A Science of Buildings That Can Grow—and Melt Away
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A Science of Buildings That Can Grow—and Melt Away

Architect Neri Oxman, creator of ‘material ecology,’ explains how silkworms, shrimp shells and insect exoskeletons could help shape the city of the future.

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Wed, Apr 13, 2022 11:02amGrey Clock 4 min

While the pandemic heightened speculation about what the city of the future will look like, architect Neri Oxman says she is sticking with a blueprint based on a core principle of her work: In years to come, buildings will be grown, not built.

At Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab from 2010 to 2021, Ms. Oxman founded and directed the Mediated Matter group, a team researching in areas including computational design, digital fabrication, materials science and synthetic biology. There, she created a field she calls material ecology.

The result? A body of work that includes a pavilion spun by 6,500 silkworms (with the help of a robotic arm), a series of 3D-printed sculptures filled with liquid channels of the pigment melanin (which she envisions could be used in the façades of buildings to protect against ultraviolet rays), and a collection of artifacts constructed using materials derived from shrimp shells and insect exoskeletons.

Since leaving academia, Ms. Oxman, 46 years old, has focused on Oxman, the New York-based design and technology company that she founded in 2020 with the aim of applying her design philosophy to real-world projects. A retrospective of her work is on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The Wall Street Journal spoke to Ms. Oxman about the future of urban architecture and how she thinks design can be used as a tool to fight climate change.

You created a new term to describe your approach to design: material ecology. What does it entail?

The idea behind material ecology is to enable total synergy between grown and built environments by deploying new digital technologies that allow us to augment bio-based materials for large-scale construction.

How do you decide which natural materials to use in your designs?

It comes down to ethics and availability. We work with the most abundant biopolymers on the planet which include cellulose, found in plant cell walls; pectin, found in apple and lemon skins; and chitin, found in the shells of crustaceans.

You’ve talked about wanting to create buildings that naturally decay when they are no longer needed. How would that work?

Using technology, we can program biomaterials to degrade in response to changing environmental conditions. At MIT, we built three biopolymer pavilions [the Aguahoja pavilions] which, instead of concrete, were built using shrimp shells, fallen leaves and apple skins. We programmed the pavilions to decay at a certain point when exposed to rainwater. This, in turn, nurtures soil microorganisms to fuel new growth.

It’s a circular economy of material that could be used to create biodegradable refugee camps, for example. Once the refugees find a safe haven, the camps would be programmed to melt away in the rain.

What does “programmed” mean in this context?

It’s complex. When we combine biopolymers including chitosan, pectin and cellulose, the material’s ability to absorb water varies based on its composition. Chitosan, for example, is naturally water-resistant and doesn’t readily dissociate when submerged, while pectin is hydrophilic and dissolves rapidly. By choosing how we blend these components, we can access a spectrum of hydrophilicity—otherwise known as a material’s affinity to water—and this lets us tune or program the speed at which a material breaks down. In essence, we are designing the architectural equivalent of metabolic rate.

How many years are we from grown buildings becoming a reality in cities across the world?

For grown buildings to appear in towns and cities, we need to rethink mass production, and this will take five to 10 years to happen in a meaningful way. However, the development of products made from biological materials—cars, for example—could begin within the next year.

What role will existing buildings made from concrete and plastics, for example, play in your vision for the city of the future?

The architect and professor Carl Elefante says that “the greenest building is one that is already built.” That’s because the carbon emitted during construction is vast compared to the operating emissions of a given building. We therefore need to find new ways to augment the pre-existing built environment rather than trying to completely rebuild our cities from the ground up.

How does one do this?

We need to look at a range of interventions. One is the creation of bioengineered façades for existing buildings. An example: in the U.S. alone, hundreds of billions of square feet of glass façade components are produced every year. As part of our research at MIT, we 3D-printed glass augmented with synthetically engineered microorganisms to produce energy [from the sun]. This allows us to develop solar-harnessing glass façades that can act as a skin for pre-existing buildings.

We must also think about whole-building recycling. A current example is Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. The campus was built by Norman Foster using materials from old buildings that used to be on the same site. Rather than simply destroying structures when we no longer have use for them, we must look for ways to augment them using new technology and intelligence.

Which skills would you encourage future generations of architects to develop?

The architect of the future is interested in formation, as much as she is interested in form. She is a systems thinker, interested in building relationships between objects rather than seeing them as standalone. She invents new technologies with which to design, manufacture and build. She is a gardener, not a master planner

Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: April 10, 2022.



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I.M. Pei was the confident visionary behind such transformative structures as the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong and the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, but he was also humble, and for years resisted a retrospective of his work.

