The MIT Media Lab’s Mediated Matter group is perhaps not the first choice of exploration for architects and architecture students. What does “mediated matter” have to do with the design of urban and suburban space and structures? Quite a lot, as it turns out. Because the goal of this group is to develop “novel processes that enable and support the design of physical matter,” using computer design combined with “biologically inspired fabrication.” Below, I look at three projects developed and directed by Neri Oxman, an assistant professor of media arts and sciences at the MIT Media Lab. Professor Oxman also received her PhD in design computation from MIT. We begin with a project that combines local and global-based knowledge as they relate to construction. The Rapid Craft project basically mines local construction designs and techniques and combines them with the latest design technologies.
The melding of the two not only serves to promote sustainable design goals (as in using local materials, employees, and techniques) but it does so in a way that is inherently more pliable because sometimes more advanced technologies or techniques can increase efficiency. By combining the best of what local and global labor, technologies, and knowledge have in a flexible manner, design and construction projects themselves become more agile. A related goal of the project is to “preserve, revive, and reshape” different cultural modes of building.
One particularly curious, but potentially exciting innovation that is clearly meant for those in the building industry is called CNSILK, or Computer Numerically Controlled Silk Cocoon Construction. What’s the premise? A new kind of building skin. One that is based on the woven nature of silkworm cocoons. Specifically, we are talking about “woven habitats” that rely on the use of multiple axes during the fabrication process. Again, the key words here are adaptability, flexibility, and cost efficiency. The process accommodates local structural and environmental requirements by not imposing a single notion of what comprises acceptable building skin materials or how it should be constructed. By “controlling the mechanical and physical properties of spatial structures” that are inherent in microstructures, think here of silk, the skin can be adjusted for light and transparency requirements, spatial needs, porosity for ventilation, and structural load. All this from the biological inspiration of a silkworm’s cocoon.
And here’s one to help everyone who uses a computer for endless hours: the Carpal Skin. This prototypical “glove” is designed to protect against the numbness, atrophy, and weakness associated with Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Essentially, it adjusts to the specific “pain profile” of each user. Using both soft and hard materials, the Carpal Skin’s stiffness adjusts to the individual patient’s needs and range of motion. By determining these factors, the skin limits, one presumes, the potentially harmful motions that perpetuate and aggravate the syndrome. Something that every person who works long hours on the computer could use.