LabStudio and Biosynthesis
The work of LabStudio—a collaboration between architect Jenny Sabin and molecular and cell biologist Peter Lloyd Jones begun in 2006 at the University of Pennsylvania—differs significantly from that of most generative architects. Until David Benjamin collaborated with synthetic biologist Fernan Federici in 2010, Sabin and Jones were the only generative architect–scientist duo doing serious biomedical scientific research. Other technological and conceptual differences from neo-Darwinian generative architecture as usual begin to be revealed by a compelling high-tech image made by Jones in 2005: a photomicrograph of a rat’s smooth muscle cell engineered to fluoresce in different colors so that its constituent parts glow vividly in red, green, and blue (Plate 7). It shows red striated actin filaments penetrating both the blue nucleus housing the cell’s DNA and the green dotted cloud of the extracellular matrix (ECM, or just matrix) located outside the cell’s cytoskeleton. This image offers a stunning reframing—precisely because of its contextualization—of popular views of DNA that imagine the molecule in isolation (Figure 4.1).
These popular conceptualizations stem from Rosalind Franklin and Ray Gosling’s well-known X-ray diffraction image of sodium deoxyribose nucleate from 1952, which first revealed DNA’s molecular helical formation precisely by chemically and visually isolating DNA in a nebulous space. Their image belies the tools, techniques of analysis, and disciplinary focus of the then-burgeoning field of molecular biology, which shaped Francis Crick’s powerful yet flawed central dogma (1958) and recently reached its popular climax in the completion of the Human Genome Project (2003). Indicating the ongoing widespread popularity of this neo-Darwinian conception in the late 2000s, the recent advertising campaigns for Sony’s high-definition HDNA and Pearl Izumi’s cycling products, along with Pandora’s Music Genome Project, feed into our ongoing cultural preoccupation with DNA as the source of built-in quality and personalization. The marketing of all these make use of the double helix, and Pearl Izumi claims to offer a “genetically engineered fit.” This sort of “genetic engineering” arises most likely from the use of genetic algorithms as a computational problem-solving design tool rather than from use of scientific biotechnologies. However, as this distinction may not be obvious to the general public, such campaigns serve to reinforce popular belief today in the primary biological efficacy of “genes” and DNA.
Over fifty years after our obsession with DNA began, Jones presents us with perhaps a new iconic image, one also made using the most recent technologies but which hones in on current research interests in cell and matrix biology. Its frame intentionally encompasses the broader context, the microenvironment within which DNA exists and functions in living organisms—namely, the cell and its extracellular matrix. Similar to previous isolations of DNA molecules, cells and their matrices can be extracted from an organism and kept alive in a sterile laboratory in the presence of nutrient gel. In nature, however, their broader systemic context continues to expand outward into tissues, organs, organisms, and so on up the scale. Jones’s image therefore references systems biology yet still draws a tight boundary, one that freeze-frames a living moving cell into a fixed measurable form. Importantly, the image visibly captures the actin filaments that function as structural supports and signaling pathways and permeate zones previous scientists conceptualized as borders—that is, the edge of the nucleus and the edge of the cell. In so doing, it illuminates the integrated and extensive architectural and communication tensegrity system that scientists now theorize functions epigenetically to regulate gene expression and stabilize cell and tissue identity, homeostasis, and morphology.
Jones created this image soon after meeting Sabin, when he and his colleagues were researching the biochemical processes involved in the systemic responses of the extracellular matrix and vascular smooth muscle cells after injury. In general, Jones’s scientific research focused on the morphogenetic functions of homeobox genes and epigenetic processes in cells, their matrix, and tissues during the onset of vascular and breast tissue development and disease. It therefore offers an apt example and extension of the theoretical issues raised in the previous chapter under the headings of evo-devo and epigenetics. Sabin and Jones met in 2005 at the University of Pennsylvania when Jones saw a sign and out of curiosity walked into the first annual conference of the Nonlinear Systems Organization (NLSO). As a cell and molecular biologist who worked on nonlinear biological systems and had always possessed an interest in architecture and design, he wondered what architects meeting under the aegis of the NLSO were discussing. The NLSO was begun by Cecil Balmond, a Penn professor, structural engineer, and architect; for many years, Balmond directed the Advanced Geometry Unit of the international engineering firm Arup, which has led the world in the construction of geometrically complex structures. Sabin, who had been a graduate student at Penn before becoming a lecturer there, had studied with Balmond and pursued her own work in complex geometric architextile design. She was (and is) an expert scripter and participant with the SmartGeometry Group who had also studied biology and art as an undergraduate. It did not take long for her and Jones to decide to collaborate, founding LabStudio in 2006 and coteaching the seminar/studio Nonlinear Systems Biology and Design beginning in the summer of 2007.
