At Milan Design Week 2017, a Very Brilliant Woman Explains the Future of Architecture

A conversation with the architect, designer, TED talker, and MIT professor Neri Oxman at the Salone del Mobile in Milan.

Neri Oxman Portrait_02.jpg
Hasselblad H4D

Neri Oxman has a way of making science look really good. She’s an award-winning architect, industrial designer, and a MIT Media Lab professor who founded MIT’s Mediated Matter Group, where her artful approach—a blend of art and science, form and function, ancient and modern—has landed her work in the permanent collections of the likes of the Museum of Modern Art, and an appearance as a speaker at the TED Talks in 2015.

A 3-D print innovator, she has also transformed shrimp and crab shell bio-matter into natural plastic architectural forms, enlisted silk worms to weave entire pavilions, and even designed a wearable digestive system. Although it was a theoretical creation that would allow astronaut travelers to survive new frontiers like Jupiter, they still resemble the kind of avant–garde fashion you might see on a runway.

This week at the Salone del Mobile furniture fair in Milan, Oxman and her team made design history at the Lexus Pavilion when they unveiled a dramatic, architectural-scale 3D-printed series of dynamic glass, sculptural obelisks to celebrate the automotive brand’s international design competition. We sat down with Oxman to discuss the art of science, the state of women in design, and why listening to nature matters.

You’ve called your organic approach to design “mothering nature.” How do those mothering qualities inform your design work?

There’s a preconception about architecture and design—and I grew up in a family of architects, engineers, builders—that construction and architectural design is a top-down practice. The designer and the architect come up with a form or a shape and the rest of the partners on the project come together to create the design intent. But nature doesn’t work that way, nor does motherhood, I think. I’m not a mother of children but I’m a different type of mother where my approach to design is more in line with nature. It’s less about dictating and more about editing and listening and allowing something to grow. So I nourish and let the material express what it wants to be.

When you describe these glass structures you and your team created for Lexus, you called them “formalism with a moral compass.” What do you mean by that?

In this case, we were motivated by environmental responsibility. In the United States alone, 450 billion square feet of glass façade is produced every year. What if we could take this chance to use the glass to harness solar energy and allow the architecture to respond to the light and heat of the sun, to create photosynthesis and generate solar energy? What if we could create an architecture that responds to that, that could control the heat of the building or even that of a whole city? What if we could then reduce our carbon footprint by printing glass towers?

So as an architect and a designer I feel a responsibility to ask how can we use this technology and contribute something of value to the world and not just create a beautiful luxury item. That’s my moral compass.

The world of architecture, in particular, has been a male-dominated ecosystem for a long time. How do you navigate this world?

This isn’t an easy question for me. In many ways, I think I’m still forming my ideas about my own identity in this world. I can say on some days I turn this off and I just go about my day and get on with it. Yet even on the days when I turn it on and I may think, Why am I doing this? Is this a waste of time? I just get on with it. I tune in, listen and identify, respect and admire the qualities of being a woman and how that adds to my work. I also acknowledge it’s much better now then in the past, so for me thinking about this sexual divide is not productive.

Though I can say that my best projects including this one for Lexus have been endorsed and supported by women. And that’s been true throughout my career. I’m thankful for that.

Do you think the issue of male dominance in architecture is unique to the profession?

For the same reason we have the Brad Pitts and the George Clooneys, it’s just part of human nature to idolize stereotypes. Such singularities are useful to the common perception of heroism. But it’s not only true for architecture; it’s true in musical composition, for females working in theater, for film directors. This isn’t just a disease of the architecture profession; it’s a phenotype of human culture and how we develop stereotypes and perceptions.

You have collaborated with creators outside the world of science and architecture, people like the fashion designer Iris van Herpen and musicians like Bjork. How does non-science culture influence your work?

I approach the world as a whole by taking an integrative approach, not a world of parts, and I like to bring different fields and disciplines together. The same is true with my preoccupation with cultural expression. I am equally fascinated and awed by visiting an Alexander McQueen show as I am looking under a microscope. And this same level of intrigue visits me when I take on design journeys. I don’t think of fashion as fashion, or biology as biology. I don’t separate architecture, design or culture. What’s more important is a language of creativity that carries meaning. These things are all merely lenses with which to view the world. Sometimes they overlap, sometimes they don’t.

Who are some women that inspire you?

Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Perriand, Maureen Dowd, and Maria Popova, who also happens to be a good friend.

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