Cartesian Wax

Cartesian Wax
A multi-material, multi-functional, structural skin

Facade prototype

Researcher: Prof. Neri Oxman

Year: 2007

Location: MoMA. Permanent Collection. New York, NY


These processes experiment with light and heat-sensitive construction techniques that are specific to any given environment. The project is inspired by the Cartesian Wax thesis as elucidated by Descartes in the 1640’s.

According to Descartes, the essence of the wax is whatever survives the various changes in the wax’s physical form.

The surface is made thicker where it is self-loading and thinner where it transmits light.
Cartesianwax Web 04
20 tiles were assembled as a continuum comprised of multiple resin types
Cartesianwax Surface Mechanical Properties Rotated
Difference in size, thickness and density created varied mechanical effects
Cartesianwax Web 03
Each tile performed as a structural composite
Cartesianwax Side View Extended
The tiles surface was thickened where it was structurally required


Cartesian Wax is an architectural skin-like surface made of tiles. Generated out of a single 3D–milled, semi-adjustable mold, each tile was cast and cured at high temperatures, a process that increasingly deforms the original mold with each cast. Geometrical and physical property variation in the tiles was achieved by modulating the temperature across the mold at the scale of the entire wall, such that each resulting tile —while similar in shape—differs in properties such as stiffness and opacity; reflecting and responding to the conditions which “formed” it in the first place. Variation in material properties was used to correct and—in certain areas—augment, structural performance.

For example, in regions that were made thinner due to the deformation of the mold, stiffer composites were cast to ensure structural support under self-load. With twenty of these tiles assembled in a sequence of multiple rigid and flexible units, we created a continuous surface that can respond to an array of physical conditions including light transmission, heat flux, stored energy modulation, and structural support.

Cartesianwax Molded Surface
CNC milled and molded surface


Collaborators: Mikey Siegel; The Center for Bits and Atoms, MIT

All images and videos courtesy of Neri Oxman

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