Art World

‘Nature x Humanity: Oxman Architects’ at SFMOMA

Exhibition focuses on sustainable living
Aguahoja Pavilion by Neri Oxman and The Mediated Matter Group, 2018., Photo: courtesy San Francisco Museum of Modern Art - The Mediated Matter Group

SFMOMA’s new exhibition features sustainable architectural ideas for the 21st century. Oxman Architects addresses what it means to build, house, inform, and inspire eco-friendly models of living via 40 thought-provoking artworks and installations. The exhibition rethinks lifestyle and design models with the primary objective of moving toward a focus on environmental health and away from a focus on human material wealth. With never-before-seen large-scale projects, the presentation combines knowledge, principles, and tools from four disciplines — art, architecture and design, engineering, and science — to celebrate Oxman’s pioneering approach to the future.


Oxman Architects create the essential objects that house and design humanity through a lens of environmental responsibility. Wearables, construction, and fabrication are reinvented using materials that can decay naturally when no longer needed. On display will be the rarely seen Aguahoja pavilions made from discarded shells of ocean crustaceans, fallen leaves, and apple skins as building material — one in pristine, newborn condition, and another undergoing programmed decomposition. The richly colored fluid shapes of the pavilions gradually decay, thereby enriching the soil with nutrients for new growth.

The Wanderers series is a collection of wearables for outer space. The designs, including the Otaared wearable for Mercury and the Quamar wearable for the moon, bring a physical and visual fascination that could be straight out of a science-fiction film. Each is designed to meet the wearer’s need by responding to extreme conditions on specific planets, such as 200-degree temperature fluctuations, high meteor activity, or changes from extreme brightness to darkness that affect visibility. 

Totem presents another exploration related to light and darkness. Melanin, a naturally occurring pigment, can be added to a transparent building material to provide shade when the sun is at its brightest, and then fade back to transparent when the sun sets. The Biodiversity Pavilion for Table Mountain National Park in Cape Town, South Africa is a pavilion design made of such responsive material, which reduces the need for additional cladding.

The topic of death and burial, and the methods societies use to remember departed loved ones are depicted in the Vespers masks. Designs consider new ways to memorialize the departed, from mapping their external features to capturing their final breath and retaining it as a dynamic visualization. Using 21st-century technology, these jewel-like organic shapes as symbolic artifacts challenge us to embrace alternate methods for honoring the deceased in ways that have minimal impact on the Earth.


The Future of Mannahatta imagines Manhattan in 2100 and 2200, respectively, as the rising tides and heat hazards from climate change influence the precarious state of urban landscapes, specifically where developed land meets surrounding water. In this plan, existing structures are replaced with urban design, which reestablishes a healthy ecosystem. The new structures restore the balance between nature and humanity in an attempt to adapt to and correct aspects of global warming.

“While human material wealth stakes claim to land and resources, environmental health restores and advances natural balance to mutually benefit all. Oxman’s radical perspective lies in its ability to envision an alternative architectural legacy upending a human-centered built environment to reprioritize nature,” said Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher, SFMOMA’s Helen Hilton Raiser curator of architecture and design.


Founder and CEO of Oxman, Neri Oxman, was born in 1976 in Haifa, Israel and is based in New York City. She was a tenured professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she founded and directed The Mediated Matter Group, a lab that conducted research at the intersection of computational design, digital fabrication, materials science and synthetic biology. While at MIT she pioneered the field of material ecology, which studies relationships and interactions between designed objects, their structures and environs. The approaches are intended for the future of architecture, product design, and biotechnology as well as the design of new tools for digital fabrication and construction.


SFMOMA will co-present, along with the Long Now Foundation, an evening of conversation with the architect and artist Neri Oxman on Wednesday, Feb. 16 at 7 p.m. in the Herbst Theater. Working at the intersection of technology and biology, Oxman calls for a fundamental shift in design. She will discuss her projects with Oxman, a design practice uniting science and engineering, art, design, and history where she continues to construct environments in better alignment with principles of ecology.

Nature x Humanity: Oxman Architects: Monday 10 a.m.–5 p.m., Thursday 1–9 p.m. & Fri.–Sun. 10 a.m.–5 p.m., Feb. 19–May 15, $25, SFMOMA, 151 Third St., 415-357-4000,

Sharon Anderson is an artist and writer in Southern California. She can be reached at

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