July 2020
PPE and Health
Interview with Jenny Sabin
Editors Jade Bailey, Adriana Boeck, Emma Sanson & Patricia Tibu
Jenny E. Sabin is founder of the Sabin Design Lab at the University of Cornell (NY), where she engages in fundamental research across disciplines, collaborating with a number of scientists to innovate new materials and adaptive architecture. Using computational design and digital fabrication, she touches upon issues of sustainability and resiliency and in her own architecture studio she takes concepts, materials and strategies into application.

With people that are not so familiar with your work and you as a person, would you like to introduce yourself?
So, I'm engaging in a number of integrated roles. One as, first and foremost, an educator. I teach design studios and seminars, broadly speaking about issues of computational design, and digital fabrication, but more specifically, I collaborate with a number of scientists, to innovate new materials, and adaptive architecture, that touch upon issues of sustainability and resiliency. But not through a modality that's about problem solving and performance and functionality, but one that is very much rooted in looking at a process of inquiry. So, we innovate new materials and design digital fabrication protocols.
I'm a principal investigator of the Sabin Design Lab which is housed at University of Cornell, the college of architecture and urban planning, where I engage in fundamental research across disciplines. And I also run a practise, which is where I am right now, in downtown Ithaca NY. Which allows me to take topics and concepts and materials and strategies that have reached a certain maturity in the Lab and into application.

I really start to engage issues of architecture in a built environment, to tackle budgets and site constraints, program, clients, and so on. So, I'm very busy, operating the practice, teaching, and working in my lab, but I'm fortunate to work with a number of really amazing students and collaborators and designers in my practice. So that is what I do for a living. I have been doing this for over 15 years. To my knowledge, when we first launched our first hybrid research and design unit and co-founded it with a long-time collaborator now, who is a cell and molecular biologist (Peter Lloyd Jones) and that entity with Corn lab studio, it was the first example of a truly collaborative research unit where architects and biologists were collaborating together. That really served as a launching point and a foundation that continues to inform on what they do.

You mentioned that you have been working closely with implementing biology into your designs and your lab. How did you get into this, as it is quite a specific direction? How does it integrate with spatiality and spatial design in your opinion and your experience?
In terms of how I got started, I have always been interested in the inter-relationships between arts, technology, and the sciences. Early on I found that I was good at those. I was good at maths and science and also in creative arts. So, I struggled for a long time to find a path that would integrate those hybrid interests. Architecture was a really good fit for me. But I continued to want to deepen those questions and struck up some early collaborations and friendships with biologists and material science, while I was at Penn. So, it really started with people. And assured commitment to establish into something that was about trust and about collaboration. And a space where we could work together. Peter and I met at a conference that I was co-organising at Penn and we struck up conversation. That just led to a year long dialogue and sharing in each other's lab meetings and studio reviews. So, it started with shared interests but then also, about forming bonds and trust with people who come from different disciplinary backgrounds. In terms of my spatial practise, Biology is inherently spatial, right. Specifically, what I was working on early on with Peter and his expertise and matrix biology, and also collaborator Shu Yang who is a material scientist innovating new materials and programmable matter, inspired by nature.
Nature provides models that are very ecological and were formed as the product of dynamic conditions. Materiality, geometry, geometry patterns, compliance, program, even history, everything is inextricably linked in this scenario. And that is about space and spatial practise. I have never been interested in simply scaling a beautiful form that's found in nature, but to look beyond that image and to look at the processes and the relationships as a template, a dynamic template for thinking and looking in design.

'look at the processes and the relationships as a template, a dynamic template for thinking and looking in design'

Then we produce analogues. Some of my heroes in architecture and engineering that have developed similar practises, include people like Frei Otto, Buckminster Fuller, Gaudi, I mean there are numerous examples throughout history of people in design looking to nature not just for its inspiration as a way of thinking about the dynamics of form and how force flows through upon. So, for me there is no difference, what we are looking at in biology, is for me inherently a spatial paradigm.

