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Neri Oxman: On architecture, femininity, feminism, and breaking down barriers

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Noah Kalina, 2017

Noah Kalina

by Janine Liberty

March 18, 2018

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For International Women's Day 2018, CNN asked five of the world's leading architects “what it will take to break down barriers—from the classroom to the boardroom—for women in architecture, and offer words of advice for the next generation of female creatives.” Neri Oxman, head of the Mediated Matter research group, was among those interviewed. Read CNN’s profile of all five women, and below are Neri's expanded thoughts on architecture, design, gender, and moving between and across disciplines.

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Courtesy of Neri Oxman and The Mediated Matter Group

When will women design our cities?
Face it: most of history is patriarchal. Starting with the phrase “For Adam was formed first, then Eve:” Pharaoh’s Egypt, Gandhi’s India, Victorian masculinity, macho Latin America, the status of women in the Arab world…all confirm that since ancient times, biblical times, we have occupied cities designed and constructed by men.

I just returned from Taliesin West—a home, a school, a studio, kernel of humane architecture—where I recalled Jane Jacobs’ quote, “We expect too much of new buildings, and too little of ourselves.” Jacobs was not trained as an architect; she was a journalist-activist, and has probably contributed more to Urban Design than many of us creators and builders of the physical environment. There is something to be said, then, about approaching urban planning and design through the lens of journalism, or designing a city by actively taking into account women’s rights since Mesopotamia, institutionalized not only by the book but by the (city) block.   

There are now more women in higher education than men, including architectural education, yet this is still not the case in practice. As women expect more of themselves, and more of themselves than men, cities will become our purview.

“Architect” or “female architect”?
Look, I do not consider myself a feminist (for what it’s worth: my best friends do). In fact, I often find that the feminist rhetoric comes across as simple-minded, nuance-averse, and reductive (biology to physiology, history to psychology, and so on). I loathe categorization, I cherish my independence, and I treasure chivalry. I live just fine with ambiguity and I welcome a good quarrel about all things designed or grown (except for when men misnomer “confident” with “poised” and “passionate” with “feisty”).

I adore and admire Dorte Mandrup’s views (and her brilliant work), but I admit to being beside myself when it comes to the distinction between “architect” and “female architect” in the same way that I have grown to embrace the often challenging ambiguities associated with my identity as Israeli, American, and Jewish (as well as those relating to the complex relationship I have with my birth country, Israel). I am at once—like many of my friends and colleagues—an architect, a woman, a Jew, a Melville aficionada, a birdwatcher, swimmer of the [Walden] Pond. I am all these things and combinations therein: more architect than Jew on odd days, more woman on even. I don’t consider gender a curse word, nor do I deem it a stealthy evolutionary advantage. But I am first to admit that, over millennia (and at least for decades to come) we have been born with piping of binary distinction: one that has allowed some of us to build, others to give birth, and—if fortunate—to pursue both forms of creation. Ultimately, male or female, we are the products of our relationships with our own identity: cities we have built, bodies we have embraced, kindred souls we have cherished, and trees we climbed. The more proficient we become with self-empathy as a form of drafting, the more accepting we are of our bodies as vessels for our taste in being, and the better builders we will become.    

What do you consider your biggest professional coup as an architect / designer?
Building and using a BL2 wet lab designed by and for architects.

How can women in the fields of engineering and science inspire the next generation?
Femininity is a socially defined and biologically germane construct; yet it is not gender specific. Simone de Beauvoir’s reflection, that one is not born, but rather becomes a woman, is compelling. Male or female, we all embody traits that can be associated with being feminine or virile, or both. (The emphasis is on “being.”) Our ability as creators to make useful and meaningful connections between domains such as science, design and engineering requires the kind of humility that is often associated with traits characterized by some as “feminine”; ultimately—“feminine” and “masculine” can coexist as forms of or taste in being—and you, a cohort of traits, you get to choose how to approach the day, or the disciplines. You can choose to read the bible as a manual (perilous!), as a novel (intriguing), or as a collection of reflections on the nature of being human. By addressing productive ambiguity and nuance to a different set of problems or opportunities, one sees more than meets the eye: through a body, a microscope, a telescope. This melding of the traits, this blending of dispositions, is at the core of how my team and I approach design.

We take great joy in fusing disciplines, especially in the natural sciences. The same is true of our preoccupation with cultural expression. I am equally fascinated with, and awed by, visiting an Alexander McQueen show as I am looking under the microscope. This deep level of intrigue and fascination visits us whenever my team and I take on new design challenges. I don’t think of fashion as fashion, or biology as biology. I don’t see architecture as distinct from design or culture, or even from chemistry for that matter. What’s more important to me is the search for a language of expression that carries meaning, and a worthy argument. The disciplines are merely lenses through which to view the world. At times they overlap; at times they don’t.

Explain what intrigues you about the synergy between art, biology, and technology?
That process and product are linked intrigues me; where technique and expression unite intrigues me.

Our projects necessitate that we invent the technologies to create them. In that sense, the relationship between our design ambitions and the technologies that enable them is, well, "non Platonic." There is a rather intimate transfer of content across product and process, artifact and technology, expression and technique.

