Neri Oxman and Sir Norman Foster on the future of design


Denis Doorly

Denis Doorly

By Ryan Waddoups

This story appears in the upcoming March issue of Surface, out March 10.

Neri Oxman harnesses the secrets of the natural world to create entirely new types of materials, buildings, and construction processes. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, where she founded the Mediated Matter group, Oxman has pioneered material ecology: an interdisciplinary study that sits at the cross-section of materials science, digital fabrication technologies, and organic design. Its goal is to come up with ways of making things that are informed by the structural, systemic, and aesthetic wisdom of nature. For instance, Oxman closely studies birch tree bark and crustacean shells to gauge how organic life assembles itself, then demonstrates how architects can apply these principles at scale.

Some of these applications are on view in “Neri Oxman: Material Ecology,” a solo exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art devoted to seven key projects from Oxman’s extensive body of work. Its centerpiece, Silk Pavilion II, uses a swarm of 6,500 silkworms to generate 3D cocoons from a single silk thread, creating the overall geometry of a geodesic dome. It shows how nature can act in the dual roles of architect and construction worker. The exhibition, running through May 25, positions itself as a materials library for tomorrow, and proposes a new age in which biology, architecture, and design work seamlessly as one.

To celebrate the exhibition’s opening, Oxman chats with Sir Norman Foster about the future of architecture.

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