That is really interesting. This cross-disciplinarity of biology, biomimicry and architecture is still mainly seen in theoretical and conceptual projects. Bringing them from an art installation into built architecture can be challenging. How did you experience that?
Well, you could look at the bodies of work of some of the prominent architects working today, who are developing buildings in our built environments, and many of them who we admire and respect, started with bodies of work that were highly experimental and temporary. One practice that comes immediately to my mind is Coop Himmelblau. The early work that they were doing with inflatables in the 60's, and pop-up events and pavilions really testing the ground for what it meant to develop a spatial practice that had a critical and theoretical agenda. And now that is obviously informed what they are doing in a more permanent context. Diller Scofidio + Renfro and other great examples, some of the early examples and exhibitions, are just seminal. So, for me, I don't see a difference between what might be experimental architecture and the typology of a pavilion or installation. I don't think in any way of it as a less spatial practice or less of a work of architecture in comparison to a building. I am very interested in impacting the built environment, so my practice now is thankfully taking on increasingly more permanent projects. Those works, which is super exciting and that has always been the goal that the work will impact not only the thinking and the teaching and the researching of architecture across disciplines, but also how it will impact the built environment.
For many of us, in my generation, who had - because of timing in many ways, but also shared interest - have been pioneers in the areas of parametric design and digital fabrication, like Achim Menges, Roland Snooks, Neri Oxman. I mean all these people were all about the same age, and we sort of grew up together, professionally. For us, the venue for so many years was the gallery and the museum, and that's where they were giving us space to develop these works. People like Mario Carpo pushed helping others find venues, like the young architects program at MOMA and MOMA Pears 1. That's been the space to really experiment and push boundaries and so now you see the same people starting to build more permanent works. Part of that, there is a slowness to getting these technologies - speaking specifically about digital fabrication - into the realm of the permanent architecture works and built environment. And that just takes time. There are many contractors that don't even want to touch these projects, because they are so complex, and they involve processes of making and constructing.
The knowledge you have from biology, is that still a main influence into your current work in your Studio at the Cornell University?

Yes absolutely. We are doing some really exciting work with incorporating designing with DNA. Designing with specific sequences of DNA. To achieve material effects and specifically right now we are working with fluorescence and that's in collaboration with a biological and environmental engineer. We have developed a series of ceramic tiles through the manipulation of micro-scale patterning through 3D printing. We have been able to develop different types of signatures in light condition based on how DNA is been vised.

In the context of programmable matter and working directly with biology that has been very exciting. And another project we are working on with a mechanical engineer, who has expertise in mechanics of bone formation, specifically human bone formation.

We have been working with him and his engineering students,Which has contributed to some really exciting outputs in to develop designs for 3d printed ceramic bricks based geometries and forms and structure that come out of how bone develops. terms of bricks.

Imagine a brick wall being something completely different, that takes loads efficiently. So, imagine a wall being very dense at its base where the loads are the greatest but as you move up it becomes increasingly porous. Our bone structure and the way that nature designs with holes, which seems a bit counter intuitive, presents some really great models for considering how we might build not only more efficiently but in a more resilient fashion. So those are two current examples of how we are working with biology and putting DNA to work. All of my work in my lab continues to work across disciplinary boundaries and to bring in electrical engineers, computer scientists, material scientists, biologists. I think that is not only relevant now, it is the future. It is the only way collaboration across and between and in an interrelated way with others and alternate disciplines; its the only way where we are going to begin to address a crisis that we face now.
You have been talking about this cross-disciplinary, and now it is maybe even easier than before to jump from one thing to another. Everybody can learn everything from the internet basically. We were wondering, do you think the role of the architect has been changing and how do you think it has been changing - where do you see the architects standing in 20 years if we continue going into this realm of interdisciplinary?
Well, I think it is not about learning everything. I really fundamentally believe that you have to have a disciplinary core. You need to know what your area of expertise is, so that you can be effective in your collaborations. And to know what you don't know. For me, its never been turning my students into pseudo scientists or the scientific collaborators into pseudo designers. But to come to the table together and to innovate on questions and problems that span our disciplines. I for example have never ventured into doing synthetic biology, not because I don't think its relevant to some architects, but I'd much rather collaborate with an expert that comes from that area.

'But to come to the table together and to innovate on questions and problems that span our disciplines.'