Pei, a Chinese-American architect who died in 2019 at 102 , would always protest any suggestion of a major exhibition, saying, “why me,” noting, too, that he was still actively at work, recalls his youngest son, Li Chung “Sandi” Pei. A decade ago, when Pei was in his mid-to-late 90s, he relented, finally telling Aric Chen, a curator at the M+ museum in Hong Kong, “all right, if you want to do it, go ahead,” Sandi says.

A sweeping retrospective, “I.M. Pei: Life Is Architecture,” will open June 29 at M+ in the city’s West Kowloon Cultural District. The exhibition of more than 300 objects, including drawings, architectural models, photographs, films, and other archival documents, will feature Pei’s influential structures, but in dialogue with his “social, cultural, and biographical trajectories, showing architecture and life to be inseparable,” the museum said in a news release.

As a Chinese citizen who moved to the U.S. in 1935 to learn architecture, Pei—whose full first name was Ieoh Ming—brought a unique cultural perspective to his work.

“His life is what’s really interesting and separates him from many other architects,” Sandi says. “He brought with him so many sensibilities, cultural connections to China, and yet he was a man of America, the West.”

Facade of the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© South Ho Siu Nam

Pei’s architectural work was significant particularly because of its emphasis on cultural institutions—from the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar—“buildings that have a major impact in their communities,” Sandi says. But he also did several urban redevelopment projects, including Kips Bay Towers in Manhattan and Society Hill in Philadelphia.

“These are all places for people,” Sandi says. “He believed in the importance of architecture as a way to bring and celebrate life. Whether it was a housing development or museum or a tall building or whatever—he really felt a responsibility to try to bring something to wherever he was working that would uplift people.”

A critical juncture in Pei’s career was 1948, when he was recruited from the Harvard Graduate School of Design (where he received a master’s degree in architecture) by New York real estate developer William Zeckendorf.

With Zeckendorf, Pei traveled across the country, meeting politicians and other “movers and shakers” from Denver and Los Angeles, to Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Boston, and New York. “He became very adept at working in that environment, where you had to know how to persuade people,” Sandi says.

During the seven-year period Pei worked with Zeckendorf, the developer fostered the growth of his architecture practice, supporting an office that included urban, industrial, graphic, and interior designers, in addition to architects and other specialists, Sandi says.

When Pei started his own practice in 1955, “he had this wealth of a firm that could do anything almost anywhere,” Sandi says. “It was an incredible springboard for what became his own practice, which had no parallel in the profession.”

According to Sandi, Chinese culture, traditions, and art were inherent to his father’s life as he grew up, and “he brought that sensibility when he came into America and it always influenced his work.” This largely showed up in the way he thought of architecture as a “play of solids and voids,” or buildings and landscape.

“He always felt that they worked together in tandem—you can’t separate one from the other—and both of them are influenced by the play of light,” Sandi says.

View of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, on the mesa, in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© Naho Kubota

Pei also often said that “architecture follows art,” and was particularly influenced by cubism, an artistic movement exploring time and space that was practiced in the early 20th century by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, among others. This influence is apparent in the laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., and at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, N.Y. “Those two buildings, if you look at them, have a play of solid and void, which are very cubistic,” Sandi says.

Yet Sandi argues that his father didn’t have a specific architectural style. Geometry may have been a consistent feature to his work, but his projects always were designed in response to their intended site. The resulting structure emerged as almost inevitable, he says. “It just was the right solution.”

Pei also intended his buildings “not only to be themselves a magnet for life,” but also to influence the area where they existed. “He never felt that a building stood alone,” Sandi says. “Urban design, urban planning, was a very important part of his approach to architecture, always.”

After he closed his own firm to supposedly “retire” in the early 1990s, Pei worked alongside Sandi and his older brother, Chien Chung (Didi) Pei, who died late last year, at PEI Architects, formerly Pei Partnership Architects. Pei would work on his own projects, with their assistance, and would guide his sons, too. The firm had substantial involvement in the Museum of Islamic Art, among other initiatives, for instance, Sandi says.

Working with his father was fun, he says. In starting a project, Pei was often deliberately vague about his intentions. The structure would coalesce “through a process of dialogue and sketches and sometimes just having lunch over a bottle of wine,” Sandi says. “He was able to draw from each of us who was working on the project our best efforts to help to guide [it] to some kind of form.”

The M+ retrospective, which will run through Jan. 5, is divided into six areas of focus, from Pei’s upbringing and education through to his work in real estate and urban redevelopment, art and civic projects, to how he reinterpreted history through design.

Sandi, who will participate in a free public discussion moderated by exhibition co-curator Shirley Surya on the day it opens, is interested “in the opportunity to look at my father anew and to see his work in a different light now that it’s over, his last buildings are complete. You can take a full assessment of his career.”

And, he says, “I’m excited for other people to become familiar with his life.”