• Credit: Conor Doherty Photo

Neri Oxman is an assistant professor of media arts and sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she explores how digital design and fabrication technologies work within the environment to transform the construction of objects, buildings, and systems. Oxman directs the Mediated Matter research group at the MIT Media Lab and holds a Ph.D. in design computation as well as a diploma from the Architectural Association School of Architecture (London), for which she completed studies at Technion–Israel Institute of Technology (Haifa) as well as the Department of Medical Sciences at Hebrew University (Jerusalem).

Digital fabrication enables the automation of large-scale, geometrically complex, and materially sophisticated processes that were achieved in the past predominantly through craft and manual labor. CNC (computer numeric control) weaving of carbon-fiber structures combines the ability to tailor material properties inherent in craft with the power of programming and automation in architectural scales. Our mission is to invent, design, and implement biologically inspired fabrication technologies that enhance the relationship between the designed object and the environment. We named this approach “Material Ecology,” and it considers computation, fabrication, and matter as inseparable dimensions of design. Our early work focused on nature as a model for computation and form-generation, while our current work looks into nature as a model for digital fabrication. The Silk Pavilion, a polygonal dome of nonwoven silk spun by silkworms, exemplifies these two notions, exploring the relationship between digital and biological fabrication as we move up in scale and in material complexity.

In our Mediated Matter lab, we design the tools and technologies with the intention that some will mature into full-scale architectural projects, and vice versa—some of the technologies appear as a result of working on an architectural environment. The SpiderBot, for example—a cable-suspended 3D printing platform modeled after the Skycam technology—is currently being revisited in the context of a larger installation for the Lisbon Architecture Triennale.

The free-form printing technology, on the other hand, was developed inadvertently out of an attempt to robotically “weave” in 3D. All our works have in common the ambition of enabling variation of material properties and behavior as part of the fabrication process. We don’t regard ourselves as problem solvers but as solution finders to problems that may not yet exist. You know that you’re doing something great when the outlier becomes the norm.

Architectural expression has always been tied to technique. This is true for adobe brick construction in the Citadel of Arg-é Bam in Iran as much as it is true for modern steel-frame constructions—and digital fabrication is at the heart of a new age where technique and expression unite. —As told to William Richards