The Mediated Matter Group’s installation Totems showcased at the XXII Triennale di Milano predicts a future when creative designers will use synthesized melanin – the ‘universal pigment’ present in skin, fur, hair, and eyes – as an innovative resource to create glass windows that will deepen or lighten in reaction to sunlight similar to our own skin.
The Totems sculpture possesses flesh-coloured plumes, shaped by injecting liquid melanin into delicate channels inside a 3D-printed see-through brick. It is based on research the team has been doing into melanin as a substance for design and architecture.
Even though it is widely recognized that melanin protects human beings from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, the actual chemical compound also offers broader protective properties. Biologists have discovered that it safeguards microbes from great heat, chemical stresses and biochemical threats. Some fungi have even been observed to utilize melanin to reap energy for cellular growth. All this might make melanin appealing to eco-focused researchers in architecture and design.
The installation forms part of the grander goal of the project from the Mediated Matter Group to search for “materials and chemical substances that can sustain and enhance biodiversity across living systems, and which have thus far endured the perils of climate change,” due to the current threat to biodiversity on Earth. Identifying melanin as one such substance, the project’s overview further explains:
“It is one of the most resistant, heterogeneous, and pervasive pigments found across the kingdoms of life […] melanin’s value for human health is priceless. An intriguing vehicle for the exploration of human health and culture across regions and environments, melanin remains an identifying feature of all living organisms and is clearly linked to biological survival throughout the ages.”
3D printing was used to create these channels as a way to develop pockets from the millimeter to centimeter scale. The complexness of the cavities, shapes, and channels within the inner geometry of the spheres and cubes have been developed by applying generative design. These types of patterns make an effort to reproduce those present in the natural world, containing five different shades of melanin extracted from a variety of natural sources, and were digitally fabricated using a multi-material 3D printing process from Stratasys.
The Mediated Matter Group also showcase and import the liquid melanin inside clear cube and cuboid-shaped 3D printed piece. These were created to highlight the different geometries of the channels housing the liquid melanin, ranging from simple to highly complex, as part of the exhibition.
“Biodiversity on planet Earth is under momentous threat, with extinction rates estimated between 100 and 1,000 times their pre-human level. The Mediated Matter Group has been in search of materials and chemical substances that can sustain and enhance biodiversity across living systems, and which have thus far endured the perils of climate change. Melanin is one such substance.”
The hope is in time, liquid melanin would be incorporated into larger sheets of glass and used as transparent architectural surfaces as responsive and adaptive to the elements as our own skin.