Jenny Sabin: The Artist Behind MoMA PS1's 'Lumen' Exhibit

by Brad Wete

Jenny Sabin | Shot by Jesse Winter

Jenny Sabin | Shot by Jesse Winter

It is late June in the year 2017, and New York City has been in what feels like monsoon season for nearly a month. Last weekend saw a deluge that flooded the MoMA PS1 courtyard, but Jenny Sabin’s Lumen – the interactive, experimental art/architectural piece and winner of MoMA’s Young Architect’s Program competition – did what it is made to do: it adapted. The day of my visit and interview with Sabin happens to be hot and bright in a way that’s specific to a concrete-and-steel metropolis, where eighty-one-degree heat refracts brutally off of every surface.

I arrive at the museum one hour early. Besides the lobby bookshop and admissions desk, Lumen is the first thing I encounter. "Thing" is probably the wrong word – after all, Sabin has intentionally crafted an environment rather than an object. Nevertheless, Lumen is a sight to behold. How does one sketch out something so elemental and technologically sophisticated? Sabin’s experiment brings to mind a synthetic coral reef, the underbelly of clustered maelstroms, a quilt of bleached and moisturized snake skins, a heavenly tapestry of torn pantyhose.

To cool down and kill time, I walk through the galleries. Crisp seascapes in an aggressively air-conditioned room. Garrulously hued structures that ask to be climbed or embraced or sat on. A short documentary about European neo-fascists screaming nationalist slogans and racist slurs, juxtaposed with looped footage of refugees and migrants. Many allusions, if not direct references, to borders, to the presence or absence of bodies, to the traversing and inhabitation of space.
I sit on the steps at the edge of the courtyard.

There is a high-rise construction site across the street from PS1. Sabin’s diaphanous structure drifts and sways, stark-white against the backdrop of industrial yellow and orange netting, concrete, and sky. The sounds emanating from the high-rise skeleton resemble a ghostly youth choir. The equipment sings, trains and cars rumble past, the wind dances through a pride flag mounted on a neighbor’s rooftop.

I watch Sabin and her team tinker, tie, chat, hammer, and survey. This is the final day of installation, and while the piece is nearly complete, the scene is still one of labor and process. Even so, every single museum visitor who enters the courtyard seems to feel welcome in the midst of Lumen. Most people whip out their phones, grabbing wide shots of the sprawling canopy before wandering through it. Though vaulted and cathedral-like, Lumen invites contact. Many of its cones and sleeves nearly or completely make contact with the ground. A child pops his head into one of the cones, pulling its hem down around his small shoulders. A young woman passes between the silky knit sleeves, gathering bunches of the material into her hands.

Jenny Sabin is an architectural designer, educator, and researcher. Her creative and professional orientation is rigorously interdisciplinary and integrative, spanning the fields of architecture, biology, mathematics, engineering, and digital fabrication. In 2006, Sabin and Peter Lloyd Jones, a cellular and molecular biologist, co-founded Lab Studio at the University of Pennsylvania. Now known as the Sabin Design Lab and funded by the National Science Foundation, Sabin and Jones’s atelier is housed at Cornell University, where Sabin also teaches (and was recently tenured). In her (separately funded) practice at Jenny Sabin Studio, Sabin and her colleagues “grapple with scale, programs, budgets, and timelines.” The Lab and the Studio, like a set of arms, are naturally and necessarily in conversation with one another. Both operate according to an ambitiously collaborative ethos, and are committed to critical inquiry and research-driven innovation.

If Sabin’s interests and inspirations are more spiraling than linear, more capillary bed than vein, then Lumen is the most recent expression in an expansive yet deliberately drawn constellation. One sees the embryonic murmurs of the YAP prize winner in earlier work, such as “Branching Morphogenesis” (“a scale datascape”), “PolyThread” (a “freestanding inhabitable form”), and the “myThread Pavilion.”

Her collaborative project “E-Skin” explored “how architecture can be responsive passively” through the study of the behavior of human cells on substrates. Sabin and her collaborators observed “how changes in the materiality and geometry of those substrates would affect the cell...On that scale they were our muse, because we then extracted a set of principles and features and effects that were synthesized, designed, and reengineered into sensors, imagers, and materials that would be responsive.”

I find the images and description of her “BodyBlanket” particularly attractive: a sumptuous, black-and-white woven fabric intended to “realize interfaces between patients, information, and the hospital setting by giving physical form to patient data, making data directly perceptible and manipulable.” A kind of technological tenderness, the union of the cognitive and the visceral.

