Silk Pavilion II


The Mediated Matter group

Courtesy of Neri Oxman and The Mediated Matter group

What are radically sustainable methods for knitting, making and building in the age of the Anthropocene? How can humankind and members of other species such as silkworms collaborate in the construction of objects, products, and buildings? Can we extract silk without boiling cocoons?  Standing six meters tall and five meters wide, Silk Pavilion II offers insights into these questions by combining kinetic manufacturing with biological construction, uniting the built and the grown, fusing technology and biology.


“Digital Image © 2020 The Museum of Modern Art, New York.” Photographed by Denis Doorly

The Pavilion is comprised of three interrelated layers. Its innermost primary structure is comprised of one-dimensional, braided steel-wire ropes.  Its secondary structure is a two-dimensional fabric on which the silkworms are positioned. The tertiary, three-dimensional structure is biologically spun with the output of 17,532 silkworms sourced from Teolo, Italy, at one of the most extensive silkworm rearing facilities in Europe. In this region of Veneto, the tradition of sericulture and silk manufacturing blossomed during the 12th century Renaissance. During 10 days of co-creativity among silkworms, a kinetic apparatus and humans, a ‘swarm’ of silkworms spin a length of thread longer than the diameter of Planet Earth.

The Pavilion is constructed horizontally, with mechanical top-down kinetic manipulation enabling constant clockwise rotation of a mandrel that facilitates the silkworms’ upward spinning motion. Fiber density across the surface area of the structure varies as a function of local environmental factors such as heat and light, as well as the topology of the kinetic hyperboloid, which is designed to guide the movement of the silkworms. These factors can affect the silkworms’ movement and spinning; and thereby the resulting thickness of the silk layer produced. The Pavilion's primary structure along with the soluble knit scaffold are stretched with a cable system. Given its physical properties, the intermediate knit  layer acts as support for the silkworms. The holes—which release some of the tensile stress in the structure—result from chemical reactions between the silkworms’ excretions and the underlying yarn layer. These structural forces are influenced biochemically, painting a metabolic canvas of the silkworms’ excretions.  


The Mediated Matter Group

As the traditional process of harvesting silk from the cocoon kills the larva, sericulture has been criticized by animal welfare and rights activists. In the textile and silk industry today, silkworms are exterminated while in their cocoon, dissolving the adhesive that glues one strand of silk to the layers below. This process allows a single silk strand to be unrolled from the cocoon, but disrupts the life cycle and development of the organism. As the Silk Pavilion demonstrates, structures can influence silkworms to spin in sheets instead of cocoons. This project illustrates how this small yet unique insect can act not only as construction worker but also as designer, in collaboration with a man-made structure that guides its movement and deposition of silk to create an enhanced form.


Mediated Matter group

Research Team: João Costa; Christoph Bader; Sunanda Sharma; Felix Kraemer; Susan Williams; Jean Disset; Neri Oxman. Undergraduate researcher: Sara Wilson

Collaborators + Contributors: Davide Biasetto, Il Brolo Società Agricola SRL, Padua; Levi Cai; Silvia Cappellozza and Alessio Saviane, Council for Agricultural Research and Agricultural Economics Analysis (CREA-AA), Bologna; Natalia Casas; Kelly Egorova; Fiorenzo Omenetto, Tufts University; Sol Schade, Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA); James C. Weaver, Wyss Institute, Harvard University; Nitzan Zilberman; Bodino; Front Inc.; MIT Media Lab; Robert Wood Johnson Foundation