During the years that Sabin and Jones were both at Penn, LabStudio’s research and teaching focused on the multiscalar, interconnective architectures of nonlinear biological systems. The biomedical aspects of their collaboration fit within the research agenda of Jones’s lab at the Institute for Medicine and Engineering (IME), but they reached out to scientists and graduate students in other fields to join their cross-disciplinary explorations. For example, materials scientist Shu Yang, whose lab focuses on nanoscale materials, has written grants with Sabin and Jones, and continues to work with Sabin on one project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Mathematician Robert Ghrist guest-lectured on Euler transformations of topological structures. And between 2008 and 2009, graduate students from architecture, molecular biology, biophysics, mathematics, and pharmacology teamed up in their course. In general, the collaboration aimed to merge their approaches—the intuitive, computational, spatial skills of Sabin with the theoretical and technical biomedical laboratory expertise of Jones—to devise new ways of seeing, thinking, and modeling cell and tissue morphogenesis under “normal” and “pathological” conditions. One deliverable they worked toward was developing novel diagnostic tools for patients with pulmonary arterial hypertension using computational analysis to identify “personalized signatures” of cell architectures, motility, and grouping patterns.
This chapter therefore offers an overview of their collaboration, focusing particularly on 2008 to 2009, when I was in residence at Penn as a postdoctoral scholar participating in their studio seminar and studying their partnership. Because so much happens pedagogically in studio that is not published and available later to scholars to understand, the best way to learn about contemporary teaching and research methods is to actively participate. The chapter opens with a discussion of Mina Bissell’s and Jones’s scientific research on the morphogenesis of cell and tissue architecture in order to demonstrate the relation of their work to theoretical developments in developmental biology, homeobox gene functioning, and epigenetics. It then explores how LabStudio extended this research into a bold, innovative, cross-disciplinary teaching and research initiative, one that produced creative work aiming to bridge the nano- with the macroscales in visualization and prototyping. It concludes with a brief overview of Sabin’s recent work, part of which extends the research begun with LabStudio at Penn in Jones’s lab into an NSF-funded project exploring nanoscale building-skin materials.
Morphogenesis of Cell and Tissue Architecture
In the mid-1980s, Harvard cell biologist Donald Ingber along with his Yale doctoral mentor, James Jamieson, first proposed that cells function as “tensegrity structures,” a term coined by designer and architect Buckminster Fuller to describe his approach to designing geodesic domes. Tensegrity combines “tension” with “integrity” and refers to structures “that gained their stability or integrity through a pervasive tensional force.” Fuller’s domes and Kenneth Snelson’s sculptures demonstrate the means by which prestressed struts, or struts connected with cables, that are interconnected using tension allow local forces to be distributed across the entire structure. Extending this to cells, Ingber and Jamieson hypothesized that tensegrity functioned in cells at many hierarchical levels, from the bonds in molecules up to the structure of the nucleus to the filament bundles in cellular cytoplasm (like actin) to the architecture of the cell overall. “This concept may seem obvious now to those familiar with modern day cell biology,” Ingber and colleagues write, “but it was heretical when it was first proposed because most scientists viewed the living cell as a membrane surrounding a viscous cytoplasm with a nucleus floating at the center.” Jones’s image clearly shows the architectural struts of the cell—actin filaments that combine structural and signaling properties and even extend beyond the cell membrane to connect it to the matrix. The radical implication is that cell position and shape in context is dynamically affected by a cell’s connections with the matrix and other contiguous cells, resulting in the fact that cell architecture—shape, configuration, nucleus position, et cetera—affects gene regulation and cell functioning.
