Within all of nature’s creations lies a unique code; a sequence that guides the survival and behaviour of each species. From microscopic organisms to thriving ecosystems, the natural world is breath-taking at a glance and yet calculated at its core.
If we could somehow tap into the codes that guide design and teach technology to mimic Mother Nature, could we find the key to solving human problems?
This is the question that has always inspired Neri Oxman, an Israeli architect, engineer and designer, in her work. In 2013, researchers at MIT Media Lab’s Mediated Matter group headed up by Oxman set out to discover how natural fabrication techniques – such as the way silkworms build their cocoons – could be replicated on a grand scale with additive manufacturing methods to produce architectural structures.
To say the result was mind-blowing would be a gross understatement.
The Silk Pavilion — an architectural experiment constructed by MIT Media Lab’s Mediated Matter Group, was “3-D printed” using 6,500 live silkworms. Inspired by the creature’s remarkable ability to produce a three-dimensional cocoon of a single silk thread, the team created an algorithm that assigned a single continuous thread across their initial polygonal structure.
Having laid down the foundations of a silk dome with a robotic arm programmed to recreate the silkworm’s technique, the group of MIT students were ready for phase two.
This time, Oxman would let Mother Nature take the wheel to complete the pavilion. At the bottom rim of the aluminium and silk scaffold, the group positioned a swarm of 6,500 silkworms with the purpose of locally reinforcing the gaps in the structure with varying degrees of density.
But the magic doesn’t stop there. Following their pupation stage, the silkworms were removed, leaving enough eggs behind to create approximately 250 more structures.
This fascinating project is a showcase of the possibilities born from biological and digital engineering. Using her custom-build manufacturing tools, Oxman was able to control the biomaterial properties of the structure just like an architect would specify a certain type of steel. With the initial 3D-printed panels in place, the silkworms effectively had a template to guide their work.
Yet, while the algorithm guiding the machine determined the initial opacity of each panel, the emergent behaviour of the live silkworms created astonishing textures and patterns that would be impossible to programme.
This is where the controlled meets the chaotic; where numbers meet art to make a unique creation that is both structurally sound and mesmerising to behold. According to Neri Oxman, what may appear to most as an unconventional engineering technique is in fact a logical solution for sustainable design.
“The project speculates about the possibility in the future to implement a biological swarm approach to 3D printing,” says Oxman. “Once we master this method, the applications would be vast, with potential to transform architectural and fashion design.”
“Imagine thousands of synthetic silkworm guided by environmental conditions such as light or heat — supporting the deposition of natural materials using techniques other than layering. This will allow us to exclude waste and achieve increased control over material location, structure and property.”
If Oxman is correct, these creatures could hold the key to the future of design. “Google is for information what swarm manufacturing may one day become for design fabrication.”
In this new age that the Israeli architect and designer describes as somewhere between “the chisel and the gene”, we can begin to redesign everything from the buildings we live in to the clothes we wear.
Of course, once Neri Oxman had opened Pandora’s Box, there was no going back. Her palette awash with potential, she and the team within MIT’s Mediated Matter group began working on a science-led art piece called the “Coral Pavilion.” Combining an age-old crustacean-derived material with robotic fabrication and synthetic biology, the group were able to produce a new water-based digital fabrication platform.
Before long, the project had evolved into something greater than they could have imagined. Aptly renamed “Ocean Pavilion”, the installation featured structural branches and long delicate leaves made from an ocean-born biopolymer called chitosan. By varying how the fibres were deposited, the group were able to achieve a unique appearance that combined both solid and willowy structures over the length of a branch or leaf.
In an era characterised by a fragile environment crushed under the weight of mass-production, Mother Nature herself offers vast potential as a co-creator of a sustainable future. By marrying technological processes with biological behaviours, Neri Oxman has found the tools to make it possible.
In her 2015 TED Talk, the architect divulged to the audience her inspiration for her work and her vision for the future of design:
These fields are computational design, allowing us to design complex forms with simple code; additive manufacturing, letting us produce parts by adding material rather than carving it out; materials engineering, which lets us design the behaviour of materials in high resolution; and synthetic biology, enabling us to design new biological functionality by editing DNA.
“And at the intersection of these four fields, my team and I create”.