The Home and the Human:
Reconciling Our Natural and Built Worlds

Human connection to home is timeless yet constantly evolving. Personal conceptions of home reside at the core of our identities, acting as an anchor in locating ourselves in the wider world. Homes can function on small and large scales and can run parallel to one other, with individuals sustaining multiple senses of home simultaneously, transcending temporal and spatial boundaries. A home can be physical or intangible, a street or a country, a memory or a present state, and relationships with people, objects, and places. Over the past decades, our global consciousness has expanded to encompass the widest understanding of home yet: the planet. In order to sustain this home and its finite resources, we must reimagine both the ways we draw from nature and our human-made processes. Creative practitioners, engineers, architects, and scientists are collaborating in order to reconcile the imbalance between our natural and constructed worlds.

‘Material Ecology’, exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, showcases the rigorous experiments and exciting potential of biologically derived materials from the Mediated Matter Group at the MIT Media Lab. The group’s director, Neri Oxman, coined the term ‘Material Ecology’ in 2010, defining the practice as: “An emerging field in design denoting informed relations between products, buildings, systems, and their environment [at] the intersection of Biology, Material Science and Engineering, and Computer Science with emphasis on environmentally informed digital design and fabrication.”1 ‘Material Ecology’ embodies and interrogates the Mediated Matter Group’s core philosophy of “designing with, for, and by nature.”2 The exhibition challenges the audience’s accepted notions of materiality, temporality, the built and natural worlds, and our place as humans in them. Oxman points to the prehistoric division of time, defined by humanity’s relationships with materials (the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages), to inform this emerging field. She sees the contemporary intersection of biology, technology, nature, and culture as indicative of a new epoch, one defined by the “machine and organism, assembly and growth”3: The Biological Age.

This notion of growth resides at the core of Oxman’s cross-disciplinary practice. Since the Industrial Revolution, design and production have been defined by the assemblage of multiple, separate components. Oxman proposes a radical design process in which artefacts and architecture are approached as singular yet complex systems that adjust and fluctuate with functionality. She points to human skin as an example. Despite its varying degrees of elasticity, textures, and functions, it remains as one unique, single, adaptable organ with no parts or assemblies. Her ideas of growth bring with them notions of decay, and the inevitable temporality of the material world. Rather than attempting to alter this, the Mediated Matter Group suggests designers and engineers embrace inherent deterioration in order to achieve a more sustainable practice4.

One of Oxman’s most provocative works in interrogating this notion of growth is ‘Silk Pavilion II’ (2019), the centerpiece of the Material Ecology exhibition. Constructed from biologically derived materials, ‘Silk Pavilion II’ pushes the boundaries of biodesign. Hovering over the audience at two-stories tall, the work poses questions regarding the possibilities of future interspecies collaborative relationships. The stainless-steel and aluminum scaffolding was built upon by 17,000 silkworms, surrounding the audience in a thin, cotton-candy-like shelter. Through studying the silkworms’ relationship with their environment, the team was able to influence the worms’ spinning patterns using Earth magnets, allowing them to spin the silk as flat sheets rather than cocoons5. This innovative process allows for the ethical production of raw silk, replacing the traditional method of boiling the silkworms alive in their homes. The installation is an iteration of the Mediated Matter Group’s 2013 hemi-ellipsoidal dome pavilion from which a third of the number of silkworms produced 1.5 million eggs with the potential to construct 250 additional pavilions6. The sheer scale of ‘Silk Pavilion II’, and the new life it produced, could possibly allow for another 750 structures, opening up new areas of growth in architecture. This self-sustainable experiment in synthetic biology offers an exciting glimpse into the future of biodesign, construction, and production.

Through her extensive explorations of materiality and temporality on architectural scales, Oxman questions audiences’ relationships with the natural world and our built environments, therefore fundamentally challenging our understanding of home. ‘Home’ is derived from the Old English ‘ham’, meaning “dwelling, house, abode, fixed residence.”7 The idea of home was historically static. Confined to the walls of one’s house, it was accompanied by notions of ownership. Before that, the earliest human homes were those that occurred naturally, such as caves. However, our contemporary understanding of the term has evolved to encompass many facets of life and the human condition, from geographical locations and emotional states to historical narratives and possible futures.