Similar to the architecture of buildings, cells exist within contexts where physical forces matter significantly; structural collapse or major architectural changes can signal disease. These forces include not just the force of gravity but also those generated by osmotic pressure, cell-on-cell pressure within limited space, and forces of motion from energy expenditure as cells and organisms move. (One hundred years later, D’Arcy Thompson’s mode of thought reenters, mainstage.) Ingber and colleagues, in their recent review “Tensegrity, Cellular Biophysics, and the Mechanics of Living Systems” (2014), survey developments in the new field of “mechanobiology that centers on how cells control their mechanical properties, and how physical forces regulate cellular biochemical responses, a process that is known as mechanotransduction.” Cells are affected by tensional, compression, and shear forces, and their “tensional prestress” serves as a “critical governor of cell mechanics and function.” Another way of describing this is to say that tissue architecture affects cell and tissue homeostasis. This is the approach of Jones’s postdoctoral mentor, Mina Bissell of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and her colleagues, who study breast cancer. Transformations of tissue architecture under the onset of cancer are usually pathological. So, in contrast to J. Scott Turner’s description of homeostasis as the pursuit of comfort, here architectural changes link to discomfort and disease.
This drives home a very important point about morphogenesis. Although biological morphogenesis most commonly refers to the development of an embryo into its early and adult phenotypic forms, morphogenesis is actually a continual process that stops only at death. Cell or tissue architecture is simply another way of referring to cell or tissue morphology. Almost all cells perpetually repeat the process of dividing and then dying throughout the tissues and organs of a body, to the extent that the three-dimensional architectural structures they compose and the functions they perform are actively maintained through time. In some cases, such as the development of breast tissue in puberty and the changes that it undergoes in pregnancy and menopause, major morphogenetic changes occur in adulthood rather than as an embryo and developing fetus and child. Similarly, when tissues are damaged from injuries, morphogenesis is reinitiated to rebuild tissue architecture.
For these reasons, Bissell’s research on breast tissue architectural changes during cancer has revealed crucial information that is relevant to morphogenesis overall, one factor of which is the central role played by the matrix. Because the matrix is produced by cells but remains external to them in tissues, its effects on cell morphology and gene regulation are characterized as epigenetic. In 1997, Bissell and her colleagues published a landmark study demonstrating the role of the matrix as the dominant factor affecting whether the morphology of malignant cancerous human breast cells was pathological (i.e., cancerous) or normal (Plate 8). In the image, all cells possess the genes for breast cancer, but what changes is the matrix environment in which they are grown and placed. The first image shows the morphology of cancerous cells grown in a healthy normal matrix environment; note the spherical shape with central void. The second shows the malignant morphology that appeared when the matrix was changed. The third reveals a reversion back to the normal morphology from the malignant morphology that occurred when it was placed back into a normal matrix environment. Thus, changing the matrix causes malignant breast cancer cells to produce the malignant morphology, but it can also cause malignant cells to revert to the normal morphology. Based on this study, Bissell claims that “tissue phenotype [architecture] is dominant over the cellular genotype,” which is a radical counter to neo-Darwinian assumptions. She states, “When you have the form, the function comes. So form and function are related dynamically and reciprocally,” a concept she refers to as “dynamic reciprocity.” This could function well as an updated biologically based mantra for generative architecture, one like Louis Sullivan’s “form follows function” under modernism. The importance of cell and tissue architecture for Bissell is demonstrated by her innovation of growing cell and tissue cultures in three-dimensional flasks of Matrigel, rather than on flat petri dishes, as the spatial volume allows cells to reproduce as if they were in a body and assume the architecture they choose, rather than an architecture dictated by the experimental context.
Following from his work with Bissell, Jones’s research at Penn investigated the normal and pathological morphogenesis of pulmonary vascular and breast tissues. In the morphogenesis of both tissues, the homeobox gene referred to as Prx1 functions as a transcription factor. In 2003, Jones and his colleagues showed that Prx1 induces the production of the matrix protein tenascin-C (TN-C) and also promotes the migration (“motility”) of fibroblast cells to the site of injuries; fibroblasts produce collagen and the extracellular matrix, and so are crucial for rebuilding tissue architecture in the healing of wounds. The following year, they found that Prx1 affects cellular differentiation of fetal lung mesodermal cells into endothelial cells that, in turn, can incorporate into vascular networks. When Jones began collaborating with Sabin, he was exploring the role of TN-C in the release of adhered vascular smooth muscle cells from their matrix at time of injury in order to allow them to move to the wounded area. TN-C also plays a role in pulmonary vascular disease, particularly lung arterial hypertension, as well as in breast cancer, as Jones’s lab has shown. These examples and the published articles reveal that cellular and tissue interactions entailing homeobox genes and epigenetic processes are exquisitely complex, with details being ascertained as best as possible only through very careful experimentation. Alternately put, the theoretical developments presented in the previous chapter are grounded in the slow, painstaking, laboratory-based research of scientists like Sean Carroll, Bissell, and Jones.