Sabin’s aesthetic and technical interest in knitting emerged in 2012, when she was commissioned to play with the technological qualities of the Nike’s Flyknit sneaker. The Nike project provided the conditions necessary for Sabin to “essentially [invent] a material system that’s responsive,” and sparked a relationship with Shima Seiki, a cutting-edge Japanese manufacturer and producer specializing in the whole-garment 3D knitting, the wonder of which is on full display in Lumen. After further developing this responsive material system through a Cooper-Hewitt commission, Sabin felt prepared to extrapolate her material system onto a larger scale.

“Imagine a drawing as big as this entire courtyard,” Sabin says, explaining the simulation phase of Shima Seiki’s digital knitting. “They roll out cloths, measure out the circumference of the nylon webbing first, and then pre-stress each edge and sew it to its neighbor. That gave a pre-stressed form to the net, and so the forces are being taken through the net and not actually the knit.” On the engineering side, Sabin worked with Clayton Binkley, a structural engineer with the ARUP, a consulting firm Sabin has had an ongoing connection with.

The impeccably taut material is moored to the cement walls surrounding PS1 (both in the main courtyard and a smaller, adjacent courtyard) by hooks, as well as to three tensegrity structures: tensioned ropes anchored to compressive masts and 6,000-pound bases. “The existing context informs the design. The passage of the sun informs the design. It actually provides quite a bit of shade. You have clusters of misting cones – you see those nozzles, there’s a low ring and an upper ring – they all mist, and so it provides this kind of cooling microclimate.

These grove cones, they are the only ones that connect to the ground, establishing this other surface, which is about the spool stools and people making little social constructions as they wish. The hang-out spaces” – she points to the tensegrity structures – “they really root the project, but are also about pushing it up.”

The installation’s dynamism is evident on every plane. You have the canopy, ropes and pulleys and rigs, rooted platforms, “stalactites,” robot-generated spool stools woven according to three distinct patterns that echo the shapes found in the knitted fabric. Sabin’s vision and approach have taken on a quality of “embedment,” a result of many years spent in the lab, the studio, the classroom, and in exploratory dialectic: “Looking at part-to-whole relationships, networks, and cellular aggregates, but all the while considering the possibility of an adaptive architecture of change that doesn’t rely on the mechanical system. Even just with the wind – everything’s moving.”

It’s true that there is this elemental dialogue between what is stable and what is buoyant, breezy, unrestrained. This is in no way accidental. When I ask Sabin questions about embodiment, about the physicality and sensuality of her work, she pauses. I can’t see her eyes because they are protected behind white-rimmed aviator glasses. She stands with hands on hips or arms folded across her chest, occasionally bursting into a leisurely gait across the blue-stone pebbles or gesturing descriptively.

There is no visual indication that she has been working tirelessly in the sun and the dust – her black t-shirt and red pants are neat, clean, unblemished. A crispness characterizes both her appearance and her speech: “The idea that there can be loops – that what starts at the realm of the human body could then be erased and found again in an architecture you experience is something that has fascinated me as a way of working.” This erasure of the human body, specifically the architect’s body, is undergoing a profound critique and reversal in the field.

“One of the biggest paradigm shifts that we’re experiencing in architecture currently has to do with the fact that architects are being repositioned as makers again,” Sabin says as she watches two men redistributing pebbles with a kind of reckless abandon. “With the onset of digital technology, we have the ability to design and make through feedback. I’m obsessed by that. We are collapsing the way we conceive, the way we communicate information about form. Through design process, through algorithm, I can control a robotic arm that will control the weave around this particular structure. Or I can sit with Shima Seiki and innovate with their interface. Through two disciplines coming together, we’re able to open up this whole thing.”

We walk within Lumen and observe how it holds the light: swaths of the canopy are turning soft shades blue or green or purple. As Sabin explains to me, the canopy is composed of three distinct fibers: solar-active, photo-luminescent, and Drake (a fill). The striated sections of netting are energy-absorbent and photo-luminescent, amplified by lighting fixtures positioned around the canopies; during dusk or night, these lights simulate a day-to-night sequence on a 20-minute loop. The solar active fibers are crystalline structures that reflect and refract light within the electromagnetic spectrum, and so the color produced is structural, not pigment-based. In catching the light it also provides shade – shadow puddles dapple the ground, the rope shadows act as sundials.

“I’ve been very interested in how we can think about architecture as perhaps behaving more like an organism, responding to its environment, in terms of the performance and function but also in terms of human engagement. I’m not interested in simply mimicking a cellular shape or a cellular structure, although you’ll see expressive linkages to that in Lumen, for sure. But it’s more about processes and behaviors that are about designing through relationships, understanding the potential for architecture to be dynamic at every step of the way.

