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The Next List

Neri Oxman Reimagines Architecture and Building Design

Aired December 09, 2012 - 14:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: They are innovators, game changers, people pushing themselves, moving us all forward. They're the next scientists, musicians, poets, the next makers, dreamers, teachers and geniuses. They are "THE NEXT LIST."


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to THE NEXT LIST. I want to introduce you to a remarkable woman who defies definition. I want you to meet Neri Oxman.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Neri is an architect, an engineer, a designer, a scientist.


GUPTA: Neri Oxman believes that we could one day in the near future 3D print our buildings.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't want to design a building as I have learned. I want to question what it means to design a building.


GUPTA: At her lab at MIT's Media Lab, she's experimenting with different materials, everything from concrete to silk.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That concrete can be making things. That concrete can become a transparent window.


GUPTA: Neri is thinking about architecture and design in completely new ways. Her muse is nature and her medium is the 3D printer.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Can you print DNA? Can you print with calcium? Can you make a building with calcium?


GUPTA: I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta and this is THE NEXT LIST.


NERI OXMAN, FOUNDER, MEDIA MATTER GROUP: We're now at the MIT Media Lab. The Media Matter Group is the group that I have founded when I arrived at the lab as faculty.

ADELE SANTOS, DEAN OF THE SCHOOL OF ARCHITECTURE, MIT: Neri came as a student in computation. At the secondary masters level. We don't tend to hire our own. You know, it's just a principle. But Neri was so exceptional that when we had a big search for a position in the Media Lab, she came out on top, clearly, clearly excellent.

OXMAN: The Media Matter Research Group was founded two years ago as a design lab that's dedicated to exploring design that is inspired by the biological world and the natural world.

How can we reinterpret 3D printing that generates or suggests a new design language that's informed by the environment? When you think about other systems in nature, one often thinks of the spider web. So the spiders are creatures of the environment that generate silk and with that silk, they do lots of things.

They create trailing routes, they capture their prey. They wrap their prey. They wrap their eggs. So they generate silk for various functions. So, in a way, the spider is a kind of multi-material 3D printer.

The spider itself is a kind of printing machine only instead of print plastics, it prints with silk. So the spider web is form of architecture, but also a form of fabrication and one cannot separate the spider web's form from the way in which it originated. These are processes that were fascinated to explore.

SANTOS: Learning from nature is not new. But she can learn from what she sees in the growth of a tree, for example, or in the structure of the bone structure of an animal and so on and then take that into you know, kind of morph it into a set of designs.

PAOLI ANTONELLI, SENIOR CURATOR OF ARCHITECTURE AND DESIGN, MOMA: The bark of certain trees in a northern climate might be made by nature to maximize the absorption of the sun. If you can understand that particular behavior and reproduce it, you might do it for buildings in northern climates that maximize the absorption of the sun. In a way, she was trying to create a catalogue of natural behaviors that can be reproduced to then be applied to many industries.

OXMAN: If we're able to extract some of these ideas and principles into the design of the artificial, for instance, in the design of printing concrete columns or walls or concrete building parts, then we've contributed not only to architectural construction, but also to a different way of thinking about how material distributes itself over space, but also over time.

MOHSEN MOSTAFAVI, DEAN, HARVARD SCHOOL OF DESIGN: The traditions of building construction in many ways are very old fashioned. In many ways, we haven't really caught up in the same way that other technologies. So we will have opportunities in the future where the way in this we design and the way in which we make things will probably be quite different than how we do them now.

OXMAN: We have a robotic arm in the lab. The robotic arm, yes, the robotic arm yes can spit foam or concrete and here I ask you can we use the arm to print with silk to achieve weaving.

STEVEN KEATING, RESEARCH ASSISTANT, MIT MEDIA LAB: So, this is an industrial robotic arm and we refurbished it as a research arm. So typically arms like this are found in assembly lines working to make cars and electronics.

OXMAN: As part of exploring the repurposing of this robotic arm as a 3D printer, we've been exploring what it means to work or print with concrete, but we've also been exploring foam. In this case, this is a project led by Steven Keating, a research graduate.

KEATIGN: A 3D printing is when you make an object in layers, so if you take a tube of tooth paste at home, squeeze out one layer, squeeze another layer over that, you've now 3D printed something. Here, we have it printing with a urethane foam.

So when we turn it on here, it's going to follow a tool path that we have dictated and spray this foam to make a mold for a concrete structure that we are that we're working on.

We've got our spray head here, which actually prints the foam then we have a milling bed. So after we've printed with the foam, we can switch to the milling head and carve away things that we don't want.