LabStudio’s Research and Teaching Collaboration, 2008–9
Jones, who now directs the Emergent Design + Creative Technologies in Medicine program at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, introduced the Penn graduate architecture seminar Nonlinear Systems Biology and Design in the Fall 2008 semester with his image showing the tensegrity structure of the cell in relation to its matrix (Plate 7). Cotaught with Sabin (currently leading the Sabin Design Lab at Cornell), the seminar grew out of their research collaboration. The epigraph for the studio seminar brief clearly states the importance of computer modeling for scientific research into the dynamic networking behavior of complex biological systems: “The objective of Systems Biology [can be] defined as understanding network behavior, and in particular, their dynamic aspects, which requires the utilization of modeling tightly linked to experiment.” This statement is corroborated by the accompanying images on the brief, which show digitally designed and manufactured models made by Sabin based on experiments in Jones’s lab that show the changing shapes of breast tissue morphogenesis under cancer (when the matrix contains tenascin-C) (Plate 9). The syllabus thus used Sabin and Jones’s own research methods as the model for ways that their course would tackle the study of nonlinear systems biology and design.
These images were published in the paper that Sabin and Jones presented that fall at the annual conference of the Association for Computer Aided Design in Architecture in Minneapolis, titled Silicon + Skin: Biological Processes and Computation. Their paper addressed their collaborative study of breast cancer morphogenesis under the title “Nonlinear Systems Biology and Design: Surface Design.” For this research, Jones and his assistants grew human mammary epithelial cells in 3-D volumes filled with Matrigel. The “normal” form of mammary epithelial cells is in spherical form with a central void (the far-right image), which is referred to as an “acini” and is where milk forms. By altering the amount of tenascin-C in the matrix environment, they transformed normal form into cancerous tumorigenesis (the second image from the left). Blue fluorescence marks the nuclei of each cell in both in vitro tissue formations (top, second image from right), whereas green marks the border of the tissue where the matrix surrounds the tissue. After Jones’s lab sliced the in vitro three-dimensional tissue into very thin Z-stack layers and digitally scanned these to the computer, Sabin then relayered them into an in silico virtual 3-D tissue. To do this, she scripted algorithms that computationally analyzed and then re-created the geometries of both normal and pathological forms. She then created 3-D-printed models in composito of a size to hold in one’s hand for the lab to study.
Our seminar began with Jones offering the first lecture, which critiqued gene-centrism and the shortcomings of the highly linear central dogma. Sabin and Jones’s ACADIA paper expressed the same point of view: “The fashionable ideology of ultra-Darwinism, which reduces organisms to little more than machines for the replication of DNA, is gradually being replaced by a more holistic trajectory in which life is considered to depend upon complex interactions that occur within cells, organisms, and with their micro- and macro-environment through time and space.” His second lecture introduced epigenetics so we could have a context for understanding matrix biology and the experiments that were to be used as the initial exploratory content for the studio projects. He used Mina Bissell’s question for this: “If all somatic cells in a body have the same genome, then what makes your nose tissue remain a nose, and your liver tissue a liver?” As Bissell explains, it is the matrix that epigenetically stabilizes or destabilizes different cell identities. At the time, Jones was reading Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb’s pathbreaking book Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life (2006), which he recommended to the class. Together these two lectures set the primary course theme, one that is just as relevant to architecture as to biology: How does environment (context) specify form, function, and structure? What is the nature of the dynamic reciprocity between these?