At every moment there’s a sense of material, there’s an understanding of how forces are flowing through that, of how they’re organized from component to component. We have the windows, these conical forms, the weight of those. It shares an analog relationship with how biology works, and how morphology as a kind of dynamic diagram can be an incredible teacher. That’s very much present in the work, and it’s informed by pretty sophisticated digital tools and scripts and algorithms, simulations of the knitted components.”

She offers examples of this “bottom-up” angle from within the architectural lineage: Frei Otto, who is known to have begun his investigations with close observation of sand piles and soap bubbles; Robert Le Ricolais, the father of the space-frame and corrugated sheet metal, who studied the mineral exoskeletons of radioloria (protozoa 0.1-0.2mm in diameter). These researchers, Sabin points out, were not interested in “mimicking” natural forms.

Rather, they endeavored to get behind the image: “What made that image as a diagram? What are the processes, what are the materials, what are the geometries?” When we meander back to the topic of the participation of the architect’s body in the means of making, Sabin returns to this core notion of this layered interdependence: “How do we embed materiality and geometry and making, all of those constraints, as a way of working? Biology and nature are an incredible model for that, because it’s all inextricably linked.”

The intricate beauty of Lumen is compounded by its remarkable passivity. As an ecosystem, the structure is efficient and generative. It receives what is available and delivers small yet essential comforts in return: relief from heat and light, aesthetic pleasure, a permeable yet protective space for walking, sitting, standing, talking, texting, being quiet. It is reminiscent of the human lung: webbing like capillary beds over the surface of alveolus, wind and bodies coursing through like blood and pulmonary fluid. There are many comparisons I have made and more I’d like to articulate. And yet there is something so exceedingly now – as in, the future is now – about it that no metaphor fits quite right.

This makes sense. For all its gestation as numbers, graphs, formulas, simulations, and VR presentations, Lumen is ultimately experiential in a way that challenges more “masculine” conventions of design and building. “In this new context,” Sabin says, “what is present is a shift away from – and this is on a meta level, not male-female – but a shift away from Cartesian orders of architectural elements that we know of – column, beam, arch – and more into interiorities. Networks. Fibrous assemblages. All of which are much more feminine on a meta level. I’m really curious about how that impacts people, and how people will engage with that, both as an expression but also as a type of space.”

I find myself wanting to describe Sabin as in possession of a scientist’s mind and an artist’s sensibility, or vice versa, but such a binary categorization falls utterly short and denies the robust dynamism and complexity of her work. A native of Seattle, she studied ceramics and interdisciplinary art at the University of Washington. After completing her undergraduate work she ran an art studio and worked at the Seattle Art Museum as the Director of Admissions, a job that trained her in harmonizing teams of people – a skill that has proven invaluable to the “integrated hats” she has come to wear.

She is reading scientific papers and architectural journals, re-reading Bernard Cache’s Earth Moves, and catching up on Transparent. The work of scholars, philosophers, critics, and artists – Sanford Kwinter, Manuel DeLanda, Cecil Balmond (one of her most important mentors and former deputy chairman of ARUP) – inform the evolution of her thinking as much as the cellular and molecular biologists she studies and teams with. After such an intense and unrelenting six months (which included sending her own co-authored book to print), Sabin admits she’s “dying for some time to read novels.”

The night before this interview, while Sabin was working late with lighting designers, she experienced what might be called a moment of grace: the point at which tremendous and sustained waves of effort, ambition, fortitude, and hope collide, and relative calm ensues. “It was otherworldly. It was like, this – this is what I was after. It was emotional, actually. The scale and the possibility, the phenomena, this level of complexity and intensity. There’s over a million yards of fiber in this thing,” she says, laughing. “Many miles.”

The title Lumen alludes to the word’s two primary definitions. One, a metric of light. The 19th-century Latin usage of lumen in this first sense translates, simply, to light. The other, referring to a tubular cellular structure and the morphology of such structures, translates (according to 19th-century usage) directly to opening. Whereas many – if not most – structures delineate borders, divide spaces, and enforce separation, Lumen indeed offers openness, an expansive dimensionality that is as sensual as it is intellectually wondrous.

Throughout our conversation, Sabin repeatedly evokes the image of “a cell connecting to its matrix.” The embodied viewer – walker, breather, feeler, container of multitudes – will be quite relieved, and perhaps grateful, to find herself as integral to the realization of the piece as its valleys, bellies, and tunnels, its shimmering fibers and formidable anchors, its spools, nozzles, hooks, nuts, and bolts.

Written by: Melanie Jane Parker
Art Images shot by: Pablo Enriquez