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In a time when building construction is a significant contributor to multiple global crises, architect and educator Neri Oxman posits that nature can provide sustainable alternatives to conventional materials, tools, and methods. Her design philosophy, which she calls “material ecology,” looks to nature not only as a source of inspiration but also as a kind of collaborator. Working with the Mediated Matter Group she founded at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and her New York–based studio, Oxman researches natural models to emulate and processes to use. A new exhibition, Nature × Humanity: Oxman Architects, on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) through May 15 and curated by Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher, presents close to 40 of these nature-centered works produced from 2007 to the present. (Some projects were presented in a smaller show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2020, an exhibit cut short by the Covid-19 pandemic.)

Neri Oxman, Aguahoja II Pavilion.

Neri Oxman and The Mediated Matter Group, Aguahoja II Pavilion, 2019; © Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Photo by the Mediated Matter Group

According to the exhibition introduction, Oxman “responds to issues that continue to pose existential threats, such as nondegradable waste, depleted natural resources, climate change, and broken social, health, and economic systems.” That is a lot to take on, and Nature × Humanity divides the effort into four sections. “Material × Fabrication” explores nature-based materials—from wood-pulp cellulose to apple pectin to squid-ink melanin—and production processes informed by nature’s well-known workers, including bees and silkworms. “Scale × Structure”—featuring the show-stopping Aguahoja towers made of decomposable material set within steel and aluminum frames—considers how organic forms and decoration can be incorporated into built form. “Program × Performance” looks at embedding organic substances in inorganic materials at scales both personal (wearables containing responsive living organisms) and architectural (a performance space where voices generate and amplify vibrations). “Time × Place” takes a long view of design intervention in works including Man-Nahāta—Manhattan reconceived in 2100, 2200, 2300, and 2400 as a balance between human-built urbanism and the encroaching sea.

Some of the show’s ideas are not exactly new (such as building with curves to increase stability and reduce materials), but their formal expression is very contemporary: no Bucky domes here. Generative design, 3D printing, digital fabrication, and CNC milling abound. And while crunchy San Francisco museumgoers might find nothing novel in using beet, spirulina, and turmeric as natural dyes, they might find satisfaction in learning that the process has moved beyond coloring Easter eggs to the hallowed halls of MIT.

Oxman, Gemini Chaise.

Neri Oxman, Gemini Chaise, 2014; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Accessions Committee Fund purchase. Photo © Katherine Du Tiel

Visitors no doubt will delight in the sheer beauty of Nature × Humanity. Each object is stunning—almost unnaturally perfect. The Vespers death masks, some of which are meant to visualize a person’s last breath, are less eerie than inviting; colorful and formally complex, they are displayed in a row of cases lit like Tiffany windows. The Gemini Chaise, made of photopolymers and cherry wood, looks almost too pretty to sit on, which is fine, as visitors may prefer not to experience its purported “stimulation-free environment that echoes vibrations from one’s voice throughout the body.”

Oxman, Gemini Chaise detail.

Neri Oxman, Gemini Chaise (detail), 2014; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Accessions Committee Fund purchase. Photo © Michel Figuet

Beauty, of course, has its place in museum exhibitions. But here beauty may be a detriment to communicating Oxman’s response to the aforementioned “existential threats.” When visitors look at Man-Nahāta, can they mourn the loss of Chelsea to sea level rise when it’s been replaced with such a lovely collection of glowing, jewel-like orbs? And when they gaze at the wonderful Glass II light columns, will they consider the overuse of resources—sand, electricity, student hours—in their creation? The exhibition introduction states that by “prompting questions rather than posing solutions, Oxman’s installations offer opportunities for bold imagination, robust discussion, and informed action,” but with only occasional descriptions of works in the show, there is little fuel for questioning.

Neri Oxman.

Portrait of Neri Oxman. Photo © Noah Kalina

I cannot help but compare this exhibition to SFMOMA’s splendid 2018–2019 The Sea Ranch: Architecture, Environment, and Idealism (co-curated by Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher and Joseph Becker), which exhibited a 1960s idea of nature-based architecture. That show, like this one, included crisp models and images, but it also featured the charmingly messy work—from colorful concept diagrams to photos of wind-blown students doing field research—that resulted in the iconic dwellings. As a result, it turned Sea Ranch from a shed-roofed one-liner into a complex story of environmental activism. I miss that messiness in Nature × Humanity, as it is essential to research.

I do not suggest that museum exhibitions should rely on ponderous explanations to be successful. But I do believe that if Nature × Humanity intends to show how Oxman’s work might affect the future of architecture, it needs to communicate what that work is—not simply present the viewer with the all-too-pristine results of her labor. To understand architectural intentions, both within the museum and outside its doors, we need to see not just flawless final representations but the processes that led to them.