Sabin’s lectures clarified the difference between biomimicry and biosynthesis; she and Jones prefer the latter to distinguish their approach, which focuses on the nonlinear processes of complex biological systems. (It has no relation to synthetic biology.) Cutting-edge biomimetic designs had just been featured at the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition Design and the Elastic Mind (2008), including the 2005 Daimler AG / Mercedes-Benz Bionic Car design by Peter Pfeiffer based on the skeletal structure of a boxfish. Yet, Sabin characterized biomimetic design as a relatively quick, goal-oriented approach in which designers and architects directly copy natural forms or adapt aspects of them into useful technologies. Biosynthesis, as they use it, refers to the processes underlying form-generation in the development of biological systems; in their much slower, open-ended research driven by the pace of laboratory experimentation, they were seeking to uncover these processes.
Sabin offered tooling and scripting sessions on the program Generative Components in between lectures and readings that explored topics from architectural history, philosophy, evo-devo, self-organization, cell mechanics, algorithmic design, mathematical topology, and nanofabrication. Three themes offered a framework for the research projects, which focused on patterns in the architectural aspects of cell and tissue morphologies—patterns in the deep and surface structures of cells (“surface design”), in their architecture during cell movement (“motility”), and in their grouping habits (“networking”). “By immersing oneself in complex biological design problems, and abstracting the inherent relationships of these models into code-driven parametric and associative models,” Sabin writes, “it is possible to gain new insights into how nature deals with design issues that feature pattern formation, part-to-whole relationships, complexity, and emergent behavior. Perhaps architects might learn from these biological models such that architecture acquires ‘tissueness’ or ‘cellness’ and is not merely ‘cell- or tissue-like.’” The class approached these topics from the theoretical starting point that complex biological systems demonstrate self-organization informed by nonlinear processes entailing feedback between the many participants at different hierarchical levels—genes, cytoplasm, matrix, tissues, organs, organisms, and environmental contextual inputs. Sabin and Jones also were committed to working both in Jones’s biomedical laboratory where the 3D-printer was housed and in the computer labs at Penn Design so that students would become well versed in both environments and the sets of skills each requires.
Early in the semester, students were grouped into interdisciplinary teams—ideally, each group had at least one architecture and one molecular or cell biology graduate student—who were assigned a term project focusing on either cell surface design, motility, or networking. For each topic area, Sabin and Jones provided video recordings and still photo documentation of experiments they had conducted in preparation before the course began. The images captured the different behaviors of a particular type of cell related either to breast cancer or pulmonary arterial hypertension, both diseases studied by Jones’s lab, in different environments. For example, teams studying cell motility worked with vascular smooth muscle cells in a two-dimensional matrix environment that either had native or denatured collagen. The surface design teams examining the shapes of cells moving over time on a two-dimensional surface studied breast epithelial cells in a matrix environment with or without TN-C. Those studying cell networking patterns examined pulmonary endothelial cells in a uniform matrix environment; some of the endothelial cells had the homeobox gene Prx1 knocked out, while others had the gene present. Prx1 affects the production of TN-C, which allows cells to connect to their environment and communicate with one another; in its absence cells did not network in clusters, but with it present they clustered directionally. Based on these initial starting points, teams were asked to carefully analyze the visual data for their topic utilizing both computational and experimental scientific tools and processes, in order to pursue ideas and questions of organization and process that might be relevant to unlocking reasons behind the patterns presented. All teams were required to demonstrate the results of their research using 3-D-printed forms for their final projects.
Although student projects from the Fall 2008 course did not result in publications, the work of graduate students biologist Mathieu Tamby and architect Erica Savig (who finished her Ph.D. in 2016 at Stanford University’s School of Medicine in Cancer Biology) from the previous year resulted in conference presentations. Yet, regardless of whether such high professional accomplishments resulted from a one-semester studio (which is a tall order), the most valuable contribution of the LabStudio teaching collaboration was introducing students to the concepts, terminologies, and methods from different academic disciplines. Together, these different disciplinary viewpoints offer the potential of unique insights into structural design processes, whether biological or inorganic, whether nano- or macroscale. Being forced to collaborate with students in these other fields—in addition to being expected to bring oneself up to speed on whatever biological or architectural concepts one was not familiar with before the course—prepared students for future collaborative research using a systems-thinking approach. Complex systems do not fit into one discipline, nor do the types of complex problems facing our world today. Funding organizations such as the NSF are now eliciting calls for proposals from teams representing multiple disciplines, offering only one obvious instance that the direction of advanced research is moving toward such collaborations. It is precisely one of these NSF grants that has funded the ongoing work of Sabin as a principal investigator (PI), along with architect and technician Andrew Lucia and other co-PIs: materials scientist Shu Yang (Penn), engineers Nader Engheta and Jan Van der Spiegel (Penn), and matrix biologist Kaori Ihida-Stansbury (in Jones’s former lab at the Penn IME).