And there are just amazing things that can happen, and that's were trust and learning how to communicate is really important. There is so much data and so much information out there in the world, especially as you said in the context of the internet, just with what we are bombarded all the time, it makes it all the more important that you really know where your ground is. That you really know what your area of expertise is. And architecture and the way that you are taught, and the way we work, I think we offer an expertise that is increasingly relevant in the context of these types of collaboration. We see the relevance of design in so many different pockets. We are able to synthesize across a set of complex relationships and questions to form a plan and to implement it. and to move forward. That's what we do, we work with constraints, and we work with people. We have always done that but we haven't necessarily gone in the ways that we are striving to do now. I just encourage you and anyone who listens in on this, to reach out and to push yourself to areas that might be a little uncomfortable to venture to department lectures that are not just your home base and to open up dialogues. Because you guys are really needed, your work modes of thinking and working across problems, I think that's really necessary. And that's something what I found with operation PPE initiative that I had to launch here at Cornell to bring protective face shields to our front line health care workers in hospitals in NY City. As able to bring those skills not just because I knew how to 3d print or had a lab with 3d printers, but I was able to bring way of communicating and working across design questions in an effective way. I do think, who we work with and our role is shifting, but I think really in an exciting way. The kind of myth of the soul, that the architect is the soul author of a building, the big architect, the capital A, I think that is finally starting to go away - thank goodness -. It has never been that way, so why should that myth continue. But I think our relevance on what we bring to the table is ever more important.
The Operation PPE initiative, using 3D printing and laser technology to produce desperately needed protective equipment, was a very fast response to the current situation - the pandemic crisis. Do you feel this has affected the way you work and your future professional endeavors?

'One 3d printer is not going to do much, but if you have 300 participants, many of which have architecture offices or labs with multiple printers, then you can really make an impact.'

Well I think for me the most exciting thing to see come out of the initiative, outside of the fact that we delivered, we delivered close to 30.000 protective face shields to front line workers, in a very expedited fashion; was the way we did it. And this notion of informal fabrication and the power of a network working together is I think really fruitful ground. One 3d printer is not going to do much, but if you have 300 participants, many of which have architecture offices or labs with multiple printers, then you can really make an impact. So, the power of this on the ground, bottom-up, resilient network can then respond to other types of needs. I think that is a pretty interesting area to look into, because it kind of moves away from this DIY outlook to one that is about collaboration with multiple entities working together to innovate. I also think its a pretty powerful way of designing, to bring together all these minds and work on a common problem. I am excited to push that forward and continue the work on PPE designs. So, it hasn't only been about production and the volume that we needed to achieve, but to put our design skills to work.
What started out as a few labs at Cornell campus including my own and the digital fabrication shop within our college and also colleagues and engineering, grew into this vast New York based cluster that then inspired other groups such as Alvin Huang at USC, and beyond the states. So to see these regional clusters pop up to then initially produce products - PPE - and deliver that to the front lines, was amazing. But now also to see what they are doing and continuing to work on this is pretty exciting.
Is the project still ongoing? Is there still a demand for it?
In NY city, thankfully we don't have the high demands on PPE in terms of gaps in supply chains, which was the biggest issue before, but we are definitely seeing the same issues coming up in the southern states right now, in areas of Texas, Florida and beyond. In my lab we were continuing to work on four different design trajectories for 3d printed PPE, which include a kind of hybrid face coverings, sort of face fitters that are 3d printed and incorporating algorithms that allow for custom fit, so 2d to 3d. But then they also work with after shelf materials so you could take a paper towel or a coffee filter, just common materials and use that as a sandwich and then this thing goes around your face. We are also looking at the possibility of 3d scanning so customizing masks to increasing fit. So, we are continuing to push that and also to reach out to our colleagues in medical sciences and engineering.
What do you believe is critical to take into consideration when designing with the future in mind?
Well I think one thing that is very critical, is to always keep at the forefront that design inherently is about change and adapting to change. But I think the speed of change that we are experiencing right now is unprecedented. As I said previously, it is your time right now, I tell this to my students. Collaboration is the answer. It is absolutely the answer, working with friends, colleagues, experts in other disciplines and to really push yourself outside the spaces that you find to be comfortable, and to not just talk to architects, but talk with biologists, with material scientists, and see how they think about what you are working on. It is incredible what can be spawned in just a course of a conversation. Push yourself outside of environments that are comfortable to create synergies and to create new opportunities. Because the world is changing at such a rapid pace. The political, socio-economic, health, environmental complexities, and crisis that we face, they really demand that initiative.
'Push yourself outside of environments that are comfortable to create synergies and to create new opportunities. Because the world is changing at such a rapid pace.'