While some contemporary architectural forms can rightly be regarded as mere flamboyance, there are designers who remain committed to intellectually rigorous processes and to beautiful forms. With her ongoing MaterialEcology research project, Neri Oxman is aiming to land herself into that selective group. “Much of my work,” she explains, “is a search for form before the actual process of formation. In other words: How do you begin to define form?”

To do this, the Israeli-born designer turns to ecology, investigating the material and performance of nature itself. “I'm looking at form, structure, and geometry and attempting to transcend those disciplinary boundaries,” she says. “I'm trying to understand how nature does it.”

With “Monocoque,” for instance, Oxman explores construction techniques that support load with the external skin, as opposed to traditional post-and-beam structures with façades. The project responds to global and local loading conditions, with its density responding to precise structural needs. What results from this study is a sinuous black-and-white acrylic object, as investigative as it is aesthetically pleasing. It is now featured in the current MoMA exhibition “Design and the Elastic Mind,” along with three of Oxman's other projects, “Subterrain,” “Raycounting,” and “Cartesian Wax.”

These and other examples of her work can be found on her website, materialecology.com. She began it two years ago, shortly after starting at MIT's architecture school, where she is a Ph.D. candidate in the design and computation program. Previously she studied and taught at London's Architectural Association (AA). She was also once enrolled at the Hebrew University School of Medicine, in Jerusalem, where she started studies to become a physician.

Combining the AA's design freedom with the systematic approach to research at MIT, Oxman aims to produce an architecture that merges both approaches. “I'm trying to place my work and my research on two tangent paths,” she clarifies, “that meet at some point and follow their own trajectories at other points. Research has a rigorous state of mind, and design is quite the opposite. It's difficult to bring those mentalities together, but that's my intention.”