IO DONNA Cover Story 1

IO DONNA Cover Story

2017  Irene Soave, IO Donna, Corriere della Sera

Read the cover story here

If you had to choose two or three of your projects to best tell a non-pundit audience what you do, which ones would you choose? And why?

My team and I—The mediated Matter Group at the MIT Media Lab—have just completed a collection of masks (‘second skins’ for the face) that we consider a natural extension to Imaginary Beings as well as to Wanderers and Living Mushtari. In all three collections we explored a data-driven approach to shape generation and material modeling, where both the geometry of an object and the distribution of its physical properties (e.g. rigidity, opacity, color etc) are informed by structural and/or environmental criteria. The key to this approach is the realization that the environment and the design object interact through multiple dimensions and a through a spectrum of environmental variables. We call this Material Ecology. Akin to natural ecology, which explores relationships between organisms and their environment, Material Ecology is a design approach, which considers the material world—products, buildings, wearables and even cities—as ecology.

Furthermore, Nature optimizes for a multiplicity of functions across scales: structural load, temperature balance, and more. Material Ecology explores the interrelationship between artificial things—fabricated with property gradients at the resolution of Nature, enabling multi-functionality that matches Nature—and their environs. Unlike the Industrial Revolution, which was ecology-agnostic, this new approach tightly links objects of design to the natural environment.

Our most recent project—the Vespers collection—offers, I think, the most sophisticated embodiment of this approach so far, demonstrating that we can seamlessly vary the physical properties of materials at the resolution of a sperm cell, a blood cell, or a nerve cell. The generation of products is therefore no longer limited to assemblages of discrete parts made of homogeneous properties. Rather, objects can be composed of materials characterized by property gradients and multi-functionality. The collection is now on show at the Design Museum in London and is part of collaboration with Stratasys. In it, we reveal new design methods that enable design and digital fabrication of multi-functional ‘skins’ printed in ultra high resolution that matches—and ultimately transcends—the scales of nature. Of course, we hope to witness the translation of these methods into the architectural scale.

What has been achieved with photopolymers in product scale [Vespers], we hope to achieve with our work on glass 3D printing in architectural scale: think Centre Pompidou without functional or formal partitions. Instead, consider a single and continuous transparent building skin made of glass that can integrate multiple functions and can be shaped to tune its structural and environmental performance.  Not unlike the human skin which serves at once as both a barrier and a filter.

The prospect of this design approach entering architectural practice thrills me, making our work at the Milan Design Week a stepping-stone for our practice. Ultimately, I would love to see us achieve in glass, what we have achieved in Vespers.

At which point in your life as a designer have you become so involved in material ecology?

The other night, at a dinner party, a well-known lawyer and politician asked me a related question: “the architect you are: what it is that you actually do?” A dear friend at the party stepped in and said, “Just say you grow chairs; that you design buildings with no parts.” I smiled and pointed to a tree.

Architecture and Design are entering a fascinating time in history where designers are called upon to catch up with advances in biotechnology. I believe that a closer, perhaps more intimate relationship between design and biology, will contribute to a shift from consuming Nature as a geological resource to editing it as a biological one. And this journey from ‘mining’ to ‘growing’ is accelerating. Top-down form generation (additively manufactured) combined with bottom-up growth of biological systems (biologically synthesized) opens previously impossible opportunities: photosynthetic building façades that convert carbon into biofuel; wearable micro-biomes that nourish our skin through selective filtration; and 3D printed matter that repairs damaged tissue.

In the Biological Age, designers and builders are empowered to dream up new, dynamic design possibilities, where products and structures can grow, heal, and adapt. But striding Nature’s way is far from natural. It requires a change in the way we see “Mother Nature,” from a boundless nourishing entity to one that begs nourishment by design. As we master ‘unnatural’ processes at a speed and sophistication that dwarfs evolution, Material Ecology propels us into the age where we mother Nature by design.

As an architect—I believe in the synergy between the buildings we design, and the environments they form and inhabit; as a designer—I believe that the products we design are extensions of and for human body; as a scholar of Nature [and a medical scholar], I believe in the integration between buildings, products and the environment. This holistic approach to design, which considers all environments—the built, the natural, and the biological—as one, postulates that any designed physical construct is—by definition—an integral part of our ecology. A practicing material ecologist will therefore engage multiple disciplines—computational design, digital fabrication, synthetic biology, the environment, and the material itself—as inseparable and harmonized dimensions of design. If Bucky Fuller were with us, he would, I hope, ‘synergize’.

Material Ecology—the design approach and its related areas of research—is therefore not limited to any categorical delineation: achieving world peace, eliminating poverty, or curing cancer. Rather, I consider my design approach—its theoretical foundations and principals, along with its collection of tools, techniques, and technologies—a system by which to address manifold issues, across scales and disciplines, from curing Malaria to populating Mars!

