Melanin is the universal pigment that colors our skin and hair, peacock feathers, and butterfly wings. But for Neri Oxman, the head of MIT’s Mediated Matter research group, melanin isn’t just “the color of life,” as she puts it. It’s the foundation of our future–and our future habitats.
Her lab’s latest project is called Totems: a series of 3D-printed sculptures filled with intricate liquid channels of melanin, in pigments ranging from subtle yellows to rich browns. Like all of Oxman’s work, which often plays with biology as a medium of construction, the pieces manage to look enchantingly organic–somehow capturing the natural beauty of our skin and eyes without resembling a mutant creature grown in a lab.
Melanin is an incredible substance, since it both protects life and literally binds us together, making it the perfect material and metaphor for Oxman’s architectural experiments. Yet despite the commonality of melanin in our world, acquiring it was no small feat. The lab developed two separate processes to source the melanin used in Totems. One involved extracting a certain enzyme from mushrooms, which can convert the amino acid tyrosine into melanin. The other process pulled pigments from bird feathers and cuttlefish ink, then filtered away all of the excess components until just the melanin was left.
The sculptures Oxman’s team produced are effectively a proof-of-concept of a grander vision of melanin as a material that could actually be integrated into buildings. By using a technique in which melanin would be produced with the assistance of bacteria like E. coli, and integrating that melanin into the building’s facade, Oxman speculates that buildings will one day have a sort of skin, that might be able to tan in the presence of UV rays, protecting its outer shell much like melanin protects humans from the sun. Such melanin-infused buildings would protect their inhabitants from the elements, too–imagine a greenhouse that could attenuate the light to the particular species of plants living inside. Oxman even imagines melanin could help generate energy, or absorb unwanted environmental metals.
“The application of biological substances such as melanin, as well as other bacteria and organisms that my team and I have worked with, on architectural scales within an urban environment, is inevitable,” Oxman writes in a Q&A on the project.
But Totems is also a social statement, she explains. “Our use of the word [Totem] is rooted in admiration and respect of and for all things alive materially and immaterially—and for the wisdom of the Ojibwe people, who coined the word, as well as other First Nation peoples, who, unlike us, saw and felt and connected with this synergy,” writes Oxman. “In our project, we are revisiting the Totem as we acknowledge and commemorate diversity through biological (and chemical) diversity so essential to life on earth. If we are to continue to survive on this planet, we must return to this state of ‘being’ and universal wisdom previously recognized by indigenous peoples to whom this project is dedicated.”
In 2019, with racism and xenophobia surging across America and much of the world, overt prejudice has gone mainstream. Totems is not a solution–but it is an optimistic beacon for what could be.