A Science of Buildings That Can Grow—And Melt Away
Kanebridge News
Share Button

A Science of Buildings That Can Grow—And Melt Away

Architect Neri Oxman, creator of ‘material ecology,’ explains how silkworms, shrimp shells and insect exoskeletons could help shape the city of the future.

Wed, Apr 13, 2022 10:43amGrey Clock 4 min

While the pandemic heightened speculation about what the city of the future will look like, architect Neri Oxman says she is sticking with a blueprint based on a core principle of her work: In years to come, buildings will be grown, not built.

At Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab from 2010 to 2021, Ms. Oxman founded and directed the Mediated Matter group, a team researching in areas including computational design, digital fabrication, materials science and synthetic biology. There, she created a field she calls material ecology.

The result? A body of work that includes a pavilion spun by 6,500 silkworms (with the help of a robotic arm), a series of 3D-printed sculptures filled with liquid channels of the pigment melanin (which she envisions could be used in the façades of buildings to protect against ultraviolet rays), and a collection of artifacts constructed using materials derived from shrimp shells and insect exoskeletons.

Since leaving academia, Ms. Oxman, 46 years old, has focused on Oxman, the New York-based design and technology company that she founded in 2020 with the aim of applying her design philosophy to real-world projects. A retrospective of her work is on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The Wall Street Journal spoke to Ms. Oxman about the future of urban architecture and how she thinks design can be used as a tool to fight climate change.

You created a new term to describe your approach to design: material ecology. What does it entail?

The idea behind material ecology is to enable total synergy between grown and built environments by deploying new digital technologies that allow us to augment bio-based materials for large-scale construction.

How do you decide which natural materials to use in your designs?

It comes down to ethics and availability. We work with the most abundant biopolymers on the planet which include cellulose, found in plant cell walls; pectin, found in apple and lemon skins; and chitin, found in the shells of crustaceans.

You’ve talked about wanting to create buildings that naturally decay when they are no longer needed. How would that work?

Using technology, we can program biomaterials to degrade in response to changing environmental conditions. At MIT, we built three biopolymer pavilions [the Aguahoja pavilions] which, instead of concrete, were built using shrimp shells, fallen leaves and apple skins. We programmed the pavilions to decay at a certain point when exposed to rainwater. This, in turn, nurtures soil microorganisms to fuel new growth.

It’s a circular economy of material that could be used to create biodegradable refugee camps, for example. Once the refugees find a safe haven, the camps would be programmed to melt away in the rain.

What does “programmed” mean in this context?

It’s complex. When we combine biopolymers including chitosan, pectin and cellulose, the material’s ability to absorb water varies based on its composition. Chitosan, for example, is naturally water-resistant and doesn’t readily dissociate when submerged, while pectin is hydrophilic and dissolves rapidly. By choosing how we blend these components, we can access a spectrum of hydrophilicity—otherwise known as a material’s affinity to water—and this lets us tune or program the speed at which a material breaks down. In essence, we are designing the architectural equivalent of metabolic rate.

How many years are we from grown buildings becoming a reality in cities across the world?

For grown buildings to appear in towns and cities, we need to rethink mass production, and this will take five to 10 years to happen in a meaningful way. However, the development of products made from biological materials—cars, for example—could begin within the next year.

What role will existing buildings made from concrete and plastics, for example, play in your vision for the city of the future?

The architect and professor Carl Elefante says that “the greenest building is one that is already built.” That’s because the carbon emitted during construction is vast compared to the operating emissions of a given building. We therefore need to find new ways to augment the pre-existing built environment rather than trying to completely rebuild our cities from the ground up.

How does one do this?

We need to look at a range of interventions. One is the creation of bioengineered façades for existing buildings. An example: in the U.S. alone, hundreds of billions of square feet of glass façade components are produced every year. As part of our research at MIT, we 3D-printed glass augmented with synthetically engineered microorganisms to produce energy [from the sun]. This allows us to develop solar-harnessing glass façades that can act as a skin for pre-existing buildings.