How did you conceive the whole project?

Our installation is comprised of three tall columns, 3-meters in height, 3D printed in glass utilizing a technology developed in my group. Given their geometrically complex form, and optical tunability, the columns act as architectural scale lenses that can concentrate or disperse light rays from within or outside the glass surface.

For this installation—entitled Via della Notte (The Way of the Night)—we embedded the columns with internal dynamic lighting—a ‘little star’—programed to move up and down the column thereby projecting the column’s caustics (i.e., the envelope of light rays reflected or refracted by a curved surface or object) on the surrounding walls in the Triennial space. Two ‘black mirrors’ are mounted on the two extreme walls defining the space, subtly reflecting the row of lights creating the illusion of a long array of caustic producing light totems disappearing into darkness: a starry night, a kind of ‘cosmic caustics’.

Yet—a concept chosen by Lexus as the theme for their entire show for which we have designed the entrance installation—is an interesting word because its meaning exists only in the context of the words (or concepts) it ties together; those two words often have contradictory meaning. The term can therefore be viewed as a grammatical device that denotes synergy—a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts—between two descriptors that may not fit together, or at best appear to be ambiguous. By example: the night was dark, yet it was illuminated by the moon… an old sight and yet somehow so young… and so on.

Nature also operates in synergetic ways: it is efficient yet effective, it is functional yet beautiful, it is timeless yet timely, it is constant yet cyclic, it is consistent yet adaptive, it is sustainable yet ecological, it is balanced yet responsive. All things created by Nature, I believe, are made of wholes bigger than the sum of their parts. For our installation we wanted to create an experience that was holistic and non-compositional: a light source yet a structure, a structure yet a lens, a lens yet a column, etc.

And the material we were working with was glass—an ancient yet modern material, being 3D-printed in architectural scale for the first time giving it new interpretation: expressing the light as a wave yet a particle, and hopefully generating the experiences of being suspended in space yet being grounded. A walk through the starry night… come to think of it moons are ultimately self-powered caustic bodies, no? They are like giant wheels of light. An experience we felt was true to what [printed] glass wants to be.

What has inspired you?

Blowing, pressing, and forming methods—amongst others—have aimed at achieving increased glass performance and functionality. However, abilities to tune its optical and mechanical properties at high spatial resolution in manufacturing have, overall, remained an end without a means.

The additive manufacturing of glass enables us to generate structures that are geometrically customizable and optically tunable in high spatial resolution of manufacturing. We’ve also experimented with color gradients in the past, and have been considering ways in which coloration may affect environmental performance, specifically solar radiation. Because we can design and print components with variable thicknesses and complex inner features—unlike glass blowing where the inner features reflect the outer shape—we can control solar transmittance by designing and manufacturing giant glass lenses in architectural scales! In other words; unlike a pressed or blown-glass part, which necessarily has a smooth internal surface, a printed part can have complex surface features on the inside as well as the outside; such features could act as optical lenses in architectural scales and provide complex light caustic patterns. Now imagine a printed glass tower!

More about the glass printer:

The enabling technology builds upon previous efforts by the Mediated Matter Group related to additive manufacturing of optically transparent structures, introducing a fundamental restructuring of the platform’s architecture and process control informed by the material properties and behaviors of silicate glass. The aim is to produce a high fidelity manufacturing platform capable of producing glass structures with tunable yet predictable mechanical and optical properties. Given the relatively high working temperatures and viscosity of the build material, the manufacturing process requires fundamental understanding of the thermodynamic behavior of glass, as well as the thermo-mechanical behavior of the platform. Our new manufacturing platform, with which we have designed and manufactured the colons, provides a digitally integrated thermal control system across the entire glass forming processes, combined with a novel 4-axis motion control system; enabling a greater degree of flow control, higher degree of spatial accuracy and precision, and a faster production rate with continuous deposition of molten glass, up to 30kg.

In 2015, the first optically transparent glass 3D printing technology (G3DP V1) developed in collaboration with the MIT Glass Lab and the Department of Mechanical Engineering. This was a first of its kind fully functional additive manufacturing technology that can process a filament of molten glass to produce optically transparent glass products. The platform consists of a vertical assembly of three independently controlled heating chambers for melting, flow control, and annealing the molten glass. This assembly is coupled with a three-axis CNC motion control system that moves the upper two heat chambers, the melter kiln and the nozzle kiln in x-y axis while the build plate inside the third heat chamber, the annealing kiln moves along z axis.

