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 17,000 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 co-designer. 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.
Neri Oxman: Norman, I remember we first met at MIT. You were examining the profile of a handrail. I had just completed teaching my class, Design Across Scales. I approached you, and the rest is history… or future, depending on how you think of meaningful encounters. We later spent time together through the Norman Foster Foundation.
Sir Norman Foster: I remember it well! The extraordinary [Media Lab] space you have, the objects, the exhibit, the piano, the atmosphere, the students—just fantastic. In terms of how everybody interacts, nobody would have guessed that you were the professor! It’s a great group and a great synergy.
Oxman: Now that I think about it, I first experienced your work in the womb. My father took my mother on architectural journeys to photograph modernist buildings for his course, Theories of the New Age, that he taught at Technion [in Haifa, Israel], where I studied. Many of those buildings were yours, including the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts [in Norwich, England], which was my first encounter with your work as an architecture student. My father repeated the phrase “How much does your building weigh, Mr. Foster?” This became etched in my mind and continues to guide my work.
Foster: I’m fascinated by your explorations, which bridge nature, biology, computing, and material. The mechanical world is becoming more and more influenced by nature, and your work anticipates that undercurrent. Perhaps there’s potential for a greater convergence of the mechanical and natural worlds. I’d be curious whether you relate to that oversimplification.
Oxman: Perfectly stated. Our shared reverence for nature has greatly pushed our creative thinking. What began for you in the late 1970s was high-tech architecture and the “building as machine,” which considered the building as a system and later informed my search for high-biotech architectural systems.
Foster: The idea of a building as an amalgam of systems that interact with each other is significant, but you can’t look at any element in isolation from another. In a truly integrated design, as in nature, changing one element has an immediate rippling effect. It’s a distinct way of thinking that grows from earlier philosophy on the subject.
Oxman: That’s where Buckminster Fuller’s notion of synergy comes in. He spoke of the relationship between weight, energy, and performance. Creating architecture by doing the most with the least always defined the narrative of your work, and it’s taught me the balance between being in control and letting go. As we learn how biochemical reactions affect and even augment architectural scale and behavior, we realize that letting go requires the highest level of control. I strive to implement it in my process—knowing when to let the material be and let it find its shape. You’ve also been thinking about the topic of building cities without infrastructure.
Foster: Yes, to move toward autonomy. Along with climate change, this is a pressing issue in architecture, and infrastructure plays a vital role. Greenhouse gas emissions, carbon footprints—it cuts across every aspect of the man-made world, from livestock and construction to infrastructure. Our imperative is to reduce emissions while demonstrating that green architecture can be beautiful and deliver a high quality of life.
Oxman: Our biosphere is tightly intertwined. Services like air purification, climate regulation, carbon sequestration, and waste decomposition should all be part of architectural briefs. Our quality of life is inextricably linked to the health of the environment. We need to sustain our climate and augment it with designs that facilitate the well-being of not one but all species. Given the urgency of climate change, architecture needs to serve nature at large while considering these ecological forces as clientele. Architecture is evolving into the design of ecological niches. Also, architects are currently prioritizing shape instead of materiality. This modernist separation of form, structure, and material—and the more recent tripartite division of modeling, analyzing, and fabricating—has resulted in a predominance of geometry-first form generation.
Foster: Core design is not just about form-making and fashion. A response to environmental challenges is more likely to come from interdisciplinary working. We can learn lessons from the past, like when ancient communities achieved cooling in desert environments and heating in hostile cold environments.
Oxman: I completely agree. A return to technologically updated vernacular architecture will be one way of fighting climate change.
Foster: The future will be a fusion of learning from the past, learning from and working with nature, and using the most advanced technology of our age. The story of civilization is the story of technology.
Oxman: I think of adobe brick construction—creating composite materials from primitive materials in sophisticated ways to build cities.
Foster: The history of the dome fits into that tradition. Building double domes with air circulation requires extraordinary sophistication. Applying new materials and augmentations to achieve greener building is not about fashion—it’s about survival by design.
Oxman: Scale is one challenge, especially with materials whose properties you can control on a micro scale. When you scale up to a facade or building, you compromise the complexity of what’s achieved on a smaller scale. Beyond materials and processes, another challenge is implementing new technologies within the construction industry. The third obstacle is a social or cultural one: educating architects about new materials and processes, and what they can contribute to the environment. These are three of the driving forces behind our work.
Foster: I think a very clear direction forward comes from the convergence of these explorations.
Oxman: At a time when microscopes are as necessary as pencils, our ability to synthesize new materials using new architectural processes depends on our ability to see, and therefore to analyze, differently. Microscopes are an architect’s best friend. If you can learn to see in multiple lenses, you can implement building at multiple scales, from the chemical to the physical to the environmental. This is a challenging moment for architects because they’re trained to think in certain scales. When you enable designers to operate with multiple lenses, you start synthesizing all these worldviews into a single vertical microscope, much like the “Powers of 10” (video by the Eames office).
Foster: Yes, a parallel example might be the European Space Agency’s explorations of lunar habitation— domelike structures deep enough to insulate and protect from meteorites.
Oxman: I admire you for promoting experimentation at scale with responsibility. I look forward to a time when I can implement work on this scale. I always tell my team that if you can measure it, it doesn’t count. You know you’ve reached innovation when you’re lonely. You know that you’re doing something new, pushing boundaries, when there’s no one or nothing against which to compare yourself. Experimental design entails failure, especially when you’re doing research. Others in our field might consider that a weakness. For example, why would you want to use a building skin that folds or shapes in unpredictable ways? The answer is that they’re predictable—we just haven’t figured out the math yet.
Foster: There are several axioms about this. One extreme is if you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough.
Oxman: We recently introduced the silk pavilion in our new MoMA show. We committed to constructing a silk dome but failed miserably in the project’s first phase. Then we started observing the silkworms and discovered that they will go about spinning their cocoon—not a 3D one, but an unfolded 2D one—when you simply let them eat. That “failure” enabled an entirely new process, which was generating silk-spun patches using a combination of a robotic arm and silkworms. We avoided boiling the silkworm’s cocoon to extract fibers.
Foster: I remember Bucky said it’s not important whether you fail but rather whether you learn from failure.
Oxman: Failure motivates evolution that can generate new inventions. That’s very inspiring.