November 03, 2010

Neri Oxman, founder of an emerging field known as "material ecology."

By Julia Ferrante

LEWISBURG, Pa. — Neri Oxman displayed an unusual set of images: the well-magnified internal membrane of an eggshell, a three-dimensional magnolia cone and a budding plant.

"This represents all that I am fascinated with in nature," the award-winning architect and designer told the audience at Bucknell University's Trout Auditorium Tuesday night. "Every human and natural form of life on earth has gradients. Any living thing responds to life in motion. ... I am bringing that code and gradient into architecture."

The founder of an emerging field known as "material ecology," Oxman uses these principles of nature to conceive and design "living, breathing" structures that respond to their environment rather than compete with it. She spoke as part of the ongoing Bucknell Forum series, "Creativity: Beyond the Box," which features individuals from a wide range of fields who not only exemplify creativity as practitioners but who also can provide thoughtful and insightful commentary or interactive experiences on new ways of being creative.

Influential architect
Oxman, who in 2009 was named to ICON's list of the "top 20 most influential architects to shape our future," directs the Mediated Matter research group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, which explores how digital design, engineering, material science, artistic forms and ecology can combine to radically transform the design and construction of everyday objects, buildings and systems. She also is the Sony Corporation Career Development Professor of Media Arts and Sciences and an assistant professor at MIT. || MIT Media Lab bio, related items

Rather than choosing a form and manipulating materials to create structures and buildings, architects and designers should look to nature and mimic the structures of such high-functioning objects as an eggshell or a magnolia cone, Oxman told the crowd at Bucknell. Plants, too, are wired to evolve as they grow, she noted. So objects, including furniture and buildings, should be able to do the same.

"When a (magnolia) cone is introduced to high temperatures and moisture, it acts as a seed-dispenser mechanism," Oxman said. "How do we extract these principles from nature and import them in the natural world? Architects and designers usually work from a global form down from the top. Creativity is about being able to think beyond the type of media you are working with."

Oxman argued that architecture is in a "crisis of form," in which form is winning over function.

"There is a disintegration of materials and performance," she said. "We have designers, engineers and fabricators - and our process is generation, analysis and production. Of course, nature doesn't act that way."

Material-based design
Oxman received her Ph.D. in design computation as a Presidential Fellow at MIT, where she developed the theory and practice of material-based design computation. She earned her diploma from the Architectural Association after attending the Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology, and the Department of Medical Sciences at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Her work has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and is part of the museum's permanent collection. Her other exhibitions include medical devices at the Museum of Science in Boston, the FRAC Collection in Orleans, France, and the 2010 Beijing Biennale.

'The Beast'
One piece that exemplifies Oxman's philosophy is "The Beast," a chaise longue molded of 21 different materials of varying strength and springiness that moves and reshapes with a person's body weight. Another is a splint used to treat carpal tunnel syndrome that is made of flexible materials and adapts to various points on the hand and wrist.

Oxman showed both during her talk and said her philosophy on architecture and design could apply to many disciplines. The key to problem-solving is the integration of different ideas, she said.

"Expose yourself to as much as you can and as many disciplines as you can," she said."Look for problems and curiosities that intrigue you. Creativity comes when you work. Things reveal themselves as you work."

The Bucknell Forum
Since 2007, the Bucknell Forum speaker series has featured nationally renowned leaders, scholars and commentators who have examined various issues from multi-disciplinary perspectives and a diversity of viewpoints. || Previous series events

The "Creativity: Beyond the Box" series' task force comprises faculty members Carmen Gillespie, Beth Capaldi Evans, Paula Davis, Joe Tranquillo, Margot Vigeant and Zhiqun Zhu; students Michael Davis, Class of '13, and Lindsay Machen, Class of '11; and administrators Rob Springall and Pete Mackey, chair.

Contact: Division of Communications

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