A printed glass facade, for example, cannot be designed nor can it be built without a glass printer; our biomaterial structures could not have been designed or constructed without designing a robotic platform to construct them; the Silk Pavilion would have not been constructed without a robotically woven scaffold on which to spin silk; the Wanderers would have not come to life without high resolution material modeling of macro-fluidic channels and the ability to print them. And so on. Speculative gestures and hardcore tech with a diehard approach to making are at the core of who we are and how we operate as a team.

Much of what we do can only be done at the intersection between disciplines. How else might you genetically engineer microorganisms hosted in printed microfluidic devices, or print a squid sucker ring tooth protein and use it as a new thermoplastic material for biocompatible product design?

We look for design opportunities where these relationships are entangled. Where the technique defines an expression as much as the expression defines the technique. This is also how Nature works.

In the end, our team operates as a “predictive practice,” a laboratory, in which the future of design is being actively and empirically created, not merely questioned. We don’t regard ourselves as problem solvers, but as solution finders to problems that may not yet exist. I’d hate to give up that edge. Ever.

You’ve called your organic approach to design “mothering.” How do those mothering qualities inform your design work?
There is a preconception that architectural design is a top-down kind of practice. That form—authored by a sole architect—comes first, and is then post-rationalized to ensure proper execution of its design intent. But Nature doesn’t work that way, nor does motherhood. In both, matter comes first—physical and otherwise immaterial. And in both [design and motherhood], design has less to do with formal dictation and more to do with guidance and nurturing, an almost abysmal insight of the “source material” and what it wants to be.

When I refer to “mothering Nature” in the context of my own work, it is usually in reference to a necessary mental shift from seeing Nature as a boundless, nourishing entity to one that begs nourishment by design. This approach then propels us into the age where we “mother” Nature by design. Mother, the verb.

When you describe these glass structures you and your team created for Lexus, you called them "formalism with a moral compass." What do you mean by that?
Beauty is a sign of usefulness. Beyond our occupation with the splendor of caustics—the light patterns governed by the properties of the printed glass—I keep thinking…there must be something useful to all these caustics! So instead of arriving at beauty through function, or usefulness, we take the opposite route: arriving at new functionalities through an almost obsessive preoccupation with material properties and effects. This approach is at the very core of my work and group. We do not solve problems; we invent new technologies that offer new ways by which to engage with the world around us. If we are lucky, we get to discover solutions to problems we may not have known existed.

When I say “formalism with a moral compass,” I mean the responsibility that comes with freedom of exploration and expression. In this case it may be tied with environmental consciousness. In the United States alone, 450 billion square feet of glass façade are produced every year. What if we could 3D print glass facades that—by way of tuning their shape and color, much like giant optical lenses—can harness solar energy? As architects and designers we are committed to question the impact of such new technologies on the built environment. But more importantly we must also take joy in the unknown and the ambiguous, the state of becoming.

The world of architecture, in particular, has been a male-dominated ecosystem for a long time. How do you navigate this world?
On good days with grace, on bad days—by “being a man.”

When I have little patience for reflection, I turn off that sense of awareness; I go about my day and my work and—when faced with gender sensitive positions—I say to myself, “Just get on with it!” But on good days, I tune in and I listen, inviting qualities about myself often associated with femininity, male or female, and how that enriches my work and my way of being. Most of the time, though, I find that acknowledging the gender-divide gets in the way of letting it go. And letting it go is best achieved by doing great work. It is only through hard work and awareness that we can truly own our identity, not by shoving it under a round table of suits…AND I can say with immense pride that my best projects, including our most recent, have been spurred and supported by women mentors. I’ve got more female mentors than male mentors BY FAR.

Do you think the issue of male dominance in architecture is unique to the profession?
No. You find it across the board and in many other fields: physics, music composition, film, theater, the tech world, and—of course—the White House. This isn’t an emblem of the architectural profession; it’s a phenotype of the human condition, a product of its perception.

What’s changing to make architecture a better atmosphere for women?
The women.

What needs to change to get women into key positions?
The men.

Who inspires you?
Picasso, Sontag, Beethoven, Bergman, Bernstein, Perriand, [Virginia] Woolf, Mies, [Maureen] Dowd, and [Maria] Popova, also a dear friend. My sister, my parents.

What’s on your desk?
Books: The Art of Structure, The Complete Book of Pyramids, The Genius of Judaism, MIES IN BERLIN, Cosmic Ecology. Creatures: a collection of Alebrijes, an elephant skull, a glass printed prototype. And flowers. Lots. I make my own arrangements.

A book that you’ve read more than once?
Melville’s Moby Dick, D'Arcy Thompson’s On Growth and Form,the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, Sylvia Plath's Ariel.

Is there any place that inspires you?
Walden Pond, the Chauvet Cave, the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem, the markets of the Old City, the Atacama Desert, my grandmother’s garden, the Wailing Wall, Taliesin West, my childhood home, any place where I can hear waves. An open sea. 

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