When you look at MIT graduate student Neri Oxman's work, it's not hard to believe that she started out as a pre-med student before deciding to switch to architecture. Everything she builds or designs looks organic, as if it had grown like some alien life-form instead of having been crafted by human hands and imagination.
And that's precisely what she's trying to do: create art and architecture that draws from the way nature works. That approach has already earned several of her works a place in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York -- and she has received several major awards.
Oxman, 33, was born and raised in Israel, where her parents are both architects and her grandparents engineers. She still has a year to go toward her PhD from the Computation Group in the Department of Architecture, but her work is already turning heads. "She's pushing the boundaries of the possible, and in the process creating some very beautiful and thought-provoking objects," says her thesis advisor, William Mitchell, the Alexander W. Dreyfoos (1954) Professor of Architecture and Media Arts and Sciences.
Oxman's creations combine hard-nosed engineering with artistic vision. Working with W. Craig Carter, the Eugene Bell Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and a Margaret MacVicar Faculty Fellow, she has produced a new version of the 3-D printers used for rapid prototyping, called FAB.REcology, which has the unique ability to "print" objects whose texture and resilience vary from one portion of the object to the next. That enabled the production, for example, of a one-third-scale prototype for a molded chaise longue. The model is made of resin and has a filigreed structure that --Â at its full size --Â would be strong enough to support a person's weight, combined with sections flexible enough to nestle the body in comfort.
That chair's design, she says, drew inspiration from the internal structure of bones and other biological forms.
Her work aims to use computational tools to produce "performance-based design," she says, in which, as occurs in nature, "the organization of the structure is directly linked to the forces that are applied to that structure." To achieve that, she studies natural materials like the cellular structure of a bone, or microscopic images of a butterfly wing, and translates those principles into construction that takes advantage of the flexibility of modern materials and processes. "It's about process, not product," she says.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 6, 2009 (download PDF).