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MIT Looks to Melanin for Facade Innovation

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

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Totems is both a new project and an installation led by Neri Oxman and the Mediated Matter Group at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab. The endeavor was designed using liquid channels of melanin—the skin pigment that is believed will serve a future purpose in architecture—within a series of 3D-printed sculptures.

Courtesy of Mediated Matter Group

Totems is both a new project and an installation led by Neri Oxman and the Mediated Matter Group at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab. The endeavor was designed using liquid channels of melanin—the skin pigment that is believed will serve a future purpose in architecture—within a series of 3D-printed sculptures.

In addition to shielding humans from the sun’s UV radiation, melanin has also been observed to also protect micro-organisms from high temperatures, chemical stresses and biochemical threats. Some fungi species have even been seen using the substance to harvest energy for cell growth.

These, however, are just a few of the protective properties making melanin an interest of eco-focused researchers in architecture and design.

The Project and Architectural Use

Representing the unity in the diversity of life, the choice to use melanin for the installation was its standing as a “universal pigment.” The natural substance is found in skin, hair and eyes, as well as feathers and wings.

The melanin substance in the installations was created in two ways: one being the reaction between an active chemical and a certain enzyme extracted from mushrooms, which can convert the amino acid tyrosine into melanin.

The other method involved the extraction of pigments from bird feathers and cuttlefish ink, which were then purified and filtered until just the melanin remained.

Through the sculptures, a visual is created expressing the bigger picture in which melanin’s materials could be integrated into buildings, a use that Oxman believes is “inevitable.”

By using techniques that would tie in the assistance of bacteria, mycelium or algae, buildings could one day have a skin-like exterior.

"Such objects, deployed on architectural and urban scales, will ultimately integrate 'barrier' functions, such as protection from impact or solar radiation by infusing building skins with concentration gradients, as well as 'mediation' functions that involve the external environment and internal, such as photosynthesis,” said Oxman.

This new type of biological material would hopefully be able to tan in the presence of UV rays, protect inhabitants from the elements and possibly even generate energy or absorb unwanted environmental metals.

   

Tagged categories: Architectural coatings; Architecture; Colleges and Universities; Design - Commercial; Good Technical Practice; NA; North America; Research; Research and development

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