers, and intellectuals. Her parents — an American father and Israeli mother — are both well-known figures in the local design scene, namely for their theoretical and computational work in the field. (Oxman, naturally, was one of their research subjects.) She has one younger sister, Keren, a mixed-media artist. Oxman was previously married to the Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov, who she says had an “incredible influence” on her work. (A very private person, Oxman wouldn’t elaborate on her relationship with Golijov.)
Her childhood home in the northern city of Haifa was “funky,” she says, and full of creative energy. After finishing mandatory military service in the Israeli Air Force, she decided to apply to medical school — a reaction, perhaps, to the prominence of architecture and architects in her life. However, after two years at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, she decided to apply to architecture school at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, where her father was a professor and later appointed dean.
During her fourth year at the Technion, Oxman transferred to the Architectural Association in London, from which she graduated with a RIBA Part 2 certificate. Her time in London was incredibly transformative, she says, although she spent the majority of her days and nights in school. Oxman went straight on to earning her Ph.D. in design computation at MIT as a Presidential Fellow, completing the program in 2010.
“Neri is a person ahead of her time, not of her time,” says Paola Antonelli, senior curator for architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “She is very rigorous, taking on a long view on where design needs to be, but at the same time also has an incredible talent and aesthetic flare, like an artist. Whatever she does has ground and credibility in science, but also a universal appeal for everybody, because her work is just so beautiful.”
The Mexican architect Enrique Norten first introduced Antonelli and Oxman in 2007. Oxman, then halfway through her Ph.D. research, had already produced a significant body of work. Her collection “Materialecology” — four speculative objects that explore the intrinsic qualities of natural structures — made its way into MoMA’s “Design and the Elastic Mind” exhibition in 2008. As soon as the show closed, the museum, in an unusual move, decided to purchase the works for its permanent collection, the first of many institutions to follow.
The same scientific and artistic rigor is also present in “Wanderers” (2014), a collection of prototype clothing, done in collaboration with 3D-printing company Stratasys and designed to hold microbes that could keep its user alive in hostile environments. In 2013, Oxman and her team focused on the behavior of silkworms, creating the Silk Pavilion, a dome made out of silk fibers, woven by a robotic arm, which was then finished by 6,500 live worms. This project was among the very first architectural applications of the research in the lab, but also raised ethical questions regarding the manipulation of the worms’ behavior: They’d been transformed into living
Oxman acknowledges the limitations of the natural world, but recognizes them as “limits that count as new beginnings.” She adds, “There’s only a certain height that a red oak tree can reach because there’s a limit to the height that you can pump fluids, but the technologies we’re looking at can augment nature. I think the machine and the organism can ultimately be integrated and form a world that doesn’t see them as opposites.”
When I ask her if she ever has dreams about a day in which she’ll be able to augment a tree to reach the height of a skyscraper, she says, “This is very poetic. Why not?”
Most recently, Oxman has been working on the development of 3-D glass printers, deploying molten glass in a layer-by-layer fashion. The first version of the printer was released last year; the lab is currently at work on the second one. This is potentially one of the most commercially exciting projects in the lab, with direct implications for architecture. The printer allows Oxman and her team to manufacture multifunctional glass structures and facade elements. For now, the first products are an attractive collection of vessel prototypes, currently on display at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York as part of the museum’s “Beauty” Triennial exhibition (through Aug. 21).
“It’s truly an astonishing project because it combines an incredible visual language with fantastic implications for industry,” says the show’s curator, Ellen Lupton. “It’s not only precious artifacts, but also a prototype for a new material. Neri’s pieces speak to a long tradition of glass art, glass blowing, and glass vessels. I think she has written a new chapter in this history.”
Oxman appears to be genuinely admired by her students, colleagues, and collaborators. She’s considered one of the star PIs (Principal Investigators) in the Media Lab, along with Hugh Herr, who masters bionic limbs, and director Joi Ito, one of the world’s most influential figures in the technology industry. Her noteworthy performance and broad recognition have naturally raised a few eyebrows at MIT — in particular, her almost unlimited access to funding and to the brightest research students. (She notes that funding is still very much a difficult matter, especially for research projects with no clear application.)
Her next challenge: to step outside of the laboratory and apply her research to an architectural scale. Although Oxman has previously worked for firms both in Israel and the U.K., she has never led the construction of a large-scale building, nor has she run her own architectural practice. But she has a leg up: The necessary specialized software and 3-D printers she uses are available to only a small fragment of the world’s architects and designers. “I’m starting to be hungry for the architectural scale,” she says, “to some of my mentors’ chagrin. We’re at a point where big companies are starting to express keen interest in some of our technologies, and the need to shift scales becomes inevitable.” More practically, it would require her to establish a parallel professional domain, potentially outside of the academic world, with a team of designers that can not only code and research, but also lay out plans, draw facades, and build.
The Cambridge-based architect Moshe Safdie, who considers Oxman “a friend, colleague, and essentially family,” is anxious to see her research applied outside of the controlled environment of the lab. “Neri is currently allowing the ingenuity of the materials she explores to drive the aesthetics of her design. However, when she makes the jump to the building scale, she will have to cope with multiple systems and to fully control their composition.” Safdie, who comes from the same hometown in Israel as Oxman, recognizes her multidisciplinary background in art and science as her main advantage: “She has a very multifaceted mind, the kind of mind that can make breakthroughs in architecture.”
Oxman is an outlier in every field she operates in, whether it be architecture, computing, engineering, or science. Yet it seems that her atypical process, combined with her genuine scientific ambitions, may well position her as a leader not only in the academic world, but also in the professional one. Her willingness to take risks toward her first architectural commission is definitely the first step. “If it will end up being a noble failure,” she says, “then let it be.”
It was 15 years before Zaha Hadid realized her first project, the Vitra Fire Station in Weil am Rhein, Germany. She worked tirelessly to develop her formal and theoretical ideas while struggling to find the right client. For Oxman, it seems, it might take less time. The technology she’s developing already attracts investors and finds numerous applications in fashion and product design. The question, of course, is the end game. What does Oxman hope for—a Nobel or a Pritzker? Perhaps she’ll find a way to achieve both.