So, basically, with this system, we're hoping to be able to 3D print buildings with whatever geometry we want. So imagine a Dr. Seuss looking curved house would cost the same amount as a linear box shaped house.

MOSTAFAVI: The way Gary has used the 3D printer brings about the possibility of a different way of making things. Can we also think about making with buildings that will be made through a process of 3D printing? There that will be machines that will make houses, cities?

OXMAN: I believe in the near future, we will be using 3D printing to print buildings, houses and once you can print with concrete, eventually with titanium and other composite materials. And that would, of course, be a dream.


GUPTA: Up next, Neri, the world renowned artist.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) GUPTA: Welcome back. Neri may be an architect, but in turns out her experiments with 3D printing and nature sometimes has very beautiful outcomes, sculptures that are now in permanent collections in museums all over the world.


OXMAN: We are here tonight at the Central (inaudible) for the opening of a show that's called (inaudible). My contribution to the show is called "Imaginary Beings, the Mythologies of Not Yet" and it explores some of my approach in design that has been building over the last 10 years.

The name of the show "Imaginary Beings" really came from a book that I've read by -- a book that's called "The Book of Imaginary Being ". It was a collection, a library of mythology, a collection of 120 myths from around the world from different epos, different eras.

And what you find is that every culture has a dragon, every culture has a mermaid. And so these myths repeat themselves across all cultures and all environments and that was very, very interesting to me.

So, the show is really a beastry of those mythical beings that are designed around the human body, so wearable myths that perhaps one day will turn into buildings.

Every imaginary being really explores a different part of the body in a different kind of augmentation. So there's a helmet series that explores shock absorbent helmets.

There is a corset that allows for you to be protected so it's a stiff armor that allows you flexibility and protection and all of these imaginary beings were 3D printed using objects multi-material printing technology.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Seen about 3D printer working and I never thought about it being used to art.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Things that some like mixing of human body and like superheroes in a comics.


GUPTA: What may not be immediately evident from Neri's art is that these pieces are born not only of nature, but of numbers and one of her main collaborators isn't even an artist. He's a scientist.


CRAIG CARTER, PROFESSOR, MATERIAL SCIENCE, MIT: My name is Craig Carter. I'm a professor of Material Science at MIT. I've spent most of my career doing applications of applied mathematics in science.

The first time Neri came to me, she asked me to do some calculations, which seemed just on the edge of being plausible. OXMAN: So all of my work until to date was really inspired by this idea of code and gradient. That code can be a computational code, but of course, it represents a certain form of logic.

CARTER: The way it works is Neri will begin with a brilliant concept and the design comes in the form of numerical structures like the kinds of things you would see in animation, for instance and that system of numbers can be used as the data, which goes into a three dimensional printer or a numerically controlled machine.

OXMAN: The other principle is the principle of gradient. So you can think of sand dunes, blood vessels, growth. All of these processes can be defined by moving materials from one concentration to another.

ANTONELLI: She tries to take natural phenomena, you know, phenomena that occur in nature like the bark of a tree or the way the sand just like adjusts itself on the beach, then she tries to extract a mathematical law out of it, then make an algorithm, which can be used to produce the same phenomena artificially.

CARTER: Mary will often send me an image of something. It might be the image of larva of a beetle and she will say look at the texture of this larva, isn't it interesting or she'll show me the underside of a mushroom, which also has a very interesting question. Then she'll ask the question, can we do something, which will make that kind of texture?

OXMAN: So for instance, the minatar head with sutures was designed for an augmented helmet. The inspiration again was a biological inspiration that was taken from the human skull. Our skulls have sutures in them, but they are soft lines that in time become more curvaceous.

So when you look at minatar with sutures, really, the idea is to take certain computational algorithms that express the logic of sutures and implement them in the design of this augmented helmet.

CARTER: Find that way of working, what kind of algorithm, what kind of natural processes would give rise to those textures, to be a very interesting, intellectual journey.

ANTONELLI: I don't see her work as art. I see her work as architecture and design. You can perceive her work as art if you look at the object itself. But in truth, it comes from very serious studies and from very serious examination of data.

And of natural behaviors and what is distilled at the end is an object that if divorced from all the background can be considered as art, but truth, it's really an experimental study.

CARTER: I can remember in -- seeing these pieces for the first time and could hardly believed that these were the outcome of some algorithm and numbers. It was something, which is absolutely fantastic to me.

(END VIDEOTAPE) GUPTA: Artists, architect and there are even more sides to Neri Oxman from the Israeli Air Force to medical school.



