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Building with Biology



In nature, you do not find materials assembled. Nature is a radically opposed design culture, to the one we practice ourselves. To make a car or a building we manufacture oceans of different components. But in nature, things grow. Take the skin of a human. In the face, it is thin with large pores. On the back, it is thicker and with small pores. Yet it is the same skin. There are no parts and no assemblies. It is a system gradually varying its functionality by varying elasticity.

Architect and designer Neri Oxman is working in the field between technology and biology. Together with her team of researchers, she was looking for a material that she could design and create with, that was biological and could have different functions. And she found it. The second-most abundant biopolymer on the planet, chitin. Some 100 million tons are produced every year by shrimp, crabs, scorpions and butterflies. Neri Oxman thought that if she could tune its properties, she would have the possibility of building multifunctional structures, out of just a single part. And so she ordered a whole lot of shrimp shells, produced a chitosan paste and managed to achieve a lot of different properties stretching from dark, stiff and opaque, to light soft and transparent. They built a robot that printed a big wing-like structure seamlessly transitioning from strong and hard structure to a fine mesh. She stated that this could in larger scale replicate wall and window. Imagine biodegradable buildings created from an ancient material and a little bit of synthetic biology. Thrown it into the ocean, it would nurture marine life,  put in the ground, it would help grow a tree. Why are we designing in plastics still, she asks. Good question.

The same design system was used for experimenting with the creation of life-sustaining clothing for interplanetary traveling. Neri Oxman and her team grew new life forms by synthesizing new biological functionality on a very small scale. By combining to microorganisms that never interacted in nature, it was possible to design a little local evolution. The cloth was grown on a human body and is performing photosynthesis and has a digestive system. 

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Another of Neri Oxman’s alternative takes on designing and building, started with her fascination of the complex architecture of the silkworm cocoon. She glued a tiny magnet to the head of a silkworm in order to make a map of the cocoon’s progress. She found out, that if a silkworm is placed on a flat surface, it spins a flat web of silk, and still healthily metamorphosizes. She not only solved the problem of killing millions of worms harvesting silk for the textile industry, she also replicated their technique and had a robot spin the skeleton of a pavilion of silk thread. She then wanted silkworms to spin the rest, ordered 6,500 from a silk farm and hired the lot on the spot. They were placed in the bottom of the pavilion, and filled the gaps with their own silk thread. In a couple of weeks the silkworms spun 6.500 kilometres of silk, and thereby finished the pavilion. They even produced 1.5 million eggs, which would be enough for an additional 250 pavilions in the future. 


How would the world look if we could actually create structures that augmented living matter? Buildings designed in the collaboration between nature and human design. Biological clothes with the ability to analyse our skin and repair damaged tissue and sustain our bodies over long time? Biodegradable tools, containers or furniture. This points toward a new age, where we move away from the machine. The age of symbiosis between our bodies and the products and even buildings surrounding us. Products and buildings that nurture nature and life. 

This is what Neri Oxman calls material ecology, and that might be how the inhabitants of planet earth should soon start designing and creating, if they want to sustain their home.    

Time is an Illusion