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"Humans have been making buildings for thousands and thousands of years with bricks and mortar, and steel and glass. But along with those materials we've also been designing carbon fiber and plastics. And these materials have left a mark on the planet. Can we design our way out of this? If we are to survive, we must design our way of this. It's now on us to decide where we are going from here." - Neri Oxman

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In the series 'Abstract: The art of design', American-Israeli architect and scientist Neri Oxman takes you on a journey through her design philosophy, research field and scientific approach on the use of materials in the world of the future. With the MIT Design lab and her Mediated Matter Group, she brings together art, engineering, science and design to fundamentally change the way we shape our planet. Her focus is on developing new materials that, according to Oxman, are made "for, with and by nature".


Founded in 1885, MIT Media-Lab is a research lab of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the place where Neri Oxman transforms her ideas into highly complex, innovative designs. Although the lab falls under the School of Architecture faculty, it is not limited to individual disciplines, but integrates different faculties in an unconventional way to create a breeding ground for creativity.

Neri talks about her design processes in the lab. In the beginning there is little structure. She and her team are looking in all directions and looking at a wide range of possibilities. In a series of studies and tests that Neri calls "Library of experiments", they look for a natural material or a naturally degradable chemical composition that fits the project and construction design.  

Despite her leadership role as a professor, I found the flexibility in her leadership admirable. Neri not only gives herself, but also every other member of the project group, permission to change ideas for the project and even the project itself at any point in the making process or to look at different angles. And in doing so, she also shows a larger theme within the community of the lab. One of the research assistants, Josh van Zak, describes this in a very witty way,

"There's a feeling when you interact with Neri, that you could wake up tomorrow and come up with the craziest idea that you could possibly think of and it wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility".

In the Silkworm Pavilion design, Neri and her team show a collaboration between digital and biological fabrication methods and the relationship that emerges from this. The project consists of an installation in the form of a 'Dome', made up of metal panels in the shape of a hexagon. The installation combines the preliminary work of the Mediated Matter Group with the spinning work of the silkworm.


In the traditional form of silk production, the cocoon that the silkworm builds is boiled in preparation for pupation, in order to untangle the silk from the cocoon and prepare it for further processing into the fabric silk. However, the caterpillars are still in the cocoon, which kills them during the production process.

The dome is, as it were, an enlarged and simplified version of the silkworm's cocoon. By applying silk threads to the construction with a digitally controlled robot and computer software, which were also developed by the team, man creates a base for the animal to continue his work on.


6500 tracks are placed on the pavilion at the location where the construction is built. Here the caterpillars continue spinning until a thick layer of silk thread shapes the entire structure and the caterpillars are ready to build their own cocoon and prepare for pupation into a butterfly. Man and nature work so closely together. The caterpillars are not only kept alive in this way, which makes the production of silk ecologically responsible, but also lay eggs during the development of Silkworm Pavilion. These eggs and the caterpillars are good for the construction of 250 new pavilions. This completes the circular process and, in addition to an impressive interactive artwork, also develops production techniques for making silk production more sustainable for the future.

Everything fits together seamlessly. It starts with the fusion of different disciplines with people from different worlds, which develops into a concept and design that, through this association, enters into a collaboration between humans and animals to create a world that benefits us collectively. And I think ultimately that's Neri's great strength, bringing it together and coming up with something new. She says it started with design inspired by nature and wants to end with nature inspired by design. In the series she also conveys this philosophy by giving the viewer the same message that she gives to her team.

"I tell the team members, you have to be ready for your project to be appear in the atrium of the Museum of Modern Art, and at the same time on the cover of Nature and Science. We don't do either, It's always both.

Neri also shows that if the sub-objective in the form of a project has been achieved and the design has been completed, the work is not finished. In 2019-2020 she made a second version, Silk Pavilion II.


In other works, including Glass I and Glass II, the Mediated Matter Group is developing a technology and 3D printer that enables the printing of transparent glass for the first time. This provides the opportunity to create optical lenses that control the way solar energy is processed through the housing of buildings. This also brings her work to an architectural level.


At 'Aguahoja' (water hoya) she is looking for an alternative to artificial materials, such as plastic and is developing a structure of biocomposite with natural biopolymers such as cellulose, chitosan, chitin and pectin, which are made as if it had grown by itself with different structural compositions in density, flexibility and stiffness. At the end of its life cycle, the structure can be programmed to dissolve itself in water. Aguahoja II is currently under development.

I experience the resilience and perseverance of Neri Oxman and her team in the MIT Media Lab as something unprecedented. That passion for innovation through technology and design with the aim of improving the way we interact with the earth is something I want to experience myself and it's a dream (and goal) to be a part of something like that.


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