OXMAN: We are at our home in Brookline in St. Marks Church. This was a church that was converted to apartments. We live here together, myself and my husband.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We were married on July 13th, 2011. I'm a composer, a music composer. In the middle of my life, I meet Neri and she absolutely twists my mind with her vision of science and art.

OXMAN: I think I can probably attest to the fact that I met Osvaldo not through his music and that's rather rare. It's very easy to fall in love with him through his music, almost too easy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She lets me walk, she floats and that's something that I love because that's constant.

OXMAN: Osvaldo has inspired so much of my work and so much of my thinking that I'm very, very humbled every day to wake up by his side. I'm not one of those personalities like Osvaldo who knew from the minute he was born that he wanted to be a composer.

I can say that this is true for myself. I didn't know that I wanted to be an architect. I am Israeli, I grew up in Haifa, which is a city in the north of Israel and I lived there all my life until I had to leave for the army at the age of 18.

My parents are both architects. I grew up in a modernist house, perhaps a modernist culture, so I learned very, very quickly to appreciate the value of design and the value of architecture. At the age of 18 as an Israeli, you're required to serve in the army. I took my service, my obligatory service for three years.

I was an assistant to the air force base commander of that army base. That was an experience that taught me a lot about life. So after the army, I left to go to medical school. I went to the Hebrew Medical School in Jerusalem and spent a little over two years in medical school.

It was one day, I remember it clearly. A very, very hot day in Jerusalem and I left class and I called my dad, and announced to my parents that I was going to leave medical school. I don't think I would have made a good doctor.

It was not meant to be and it took me a long time to realize that. I actually took the architectural entry exam on a whim. I loved taking the exam. I remember the questions in the exam. I think I drew most of my answers, which I absolutely loved.

And while I was taking the exam, I realized that's the kind of world that I grew up in. That's the kind of world that I enjoy and I have so much to say. I arrived to London and that's where I met Mohsen for the first time.

MOSTAFAVI: I met Neri when she came to see me with her parents when I was the chairman of the Architectural Association in London, quite some time ago.

OXMAN: It was when I realized wow, this is a place where I, where I want to be. I want to be in this place. I want to be able to think in a very experimental way about a building. I don't want to design a building as I have learned. I want to question what it means to design a building.


GUPTA: Neri is questioning not only what it means to design, but also what it means to be a designer.


OXMAN: I think when you give something a definition, you also give it limitation.




MOSTAFAVI: I think that a lot of Neri's work is not necessarily architecture now. So it's important for people to know that this work also goes beyond certain traditional boundaries of architecture design.

OXMAN: I enjoy ambiguity and moving between those different ways of thinking and expressing. We're hardly moving up scales from product scales to architectural scales and exploring robotic weaving.

The next project that is planned for the following year is to construct a fully inhabitable woven pavilion that is 3D woven by the robotic arm and we're hoping to do that using silk as the main material.

CARTER: It's very difficult to categorize the kinds of things that Neri does. And I think that's one of the special things about her.

OXMAN: Many people when they see some of these technological developments that we're working on at the lab, immediately revert to their reality and that's something that we always do as humans. We also, we go back to a preconceived reality of what we know makes a house. What we know makes a chair.

So when people look at you know, at the ability to 3D print using a robotic arm, they're very, very curious about the possibility of in the future, printing full scale houses, so I think the media lab and specifically in the Media Matter Group, we don't focus only on efficiency translations. For that, I would open a practice in the commercial world, but that's not the function of this lab. The function of this lab is to question. The function of this lab is to wander.

The function of this lab is to enhance this curiosity for the natural world and ask how can this technology that we're using be not enhanced, but reinterpreted so that it adds value to the construction process or to the way in which we interact with nature.

So things are actually much more richer and layered than they seem to be when you hit, this point in the process where you realize that you can print a building if you can print you know, a helmet, but I don't think that's the case. I think those processes require much more complexity and thinking.

ANTONELLI: The work that Neri does would need to be drawn back to several different disciplines, but it comes together in a synthesis that is so much more than the sum of its parts. And that truly pushes the whole discipline whether it's architecture, engineering or science forward.

OXMAN: The moon is the limit. There's nothing that I consider unachievable or undo able or unconceivable.


GUPTA: In the world of architecture and design, Neri Oxman has no limits. She takes from nature, from dreams, mathematics, technology, all of it to create art and architecture unlike any other. And that's what earns her a spot on "THE NEXT LIST."

Thanks for joining us. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Hope to see you back here next Sunday.