Iranian photographer and video artist Gohar Dashti (born 1980) interrogates a darker understanding of the concept of home, one embedded in displacement, war, and trauma. Growing up during the Iran-Iraq War and living in Ahvaz, a town at the border of the two countries, Dashti’s artistic practice is heavily informed by her upbringing, the physical and psychological effects of war, and the role of nature in establishing a sense of home. Her most recent series ‘Land/s’ (2019) explores the role of nature in connecting immigrants with their homeland, while Stateless (2014/2015) reimagines natural environments as a home for refugees, “[the] sky [becoming] the ceiling and the mountains the walls of their new home.”8 Her haunting photo series ‘Home’ (2017) addresses universal notions of home through her personal experiences. The photographs depict dilapidated, abandoned houses and are equally somber and poetic. The scenes have been dramatically and beautifully consumed by nature over time, highlighting the inevitable fragility and decay of humankind’s built world. Vibrant flowers emerge from rich soil as the surrounding walls’ paint detaches itself. A lone tree grows from what may have once been a fountain. Tangled, reed-like leaves and plush carpets of moss push through battered doorways. Dashti writes, “The images show what happens when one’s home is left behind,”9 subtly questioning at what point a house is no longer a home.

Dashti was inspired to photograph these spaces, ones that are abandoned yet full of life, when she returned to her hometown. She recalls, “I [was] wandering around a building that once belonged to my neighbors. They had left during the war, and the house had fallen into disrepair. But, on the verandah, a fern remained. It had flourished in their absence ... It had the power to stay there. Left alone, it would eventually consume and conquer the home.”10 The poignant photo series is underscored by this bittersweet juxtaposition. The traumatic displacement of humans has allowed for the resurrection of the natural world: “nature becomes a protagonist when human populations are displaced by war.”11 This jarring intimacy between two opposing forces poses the confronting question: will the world, our home, thrive after human extinction? This fascination with the permanence of nature against the temporality of humankind and our built world is reminiscent of Neri Oxman’s philosophies.

With our global understanding of home now encompassing our planet, our sense of ownership over this shared home is transforming into an acceptance of responsibility. It is essential for humanity to establish a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship with this most fundamental of homes. The idea of populating one planet, draining it of its natural resources, then forcefully colonizing another is highly problematic and unsustainable. If humankind is to not just survive but thrive, we must learn to adapt and grow. Neri Oxman believes the solution – the only solution – is “[to] design our way out of this”12 (“this” being the climate crisis). Both Oxman and Gohar Dashti explore humankind’s complex relationships with the natural and built worlds, and the ever-evolving dynamics between these three forces. Their works pose thought-provoking and self-reflective questions that address humanity on both individual and collective scales, forcing us to question our own role – as designers and consumers – in ensuring the future of our home.


1. Neri Oxman, “Material Ecology,” in Theories of the Digital in Architecture, ed. Rivka Oxman and Robert Oxman (London: Routledge, 2014).

2. “Mediated Matter,” MIT Media Lab, accessed March 3, 2020,

3. Neri Oxman, “Design at the Intersection of Technology and Biology,” Ted Talks, filmed March 2015, video, 17:24,

4. Andrea Ling, “Design by Decay, Decay by Design” (Master’s thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2018), 87.

5. Wall text, Material Ecology, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

6. “Silk Pavilion,” MIT Media Lab Mediated Matter, accessed March 3, 2020,

7. “Home,” Online Etymology Dictionary, accessed March 3, 2020,

8. “Stateless,” Gohar Dashti, accessed April 1, 2020,

9. “Home,” Gohar Dashti, accessed March 3, 2020,

10. Gohar Dashti quoted, Sophie Wright, “Home,” Lens Culture, accessed April 1, 2020,

11. Sebastian Smee, “It’s time we looked at Iran through the same lens as its best photographers,” The Washington Post, January 16, 2020,

12. Abstract: The Art of Design, “Neri Oxman: Bio-Architecture,” Netflix, 45:26, September 25, 2019,

I respectfully acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land on which I work, learn and live – the Gadigal people of the Eora nation – and pay my respects to Elders past and present.

© 2023 Nina Szewczyk All rights reserved