New Thinking on the Future of Architecture and Design
Story by Carol Canter.
While many of the nearly 40 artworks and installations in SFMOMA’s 2022 opening “Nature x Humanity: Oxman Architects” were strikingly beautiful, collectively they made up an exhibition that was provocative and mind-expanding. The theme of the show was nothing less than an exploration of how we build for a radically transformed, environmentally healthy future.
“How do we create an architecture not of the landfill but of land fertility?” said Israeli American designer Neri Oxman at a 2022 press preview of the exhibition. One answer could be found in the series of 3 Aguahoja Pavilions, one in newborn, pristine condition at the entrance to the 2022 exhibition, and one that underwent a programmed decomposition on the outdoor terrace of SFMOMA’s Floor 4.
Made from the discarded shells of ocean crustaceans, fallen leaves, and apple skins, these compostable building materials nourish a seedbed below, fueling new growth as they decay naturally when the rains come. (In San Francisco, IF the rains come!) In Aguahoja II, gradients of color were developed using small amounts of powdered turmeric, squid ink, beetroot, and butterfly pea flower, illustrating decoration as something designed into, rather than applied to, the building material.
Totems explore whether melanin, a naturally occurring pigment, can be added to transparent building material to provide protection against ultraviolet rays, becoming opaque to create shade when the sun is at its peak while fading back to transparent as the sun sets. Applying this research at the architectural scale, the Biodiversity Pavilion for Table Mountain National Park in Cape Town, South Africa, is a design for a memorial made of such responsive material.
“Melanin is the holy grail, the material that will get us to Mars,” said Oxman. “It has existed 60-250 million years ago, is the biomarker of evolution, the key to life on earth. To be part of the tree of life, we must incorporate melanin.”
To explore the question of how diﬀerent societies memorialize, without creating massive monuments, take a look at The Vespers masks image above.
These reflect diﬀerent ways to remember those who have passed, from mapping their external features to capturing their final breath and retaining it as a dynamic visualization of that person. “These designs invite viewers to embrace alternative methods for honoring the deceased while having minimal impact on the Earth, using 21st-century knowledge and technology.”
Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher, Helen Hilton Raiser Curator of Architecture and Design, writes the following: “Nature does not create waste—a capability that eludes humanity today. Oxman asks whether architects of the built environment can also pursue less wasteful processes and products. Bringing together knowledge, principles, and tools from four disciplines—art, architecture and design, engineering, and science—Oxman led The Mediated Matter Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 2010 to 2021, developing new digital and biological fabrication techniques as well as organic materials for building”.
“Every item in the show has been developed by a technology designed by our team,” said Oxman. “We look at all kinds of questions — even how to design plastic, for example, to be reusable. You can’t do this work if you can’t suspend your disbelief.”
This question is examined through objects that, though fabricated with nonbiodegradable materials, are multifunctional, ranging from the wearable to the architectural. For example, the exhibition’s Gemini projects study the healing properties of voice vibrations—one scaled to the individual and one for the collective. The wooden shell and intricate cellular skin of Gemini Chaise provide a stimulation-free environment that echoes vibrations from one’s voice throughout the body.
Originally designed for the Dalai Lama as a piece of furniture for meditation and chanting, the Gemini Chaise creates a calming environment for the individual through sound-absorbing and vibrational acoustic eﬀects that conjure feelings of the womb and that of floating in deep space.
With Man-Nahāta, OXMAN examined the current precarious state of Manhattan, subject to rising tides and heat hazards from climate change, and re-envisions an urban design that reestablishes a healthy ecosystem and restores a balance between Nature and humanity.
The Man-Nahāta models serve as urban studies for Megalopolis, a film by Francis Ford Coppola set to begin production in 2022, about an architect seeking to rebuild New York in the wake of a disaster. When Neri Oxman noted that the statement “Time is of the essence” has never been more timely, it led me to reflect on the recent Oscar-nominated film “Don’t Look Up.” The film shows us society’s unwillingness to face the impending climate catastrophe in a pretty over-the top, but to my mind, eﬀective satire. In a far quieter, but no less provocative way, the brilliant, dynamic and passionate Neri Oxman, along with her team, has created an exhibition, no less a practice, that considers Nature as its primary client, thereby applying design to enhance the well-being of Earth and its diverse inhabitants.
ABOUT NERI OXMAN:
Neri Oxman (born 1976, Haifa, Israel; based in New York, U.S.) is the founder and CEO of OXMAN, a design practice based in New York City. Until recently, she was a tenured professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she founded and directed The Mediated Matter Group, a lab that conducted research at the intersection of computational design, digital fabrication, materials science, and synthetic biology. At MIT, Oxman pioneered the field of Material Ecology, which studies relationships and interactions between designed objects and structures and their environs. Unlike the ecology-agnostic Industrial Revolution, this new approach tightly links the process and products of design to the natural environment. Areas of application include architecture, product design, and biotechnology, as well as design. Since 2005, Oxman and her team have won numerous awards and have rapidly grown in international scope and acclaim. Among Oxman’s many awards are the Silicon Valley Forum Visionary Award (2017), London Design Innovation Medal (2018), Cooper Hewitt’s National Design Award (2018) and SFMOMA’s Contemporary Vision Award (2019), as well as an Honorary Fellowship from the Royal Institute of British Architects (2019). Oxman received her PhD in Design Computation as a Presidential Fellow at MIT. Prior to that, she earned an AA diploma from the Architectural Association in London after graduating from the Technion Israel Institute of Technology (with Honors) and attending the Hadassah Medical School at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
IF YOU COULDN’T GO:
A podcast and video of a conversation with Neri Osman is available on Long Now and YouTube: https://longnow.org/ideas/02021/11/10/nature-x-humanity/
SFMOMA Nature x Humanity: Oxman Architects exhibit was Feb. 19–May 15, 2022; Website: sfmoma.org
A well-crafted guide to a complex and thought-provoking but beautiful exhibition. I look forward to seeing the sculptures in person.