Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Future of Design: Interview With Neri Oxman

[ed. Basically function over form but with more inter-disciplinary integration. A convergence of architecture, biology, engineering, neuroscience, 3-D printing, algorythmic modeling, and newly developed synthetic materials.]  

The very nature of matter is being re-engineered as new sciences of design erode our orthodoxies. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the work of Neri Oxman, whose research initiative MATERIALECOLOGY and projects for the MIT Computation Group is transcending genres, fads and boundaries. Hers is a unique blend of architecture, computer science, material engineering and art that has her simultaneously commissioned to create medical devices for Boston’s Museum of Science and pieces for MoMA's 2008 exhibition Design and the Elastic Mind. Here a dynamic and hybridized vision of matter cuts through the inertia of convention.

A former medical student at Hebrew University and the Technion Institute of Technology, Oxman made a final stop at the renowned Architectural Association in London before joining MIT as a presidential research fellow and PhD candidate in Design Computation in 2006. Since arriving, she has undertaken a startlingly large amount of design research driven by her belief that design should be focused on the local environment rather than form driven. By using software to create new composite materials Oxman has been able to replicate the processes of nature, creating materials that are able to adapt to light, load, skin pressure, curvature and other ecological elements. Oxman spoke to MATTER about her vision for the future of design and material construction and the projects she’s developing that might just help us get there a little bit quicker.

Andrew Dent: Why do you feel that your area of expertise and investigation has garnered so much interest from such a wide audience?

Neri Oxman: Thank you, this is humbling. Public interest is motivated by zeitgeist, but it also creates it. The ideas that I have promoted – often through small physical case studies- are evocative of an idealistic ambience in which emerging science and technology becomes a hopeful and hum anistic medium for broad cultural transformation. In this context, I think my work is communicative on several levels.

I try not to take on new work unless it potentially contributes to a general understanding of the way in which to create it. That is for me where all the fun is. So the work touches upon issues in design process that are applicable not only to architectural and design practice, but also to emerging areas in material engineering and digital fabrication. When exploring an integrated design approach that seeks to overlap with, and operate across, multiple fields design becomes innovative, richer, and more capable of broad impact. Design, ultimately, is about an ability to work through constraints. In the case of MATERIALECOLOGY these constraints are geared towards recreating the tools and technologies that are inherently related to the type of product at hand. In this way, the very instrumentality of design becomes a frontier of innovation.

For example, with Beast – a prototype for a chaise lounge – the aim was to completely rethink the Modernist project and consider physical behavior, not form, as the first article of production. Beast relates material properties to a general loading profile that would be exerted on the chaise when in use. Stiff and soft polymers are distributed in areas of high and low pressure respectively, and the height of each cushioning bump, as it appears on the surface area of the chaise, corresponds to our body’s pressure map, providing for comfort and support. The design process in this case was completely tailored to a new way of thinking about design and full scale digital fabrication, an industry still in its infancy. Imagine Mary Shelley’s mythical creatures; like them, Beast is an organic-like entity created synthetically by the incorporation of physical parameters into digital generation protocols. It is a Performative Chaise. It exploits and advances technological frontiers to create a form of responsive architecture. Here form follows force not unlike the way Mother Nature has it.

Secondly, I believe the work advocates a new approach to the culture of green; let me explain. So-called sustainable design standards relate to architectural functional components that are somewhat old-fashioned in their construction methods: think bricks, or the hegemony of metal. In the future, composites are going to occupy a much broader portion of the building industry and concrete will be something of the past. Currently, there exists a separation between materials used for structural engineering and materials used for environmental comfort. In my work I attempt to invent ways in which to integrate between the two.

Monocoque is a good example in which material properties are modified according to specific structural and environmental constraints. French for single shell, Monocoque, stands for a construction technique, which supports structural load using the object's external skin. Contradictory to the traditional design of building skins that distinguishes between internal structural frameworks and non-bearing skin elements; this approach promotes heterogeneity and variation of material properties. The project demonstrates the notion of a structural skin using a Voronoi pattern, the density of which corresponds to multi-scalar loading conditions. The distribution of shear-stress lines and surface pressure is embodied in the allocation and relative thickness of the vein-like elements built into the skin. The model was 3-D printed using the Poly-jet matrix technology which allows for the assignment of structural properties to multiple 3-D printed materials. This technology provides for an 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. Now imagine printing muscle that way.

Another significant aspect of the work lies in its capacity to translate physical phenomena into art or to express form-generating formulae as building prototypes. My contribution to Paola Antonelli’s Design and the Elastic Mind exhibition at MoMA provided for such an opportunity. A series of four projects entitled Natural Artifice examined the relation between physical material properties and performance criteria such as structural load, heat transfer and insulation. All models were, in essence, expressions of forms front-loaded with data emulating their behavior a-priori to fabrication..

Raycounting for instance, examines the relation between light and geometry. A computational algorithm determines the curvature of the artifact for shading purposes depending on the location of one or multiple light sources relative to the desired location of shading.

Finally, I hope the work opens a new scale between architecture and material science. Designers should not always accept off-the-shelf materials but realize that they have the power to design and manipulate material behavior. This shift points towards a new way to classify materials and a whole newly dynamic notion of the idea of a materials library.

by Andrew H. Dent, Material Connextion | Read more:
Image: The Beast, Neri Oxman