Smart Walls, Morphing Chairs, and the Living Environments of Neri Oxman

Ever wanted to stand on a floor that fine-tunes its own thickness? Or ride an elevator powered by the same peristaltic mechanisms found in the human intestine? Neri Oxman is way ahead of you.

Oxman, a Ph.D. candidate in design computation at MIT, specializes in reactive architecture: surfaces, furnishings, and structures that change their own properties according to different stimuli. Her resin floors grow thicker where they need to support more weight; her composite walls rearrange their windows and stress lines based on local weather conditions. One of her best-known works, a chaise longue called Beast, can adjust its shape, flexibility, and softness to fit each person who sits in it.

The language that Oxman uses to discuss her work is provocative — she talks as much about the "behavior" of a piece as its appearance or function — and nearly everything she's done evokes biology in some way, whether it recalls the composition of human bone, the veinwork of a butterfly wing, or the helical polymer chains that comprise our DNA. She's remarked that "the biological world is displacing the machine as a general model of design."

It's an approach at once oddly specific and not particularly limiting, if the portfolio of Material Ecology, Oxman's design initiative, is anything to go by. Household items like carpal-tunnel therapy gloves — with zones of varying rigidity patterned after the spots of a cheetah — share space with designs for entire skylines.

About those skylines: some of Oxman's most ambitious work has to do with what buildings could look like in the twenty-first century. A proposal for "PeristalCity," an urban design plan based on a re-imagining of Manhattan's elevators, features slumped skyscrapers that look less like buildings than melted candles. "[T]he vast space… which the elevator shaft occupies is, temporally speaking, useless," the proposal reads. "Should the elevator, of all things, persist as the non-negotiable limit of our vertical habits?… What if circulation was to become the actual living and/or working space?"

Rather than having a conventional elevator traverse an inflexible vertical column to deliver people to stationary rooms, Oxman proposes "[a]n inhabitable pocket (living and working unit)… contained within a flexible element." These bubbles of space would travel throughout the larger body of the building by the same principles of expansion and contraction that move muscle tissue around.

A selection of Oxman's work is currently on display at Boston's Museum of Science. The full Material Ecology oeuvre can be found online, though much of the language seems like it would be opaque to anyone who hasn't taken several high-level design courses. Still, the projects are worth a look; it's not clear whether Oxman's materials and designs will become a thing of the mainstream, but it might be wise to get acquainted with them just in case.

Photo: Neri Oxman accepting the 2009 Earth Award for her design work.