Neri Oxman’s exhibition at SFMOMA pushes material boundaries amid apocalyptic visions
Visitors from Nature × Humanity: Oxman Architects at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) are promised an exhibition whose work focuses on environmental health, moving away from the “centering of human material wealth”. With respect to threats such as “non-degradable waste, natural resource depletion, climate change, and broken social, health, and economic systems,” Neri Oxman’s work seeks to center natural and unnecessary processes for a architectural biofuturism whose projects range from 3D printing prototypes in glass to models of Manhattan rebuilt after a catastrophic ecological disaster.
While some designs may be aesthetically pleasing, visitors critical of the working and economic conditions that are causing the environmental disaster identified by Oxman may find themselves dissatisfied. At a time when critiques of the deleteriousness of capitalism are at the forefront of conversations within architecture, the virtual absence of such critiques in the exhibition is all the more apparent. This is especially true considering that the show’s intro calls Oxman’s opening of its OXMAN practice in New York in 2020 as occurring at “a momentous time of global re-examination of long-standing destructive norms.” . As much as 2020 has been a time of re-examination, the provocations do not seem enough for those who feel the gravity of the climate crisis, which the exhibition itself calls for in several moments.
Oxman’s tendency to abandon ship and plan for extraterrestrial life brings his futurism closer to that of Elon Musk in one part of the exhibit, but the search for more efficient use of materials elsewhere begins to address solutions that could be viable in building practices. Even focusing on pieces in the exhibition that push material boundaries and cast aside hopes of space or apocalyptic inevitability, the question of who will build with these new materials, and under what conditions, remains a mystery. for the visitor.
The exhibition is divided into four sections, covering over a decade of Oxman’s work: Material x Fabrication; Scale x Structure; Program x Performance; Time x Location. Upon entering the exhibition, visitors encounter Aguahoja, a sculpture made of cellulose, chitin, pectin and polymers on a steel base, whose vibrant hues of brown and copper soar sixteen feet into the air. The description for Aguahoja calls the piece a response to “current building practices that are unsustainable” and invites visitors to compare it to an identical piece that has been rotting on the museum terrace for four years and feeding a seedbed. Visitors are then led to think about the following question: “What if there were policies on the life cycle of buildings, tools for measuring the use of materials and, instead of landfills, composting plots at the urban scale?
The scalability of the materials used is unclear, but with Aguahoja one can imagine that there is a viable future in structures that break down. This raises the question of how architects and planners – or vernacular builders – will design spaces with specific end dates that are not simply pavilion projects.
This gap between provocation and practice manifests itself again and again in Nature × Humanity. Tools to advance the ecological balance exist and are widely used. However, visitors to the exhibition who are unfamiliar with the world of architectural practice would feel that there are no designers tracking, for example, the amount of embodied carbon saved in the renovation of a building. a building versus building from scratch, or who understand that municipalities are already adapting energy codes around life cycle considerations. These things may not be happening at a scale or pace commensurate with the climate crisis, but Oxman is not delving into an uncharted landscape as the exhibit suggested.
Material x manufacturing may be the most promising part of the exhibit, as it explores how advances in manufacturing methods can lead to greater efficiency and less waste. The research on display includes “reducing the number of disparate materials…meaning that a single building material should sometimes be opaque for walls but transparent for windows, rigid for structure but flexible for shape.” Exploration around stretching materials to new uses marks an optimistic approach to tackling facets of climate change and wasteful building practices, and pieces like Fibonacci Moucharabieh and Aguahoja II prototypes showcase interesting geometries made via methods such as water-based digital fabrication. The focus on using renewable organic materials is an important step away from reliance on products that use petrochemicals, which may be the most promising finding from Oxman’s research.
In “Scale x Structure”, questions about architectural form run amok, without a proper critique of their problematizations. The introduction to the section states that right angles in nature are rare, although they have been useful in the built environment in the age of mass production, noting that “bends and waves often add tension and stability to structures while reducing the number of construction materials. and the building processes required, allowing more complexity in form and aesthetics to emerge.
