Images Provided by Jenny Sabin Studio
In the mid-nineteenth century, German art historian Gottfried Semper argued that architecture began with textiles. In his theory, The Four Elements of Architecture, Semper proposed that the first architectural gesture lay in people wrapping woven mats around themselves to form the walls of tents. Textiles came first; the framing that held them up came later. Weaving was the basis of architecture.Years later, structural engineer and architect, Frei Otto, developed tensile structures by studying soap bubbles and organisms such as radiolaria. Buckminster Fuller, architect, engineer, inventor, designer, cartographer, mathematician and poet, then built his famous geodesic domes by inventing tensegrity, an integrated structural system of struts and tension cables. Tensegrity, in turn, enabled biologist, Donald Ingber, to model cell and tissue structure as an environment he termed “the extracellular matrix” (ECM). The research and experimental design of Jenny Sabin extends the lineage of this work into the 21st Century. With an educational grounding in bio-chemistry, fine art and architecture, Sabin is the leader of Sabin Design Lab at Cornell AAP, a hybrid research and design unit with specialization in computational design, data visualization, and digital fabrication. An intensely driven creative, Sabin combines elements of sculpture, weaving, design, computation, visualization, emerging technologies, biology and materials science into her work. With an instinct to learn through collaboration, she searches beyond the parameters of tradition to weave new knowledge and new techniques together in the formation of new design possibilities.
Sabin's work investigates intricate relationships between human creativity, technology, and nature. She is interested in how the next wave of 3D printers and digital looms are enabling architects to once again become master builders. Such devices allow the architect to design and create simultaneously. Researching materials, experimenting with new technologies, and collaborating across science and engineering fields, Sabin explores the ways in which buildings can one day both look and behave like organisms.
The daughter of two artists, Sabin’s artistic inclination may have been hereditary, but she was equally fascinated by mathematics and science. Her imagination was particularly drawn towards the intersections of technology, art and design. After seeing the experimental structural engineer, Cecil Balmond, speak in her hometown of Seattle; Sabin was blown away by his ideas of bottom up approaches to design and form making. Soon after, she was inspired to enroll in the architecture program at PennDesign to find, with great excitement, that Balmond himself had joined the architecture faculty as part of a pedagogical transition towards digital and computational techniques.After graduating, Sabin was hired to teach for Balmond as an assistant in his advanced research studio. It was there that she formed the Non-Linear Systems Organization (NlSO) with Balmond and others at PennDesign. Soon after, by chance encounter, she would meet Dr. Peter Lloyd Jones, a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine running his own lab at UPenn’s Institute for Medicine and Engineering. A non-linear systems biologist, Jones was curious to see how the design fields viewed the topic. Together Sabin and Jones would set out to produce new modes of thinking, working and creating in design and the sciences through a co-endeavor they befittingly called LabStudio.
With no clear vision of what they would achieve together, Sabin began to attend weekly lab meetings and Jones began to participate in studio meetings. The two understood that a genuine creative exchange would be dependent on deeply understanding one another’s fields. Developing an authentic collaborative rapport across disciplines would require considerate time and rigorous effort.Through the experience, Sabin realized that architects offer scientists the ability to model data in incredibly useful and communicative ways. Inversely, she saw how scientific insights and new technologies could vastly expand potentialities for design. As she and Jones continued to build their unit at Labstudio, the team began to think about new approaches for modeling complexity and visualizing large datasets - considering the differences between visualizing information to communicate, information visualization as a generative form of research, and information as a form of beauty and design in its own right. These novel concepts were then applied towards the creation of projects such as LabStudio’s Branching Morphogenisis, a scaled data-scape that explored the parameters that govern branching morphology in response to the underlying ECM. The immersive installation was composed of inhabitable woven forms which visualized the structures and actions of cells.
Hypothesis-driven research is a reductive model, which must be proven by data and repeatable. Yet with the onset of big data, the scientific method has been turned upside down. It is now about behavior and process, about detecting trends and patterns, which requires the more speculative approach of designers. The ability to sift through information, to hone in on what is important, to synthesize and to relate information systemically are now imperative skills in science. Architects like Sabin offer scientists a different way of thinking and making. Furthermore, a focus on project-based application can help primary researchers in the sciences understand the applied research implications of their work, better enabling it. For example, Sabin's myThread Pavilion commissioned by Nike demonstrated the large-scale potential of their FlyKnit technology. Inversely, Sabin’s 3-D printing visualizations of biomedical research have led her to rethink building materials and processes in her own field. Working on projects with a wide-range of scientists and engineers, and funded by the NSF, Sabin has focused on smart material prototypes and systems. Two of these projects, eSkin and KATS (Cutting and Pasting - Kirigami in Architecture, Technology, and Science), examine controlled elastic response, and optical color and transparency change, based on principles of structural color at very small scales. PolyForm, an inhabitable sculpture commissioned by Cornell University which will open in 2017, combines elements of eSkin with laser-cutting, developing a PolyWall structure as complex as PolyThread in its geometries, but from powder-coated steel. Produced in consultation with, and in honor of, Emeritus Professor of Fiber Science Kay Obendorf, the PolyForm pavilion will housed within transparent walls of colored film, is hue and luminosity varying with the position of the visitor, and combining with the complex skin of geometries overlaid and interwoven with each other.Architects like Sabin offer scientists a different way of thinking and making. A focus on project-based application can help primary researchers in the sciences understand the applied research implications of their work, better enabling it. For example, Sabin's myThread Pavilion commissioned by Nike demonstrated the large-scale potential of its new FlyKnit technology.
But working across fields is not easy: although they seek interdisciplinarity, academic structures tend to bolster disciplinary boundaries. Even where silos can be easily bridged, field-specific language, methodologies, and the structures by which work is funded, vetted, and published, can create barriers that are hard to dismantle. Despite such challenges, Sabin persists in the development of new models that enable authentic interdisciplinary partnerships. She believes this type of exchange is essential to transformation. Whatever each new collaboration may bring, Sabin knows she will learn from the experience and it will drive her thinking forward. She embraces open-ended relationships with visionary scientists and seeks high-risk, high-impact creative thinking that can expand her own vision as well as knowledge. In doing so, Jenny Sabin is showing her peers in design that the creativity does not confine itself to just one field.