What does it mean to build, house, inform and inspire sustainable ways of living in the 21st century? Just before Nature x Humanity: Oxman Architects opened at SFMOMA late last month we were lucky enough to get a tour of her exclusive exhibition by American Israeli architect Neri Oxman. With nearly 40 profound artworks and installations, Oxman and her team rethink how we build and design with one essential objective: to transition from a focus on human material wealth to a focus on environmental health.

Questioning environmentally detrimental construction and fabrication processes, Oxman founded and led The Mediated Matter Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 2010 to 2021. Her team’s research included the development of alternative building materials that could decompose when no longer needed, as well as permanent materials that could augment functionality. One project hypothesizes that embedding living substances in inorganic materials could allow structures to perform in response to shifting environmental conditions. Totems explores whether melanin, a naturally occurring pigment, can be added to a transparent building material to provide shade when the sun is brightest and fade back to transparent when the sunsets. Applying this research at the architectural scale, the Biodiversity Pavilion for Table Mountain National Park in Cape Town, South Africa is a design for a pavilion made of such responsive material, reducing the need for additional cladding.

The Wanderers series is a collection of wearables for outer space. Each piece is a vessel for living organisms, designed to meet the user’s needs by responding to extreme environmental conditions on specific planets, such as 200-degree temperature fluctuations, high meteor activity, or changes from extreme brightness to darkness that affect visibility.

The Vespers masks consider different ways we can remember those who have passed, from mapping their external features to capturing their final breath and retaining it as a dynamic visualization of that person. These designs invite viewers to embrace alternative methods for honoring the deceased while having minimal impact on the Earth, using 21st century knowledge and technology.

Considering nature as its primary client, OXMAN applies design to enhance the well-being of Earth and its diverse inhabitants. The Aguahoja pavilions—one in newborn, pristine condition at the entrance to the exhibition and one undergoing programmed decomposition on the outdoor terrace of SFMOMA’s Floor 4—uses the discarded shells of ocean crustaceans, fallen leaves and apple skins as building materials that can decay naturally when no longer needed and thereby enrich the soil with nutrients for new growth.

Scaling up further, Man-Nahāta proposes an urban landscape that questions the current state of conflicting ecosystems where Manhattan’s developed land meets surrounding seawater. Delving into the island’s history and how people have lived there—from its first inhabitants, the Lenape people, to European settlers, to the present day—OXMAN examines its current precarious state, subject to rising tides and heat hazards from climate change, and re-envisions an urban design which reestablishes a healthy ecosystem and restores a balance between nature and humanity.