'Nature × Humanity: Oxman Architects' at SFMOMA Examines a Former MIT Professor's Pioneering Art and Sustainable Designs

  • December 27, 2021 14:04

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Neri Oxman and The Mediated Matter Group, Aguahoja Pavilion (frontal view), 2018; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, gift of Massachusetts Institute of Technology; © Massachusetts Institute of Technology; photo: The Mediated Matter Group

What does it mean to build, house, inform and inspire sustainable ways of living in the 21st century? American Israeli architect and founder of the New York-based practice, OXMAN, Neri Oxman questions the materials, tools and methods of architecture as we know it today. In the exclusive exhibition Nature × Humanity: Oxman Architects, on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) from February 19–May 15, 2022, nearly 40 profound artworks and installations rethink how we build and design with one essential objective: to transition from a focus on human material wealth to a focus on environmental health.

Neri Oxman and The Mediated Matter Group, Vespers Series II, Mask 01 for The New Ancient Collection, 2018; fabricated by Stratasys; private collection; photo: Yoram Reshef

“While human material wealth stakes claim to land and resources, environmental health restores and advances natural balance to mutually benefit all. OXMAN’s radical perspective lies in its ability to envision an alternative architectural legacy upending a human-centered built environment to reprioritize nature,” said Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher, SFMOMA’s Helen Hilton Raiser Curator of Architecture and Design. “By evoking questions rather than posing solutions, Nature × Humanity: Oxman Architects offers visitors opportunities for bold imagination, robust discussion and informed action.”

Bringing together knowledge, principles and tools from four disciplines—art, architecture and design, engineering and science—the exhibition spans Oxman’s career from 2007 to the present. With never-before-seen large-scale projects such as the Gemini Cinema and Biodiversity Pavilion models, the rarely seen Aguahoja pavilions and Vespers masks and the ongoing urban planning project The Future of Mannahatta, among others, the presentation celebrates Oxman’s pioneering approach, including interdisciplinary collaborations that resonate with nature, not against it, and inspires new ways of thinking about the world around us.

Questioning environmentally detrimental construction and fabrication processes, Oxman founded and led The Mediated Matter Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 2010 to 2021. Her team’s research included the development of alternative building materials that could decompose when no longer needed, as well as permanent materials that could augment functionality. One project hypothesizes that embedding living substances in inorganic materials could allow structures to perform in response to shifting environmental conditions. Totems explores whether melanin, a naturally occurring pigment, can be added to a transparent building material to provide shade when the sun is brightest, and fade back to transparent when the sun sets. Applying this research at the architectural scale, the Biodiversity Pavilion for Table Mountain National Park in Cape Town, South Africa is a design for a pavilion made of such responsive material, reducing the need for additional cladding.

Neri Oxman and The Mediated Matter Group, Aguahoja II prototype, 2019; © Massachusetts Institute of Technology; photo: The Mediated Matter Group

The Wanderers series is a collection of wearables for outer space. Each piece is a vessel for living organisms, designed to meet the user’s needs by responding to extreme environmental conditions on specific planets, such as 200-degree temperature fluctuations, high meteor activity, or changes from extreme brightness to darkness that affect visibility.

The Vespers masks consider different ways we can remember those who have passed, from mapping their external features to capturing their final breath and retaining it as a dynamic visualization of that person. These designs invite viewers to embrace alternative methods for honoring the deceased while having minimal impact on the Earth, using 21st century knowledge and technology.

Considering nature as its primary client, OXMAN applies design to enhance the well-being of Earth and its diverse inhabitants. The Aguahoja pavilions—one in newborn, pristine condition at the entrance to the exhibition and one undergoing programmed decomposition on the outdoor terrace of SFMOMA’s Floor 4—uses the discarded shells of ocean crustaceans, fallen leaves and apple skins as building materials that can decay naturally when no longer needed and thereby enrich the soil with nutrients for new growth.

Scaling up further, The Future of Mannahatta proposes an urban landscape that questions the current state of conflicting ecosystems where Manhattan’s developed land meets surrounding sea water. Delving into the island’s history and how people have lived there—from its first inhabitants, the Lenape people, to European settlers, to the present day—OXMAN examines its current precarious state, subject to rising tides and heat hazards from climate change, and re-envisions an urban design which reestablishes a healthy ecosystem and restores a balance between nature and humanity.

Neri Oxman (born 1976, Haifa, Israel; based in New York, U.S.) is the founder and CEO of OXMAN, a design practice based in New York City. Until recently, she was a tenured professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she founded and directed The Mediated Matter Group, a lab that conducted research at the intersection of computational design, digital fabrication, materials science and synthetic biology. At MIT, Oxman pioneered the field of Material Ecology, which studies relationships and interactions between designed objects and structures and their environs. Unlike the ecology-agnostic Industrial Revolution, this new approach tightly links the process and products of design to the natural environment. Areas of application include architecture, product design and biotechnology, as well as the design of new tools for digital fabrication and construction.

Since 2005, Oxman and her team have won numerous awards and have rapidly grown in international scope and acclaim. Among Oxman’s many awards are the Silicon Valley Forum Visionary Award (2017), London Design Innovation Medal (2018), Cooper Hewitt’s National Design Award (2018) and SFMOMA’s Contemporary Vision Award (2019), as well as an Honorary Fellowship from the Royal Institute of British Architects (2019). Oxman received her PhD in Design Computation as a Presidential Fellow at MIT. Prior to that, she earned an AA diploma from the Architectural Association in London after graduating from the Technion Israel Institute of Technology (with Honors) and attending the Hadassah Medical School at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

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