'Nature is a brilliant engineer'
In her cutting-edge research at MIT, Israeli-born architect Neri Oxman aims to apply naturally occurring physical processes to the design of objects and buildings.
On Neri Oxman's desk in the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - a place where the future of the world of design, technology and multimedia is being written - is an array of delicate butterfly wings, wasp nests, a sizable pinecone collection and an assortment of human bones.
Haifa-born Oxman, 35, one of the world's leading researchers in the field of digital architecture, is currently studying how our bones are affected by environmental conditions and by the weight that is brought to bear on them, and how such knowledge can be applied in other areas of life. It is known, for instance, that astronauts in outer space lose bone mass because of the absence of gravity, whereas women when they are pregnant develop stronger bones in order to withstand the added load.
"We are trying to imitate the physiological process that enables changes in the structure of calcium - the building block of bone - and eventually apply it to the process of building foundations in concrete," explains Oxman. "When you construct a building today, the pouring of the concrete is the same, whether it's a window, a wall, a ceiling or a support beam, regardless of the loads that are meant to be supported. My study suggests possibilities for pouring concrete in an innovative way that conserves materials. Naturally, this has a design significance as well: We are creating a new language that is directly influenced by the behavior of nature."
Oxman, an associate professor at MIT in media arts and sciences, studied town planning and architecture at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, after a couple of years of medical school at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; she then went on to the London Architectural Association School of Architecture (known as AA ). She also has training as a software engineer and a materials engineer. Over the past five years she has won a slew of awards, participated in international exhibitions - foremost of these being the Architectural Biennial Beijing - and also showcased her designs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
In 2009 the American business magazine Fast Company featured her on the cover of its annual "100 Most Creative People in Business" issue. With her model-like good looks, Oxman frequently has portraits of herself presented together with her work, and seems to be just as sought-after among the readers of Vogue, in which she has appeared, as at professional conferences.
Oxman predicts that in the not-too-distant future we will be able to create entire buildings composed of innovative materials that "will be able to move and respond to their environment." In the meantime, her ideas have taken the form of a design for a chaise longue that she calls "Beast," which adapts its form to the person reclining on it, a glove-like splint that alleviates carpal tunnel syndrome and a construction technique called "Monocoque," which is based on relying on an object's exterior rather than internal structure to support a load that is brought to bear on it.
Oxman says she studies processes that occur in nature, deciphering them by means of computerized codes that she herself creates, and uses them for construction-related applications as well as for designing aesthetic objects. She occasionally employs the pretentious phrase "triumph over nature" with respect to her work.
"Mozart was pretentious, too," she says, "but this pretentiousness is actually [a form of human] self-criticism. Nature is a brilliant engineer and builder. It knows how to create seashells that are twice as strong as the most resistant ceramics human beings can manufacture, and it produces silk fibers five times stronger than steel. Nature also knows how to create multipurpose forms. A simple leaf can support itself structurally and also carry out photosynthesis.
"On the other hand, nature is very orderly and therefore limited in terms of scale. This is why we don't see, for example, trees that keep growing up to the sky. Human beings invented pumps and elevators, and therefore can build skyscrapers. The responsibility of the human race is to examine which processes can be learned from nature."
Oxman's appointment about a year ago to her post in the Media Lab at MIT, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, raised some eyebrows in view of her young age and relatively limited experience. But the Media Lab quickly became a professional home, she says. Oxman has at her disposal three graduate students who serve as research assistants, and has access to equipment including advanced architecture/design software, cutting machines (called CNC machines ) and 3-D printers.
"Forms in nature are a byproduct of a reciprocal action between a given material and the conditions of the environment. But in architecture the process is the direct opposite: First you decide on the form and then you think how to build it in reality. Technological progress and the introduction of computers into architectural firms enable us today to create and build almost any form possible, and, ironically, to distinguish more sharply between material and form.
"I object to the hegemony of form in contemporary architecture," Oxman explains. "We have very advanced technological tools, but ultimately we create buildings exactly like we used to before: We send the drawings to an engineer and let him struggle with figuring out how to build it."
Throughout history architects and designers have tried to imitate organic forms and use them to create a new language. Architects in ancient Greece decorated temple columns with vines and curly leaves. And 2,000 years later Catalan Antoni Gaudi tried to turn the massive columns in his Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona into "trees" with branches that "collect" and support the weight of the roof.
"It's all a question of interpretation," Oxman says. "Most architects looked upon nature as a metaphor and translated it in a very explicit manner. Digital tools allow me to translate natural principles and processes, albeit not necessarily physical forms."
The collection of pinecones lying on the table serves to illustrate her argument: "The pinecone, the branch, the tree trunk and essentially the entire plant world is constructed more or less from a substance called cellulose. If you organize the cellulose in a very dense manner, you get a trunk; and if you organize it in a different, lighter, way, you get a leaf. What's astonishing is that when you code the same material in a different arrangement, you wind up with completely different functions. This is entirely different from the industrial notion that says there is a concrete beam that is intended to hold up the building and glass that is supposed to create an envelope. Nature is not modular and therefore it generates different forms every time. I would like to reach such flexibility in architecture as well."
