Susan Smith has worked as an editor and writer in the technology industry for over 16 years. As an editor she has been responsible for the launch of a number of technology trade publications, both in print and online. Currently, Susan is the Editor of GISCafe and AECCafe, as well as those sites’ … More »
AIA 2016 Convention Report – Towards a Material Future
May 21st, 2016 by Susan Smith
At the American Institute of Architects (AIA) 2016 Convention this week held in Philadelphia, keynote addresses spanned the gamut from host and executive producer of NPR’s Fresh Air, Terry Gross’ interview with Julia Louis-Dreyfuss of the iconic TV sitcom Seinfeld and now the series VEEP to Israeli-born architect, designer and MIT professor Neri Oxman’s highly inspirational presentation on “material ecology.”
During the opening ceremonies, 2016 president of the AIA, Russell Davidson, FAIA presented various industry awards and spoke about the AIA’s ilookup initiative, where architects are encouraged to look outside themselves to create a way of showcasing architecture to the outside world. http://ilookup.org/
“Towards a Material Ecology” was the topic of Neri Oxman’s provocative keynote on Friday. Oxman is an architect, designer and MIT professor whose pioneering work explores biologically-inspired fabrication technologies that enhance relationships between designed objects and the environment. In addition to her education in architecture and technology, she studied medicine at Hebrew University. Oxmans’s creativity knows no bounds and spans from art to fashion to architecture, featuring such works as an organic-like, adaptable chaise lounge called “Gemini” and a biomorphic spacesuit and biologically-inspired wearable art.
She calls it “material ecology,” and it goes far beyond the description, using all manner of technologies to achieve it: additive manufacturing, 3D printing, materials science and engineering, synthetic design and computational design. Her work has appeared in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the International Biennale of Contemporary Art in Seville, the 2008 Beijing International Art Biennale, plus exhibits that include “Carpal Skin: Prototype for a Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Splint” and “Beast: Prototype for a Chaise Longue” in the Museum of Science, Boston 2009.
Her passion for her work is evident: clearly her position heading up the Mediated Matter research group at the MIT Media Lab is all consuming. Oxman said up front that she had no professional advice for the audience. “We refuse to think about what’s possible right now,” she said. Everything in the Mediated Matter Lab is looking toward the future.
One of her amazing efforts is a project called the Silk Pavilion – where 5,500 silkworms wove a cocoon over digitally placed threads – fully exploring the relationships possible between nature and the built environment.
Oxman talked about the assembly line and how it is a world of parts, with distinct parts with discreet functions. If we had a single skin or fabric for building, then we would not need to maintain a multitude of complicated parts that today’s structures are comprised of.
Nature is characterized by resilience, Oxman said. “it is not made of parts. Just look at the skin or any biological system. What if we can create something of one material that can change according to a desired function?”
Inspired by nature, the designed element requires no assembly. In one research project, they used shrimp shells that created an unpleasant seawater smell in the laboratory, but were then able to create 3D printed objects from them. They were able to build a skin that went from opaque and brittle to hard and resilient.
“You could have a skyscraper made of a single system,” Oxman suggested. “Designing across scales is what we aim for. Can we emulate the behavior of concrete? Can we generate porousness so pores become big enough to be windows?”
Taking this idea further, Oxman talked about building a robotic arm with 11% freedom that would deposit concrete onsite, with a sensor that allows it to capture information onsite, such as weather, and environmental performance in high resolution, then translate this information into a building project.
In working with living materials, Oxman suggested photosynthetic materials or what is known as “synthetic biology.” She wants to create skins that embed control of biological functionality.
The very beautiful slideshow depicted some mannequins wearing digestive systems that can explode sugar cubes just by exposing the human body to the sun. The qualities of it can be varied.
“We simulated the last breath of the dying to create a mask,” said Oxman. Another idea is to design a prosthetic system that links to the nervous system, so that the prosthetic could share sensation with the body. Working with nerve tissue is something that is on the future agenda.
The Mediated Matter research group invented a glass 3D printer, that prints with a kiln cartridge on top that jets out molten glass at 1900 degrees Fahrenheit.
From there the talk moved onto the matter of silkworms, or in general living organisms. Silkworms transcend all the limitations of 3D, creating a cocoon many times the size of their bodies.
The lab wanted to create a Buckydome of one continuous material. Silkworms achieve one continuous material for their cocoons by mixing two proteins together. Oxman said they attached a tiny magnet to the head of a silkworm (no silkworms were harmed in the making of this experiment!) in order to track the directions it would spin a cocoon.
By doing so, they invented the first free-form 3D printing. On a flat patch the silkworm would build a flat cocoon. Under 21mm the silkworm will vary the density of the weave according to its environment.
Because silkworms prefer colder and darker environments, the researchers built a scaffold and ordered 5,500 silkworms, then set them to weave on a synthetic web.
What was also learned from all this was that silkworms don’t interact with other silkworms, so the lab is also experimenting with other insects such as bees who have an amazing communication system. But no other insect has such material sophistication as the silkworm.
In experimentation with bees, the lab rented a 2200-foot space and created an environment of perpetual spring, feeding them sugar, in their synthetic apiary. It is yet to be learned if this will be successful or not.
What is evident in Neri Oxman’s story is that she and her team are undaunted by mistakes. They are on the radical edge of exploration far beyond the shackles of bricks and mortar, and yet very much involved with the materials that will shape our buildings, our health and basic infrastructure very far into the future.