Scaling Up: From the Nano to the Macro
An important facet of the LabStudio collaboration has been the production of human-scale models of nano- or microscale material formations from scientific laboratory research. When Sabin first printed out the models of normal and malignant tissue morphologies of breast cancer and scientists at Jones’s lab held them in their hands, they remarked on the difference of perspective and insight offered by experiencing cell and tissue architecture at the new scale. Sabin, whose creative practice specializes in even larger-scale architextile installations, decided to scale up further. In the summer of 2008 along with a number of assistants, she connected seventy-five thousand zip ties into a room-sized installation that modeled the interconnected forces between cells in the formation of branching vascular tissue morphogenesis. Called Branching Morphogenesis, the installation consisted of five interconnected layers hanging ceiling to floor (3.5 meters tall, 4.5 meters wide) that one could walk into and through so as to surround oneself with the structure (Plate 10). Sabin writes, “The project investigates part-to-whole relationships revealed during the generation of branched structures formed in real-time by interacting lung endothelial cells placed within a 3D matrix environment. The installation materializes five slices in time that capture the force network exerted by interacting vascular cells upon their matrix environment.” The piece won first place in the 2009 International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge, earning a spot on the cover of Science magazine.
Cellular networking also inspired Sabin’s PolyThread Knitted Textile Pavilion, another room-sized work commissioned for the 2016 exhibition Beauty: The Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial (Plate 11). This piece was brought to life, so to speak, by light and shadow in a manner similar to Philip Beesley’s Hylozoic works that move and rustle in response to human motion and heat (Plates 2 and 14). Yet, whereas Beesley’s work integrates tiny sensors into his installations, Sabin’s thread simply responds to light by virtue of its material composition. The pavilion absorbed colored light from the room as well as sunlight and transmitted it across the threaded network, which would respond to shadows made by the presence of visitors. The digitally knitted textile was tensioned through its connection to a freestanding fiberglass tubing edge, which metaphorically functions as the extracellular matrix around the edge of a tissue. (Compare with the green-fluorescing matrix edge of the pathological breast cancer tissue morphology, top and second from the right in Plate 9.) Thus, although in this pavilion the tube functions visually more like a hoop onto which one knits, Sabin was surely referencing cell and matrix networks as tensegrity structures.
Network structure even informs Sabin’s digital curriculum vitae, which clearly shows the interconnectivity between her research, teaching, private practice, and work with industries (Figure 4.2). She created this practice diagram in 2008 using the program Generative Components, meaning that the image is an associative visual model of a scripted code and not a surface diagram created with a graphics application. Visually, it compares beautifully with the “net of life” diagram of the microbial phylogenetic network influenced by horizontal gene transfer (Plate 5). Sabin’s process reflects her deep theoretical commitment to nonlinear complex adaptive systems, rather than a gene-centric linear focus, as the biological model for her work. Compare it as well to the practice diagram by Foreign Office Architects (FOA) from Breeding Architecture (Plate 3). In Sabin’s, you can trace multiple paths from any one point to any other, with the implication that they influence and transform the others in dynamic fashion. FOA’s is purely linear, where all phenotypic traits are defined by their firm’s “design DNA” despite different expressions conforming to different projects’ programmatic and site-specific needs. Sabin and Jones summarize this profound difference particularly well by describing that in their collaborative research, “by placing the cell, tissue, or organism, rather than the gene at the center of life, a different perspective on the construction and dynamics of organismal architecture is beginning to emerge.”