Neri Oxman was born in Haifa to parents who are both leading figures in the academic-architecture world in Israel; both are professors. Her father, Robert Oxman, is a scholar in the field of history and theory; her mother, Rivka Oxman, researches digital architecture. They have a younger daughter, an artist who lives in New York.
Her father had the greatest influence on her career, Oxman says today, recalling visits to classes at the Technion. After completing her military service in the Israel Air Force, she began medical school at the Hebrew University but quit after two years in favor of architecture studies at the Technion. She doesn't regret the time she dedicated to studying anatomy and biology because today that knowledge serves her well in her work, she notes.
During her fourth year at the Technion, Oxman decided to transfer to the AA in London and finish her bachelor's degree there. She got her master's at MIT, and went straight on to a doctorate with a full fellowship. While she misses Israel, she believes she is in the only place in the world that can provide her with the resources to carry out her research.
"Neri is part of a limited group of designers in the world who know how to translate the scientific revolutions of our time into reality," says Paola Antonelli, senior curator for architecture and design at MoMA. Last year three of Oxman's works were shown there as part of an exhibition dealing with design and science. As soon as the exhibition closed, the museum, in an unusual move, decided to purchase the works for its permanent collection.
"I appreciate her ability to be super-focused on particular study in a manner that borders on the obsessive," Antonelli explains. "She tries to decipher the secrets of nature, which is something that man has tried to do since the origins of humanity. She does this in a modest yet spectacular manner - and with passion. No less important, the products of the study are extraordinarily elegant objects."
Asked if she thinks Oxman's work could change the world, Antonelli says: "Absolutely. It won't happen immediately, but someone has to take the first steps. Rarely do we see immediate use of innovative technologies. I believe that the future is built by small pieces that add up."
The curator's sole criticism of Oxman's cutting-edge work concerns her ability to translate scholarly complexity into layman's language. "She's delightful and terrific, but sometimes it's difficult for her to communicate her studies. I told her that she has to improve this ability."
"Neri is a very talented creator," agrees Dr. Eran Neuman, head of the architecture school at Tel Aviv University and one of the leading lights in Israel in the field of digital architecture. "She is an excellent designer, a rare quality in the architecture world. And I think that she manages to make very interesting use of digital design methods."
Nevertheless, Neuman thinks Oxman's big test will come when she moves from designing small-scale objects to a larger scale: "The gloves and chairs she creates are very intriguing, but I am interested in seeing how she will integrate her ideas into buildings."
Oxman has never actually been involved in constructing a building, and says she has no plans to open her own firm or take part in architecture competitions and bid for architectural commissions, so long as her research is ongoing. The necessary, specialized software and 3-D printers are available to a small percentage of the world's architects and designers.
The field of digital architecture, whose luminaries include Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry, today symbolizes self-conscious design that lacks economic benefits, and its detractors believe it has not yet managed to confront burning architectural issues such as alleviating housing shortages or creating successful urban fabrics.
"I understand the criticism," Oxman concedes. "A lot of people define us as a Salon des Refuses [a reference to the 19th-century exhibitions in France of artists whose work was rejected by the establishment Paris Salon], and our work is indeed speculative. You have to have a large degree of naivete to invest in research of my kind. I can't live without naivete; it gives me the freedom to imagine."
The media interest surrounding Oxman does not preoccupy her much: "I want my work to speak for itself. I engage in super-hard work and work 20 hours a day. Nobody cuts me any slack. What guides me is the joy of living, the joy of creating. I know how to celebrate victory and success, but also how to take a risk and fail gloriously."
Do you get special attention for being a woman in fields that are considered mega-masculine?
Oxman: "The blessing is also a curse in many cases, because the attention comes with a great deal of criticism and with the need to display a lot of responsibility. It always requires me to work harder and to present my ideas in the most professional way possible."
Three projects by Oxman
1. "Beast" is a chaise longue featuring a unique surface composed of polymers that functions both as a structural skeleton and a recliner. The chair changes its thickness, density, hardness and flexibility in keeping with the body of the individual sitting on it.
2. "Carpal Skin" is a splint that is intended to alleviate carpal tunnel syndrome, which affects many people and is manifested by numbness, tingling, or pain in the wrist. It is caused by, among other things, repetitive strain injury, and is one of the most common injuries resulting from computer use (Oxman herself suffers from it, in both hands ). With the help of computerized sensors, she mapped the pain areas in a particular patient and created a glove that would help him avoid movements that might cause pain.
3. "Monocoque" (French for "shell" ) is, according to Oxman's website, "a construction technique that supports a structural load using an object's external skin. Contrary to the traditional design of building skins that distinguish between internal structural frameworks and non-bearing skin elements, this approach promotes heterogeneity and differentiation of material properties ... Its innovative 3D printing technology provides for the ability to print parts and assemblies made of multiple materials within a single build, as well as to create composite materials that present preset combinations of mechanical properties."
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