June 6, 2013 at 3:51 PM ET
This otherworldly piece of art resulted from an investigation into the weaving habits of the silkworm. It was a true inter-species collaboration: Human scientists provided the shape, and thousands of insect larvae provided the labor.
A beautiful example of the crossover between "digital and biological fabrication," the developers at MIT's Media Lab call it the "Silk Pavilion."
Its creation followed experiments on the silk-spinning capabilities of the larvae of Bombyx mori, better known as the silkmoth. These industrious caterpillars have a unique way of building a structure out of one continuous thread, and researchers wanted to learn how to recreate that.
After observing dozens of caterpillars in the lab, the team programmed a CNC machine — sort of like a robotic arm that can make very precise motions — to weave a pattern of silk thread, silkworm-style, onto a set of interlocking geometric panels they'd designed.
The panels were assembled into a structure in an open area, where the team unleashed the army of silkworms. The worms began coating the structure with their own thread, and not randomly: The researchers calculated the patterns they would make and did their own weaving with that in mind. A few days later, the gossamer reinforcement was done and the worms removed, and the result speaks for itself.
Take a moment to watch this beautifully shot making-of video:
The holes in the structure were left deliberately, with the position of the piece and path of the sun in mind, so that certain shadows are cast at certain times. You can even use the Silk Pavilion as a sun-clock.
Once the 6,500 larval weavers became moths, they laid 1.5 million eggs, enough to fuel the creation of 250 more pavilions. But considering the amount of work that went into this one, chances are you'll have to head to Cambridge if you want to experience a Silk Pavilion for yourself.
MIT Media Lab's Mediated Matter page has many more pictures of the Silk Pavilion process and experiments.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.