Emerging Voices @ METROPOLIS
2015 Alexandra Alexa, METROPOLIS Magazine ,
From the website, By Alexandra Alexa
How would you describe your practice?
My group is concerned with nature-inspired design and design-inspired nature. We conduct research at the intersection of computational design, digital fabrication, materials, and synthetic biology and apply this knowledge across all scales, from the micro-scale to buildings. Our mission is to invent, design, and implement biologically inspired fabrication technologies that enhance the relationship between the designed object and the environment. We refer to this approach as “material ecology,” and it considers computation, fabrication and matter as inseparable and harmonized dimensions of design. Our early work focused on nature as a model for computation and form-generation, while our current work looks into nature as a model for digital fabrication.
What sources do you draw inspiration from?
We are inspired by all things natural—the growth of trees, the remodeling of cancellous bone, the formation of the glass sponge, the swarm intelligence detected in an ant farm, the formation of planets. In all of these examples, and many more, we seek the logic of formation rather than the description of form itself; in particular, we look for forms of logic that are often concealed. We then translate these phenomena to the building scale. For instance, from the cancellous bone, we have been exploring variable density concrete printing where the distribution of concrete is informed by a given distribution of structural load.
What would you say are some of the biggest challenges of establishing a practice right now?
I think the main challenge for every young practitioner remains the tension between innovation and buildability. Especially today, when advances in digital design become more integrated within practice, it becomes challenging to draw the line between the passion to learn and the desire to build. At which point one must decide if one is more of a wanderer or more of a builder? Another challenge is that it has become too easy to build almost anything. Although the building industry has been relatively slow to adopt new technologies, such tools and technologies are enabling architects and designers to freely express themselves without any particular relation (or commitment) to materials or the environment. We seem to have detached ourselves from the wisdom of vernacular architecture, the craft of building, where materials are chosen according to specific environmental criteria, where technique comes at the service of design rather than the other way around.
What are you currently working on?
Wanderers is a project we are working on in collaboration with with the Silver Lab and Stratasys. It began with the observation that synthetic biology allows designers to manipulate the functions of microorganisms, which could then be made into useful products. To explore this, we set out to design 3D-printed wearables that use synthetic organisms. One such wearable, Mushtari, was produced by Stratasys for the recent Euromold show and is the first demonstration of a photosynthetic wearable. It has been redesigned to house synthetic microorganisms that fluoresce bright colors in darkness, produce sugar, and manufacture biofilms. These functions augment the experience of the wearer by altering color, creating food, and producing biological tissues such as insulation for the body.
How do you feel to be included in this group of designers?
Humbled. Mostly because Mediated Matter is a research group—likely the single academic group amongst this year's list of designers—operating in an academic setting while also taking on commissions. Every day when I wake up, I think about how best to balance research and practice. When research gets in the way of practice, it is likely due to challenges relating to scale. When practice gets in the way of research, it is likely due to oversimplifying complexity. But when research and practice go hand in hand, there is really nothing quite like it! Buckminster Fuller called this form of research-based practice "anticipatory design." I think of my group and the work that we do as a form of predictive practice—making the future more present. I am honored and thankful for the recognition of what is, and what is to come.