We must also think about whole-building recycling. A current example is Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. The campus was built by Norman Foster using materials from old buildings that used to be on the same site. Rather than simply destroying structures when we no longer have use for them, we must look for ways to augment them using new technology and intelligence.

Which skills would you encourage future generations of architects to develop?

The architect of the future is interested in formation, as much as she is interested in form. She is a systems thinker, interested in building relationships between objects rather than seeing them as standalone. She invents new technologies with which to design, manufacture and build. She is a gardener, not a master planner

Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: April 10, 2022.


Consumers are going to gravitate toward applications powered by the buzzy new technology, analyst Michael Wolf predicts

Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’

Related Stories
Wild cities and concrete corridors: How AI is reimagining the landscape
By Robyn Willis 06/12/2023
Heat coming out of V-shaped property market recovery
By Bronwyn Allen 05/12/2023
Not sure about that apartment purchase? Check out the new digital tool bringing surety back
Wild cities and concrete corridors: How AI is reimagining the landscape

A new AI-driven account by leading landscape architect Jon Hazelwood pushes the boundaries on the role of ‘complex nature’ in the future of our cities

By Robyn Willis
Wed, Dec 6, 2023 2 min

Drifts of ground cover plants and wildflowers along the steps of the Sydney Opera House, traffic obscured by meadow-like planting and kangaroos pausing on city streets.

This is the way our cities could be, as imagined by landscape architect Jon Hazelwood, principal at multi-disciplinary architectural firm Hassell. He has been exploring the possibilities of rewilding urban spaces using AI for his Instagram account, Naturopolis_ai with visually arresting outcomes.

“It took me a few weeks to get interesting results,” he said. “I really like the ephemeral nature of the images — you will never see it again and none of those plants are real. 

“The AI engine makes an approximation of a grevillea.”

Hazelwood chose some of the most iconic locations in Australia, including the Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, as well as international cities such as Paris and London, to demonstrate the impact of untamed green spaces on streetscapes, plazas and public space.

He said he hopes to provoke a conversation about the artificial separation between our cities and the broader environment, exploring ways to break down the barriers and promote biodiversity.

“A lot of the planning (for public spaces) is very limited,” Hazelwood said. “There are 110,000 species of plants in Australia and we probably use about 12 in our (public) planting schemes. 

“Often it’s for practical reasons because they’re tough and drought tolerant — but it’s not the whole story.”

Hazelwood pointed to the work of UK landscape architect Prof Nigel Dunnett, who has championed wild garden design in urban spaces. He has drawn interest in recent years for his work transforming the brutalist apartment block at the Barbican in London into a meadow-like environment with diverse plantings of grasses and perennials.

Hazelwood said it is this kind of ‘complex nature’ that is required for cities to thrive into the future, but it can be hard to convince planners and developers of the benefits.

“We have been doing a lot of work on how we get complex nature because complexity of species drives biodiversity,” he said. 

“But when we try to propose the space the questions are: how are we going to maintain it? Where is the lawn?

“A lot of our work is demonstrating you can get those things and still provide a complex environment.” 

At the moment, Hassell together with the University of Melbourne is trialling options at the Hills Showground Metro Station in Sydney, where the remaining ground level planting has been replaced with more than 100 different species of plants and flowers to encourage diversity without the need for regular maintenance. But more needs to be done, Hazelwood said.

“It needs bottom-up change,” he said. ““There is work being done at government level around nature positive cities, but equally there needs to be changes in the range of plants that nurseries grow, and in the way our city landscapes are maintained and managed.”

And there’s no AI option for that. 


Consumers are going to gravitate toward applications powered by the buzzy new technology, analyst Michael Wolf predicts

Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’

Related Stories
2024’s Top ASX Stock Picks: 5 Opportunities You Can’t Miss
By Bronwyn Allen 08/12/2023
How Starbucks Lost the Top Spot in China’s Coffee Race
By HEATHER HADDON 20/11/2023
How Buying a New Home Could Save You Money
By ALY J. YALE 20/11/2023
    Your Cart
    Your cart is emptyReturn to Shop