Neri Oxman: architect, designer, engineer, scientist, artist. The 42-year-old American-Israeli pioneer, who leads a radical lab at MIT, has no time for boxes.
The MIT Mediated Matter Group, which Oxman founded and directs, conducts experiments at the intersection of computational design, digital fabrication, materials science, and synthetic biology.
Like her team’s floating Silk Pavilion, which 3D printed a cloud-like structure by marrying 6,500 silk worms with computer-controlled robots. Or their “wearable skins”, which could one day allow people to survive on other planets.
Oxman is breaking boundaries in a male-dominated world, but has little interest in being recognized as a great female designer: “Binaries aside, we are the products of our relationships with our identities – cities we have built, bodies we have embraced, kindred souls we’ve cherished, our memories, our dreams, the fears we hide, the pain we hold –identities that cannot be reduced to a collection of labels,” says Oxman.
She tells CNN about her world.
CNN: What’s on your desk?
Neri Oxman: Books: The Art of Structure, The Complete Book of Pyramids, The Genius of Judaism, MIES IN BERLIN, Cosmic Ecology. Creatures: a collection of Alebrijes, an elephant skull, a glass printed prototype, Henry Moore’s unpublished drawings, Virgil in English, Bernstein’s Unanswered Question. Why Buddhism is True, The Rise and Fall of Adam And eve. Flowers, I make my own arrangements. Emily Dickenson’s’ Envelope Poems, Arabic Poems.
A book that you’ve read more than once
“The English Patient,” “Moby Dick,” (D’Arcy) Thompson’s “On Growth and Form,” “The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen,” Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel,” Safdie’s “Jerusalem: The future of the Past.”
Is there any place that inspires you?
Walden Pond, the Chauvet Cave, the local hospital, the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem, the market in the Old City, the Atacama Desert, old people’s homes, my grandmother’s garden (only by memory), the Wailing Wall, Taliesin West, my childhood home, an open sea, my mother’s arms.
Who inspires you?
Susan Sontag, Beethoven, Bergman, Bernstein, Perriand, Virginia Woolf, Mies van der Rohe, Maureen Dowd, and Maria Popova, also a dear friend. Every member on my team, Gershon Dublon. My sister, my parents, my close friends, Edgar Allan Poe, Isaiah Berlin, Uber drivers who care about what they play.
Would you describe yourself as a feminist?
Although I often find that the feminist rhetoric—not feminism—can come across as simple-minded, self-regarding, nuance-averse and reductive: biology to physiology, history to psychology, procreation to gynecology, and so on; I have come to realize that we should all be feminists. Gender is more of a continuum than we are willing to admit when we hit the restroom. We must pursue social equality, confound label-based gender norms and embrace complexity.
I loathe categorization, I cherish my independence, and I treasure chivalry. I live just fine with ambiguity and I welcome a good quarrel about all things designed or grown—except for when men misnomer “confident” with “poised” and “passionate” with “feisty”. I work hard.
Do you think architecture has a worse problem with male dominance than other professions?
No. You find it across the board and in many other fields: physics, music composition, film, theater, the tech world, and—of course—the White House. This isn’t an emblem of the architectural profession; most of history is patriarchal and this is a phenotype of the human condition (so far), a product of its perception.
What do you consider your biggest professional achievement?
A BL2 wet lab (a laboratory built to safely conduct experiments on potentially hazardous biological materials) designed by and for designers and architects. My Group.
You’ve called your organic approach to design “mothering.” How do those mothering qualities inform your design work?
There is a preconception that architectural design is a top-down kind of practice. That form—authored by a sole architect—comes first and is then post-rationalized to ensure proper execution of the design intent. But Nature doesn’t work that way, nor does motherhood. In both, matter comes first—physical and otherwise immaterial. And in both, design has less to do with formal dictation and more to do with guidance and nurturing, an almost abysmal insight of the ‘source material’ and what it wants to be. When I refer to mothering Nature in the context of our own work, it is usually in reference to a mental shift from seeing Nature as a boundless, nourishing entity to one that begs nourishment by design. This approach then propels us into the age where we mother Nature by design, ‘mother’ the verb.
You’ve described these glass structures you and your team created as “formalism with a moral compass.” What do you mean by that?
Beauty – of any form – is a sign of usefulness. This approach is at the very core of our work; we do not solve problems; we invent new technologies that offer new ways by which to engage with the world around us. If we are lucky, we get to discover solutions to problems we may not have known existed.
When I say “formalism with a moral compass,” I speak to the responsibility that comes with freedom of exploration and expression. In this case I refer to an environmental consciousness. In the United States alone, 450 billion square feet of glass façade are produced every year. What if we could 3D print glass facades that – by way of tuning their shape and color, much like giant optical lenses – can harness solar energy? As architects and designers we are committed to question the impact of such new technologies on the built environment. But more importantly we must also take joy in the unknown and the ambiguous, the state of becoming.
The world of architecture, in particular, has been a male-dominated ecosystem for a long time. How do you navigate this world?
On good days with grace, on bad days – by “being a man.” When I have little patience for reflection, I turn off that sense of awareness; I go about my day and my work and – when faced with gender-sensitive positions – I say to myself, “just get on with it.” But on good days, I tune in and I listen, inviting qualities about myself often associated with femininity, male or female, and how that enriches my Group’s work and our way of being. Most of the time though I find that acknowledging the gender-divide gets in the way of letting it go. And letting it go is best served, for me, by carrying on meaningful work that celebrates positions binaries a continua. It is only through hard work, awareness and humility that we can truly own our identity, not by shoving it under a round table of tailored suits.
What’s changing to make architecture and design a better atmosphere for women?
What needs to change to get women into key positions?