Humans have altered the natural environment in incredible and terrifying ways. They’ve been able to refine and harness elements of nature, creating new types of living spaces and usable objects in the process. Some of these innovations come at a cost. 

The way cities are built, and the makeup of materials that permeate everyday life have become detrimental to the health of animals and ecosystems alike. While whole-scale change is slow, two new exhibits at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, Emerging Ecologies: Architecture and the Rise of Environmentalism, and Life Cycles: The Materials of Contemporary Design, are highlighting how architects, engineers, and designers are reimagining ways to transform natural resources and materials to address growing concerns around human impact on ecology and the environment. Here are some of our favorite projects.

[Related: The ability for cities to survive depends on smart, sustainable architecture]

Solar Sinter

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In 3D printing, powders are converted to a solid material. German designer Markus Kayser came up with a machine called the solar sinter in 2011 that can harness power from the sun to turn desert sand into glass. Kayser has used this technique to make objects like bowls. Credit: Markus Kayser

Cow dung lamps

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Cow dung has previously been dubbed by The Guardian as the “planet’s prodigious poo problem,” and that’s because there’s massively more waste being generated than there are ways to deal with it. The problem is that it toxifies nearby ecosystems. Indonesian designer Adhi Nugara dares to imagine a second life for this waste. Add some glue and electronics, and cow dung can be fashioned into lamps, speakers, chairs, and more. Credit: Studio Periphery

Algae-based biopolymers

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Algae are marine organisms that act like the plants of the sea, and seaweed is a form of macroalgae. Seaweed takes up carbon dioxide as it grows, and they can be converted into plastic substitutes, binders, fibers, and pigments. European designers have set up labs to test new reduced carbon products and materials made from local seaweed. Credit: Atelier Luma / Luma Arles, Eric Klarenbeek, Maartje Dros, Studio Klarenbeek & Dros.

Liquid-printed lights and bags

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MIT scientists have come up with a way to 3D print objects in gel to eliminate the challenges that can come with gravity being present. This way, materials like rubber, foam, plastic, and more can quickly settle into their intended forms. Some silicone structures can even be blown up like a balloon to attain their final shape. Credit: Christophe Guberan/MIT Self-Assembly Lab.


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The Thermoheliodon, made at Princeton University in 1956, was a small, domed insular test bed for architectural models. The idea was that it would allow architects to understand how different designs would interact with the temperatures and climates of the surrounding environment as it heated up and cooled down. While it had its flaws, it inspired early principles around bioclimatic design (think good air flow and low energy use). Credit: Guy Gillette

The National Fisheries Center and Aquarium project that never was

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There was a grand plan in 1966 to have a theatrical national fisheries center and aquarium in DC along the Potomac. Blueprints were drawn up, models were made. It would’ve had marine exhibits, laboratories, and even a greenhouse to mimic the ecologies of the Everglades and coastal tide pools. The project was approved for construction, but was ultimately abandoned when President Nixon put a freeze on federal spending. Credit: Charlotte Hu

Emilio Ambasz’s green architecture

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The Prefectural International Hall and Lucile Halsell Conservatory look like a human version of Hobbiton. These buildings are covered in greenery and take the physics of the natural world into account to minimize energy use. Singapore is applying similar methods across its city to reduce the worsening heat island effects of climate change. Credit: Hiromi Watanabe

Life Cycles: The Materials of Contemporary Design is on view until July 07, 2024. 

Emerging Ecologies: Architecture and the Rise of Environmentalism is on view until January 20, 2024.