Jenny Sabin Wins MoMA PS1 YAP 2017 With "Knitted Light" Proposal

Working at the intersections of design and material science, Sabin beat out an impressive group to win this year’s Young Architects Program.

Jenny Sabin Studio. Lumen. 2017 (rendering). Winner of the Young Architects Program 2017, MoMA PS1, New York.

Courtesy Jenny Sabin Studio

For the past 18 summers, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and MoMA PS1 have given an emerging architect the opportunity to build an innovative project in the courtyard of MoMA PS1’s Long Island City home. The remarkable (and often unusual) installations of the Young Architects Program (YAP) have helped shine a spotlight on firms on the verge of international recognition—such as SHoP in 2000, nARCHITECTS in 2004, and WORKac in 2008.

This year’s winner, Jenny Sabin, promises to create one of the most inventive installations yet. An architect who works at the intersections of design and material science, Sabin has proposed Lumena structure of “knitted light” that will not only transform from day to night but will also respond to visitors who interact with it. During the day, the structure’s yarns will absorb UV light; at night, they will emit it again in a soft glow. The structure also includes “misting stations” that will refresh visitors with cooler “micro-climates” during the day.

Sabin beat out an impressive group of contenders (Bureau Spectacular, Ania Jaworska, Office of III, and SCHAUM/SHIEH) and will unveil her installation on June 27. We spoke with Sabin about YAP, Lumen, and what’s most frustrating—and most rewarding—about working on the border of science and architecture.

Vanessa Quirk: How does it feel to be selected for YAP—to be one of a very small number of people who have been given this opportunity?

Jenny Sabin: It’s amazing! This is such an important award for emerging architects. It not only touches me, but it impacts everyone that’s involved with the project, from my students at Cornell University College of Architecture, Art, and Planning [where Sabin teaches] to my team. It’s a really big deal and definitely something that I have aspired to for a long time. I’m just absolutely thrilled and honored to be amidst such an incredible group of finalists—and to now have the opportunity to realize the project.

Architect Jenny Sabin

Courtesy Jenny Sabin Studio

VQ: Some of our readers won’t be familiar with your work. Would you mind explaining what it is you do and what’s distinctive about it?

JS: My work operates at the intersection of emerging digital technologies, adaptive materials, architecture, and science. I collaborate with a number of scientists. I direct a lab at Cornell University, where I work on projects that are funded by the National Science Foundation, amongst other foundations. We innovate adaptive materials and new digital fabrication techniques. What I’m probably best known for is the work that I do in materials and architecture across disciplinary boundaries.

Then, there’s my studio practice, where I’m able to move those fundamental research trajectories and concepts into applied projects. That’s where I start to think about scale, context, human interaction, budgets and the needs of clients. At the end of the day, I would describe myself as a “maker,” who operates across disciplines with new digital tools and design experiments and who engages adaptive materials and nonstandard forms. But, in all cases, human engagement and interaction is at the core. One of the fundamental questions that I ask is: “How might buildings behave more like organisms responding to and adapting to their built environments?”

VQ: The press release describes Lumen as made up of photo-luminescent and solar active textiles. Can you explain what that means and what these textiles will do?

JS: Lumen is knitted light, and so the project will feature two high-tech yarns. The photo-luminescent responsive yarns absorb UV or sunlight, and then they emit that light over time—essentially they glow. The project will be highly transformative, in terms of the experience of it between the day and the night, which will be very different.

The second responsive yarn is solar active. It responds immediately to the presence of the sun, so it changes colors instantly. It will also “hold” embedded shadows. So, if I were to press up against one of the forms, or put my hand on one of them, a shadow—the remnant of my hand—would remain there for a certain duration.

One of my responses to the brief, which calls for an engagement with new materials, was to think about how the project could transform throughout the day. These two types of responsive textiles will allow for that to happen.

Jenny Sabin Studio. Lumen. 2017 (rendering). Winner of the Young Architects Program 2017, MoMA PS1, New York.

Courtesy Jenny Sabin Studio

VQ:  Sean Anderson, the associate curator in MoMA’s department of architecture and design, praised the proposal for the way it merges public and private space. Was that one of your goals when you were conceiving the project?

JS: Definitely. I was very interested in allowing for multiple scales of engagement—that includes collective, public participation and then also these more personal, private spaces. Because it’s composed primarily of textiles, it allows for a more informal organization, one that is distributed as a landscape of light. There are areas that are programmed with larger knitted conical forms that create little groves or small rooms where there will be misting stations and ground clouds, so during the day people will have relief from the summer heat.

There will also be opportunities to gather around these stalactite groves through seating. The seats are composed of recycled spools, referencing the project’s textile aspect. Those spools are robotically wound to tension them, and then on each one of the seats will be a different letter. The idea is that people can start to form their own little messages and therefore seating arrangements. The letters will be painted in a hydrochromic ink. So, the letters will only be revealed when the mist starts to gather upon them. That was another way of thinking about public versus more private and intimate conversations and gatherings.

I was not only interested in how the project would be responsive and transformative, but how it would also be both socially and environmentally responsive—both in terms of how literally the materials respond, but also how people interact with it in these public and private moments, and how it may, in turn, inspire collective levity and playfulness. To really realize this project is pretty exciting. It’s a social fabric.

VQ: Do you have any concerns about being able to execute some of the concepts?

JS: I don’t have any concerns about the execution, but I think the sheer complexity of the knitted material assembly is going to be intense in its production—and that’s purposeful. It’s a big scale and it’s outdoors. And the fact that every single element of the textile structure is different will also pose some interesting fabrication and construction constraints. I’ve been working on this material system now since 2012, so I feel really confident about it and its ability to work in the space.

