Brave Overhanging Firmament

New York

3 March 2017

Since 1997, MoMA PS1’s annual Young Architects Scheme has given an emerging architectural practice the chance to build a summer pavilion in its courtyard. Commissioned from a brief that prioritises flexibility and sustainability, the results are often a window on some of the most innovative architectural ideas of the day.

This year’s pavilion is to be designed by the Ithaca-based architect Jenny Sabin. Sabin’s studio is closely associated with Cornell University, where she runs a research and design unit that pivots around computational design and the visualisation of data. Her work to date has focused on the application of mathematical and scientific ideas to architectural design.

Sabin’s pavilion, Lumen, is no exception. Constructed from robotically knitted components and solar active fibres, it is likely the most technologically advanced pavilion produced for the scheme so far. During the day, the fibres absorb sunlight and UV, which at night allows them to emanate a blue or yellow glow .“It emits the light by working directly with the sun,” explains Sabin, “so it doesn’t require any additional energy.” Lightweight and translucent, and composed of a series of irregularly shaped panels, the roof of the pavilion will resemble a cluster of cells. At ground level, a series of stalactite-like protrusions give the sense of being inside a luminous cave.

Lumen draws from science and mathematics, fields that Sabin has investigated and collaborated with for over a decade. “The most important thing about scientific knowledge,” says Sabin, “is the way it navigates multiple systems,” allowing different strands of information to be drawn together. A similarly synoptic approach was demonstrated by the earlier myThread pavilion (2012), which Sabin developed for a Nike Flyknit. myThread’s form was determined by the biological data of a group of runners, and its soft textile interior and harder exterior were chosen to mirror the human form.

Sabin’s new pavilion continues this fusion of computational design with a biotic aesthetic. Made from recycled wool, Lumen aims to be responsive to temperature and density. The light fabric material should both provide shelter from the cold and prevent overheating, somehing especially important given that Lumen will be the venue for a series of musical performances. “I want,” Sabin explains, “to create a spatial environment that is highly transformative, and therefore will allow people to have multitude experiences in it.’’

Lumen is woven using a robot arm, which seems timely given the current prominence of robotics as a discussion point, in museums and the press. “The robotic arm,” says Sabin, “speeds up the process of fabrication. It also allows us to embed variability into the pattering that we wouldn’t be able to do by hand.” There is not a little irony here: the mechanical and computational are able to create something more organic-feeling than humans can handle.

Digital attempts to replicate, or even improve on, nature have been gaining traction of late. The artist Daniel Brown, for instance, uses generative design to create flowers. Last year, the Elytra Filament Pavilion at the V&A employed a robot arm to create a structure that evoked the fibrous wings of beetles. Where Lumen looks to be particularly interesting is in its application of these ideas to a space designed for use as a semi-public space.