Keynote Jenny Sabin discusses biosynthetic architecture ahead of Tech+ 2021

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Keynote Jenny Sabin discusses biosynthetic architecture ahead of Tech+ 2021

After a turbulent year of adjusting forecasts and changing expectations, 2021 is slated to be a period of reemergence and growth for the AEC industry. The Architect’s Newspaper will present the seventh annual Tech+ conference on May 20, hosted in partnership with our co-chair, LMN Architects. Tech+ will showcase the latest tools and research relevant to architects, engineers, and construction practitioners. The title, Harnessing Technology for Future Practice, particularly embodies the theme of new paradigms of making that will be explored.

This year’s opening keynote speaker is Jenny Sabin, Principal of Jenny Sabin Studio and Arthur L. and Isabel B. Wiesenberger Professor in Architecture at Cornell University. As an architect, educator, designer, and artist, her work draws on everything from biology to mathematics, further impressing her leadership and innovation in the production of structures that are informed by responsive material systems. Co-chair and principal at LMN, Mark Nicol added, “Jenny will blow the door wide open at the start of the conference” and we couldn’t agree more.

AN: Research plays a large role in your practice. Can you describe how you’ve worked to bridge the gap between material research and physical construction? 

Jenny Sabin: I started this work across disciplinary boundaries in 2005, now a long time collaboration, with a cell and molecular biologist, Dr. Peter Lloyd Jones. We co-founded LabStudio, which at that time was the first truly collaborative hybrid research and design unit shared between a biologist and an architect and our mutual students. Since that time, that foundation has really informed how I lead my lab now, but we do have more of a formal phasing in place which helps with this bridging that you’re addressing. We typically start with the design of tools to model behavior. Those processes and behavioral models may be based on a mathematical concept, a particular algorithm, or it may be a data set that has been produced by a colleague in material science or biology and beyond. Then, some of those tools are brought into the realm of prototyping and making which is a super important step because it starts to productively contaminate the process with issues of making as well as scale. 

Not all of the systems and models that we look at are scalable into applied material systems, but some of those prototypes are brought into the realm of architecture in the built environment. Some of them reside at the level of fundamental research, but concepts certainly hop scale and inform the way that we think and make. The poly brick project for example is a great example in terms of, from the beginning, working at scale. So 3D printing, nonstandard brick componentry, could readily begin to open up new possibilities for how we work with part to whole relationships in masonry structures. 

Other projects such as eSkin, which started in 2010 and was our first funded grant from the National Science Foundation, (super exciting!), was where we were innovating thin-film technology for high-rise building structures, specifically for facade design and concepts such as structural color. The nanoscale fabrication and innovations that we were working on collaboratively made us think through which characteristics of the materials could be scalable… and which were not. So it’s a process, and it’s a purposefully slow and rigorous process to ensure that we’re successful with the bridging that you’re speaking to.

Similarly, your work dramatically spans the micro (perhaps even nano) to the macro. How does thinking along these lines force you to reconsider what architecture is?

I mean, we often think about the architect as engaged in a solo endeavor, which has never ever, ever been, you know, the case, you know, the production of architecture has always been a collaborative pursuit. So collaboration for me is directly related to how we spanned scales. Also, I think, then in the context of emerging technologies, and the crises that we face, in terms of climate change, and socio-economic issues, and issues that have become readily apparent in the context of the pandemic really force us to rethink what architecture is and the role of the architect. I think in the not so distant future buildings will, and their related material assemblies, will cease to be just things and elements, but they will offer immersive spaces that can be personalized and tuned and can be adaptive, not only for functional and performative needs, in terms of say, for example, reducing the overall carbon footprint of the building in terms of heat gain but also for humans to be able to tune and adjust their spaces accordingly.

How do you use technology critically in your diverse architectural work and research?

Technology operates as a bridge and it allows us to actuate change. Nature is an incredible model for some of these questions, both in terms of extracting principles for newly engineered materials based on biomimicry, but also to look at how natural systems are resilient. Nature is not efficient. It’s not optimal, but it’s resilient. And that’s a pretty amazing way of broaching some of these problems.

Developing material systems that don’t require, for example, a lot of energy input to actuate, but actually are programmed by their very own material makeup to respond to local cues, and so on. So some of the work, for example, in my lab that broaches these topics is in collaboration with Dan Lau and his team at Cornell University. He’s in biological and Environmental Engineering. We’re designing with DNA specific DNA sequences, to look at the promise of tiles, which we call poly tile, through micro-texture, 3D printing, and DNA glaze that respond to their local context. So imagine a wall that on the one hand, could fluoresce and give you some cues that your local environment is not healthy, it’s not great for you to be in at best, like the dream is that that wall could actually clean the local environment of, of various particulate matter. And so our, our mode of research, which is very much systemic, relational, looking at adaptive materials, and so on, I think, you know, brings us closer to, you know, some of these pressing issues that we, as you said, we all need to be addressing in our work and in our creative practices.

What are you most excited to present at Tech+?

I’m really excited about the format. I think what the Architect’s Newspaper has put together is just awesome. And so I’m really excited to present some newly built work emanating from my practice. We’re increasingly taking on larger projects, urban public projects that are focused on human interaction, and raising awareness around some of these issues that we’ve talked about: Inspiring wonder and joy and playfulness, and a moment of pause during one’s busy day.

Alongside that, some of the new research in my lab focused on RoboSense 2.0, working with robotics and design processes, where the designer can collaborate in real-time with large industrial robots. Lastly, we’re just about to finish a multi-year collaborative project that the National Academy of Engineering and the Granger foundation-funded, which is a collaboration between myself and Mariana Bertoni at ASU, where we’re looking at the relationship between sustainability and aesthetics. So the role of beauty in the context of sustainability, and specifically working with systems where we’re designing in a dynamic way with light and energy, which has phenomena that address the more elusive aspects of light and beauty, but then also the kind of functional and performative aspects of that. So I’ll share some of that work, too, that has yet to be published.