Voyage to the Interior: A Spatial Biologist Talks Design

                                         Dr. Peter Lloyd Jones, Spatial Biologist (Smart Geometry workshop, Institute for Advanced Architecture for Catalonia, Barcelona, 2010) “Prepare for miniaturization!” radios the command station to a submarine with its surgical crew about to be injected […]


Dr. Peter Lloyd Jones, Spatial Biologist (Smart Geometry workshop, Institute for Advanced Architecture for Catalonia, Barcelona, 2010)

“Prepare for miniaturization!” radios the command station to a submarine with its surgical crew about to be injected into the bright red (yes, red) bloodstream of a grievously wounded diplomat in order to save him. In 1966, “Fantastic Voyage” sailed into movie theaters with Raquel Welch as “Cora,” the surgeon's assistant, on an improbable voyage, believable enough for the multitudes (boys) who bought a ticket to ride.

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Englishman Peter Lloyd Jones and architect co-founder of LabStudio Jenny Sabin have embarked on their own Jules Verne journey, diving beneath the glittering surface of design style to the interior of human cells and a new frontier. Lloyd Jones is an author, educator and design scientist working in the office of the Dean at Jefferson Medical College (Philadelphia, PA), consulting on medical innovation by applying design thinking and systems theory. Together, Lloyd Jones and Sabin have gained credibility, if not guaranteed acceptance, in the medical community.

Fluorescence microscopic imaging of lung capillaries formed within a 3-D matrix in vitro. Red, internal cytoskeleton. Blue, DNA; 2006

Courtesy Peter Lloyd Jones

The crux of their work is highly cross-disciplinary and team-based. Lloyd Jones enthusiastically practices what he calls “extreme collaborations,” leaping over artificial barriers between disciplines to transform the field, always careful to attribute credit where due. “Pseudo-interdisciplinary” exercises hold no interest. Instead, he believes in seemingly odd pairings to achieve breakthroughs asking, “Why not an architect and a poet?”

As his team illuminates cells in motion, their striking patterns and structure, they envision architecture, too, as dynamic, embodying vast environmental and social data from specific regions to be “deployed” in its proper context.

Model 3-D printed studies and models exploring responsive and surface based surface design. Work by Wei Wang in the Sabin+Jones LabStudio (2009)            

Courtesy of Sabin+Jones LabStudio

“The physical structure, or architecture of a cell has the important capability of being able to control whether normal or disease-associated genes are turned on or off. Measuring and then manipulating dynamic cellular architecture, therefore, provides a potentially powerful route to controlling human pathologies, including breast cancer. By changing the architecture of the breast tissue structure developed in vitro (on the right), cancerous cells can, essentially, be "tricked" into normal modes of behavior (on the  left).” —— Peter Lloyd Jones, Spatial Biologist

Joseph G. Brin: Your ideas of architecture suggest a certain bio-dynamism well beyond current environmentally-responsive and efficient buildings.

Peter Lloyd Jones: In LabStudio, we are not merely taking a biological structure or process and copying it. Rather, we created customized digital tools and novel outputs that established (i.e. visual) and novel (i.e. touch and sound) to discover deeper relationships within the biological system and new ways of seeing, thinking and doing in architectural design, ranging from the discovery of new morphologies and materialities, to the development of a novel design language between scientists, artists, designers and engineers.

JGB: If human cells can "zip" together do you foresee buildings as living, sensing organisms that can grow, move and connect?

Fluorescence microscopic imaging of a collection of human breast epithelial cells forming a 3-D tissue unit in culture. Red staining shows regions of actin zippering between cells. Green shows the border between the multi-cellular tissue unit and its surrounding microenvironment

Courtesu Agne Taraseviciute & Peter Lloyd Jones, 2005

PLJ: We aim to imbue architecture with "cellness" or tissueness" rather than merely mimicking biology. In the case of cell zippering, this might result in the abstract expression of this process manifested as highly site-specific architecture that seamlessly adapts to its immediate and macro-environment. In a related project, conducted by Erica Savig, M.Arch., a designer at LabStudio who is now conducting a PhD in cancer biology at Stanford, the translation of the mechanisms that cells use to sense their environment and neighboring cells has resulted in simulated architecture for a daycare facility that responds very locally to the behavior of its occupants.

