Neri Oxman, who directs the Mediated Matter research group at the MIT Media Lab, recently spoke at Greenbuild 2011 in Toronto. The group studies the naturally occurring relationship between structure and function within the natural environment, and how digital fabrication technologies can shape the way synthetic materials are developed. What is the natural material logic? Once we understand the natural logic of a material and how it relates to the function and response of the macro-structure, how can we translate this material logic to built form?
In her presentation, Oxman discussed a fundamental difference between the way natural materials are generated and the way in which we "build". When we construct objects today, we use a component-based design logic. Each element within the object is a distinct layer with a separate function. A typical wall section might include vertical and horizontal structural elements for support, layers of sheathing and barriers for containment, insulation for temperature mitigation, and glazing for visibility and aesthetics. In this approach, various layers are assembled to produce a "functioning" element. This is where Oxman sees a fundamental flaw in the design process.
In nature, form is dictated by a combination of structure and environmental performance. Rather than "separation and distribution", natural materials are derived from "continuity and distribution". Plants are composed of one type of material, but utilize different genetic variations to respond to different needs. Bone is also a naturally occurring material that develops with different densities depending on where they are located and what function they accommodate. Bone is able to directly respond to changes in it's environment. The bone structure in pregnant women is known to grow more dense to accommodate the additional weight, whereas bone that spends time in the gravity-free environment of space tends to grow less dense.
It is this distinction in assembly and response that Oxman sees as the future of material technology. She envisions a future where materials are designed to modify themselves in response to external factors. Building skins are able to modulate themselves in response to the micro-climate. In the next 100 years, she sees the rise of bio-fabrication and construction in which material distribution and density are controlled by use at a micro-scale. Structure is fluid - strong and stiff where necessary, flexible and light where not. In the next 1000 years, Oxman is even more progressive, extolling the possibility of genetic construction where materials and structures are "grown".