by Maureen Tuthill
Neri Oxman is an architect and researcher who plumbs the natural world for ingenious ways to create objects or structures that meld harmoniously with their surroundings. Chairs that shape themselves to the human body; Buildings that open and close their own pores allowing for natural ventilation or bend in the wind like trees to avoid collapse.
Her vision of design is not rooted in the philosophy of the Industrial Revolution, when the machine became the ultimate model of functionality—many parts working together as an integral whole, a kit of parts. Instead, her premiere model of design is the biological world, where there are no assemblies or individual components, but mostly tissues made of single materials (like a leaf) redistributed perfectly to achieve balance and functionality.
At her interdisciplinary research initiative, MATERIALECOLOGY, Oxman takes a contemplative approach to design. She asks atypical questions. Not, what type of building do we want to design? But, what behavior do we want to achieve with this space? What human and environmental values will be important here and how do we design a structure to accommodate those values?
“We’re accustomed to thinking in terms of types and typologies,” Oxman says. “We begin with specific a-priori high level rules and work toward some desired product. In search of new ways of designing I ask how we may decode the type, how to reject it by openly reconsidering its functionality? That’s why values are crucial.”
A typical architectural approach is to assume the separation of materials by their functions—steel and cement for support, glass for insulation and visual connection to the environment. Natural objects, however, are perfectly designed from single materials. Oxman’s designs, several of which are now part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, strive to imitate that perfection in manmade materials.
She studies the structure of a leaf to learn how a single material can readjust itself, change directionality, and redistribute its organic matter where necessary to achieve strength in one place, flexibility in another. She observes how material behaves and what forms result from that behavior. From a biological standpoint, Oxman considers the functions of the leaf. From the perspective of a material scientist, she evaluates the physical construction of its fibers. She refers to this process as “translating” from scale to scale. It’s just a matter of “moving the dial,” she says.
Oxman’s work is directed at continuing that movement between scales—from the natural world to the world of human design.
“As a designer, you quickly realize that the greatest power lies in figuring out how to move between scales,” she says. “Instead of designing buildings as if they were trees, you’re designing buildings as if they were bending structures, capable of executing minute self-stabilization functions. How do you replicate natural behavior on a much larger scale? How do you translate the behavior of wood fibers into metal? After all, Nature doesn’t build its structures in the large scales we do.”
It’s a question of looking at process, not only product she says: “If you think of designers, not only as professionals skilled at designing products but rather processes, you enter a completely different space of innovation.”
This “bottom-up thinking,” as Oxman refers to it, enables us to design things that nature cannot, to replicate natural behavior on a much larger scale. “We should revisit nature’s models, systems and processes, not merely imitate its forms” she says. “These are questions that I’m asking. I aim to design and develop novel processes that designers can use to understand and reconstruct nature’s way.”
Currently completing her Ph.D. in Design Computation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Oxman was also a medical scholar at the Hebrew University and the Technion Institute of Technology in Israel, where she was raised. She is not confined by the Renaissance notion of distributed knowledge systems or field methodologies. Instead, she wholly embraces the idea of “disciplinary contamination.” “Instead of defining skill sets, she says, we should be defining research narratives. Let the research agenda move us forward and find ways to interrelate content.”
Translating Oxman’s style of innovation to business means rethinking the tried-and-true strategies and tactics of commerce. “Most brainstorming sessions in business are extremely general and very clichéd,” Oxman says. “People come up with their own field’s prejudices or disciplinary surveillance without really being shaken by alternative modes of practice. Out-of-the-box thinking is something to be designed, not only desired. What does it mean to innovate in business? What are the processes by which to achieve it?”
Oxman suggests that we break the models—physical as well as cognitive. Working in her machine shop at MIT, she says that her best students are the ones whose models break down unpredictably. “When you examine why a model broke or how it self-organizes under load, you often discover a completely new structural system,” she points out. “We have to take risks. We have to disobey the rules and refuse to take codes of practice for granted. We have to fearlessly promote broken models.”
Oxman calls this attitude “moral radicalism.” But perhaps that’s simply another way of saying “innovation.”