VQ: How does the fabrication work exactly?

JS: All of the digital fabrication files are organized in my practice. We do all of the simulations and all of the layouts. It’s a pretty advanced design process in terms of the digital output and simulations. Those files will then be handed over to [manufacturer] Shima Seiki, which is at the forefront of what’s called “whole-garment knitting.” They do seamless digital knitting, and I’ve been working with them since 2012. They’ll do the knitting of the individual cells and the conical stalactite forms. Once those are finished, all of that will be seamed and finished together into the larger fabric structure. There will be a number of fabricators involved. I’m also working closely with Arup—they’re the design engineer—and specifically with Clayton Binkley on refining the structure.

I won’t actually be doing any hand knitting. It’s all digitally and robotically fabricated. In terms of the seating, we’ll be fabricating all of the spool chairs in my studio and lab, where I have a large robotic arm. So, we’ll be doing that in-house.

VQ: What do you think are the most exciting things happening in material science today and where are they happening? Is it in universities? Is it in practice?

JS: For me, in terms of how I interact with material science, some of the most exciting fundamental research and also applications are happening in the realm of adaptive and responsive materials. I would say that this is primarily happening in universities for now. From working with material scientists, at the University of Pennsylvania and now at Cornell, we’re looking at the promise of adaptive thin-film technology and materials that can be integrated into existing construction or new façade design. Basically, thinking about an adaptive skin that could be integrated with larger façade assembly.

The design of the 2012 myThread Pavilion, for Nike’s Flyknit Collective, saw Sabin work with an interdisciplinary team to develop a knit structure based on the motion data of runners.

Courtesy Sabin Studio & Nike Inc.

There’s some amazing stuff that’s happening in the realm of what’s called “programmable matter.” That is, looking at how a material’s makeup can be responsive and transformative—which then doesn’t require energy input in terms of electricity and so on. I’m working on some exciting new work in this area at Cornell with Dr. Dan Luo [professor in the school’s Biological and Environmental Engineering department]. While my own expertise is not by any means in sustainability or environmental systems, in my collaborations we end up touching those very important topics through the ways and means that we work with materials across scales. I can act as a designer, as an architect, at a nano- to micron-scale within the context of these collaborations, but then what’s amazing is thinking about the promise of these materials and how they’re programmed, which can then create large scale transformations at, say, the scale of a building façade.

Scale really is one of the hurdles. How do we move these materials, which are operating at a nano- to micron-scale, into these larger architectural and built scales? That takes time and the formation of different partnerships. We need industry partnerships to really turn this fundamental research into a viable product that can be used in the construction industry and also by other practitioners in architecture.

VQ: As someone who has one foot in architecture and one foot in science, do you have a sense of how these disciplines talk to each other? How could they better learn from each other?

JS: Very early on I had a year-long exchange with a now long-time collaborator, cell biologist Dr. Peter Lloyd Jones at Penn. We spent a year simply learning how to communicate effectively. I would say that’s the biggest hurdle—learning how to communicate—because we have very different structures in place in terms of how we do our research, how we publish, how we teach, how we garner funds, how we make projects. Just learning how to navigate our different languages in our different worlds is a massive investment of time.

Once that trust is established, by default amazing new things emerge from that relationship—new research questions, new potential applications. That commitment to remaining open, and not necessarily needing to know immediately where a collaboration across science and architecture may go, is super important. It’s also absolutely necessary.

VQ: Did you pursue a science education as well as an architecture education?

JS: I started college in biochemistry, but then navigated into fine arts. I actually have a BFA in ceramics and a BA in interdisciplinary visual arts from the University of Washington. I decided to do my graduate work about six years later in architecture at Penn Design.

Architecture just increasingly became the right discipline and practice for me to do my graduate work. It integrates science, technology, and the arts, and my work had always been fueled by that mix. It was a very good move. I was invited to teach at Penn shortly thereafter and that’s when I started some of my initial collaborations, where I co-founded a hybrid research unit with the same collaborator I mentioned previously, Dr. Peter Lloyd Jones, called Lab Studio. Eventually, I took my position at Cornell, where I’m at now and have been for six years. I established my lab and practice here.

VQ: A few years ago, in our profile about you, we described you as one of “architecture’s leading scientists.” Would you describe yourself as an architectural scientist?

JS: I guess I wouldn’t describe myself as a scientist. I’ve never attempted to turn architects into pseudo-scientists or, in turn, scientists into pseudo-designers, but to operate from my disciplinary core within a different environment, in a truly, shared collaborative environment. It’s not always comfortable. Definitely at times, I’m able to contribute heavily to core science, and as an architect, it’s amazing to see that I have relevance as a designer doing science. There are opportunities for scientists and architects to, at moments, switch roles, but never to actually become the scientist or become the architect. This type of collaborative work requires rigor and methodical, slow, iterative work.

How science is produced and done has massively impacted the way that I design and the way that I think and work. It’s made me a more rigorous designer and vice versa. The way that I work through projects and think through a design process is unique. It’s not just the tools or the advanced digital technologies. It’s a way of thinking that’s about relationships. So, I bring a skillset that projects into these scientific problems and that let’s us be really creative and transformative about how we approach them. That’s where the “architectural scientist” or “design scientist” comes in.

Sabin’s team developed a bespoke script based on growth patterns of local vines to generate PolyVine, an ornament applied to railings at the Folsom Powerhouse mixed-use development in Philadelphia.

Courtesy Jenny Sabin Studio

Recent Viewpoints