Jenny Sabin is one of those high-flying design intellectuals who seem to be in the award-collecting business: a Pew Fellowship in 2010; a Knight Fellowship in 2011 and a 2014 Young Architects Prize from the Architectural League of New York. Daring, experimental, conceptually far-out, Sabin’s work is exactly the kind that appeals to the architectural insiders who dole out the big trophies—but the 42-year-old Cornell professor won’t be pigeonholed as a designer’s designer. “It’s always been a goal of my work to push what’s highly experimental into the built environment,” says Sabin. This summer, she’s getting a chance to do just that.
Sabin was named this past February as the winner of the Young Architects Program from the Museum of Modern Art and its contemporary annex, PS1, located in Long Island City, Queens. Since its inception in the late 1990s, YAP has developed an impressive track record, with previous honorees including such latter-day headliners as SHoP Architects (2000) and WORKac (2008). Each winning team is responsible for erecting their unique pavilion proposal in PS1’s gravel-strewn, concrete-walled courtyard, where it acts as the backdrop for Warm Up, the museum’s popular summertime concert series. With hundreds of hipsters descending upon it to soak up the beer and hard-driving DJ sets, the YAP installations have to be practicable as well as innovative, a challenge that Sabin seems more than game to take on. “A project like this is really amazing,” she says, “because it allows the risks I like to take to be realized, materialized in the world.”
“Materialized” is the right word. Sabin’s speculative, blue-sky architectural investigations have focused particularly on new and untried building materials, those that take their cues from the living world and abstruse mathematics. “It’s not about borrowing forms from nature,” explains the architect, “but thinking about processes and behaviors, thinking of architecture as systems.” It’s an approach that’s led her into an increasingly ambitious study of structural fabrics, computer- crafted structures and cladding solutions that do more than just cover a space or building. For last year’s Cooper-Hewitt Design Triennial, for example, Sabin created the PolyThread, a seamless tent fashioned from a digitally designed textile that absorbed sunlight by day and then emitted it by night, glowing both indigo and violet. “It was the first time that sort of a material was taken outside for a large-scale installation,” Sabin notes. The luminous work’s success has emboldened her to take a similar tack with her YAP scheme.
Lumen, as the PS1 project is called, will shroud the forecourt in a glittering canopy of soft, billowing solar panels, held aloft by rigid but ultra- light knitted piers. As Sabin describes it, “the fibers feature two high-tech responsive threads, one of them photoluminescent,” which absorbs and then sheds light after sundown, “and the other solar-reactive,” which responds to touch and changes color depending upon what’s striking it. The end result will be a work of architecture that’s anything but static, one that users can both interact with and watch change over the course of the day as they party under its shady penumbra.
In reviewing YAP’s history, Sabin says she found a few past projects that not only dealt with lighting, but also looked for ways to integrate the courtyard project with the event’s various programs. Her installation is an attempt to bridge those investigations, providing Warm Up guests and museum-goers with a shelter that’s both part of the artistic and social action. In addition, there’s a subtle polemical agenda embedded in the idea: Lumen is not just the product of one designer’s aesthetic whimsy. It is a team effort, rather, the fruit of collaborative research efforts with famed engineering firm Arup.
For all its 21st-century sophistication, though, the project’s real DNA lies in a very old technology—weaving, as traditional a craft as there is and one that machines were ever deployed. “That history fascinates me,” says Sabin, whose own background in craft includes extensive study of ceramics. At bottom, Sabin’s heady architectural mission is really an attempt to stitch together (literally and figuratively) the past and the present, art and technology, people and the built environment around them. “Lumen,” she says, “is really exploring that.”