Neri Oxman and the age of “Material Ecology”

by | May 12, 2021

Operating at the intersection of technology and biology, Neri Oxman is calling for a fundamental shift in the way we design and construct the built environment.

Image credit: United States Geological Survey on Unsplash

It is amazing how from its conception, digital 3D printing has been creatively adapted to a myriad of materials, such as polymers, glass, concrete, and metal. This printing technique has been scaled up from a laboratory-sized curiosity to macroscopic dimensions, making impossible architectural constructs and art works a reality. Moreover, it has been ingeniously scaled down with the help of beams of electrons and photons to the nanoscopic regime, shaping insulators, semiconductors, metals, and superconductors, making what once seemed impossible come to life. Imagine having the capability to 3D print a 1000-meter concrete skyscraper while also being able to shape a 10-nanometer silicon transistor, a mere 100 billion times difference in proportions.

Fast forward years of experimentation, which seeded and advanced the aesthetics of physical and materials sciences, and today we can see the fruits of nature-inspired designs and processes born from the bold imagination and ingenuity of Neri Oxman. A polymath, artist, designer, inventor, innovative educator, the Sony Corporation Career Development Professor and associate professor of media arts and sciences at the MIT Media Lab, where she founded and directs the Mediated Matter group. Her research combines computational design, materials science, and synthetic biology, employing design principles inspired by nature to create new architectures, technologies, and art. Notable examples include co-fabrication systems for building hybrid structures with silkworms (the Silk Pavilion) and bees (Synthetic Apiary).

Robots 3D print sustainable buildings in 14 hours. Reprinted with permission © 2017, American Association for the Advancement of Science

Virtually everyone in the arts and sciences can relate to the impressionist painter Paul Cezanne’s timeless truth: “In art everything is theory, developed and applied in contact with nature.” Oxman’s artistic vision transforms her concept of Material Ecology— a design philosophy, research area, and scientific approach that explores, informs, and expresses interrelationships between the built, the grown, and the augmented—into best practices through the natural production of building materials and technologies that do not stress or distress the environments in which they are applied.

Her art installation at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City draws insights, organizational principles, and designs from tree bark, crustaceans’ shells, and the work of silkworms, among other natural systems, many of which have served as inexhaustible sources of inspiration and building material for art, architectural, and engineering projects. Her vision transforms the art of science from what we know to today to what we can only imagine in the future—just watch ger recent TED talk, “Design at the Intersection of Technology and Biology “ and Netflix Movie “The Art of Design – Bio-Architecture”, to appreciate her astonishing creations. 

Reprinted with permission © 2017, American Association for the Advancement of Science

Today, we stand to benefit from “site-specific and self-sufficient robotic fabrication on architectural scales”, masterfully rendered and realized by the Mediated Matter group that allow them to create custom, free-form structures that can be adapted to a wide range of natural and built environments. Through Oxman’s pioneering Digital Construction Platform (DCP), the whole construction process is automated in remarkable ways—breaking free from the constraints of rigid, rectilinear materials—and builds on nature’s fractal geometry, accommodating irregular-shaped, statistically self-similar forms.

One Oxman case study describes an open dome-shaped vault, measuring 14.6m in diameter and is 3.7-m-tall. The DCP fabricated this structure on site in under 13.5 hours. Compared to traditional construction methods that are characteristically slow as molasses and expensive in terms of both labor and materials, the bold new approach that the Mediated Matter group offers is safe, coupled with better quality control and customization, and is fast, costing considerably less for greater functionality. Essentially, it opens a new frontier in automated natural building systems and structures.

Considering Oxman’s exquisite manifestations of Material Ecology, it’s self-evident how artists, designers, and scientists alike have delved deeply into this enigma to discern new design principles that can be applied to a world of hybridized mechanical, physical, physiological, and biological systems. In many respects, Oxman’s innovations embody D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s Theory of Transformations, which challenged how scientists thought about biological shapes. Rather than chaotic forms generated at random, Thompson postulated that they form as geometric shapes described by the principles of math and physics in his classic book, On Growth And Form (1917).

Oxman also has intimated that her innovations could be used to design DCP-built spacecrafts capable of reaching one of the 2,600 exoplanets discovered by the NASA Kepler space telescope and the NASA Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite.

Who knows what the future of this innovative group will bring? We do know we’re no longer surprised by any of these curiosity-driven, wonder-fueled, ingenious explorations. Ultimately, everyone is directly or indirectly participating in the creation of old-new worlds that transcend the sum of human knowledge. And we’re for all of it! Our main concern is that we remain committed to applying our collective knowledge wisely, ethically, and responsibly.

Watching Oxman’s popular TED Talk on “Material Ecology,” we felt a wonderful wave of optimism that she and her collaborators can positively influence the minds of the public. We feel certain that the Mediated Matter group will figure out how to help the many billions of human beings, who are barely surviving day-to-day, by building the natural-synthetic-integrated “Fruit Tree” Oxman so elegantly visualized, and 3D printed. Can this marvelous “Tree of Life” be grown to bear the fruits of life-sustaining technology needed on Earth? And, if the human species survives the unbounded applications of advanced ingenuity, can we export this technology to some habitable exoplanet, which many innovative engineers and technologists with a mutual passion for deep space explorers claim is our most promising, but distant destiny?

Will our most diehard optimists honestly say they believe we can answer these basic questions definitively? Or will they quietly point to nature’s uncertainties, which affect the unpredictability of humankind and our interactions?

One unanswered question concerns our ability — or inability — to collaboratively create and share new knowledge without the influence of our fiercely competitive, market-driven material world. Maybe, material ecology will counterbalance that reality and surprise us all. Hopefully, the creative genius behind the research, productions, and technological innovations of the Mediated Matter group will create a new path towards sustainability. A path in which Oxman’s vision for applying “inventional-innovational wisdom” will succeed in mothering nature — working with it, rather than against it — without fearing it.

Written by: Todd Siler and Geoffrey Ozin

Solar Fuels Group, University of Toronto Ontario, Canada, Email: [email protected], Web sites:,,,,

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