The
  Cornell
    Journal
      of
        Architecture
6
Material Analogs and the Impurity of Form



Jenny E. Sabin works at the forefront of a new direction for 21st-century architectural practice—one that investigates the intersections of architecture and science, and applies insights and theories from biology and mathematics to the design of material structures. Sabin is an assistant professor at Cornell University Department of Architecture and a principal of Jenny Sabin Studio, an experimental architectural design studio based in Philadelphia. She was recently named a USA Knight Fellow in Architecture.
The purity of mathematics affords spatial abstractions that unravel and extend the bounds of creative thought in the design process. The impure extends such abstractions toward the material realm and finally into architecture. A design process saturated in computation enables the exploration of the complexities of connectedness, of topological wanders, and the purity of mathematical space. Here, geometry is not solely a practice of defining shapes through mathematics, but is one of projecting and inhabiting form into the ether of mathematical space. This in turn, has impacted modes of representation and the role of geometric abstraction in the design process.

Architects specializing in generative and parametric design strategies—more formally known as design computation—have adopted a bottom-up approach to the negotiation of constraints within the design process. The evolution of digital tools in architecture has prompted new techniques of fabrication alongside new understandings in the organization of material through its properties and potential for assemblage. Internal geometries inherent to natural forms, whose complexity could not be computed with the human mind alone, may now be explored synthetically through mathematics and generative systems. To script and to hack is to sketch opportunistically, where software is a virtual ground to abstract, control, and unfurl. In this sense, software itself is a material, one inhabited by matter and mind, where drawing is formal calculation.

This renewed interest in complexity has offered alternative methods for investigating the interrelationships of parts to their wholes, and emergent self-organized pattern systems at multiple scales. New geometries emerge alongside pressures and inflections elicited by external constraints. The topological wander ceases—one bridge too soon—as the production of architecture begs for the impure, the messy, and the tangible there there. The algorithmic design process is tamed and made material through robust feedback loops found outside of the generative systems of investigation and within the realm of architecture. The computer script is extended into the realm of architectural manifestation. A transformation ensues and the purity of mathematical form is made impure through designed contamination. Architecture is not algorithm alone.


Minimal Surface Studies. Simin Wang (M. Arch. ’13) Matrix drawing of gyroid variations with 3D prints. Subtle changes in the code result in radical transform- ations in form where designed impurities come forth through fabrication constraints and the development of surface geometry and its thickness. For M.Arch.1 Core Design Studio 3; Instructor: Jenny E. Sabin
Minimal Surface Studies. Simin Wang (M. Arch. ’13) Matrix drawing of gyroid variations with 3D prints. Subtle changes in the code result in radical transform- ations in form where designed impurities come forth through fabrication constraints and the development of surface geometry and its thickness. For M.Arch.1 Core Design Studio 3; Instructor: Jenny E. Sabin

Here, contamination is seen as a process of architectural investigation, a careful and playful choreography between the intent of the designer and the purity of a mathematical and generative system. At each stage, the designers must reconsider their design strategy as new constraints come into the fold—as can be seen in the preliminary generative studies for Simin Wang’s studio project for a third-semester graduate core design studio at Cornell. This sets up a rigorous design foundation for understanding how the production of architecture is not simply about form generation, but is a synthesis of a complex array of parameters and effects. In the production of relationships and correspondences, “tools” such as computer scripts are designed and developed to orchestrate the movement between multiple modes of working. Parallel processing, feedback loops, and research are encouraged to provide an environment in which dynamic relationships reveal to the imagination new possibilities of organization at multiple scales. The following is a description of one topological wander taken through a series of designed constraints or feedback loops, this time at the scale of a greenhouse pavilion for the American Philosophical Society Museum, sited in the Jefferson Garden, Philadelphia.

Taking inspiration from the artifacts and themes present in the American Philosophical Society Museum’s exhibition, “Of Elephants and Roses: Encounters with French Natural History, 1790–1830, The Greenhouse & Cabinet of Future Fossils” attempts to gather, digest, and disseminate information about nature while also incorporating cutting-edge design and fabrication techniques to ultimately produce a greenhouse of the future.

In the case of 19th-century French natural history, the cabinet or lab may be described as a bounded condition that affords an introspective and synthetic relationship with the field, but at a distance. The unbounded—the scientist out in the natural terrain—offers a sensorial and full-body immersion within the field.[1] For curiosity to take place, a transformation ensues in both situations. In the Greenhouse & Cabinet of Future Fossils, the concepts of the field and the cabinet are synthesized and brought together through formal, geometrical, and spatial configurations. The cabinet is newly materialized and parametrically controlled through the modularity of digitally fabricated cold-frame boxes that populate an unraveling structural tapestry. Overall, the Greenhouse & Cabinet of Future Fossils attempts to display, gather, and experience nature between two perceptual terrains occupied by the field and the cabinet.


The second mode of transformation operates at the stage of pure mathematical investigation, an unraveling of a three-to-eight torus knot through time. These knot morphologies were chosen for two reasons. The first relates the geometric behavior of an unraveling knot to the desired spatial and formal shift in the Greenhouse from field to cabinet—conveying a spatial and formal transformation as visitors move from the exterior to the interior. The second highlights an abstract and synthetic formal relationship between the configuration of the unraveling knot and the internal structures and relationships revealed in Cuvier’s incredible organisms, housed in the Gallery of Paleontology and Comparative Anatomy at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris.