While experimenting with materials like beetroot, butterfly pea flower, powdered turmeric and squid ink results in an intriguing combination of red, yellow, blue and green hues in Aguahoja II, Glass II– a curvilinear tower – fails to answer many of the reasons skyscrapers come under fire. In addition to the horrendous labor practices that dominate the construction industry in many parts of the world, including on a number of notable skyscrapers, buildings ranging from Billionaire’s Row in Manhattan to West Bay in Doha serve to put in common capital at high rates of return and at the expense of building housing and saving energy for rarely occupied apartments. In Oxman’s future, towers may look like more “natural” designs, but one has to wonder if a tower like this will be put to better use. While Oxman cannot be expected to solve macroeconomic problems through tower design, reliance on design bringing a brighter future through its “wonderful” character falls flat in the mainstream. urgency of the climate crisis as expressed in the introduction to the exhibition.
While “Material x Fabrication” and “Scale x Structure” are staged in a large, well-lit space, “Program x Performance” is presented in a dimly lit room with forest green walls, with objects more clearly arranged in groups. This includes a set of totems, continuing Oxman’s previously controversial work with melanin, and wanderers, “a clothing collection for space”. The fashion for the extraterrestrial moves away from the architectural considerations of the rest of the exhibit, but embraces the futurism surrounding the limits of the natural, in this case the human body. This line of thinking goes back to Oxman Vespers– the so-called death masks – which visually represent a person’s last breath. These three sets of works are intended to “encourage collaborations between nature and nurture to improve the performance of a structure”, although it is debatable whether Oxman seeks to improve life on earth or to prepare a future in outer space according to the fantasies of the ultra-rich.
The exhibition ends – or begins, depending on how one maneuvers – with an indulgence in large-scale destruction to design a future Manhattan in symbiosis with nature. Man-Nahāta, as Oxman’s four Manhattan models designed for Francis Ford Coppola’s upcoming self-financed film are called, depict Manhattan in the 2100s, 2200s, 2300s, and 2400s. By projecting sea level rise levels at each century, the four hundred years are represented by a cycle: Emergence, Growth, Decline and Rebirth. The urban-scale models represent a vibrant circular blob that eats away at Manhattan every century, with the final model – the symbiosis – resembling a map of the ocean floor with ridges rather than buildings. While Oxman seems optimistic about this future and the potential for the built and the natural to live in harmony, the question of what happens to human life on the island in this transition, especially for those who don’t often have no choice but to move under economic and environmental duress – remains a mystery.
Perhaps Oxman is taking a massive scale of death – or at least the destruction and uprooting from rising sea levels – as a given. The description of current ecosystems being “out of balance” may not raise many red flags, nor does the goal of an “urban plan that supports a mutually productive exchange between nature and humanity”, but it seems there will always be something forgiving about destroying the environment. city. The bubble shape emerging next to Manhattan initially looks like something out of an apocalypse movie, or Zamyatin’s We if you want to imagine it as a bubble of glass, but in any case, over the centuries, the form takes over the towers of Manhattan in the models of Oxman.
Man-Nahāta is described as a product of the “deployment of science and technology across material and urban scales”, the specifics of which are seemingly unimportant, but presuppose a catastrophic event that the architect will repair, according to Coppola’s film. If it’s not the architect at the top of Broadacre City, it might be the architect – and its technologies – at the top Man-Nahāta it will give birth to a new society, at least according to Coppola and Oxman.
While Oxman identifies the problems resulting from capitalist modes of production, by not addressing them as such, it refrains from addressing the fundamental systems that produce the current state of waste which it (correctly) identifies as a problem in architecture and elsewhere. The assumption that returning to nature, or pursuing a post-cataclysmic future in the face of impending natural disasters, will result in a mode of production that will address the underlying causes of the problems identified by Oxman remains unconvincing. By avoiding issues of labor and capital, Oxman cannot fully identify the climate problems we face, leaving its provocations insufficient for any solutions.