JGB: Can we nail down this critical transformation of knowledge from your lab to architecture with another concrete example? 

PLJ: At UPenn we developed e-Skin, a responsive building skin. This $2m-funded project entitled “Energy Minimization via Multi-Scaler Architectures from Cell Contractility to Sensing Materials to Adaptive Building Skins” results directly from our biological studies examining cellular mechanics in lung disease. These and other projects could be viewed, therefore, as precedents to the future of architecture which will no doubt be embedded within higher order biological systems. 

JGB: From a diagnostic point of view, your work with sound is especially intriguing. How did you penetrate those mysteries?

PLJ: By converting time-dependent cell changes into frequency maps and, subsequently, sound. Andrew Lucia, M.Arch., a designer at LabStudio who now teaches at Cornell, pin-pointed discrete differences in cell behavior at an unprecedented level, even contrasting the sounds of normal versus diseased cells.

“Ground substance” Abstract 3-D printed representation of cell to cell, and cell to substrate connectivity in the normal human breast epithelium. Jenny E Sabin, Andrew Lucia, Annette Fierro, Peter Lloyd Jones & Sabin+Jones LabStudio (first exhibited at Siggraph, 2009)

JGB: What's the story behind your structural model of human mammary epithelial cells?

PLJ: “Ground Substance” bridges art, architecture and science through a structural and material model that is at once natural and artificial. This project embeds biological behavior in material systems through the use of advanced technologies in 3D Printing and rapid prototyping. Advanced techniques in rapid prototype technology influenced the final production of the model. Prototype studies in 3D printed ceramic modules were also produced. This final fabricated model is composed of 146 unique 3D printed parts connected together with aluminum rod and cable thread. 

A deployable, site-specific architecture originating in research examining cell to cell zippering in the human tissues.

“Studies conducted by Misako Murata within the Sabin+Jones LabStudio & in the “Form and Algorithm” graduate design studio at UPenn, taught by Jenny E Sabin and Cecil Balmond. Here, the algorithmic and digital exploration of relationships between interacting cells and their immediate tissue environment gives rise to an abstract, yet deeper understanding of architectural form as it relates to a dynamic boundary condition and existing constraints found within the designed mechanisms of deployable structures (2009)” —– Peter Lloyd Jones, Spatial Biologist

A MISSION DEFINED                                                                                                                                                                                     

“Spatial Biologist” was coined by Lloyd Jones to describe his pioneering work as a molecular biologist moving fluidly in space and time, studying the impact of context on medicine, design and materiality. He wades through “massive datasets to understand forms, find hidden secrets in biological systems.”

A prodigious worker and cheery provocateur, Lloyd Jones promotes radical change in order to enhance human health and wellness. His medical students learn to overcome their fear of unknown territory as he assures them “It's okay to feel your way through a problem using design as a process. It requires feeling.”

“Can architecture heal?” Lloyd Jones asks, referencing studies showing how physicians, on average, interrupt a patient within 23 seconds of meeting them. The exam itself might average 4 minutes in duration yet the complete patient care cycle from check-in to waiting room to exam room can extend to a wearying hour and a half or more. He contends that “open collaboration using human-centered design thinking principles will guide students, medical staff, designers and most importantly, patients, to redesign more cost-effective, empathetic user experiences with vastly improved performance criteria.”

To re-engineer such healthcare products and delivery, Lloyd Jones recently formed the MEDstudio innovation group at Jefferson Medical College together with Dean Mark Tykocinski, M.D., Paul Rosen, MD, pediatrician, Andrew Zahn, MFA, designer and a self-selected group of medical students, including Nicholas Kurtzman. 

In essence, Lloyd Jones is leading the charge on an exhilarating voyage to discover and model empathetic design for his medical students, future architects and clinicians. The import of his medical research, inclusive design collaborations and scientific experimentation is both humane and holistic. “The way you are treated and perceived as a patient influences your capacity to heal,” he says.

Multiple self-portrait. Three dimensional scan and CAD model wireframe (Andrew Cameron Zahn, 2013)

Joseph G. Brin is an architect, writer and fine artist based in Philadelphia, PA

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