The primary geometrical system of the Greenhouse structure is generated by a select group of profile curves extracted from the unraveling mathematical knots. Mathematical scripts are used as a sketch tool to explore experimental geometries that share synthetic relationships with models found in nature. Through mathematics and generative algorithms and iteration through scripting, it is possible to simulate and inhabit geometry as nature does, absent of representation and translation, in a constant formation, where geometry and matter are one. The Greenhouse configuration as a set of 20 vertical cross-ribs also recalls the bones of giant vertebrates put on display as a public spectacle in the 19th century.

The Greenhouse takes up similar themes related to movement through the formal and mathematical transformations described previously and as an interface with nature at multiple scales and synthetic terrains. From the interior “cabinet,” the structure opens up to the world around it through an arched expanse that curves up and over the inner area, creating a space that is simultaneously inside and outside—enclosed but not confined.

The interior gallery under the vine canopy houses the Cabinet of Future Fossils, a modular system holding digitally generated and newly fabricated ceramic and 3D printed artifacts inspired by nature, complexity, and generative design processes.

Like the fossils used by French scientists in post-Revolutionary France to classify extinct mammals, these three-dimensional “future fossils” imply an era of the future, a new nature, that will, in turn, look back on these synthetically created “natural” objects of the age of computation and digital fabrication. These forms are also a play on 19th-century “cabinets” that were filled with a vast variety of specimens and fossils, that were at once scientifically relevant and a spectacle for the general public to view.

Knot Morphogenesis. Jenny Sabin Studio. Generative study for the Greenhouse, 2011.
Knot Morphogenesis. Jenny Sabin Studio. Generative study for the Greenhouse, 2011.

Greenhouse & Cabinet of Future Fossils. Jenny Sabin Studio. Rendering and line drawing showing placement of cold frame modules within the cross-rib system, 2011.
Greenhouse & Cabinet of Future Fossils. Jenny Sabin Studio. Rendering and line drawing showing placement of cold frame modules within the cross-rib system, 2011.

Finally and most importantly, these forms and the Greenhouse overall, are representative of a shift in digital tooling and crafting in architectural practice, wherein forms are produced as part of a generative design process; an aspect of computational design that opportunistically abstracts processes and forms found in nature for architectural investigation. This is certainly not a new idea. Generative processes extracted from natural models have preoccupied designers and engineers throughout the Modern era. We simply have better tools to compute abstract relationships to generate and render complex form.

The Greenhouse & Cabinet of Future Fossils. Through its dynamic material configuration, the Greenhouse attempts to gather, digest, and disseminate information about nature while also incorporating cutting-edge design and fabrication techniques to ultimately produce a greenhouse of the future. Photos Brent Wahl.
The Greenhouse & Cabinet of Future Fossils. Through its dynamic material configuration, the Greenhouse attempts to gather, digest, and disseminate information about nature while also incorporating cutting-edge design and fabrication techniques to ultimately produce a greenhouse of the future. Photos Brent Wahl.


What is new is our relationship with making and fabrication. The architect is now in full control of the design-to-manufacture process through the use of digital tools and mathematically sophisticated models and scripts. In the case of the Greenhouse, a generative study of knots becomes the geometric and material ground that is refined and later developed into 20 cross-rib cut files for a computer numerically controlled (CNC) machine.

Architects are now in the business of making and crafting again. In fact, this is the biggest paradigm shift—not our ability to digitally generate complex form. Computational design has impacted modes of representation and the role of geometric abstraction in the design process. Consequently, plan and section are no longer primary features of architectural representation; they are three-dimensional slices of relationships of compiled wholes.

The most important work in computational design today, and perhaps the most vital to architecture in the future, may be seen in projects that have grappled with the material and built ramifications of complex form. The creative expansion of mind and matter will continue to mature as the purity of digital complexity and mathematical space is seamlessly linked with a playful and rigorous calibration of tangible constraints found in the making of architecture. The formal expressions of the Greenhouse and Cabinet of Future Fossils may become obsolete, but how such expressions are made impure through digital fabrication and tooling will continue to revolutionize and inspire.

The Greenhouse & Cabinet of Future Fossils. Through its dynamic material con guration, the Greenhouse attempts to gather, digest, and disseminate information about nature while also incorporating cutting-edge design and fabrication techniques to ultimately produce a greenhouse of the future. Photos Brent Wahl.
The Greenhouse & Cabinet of Future Fossils. Through its dynamic material con guration, the Greenhouse attempts to gather, digest, and disseminate information about nature while also incorporating cutting-edge design and fabrication techniques to ultimately produce a greenhouse of the future. Photos Brent Wahl.



Endnote

1. See essay by Dorinda Outram, “New Spaces in Natural History,” in Cultures of Natural History, Nicholas Jardine, James A. Secord, and Emma C. Spary (ed.) (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univer-sity Press, 1996), 251.

Credit

The Greenhouse & Cabinet of Future Fossils was Commissioned by the American Philosophical Society Museum, funded by Heritage Philadelphia Program, a program of the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.




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