By Jonathon Keats
To build a new pavilion in midtown Manhattan, the architect Neri Oxman employed 17,000 silkworms. Her motivation was not to avoid union-rate labor. Oxman’s structure, currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art, is intended to demonstrate a novel approach to construction in which humans interact with natural systems.
As the founder of the Mediated Matter Group at the MIT Media Lab, Oxman has spent the past decade redefining the built environment, enlisting a collaborative practice that she calls material ecology. In addition to silkworms, her collaborators include biologists, chemists, and computer scientists. Together they are reconceiving buildings and products as if they were natural habitats and organisms. Basing building and manufacturing on biological phenomena, she believes, can improve the performance of human artifacts and make them more environmentally sustainable. Humans are super-consumers, but nature is the foremost engineer.