The second generation of our glass 3D printer—led by my team and the MIT Glass Lab—enables the design and construction of, once again; structurally sound optical lenses on architectural scales. Specifically, we can design and digitally fabricate structures that are geometrically complex and optically tunable in high spatial manufacturing resolution. Because we can design and print components with variable thicknesses and complex inner features—unlike glass blowing where the inner features reflect the outer shape—we can control solar transmittance by designing unique surface features for the inner and external surfaces of the object. Unlike a pressed or blown-glass part, which necessarily has a smooth internal surface, a printed part can have complex surface features on the inside as well as the outside.  Most recently, we have been considering ways in which coloration may affect environmental performance, specifically the harnessing of solar energy. With almost 450 billion square feet of windows installed per annum only in the United States alone (2015), color tuned glass 3D printing on building scales have the potential to impact—and help fight—the effects of global warming on an urban scale.

What kind of "message" do you want to convey?

As soon as the project is born our job is done. It is up to the audience then to author their own impressions. Of course, we would love for the audience to be curious; to question; to wonder: how were the structures made? What might they represent? How does light work? What does it feel to be bathed by light (or by subtle darkness)? Some visitors, we hope, will be inspired by this new technology; others—by the spatial experience itself. 

Will you visit Milan Design Week?

My team and I are currently here installing our new work, and very much look forward to the week!

Have you in the past? And if so, how have you liked the whole event? What kind of specificity does Milan Design Week have, in your opinion, among the other many design events around the world?

This is my first time.

If you can foresee the future in, say, 50 years - where do you see architecture and design going, particularly with regards to your field - will we live in biodegradable houses? Will we grow them instead of building them? And so on - please, present us with a prophecy.

I arrived at the Architectural Association in London the year DNA synthesis was made feasible for a price of about $1 per base pair. Digital formalisms—designs made geometrically complex through digital means—resulted in designs (products, garments, buildings, etc.) that were indeed complex, but only on the surface. All else was old-style: material applications, assembly methods, and manufacturing traditions were all brought together at the service of building extravagance just because one could. How is it, I rumored, that we can engineer yeast for commercial production of antimalarial drugs, but we can’t even vary the density of concrete as a function of load? In an age when artificial life can be created in vitro—an age when Nature herself can be mothered by design—mastering the curve was just not good enough. The disproportionate balance between innovations achieved in fields such as synthetic biology and the virtually primitive state of digital fabrication as it applied to product and architectural design…shaped my fundamental ambition as designer. Moreover, my professional evolution as an architect and designer, operating at a time when architects and designers could digitally conceive almost any complex product or building form, was—and still is—characterized by a strong, almost instinctual, conviction that the world of nature and the world of design must unite to form a common language. By blurring the techniques and purposeful expressions embodying formal and material complexity, the boundaries between the natural and the artificial must—I felt—become obsolete.

Due to recent advancements in digital fabrication, the scales of making, printing, and building are approaching the already micro scales of mapping. Consider, for example, the ease with which one can transition from an MRI body scan of, say, a residual limb, to a 3D print of a prosthetic device (with, by the way, 20 times the print resolution of the scan!). Or, consider the ability to 3D print synthetic; wearable skins that not only contain biological media but can also filter such media in a selective manner. Imagine the possibility of 3D printing semipermeable walls, which can allow certain molecules or ions to pass through them. Given that some of today’s printers can 3D print in 16-micron resolution—hair thickness resolution, still visible to the naked eye—it is possible to imagine designs where the channels inside a wearable contain micro-pores that can, as printing resolution increases, filter microbes and replenish the body. In this way it is possible to imagine controlling the exchange of sucrose, biofuel and other nutrients between the wearable and the skin. These synthetic, multi-material, and liquid-containing garments could operate like the human skin, as both barrier and filter.

Textiles will in the future be designed as extensions of our bodies; they will be made of engineered living matter and will embody functionality unlike anything that exists today. Notions of textiles as skins have been around for many years but the way of getting there is only now emerging. 3D printed wearable living matter will become a reality in the years ahead as we discover how to control material properties using 3D printers on cellular length scales. Most importantly, clothes will no longer be made predominantly of fibers but 3d printed matter and will no longer be inanimate but contain living matter. To deliver flexibility and comfort (breathability) we will need to control the microstructure and composition of the clothing matter itself. Rethinking what clothing is and what functions it can deliver is very much an opportunity that will emerge in the years ahead.

Designs that combine top down form generation with the bottom up growth of biological systems will open up real opportunities for designers working with digital fabrication and synthetic biology. Their main benefit is that they can enable the creation of systems that are truly dynamic—products and building parts that can grow, heal, and adapt. In the end, cells are simply small self-replicating machines. If we can engineer them to perform useful tasks, simply by adding sugar and growth media, we can dream up new design possibilities such as the ones described above.

« Previous     Next »