Sabin’s ongoing project funded by the NSF, referred to as eSkin, tackles an even more ambitious form of modeling from the nano- to the macroscale. Along with her current collaborators (Lucia, Yang, Engheta, Van der Spiegel, and Ihida-Stansbury), she is striving to create an aesthetically interesting, passively responsive, new building skin using nanofabrication. In other words, the goal of the project is not to model from the nano to the macro, but actually to develop and construct the innovative building skin. Yet, owing to hurdles they are encountering along the way in their collaboration and development, modeling has become an integral part of the process. Currently, substrates created through nanofabrication are limited to about four inches square. This means that simulation must be used in order to understand how this wavelength-filtering material might function optically if applied on the scale of a building facade. In the process of attempting this simulation, Sabin, Lucia, and Simin Wang realized that currently available software does not offer the capacities they need, so they have written their own tools to this end. Unfortunately, because the computational memory required for this task is impossibly high, they have also had to innovate alternate prototyping modes for ascertaining the visual effects, which change depending on the angle from which one views the material. In this regard, the computational limitations they face are similar to those tackled by Michael Hansmeyer and Benjamin Dillenburger in the creation of Digital Grotesque II (2017).
True to Sabin’s ongoing interest in nonlinear systems biology and design, the nanomaterials they are working with “exhibit nuanced nonlinear behavior as a product of their nano and micro scale geometric structures, such as angle and wavelength dependent properties.” When she and her colleagues applied for the NSF Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation (EFRI) program Science in Energy and Environmental Design (SEED) in 2010, Jones was still at Penn and was part of the original grant. One feature of the proposal uses knowledge gained from studying the nonlinear networking behavior of human smooth muscle cells with their extracellular matrix as a model for biomimetic (or, in their words, biosynthesis-derived) design of the building skin. This project is thus an ambitious extension of the research begun in LabStudio. “This project represents a unique avant-garde model for sustainable and ecological design via the fusion of the architectural design studio with laboratory-based scientific research,” they write. “In turn, this project benefits a diverse range of science and technologies, including the construction of energy efficient and aesthetic building skins and materials.” The full name of their grant proposal—“Energy Minimization via Multi-Scalar Architecture: From Cell Contractility to Sensing Materials to Adaptive Building Skins”—states the goals clearly. Aiming overall for energy minimization through the use of nanofabricated architectural materials, they hope to use cell behavior as a biomimetic model for adaptive building skins that respond contextually to the environment using sensors. Sabin prefers to not use the word “biomimetic,” though. “Generative design techniques emerge with references to natural systems,” she writes, “not as mimicry but as transdisciplinary translation of flexibility, adaptation, growth, and complexity into realms of architectural manifestation.” Continuing, with reference to the idea of self-organization, she states, “The material world that this type of research interrogates reveals examples of nonlinear fabrication and self-assembly at the surface, and at deeper cultural and structural levels.”
Although eSkin is still in process and future publications will reveal more information than currently published articles offer, the current descriptions of the project raise a number of questions that need to be addressed. While Sabin and her colleagues claim to be minimizing energy through the creation of an efficient, sustainable, and ecological building skin, the fact that it is a nanofabricated material instantly makes this seem problematic. The two current publications on the project do not address how it will minimize energy, much less state from which material the final product is intended to be constructed; the current prototype is made from polydimethylsiloxane. In general, however, nanomaterials and nanofabrication require a high embedded energy in life cycle analyses. This finding is verified by a recent article coauthored by the director of the Center for Life Cycle Analysis at Columbia University, Vasilis Fthenakis, and an environmental research scientist at the Ford Research and Innovation Center, Hyung Chul Kim. They examined twenty-two life cycle analyses of nanotech products since 2011, ranging from “nano-materials, coatings, photovoltaic devices, and fabrication technologies. The reviewed LCA studies indicate that nano-materials have higher cradle-to-gate energy demand per functional unit, and thus higher global warming impact than their conventional counterparts. . . . This is mainly attributed to the fact that nano-materials involve an energy intensive synthesis process, or additional mechanical process to reduce particle size,” they write. Their findings contrast those of the studies they reviewed, however, which argued that the “cradle-to-grave energy demand and global warming impact from nano-technologies in a device level is lower than from conventional technologies.” This is due to the fact that “nano-materials are typically used in a small amount to improve functionality and the upgraded functionality offers more energy efficient operation of the device.” If one were to produce nanomaterials on the scale of a building, it is highly likely that this would entail a huge investment of energy in the production process, which is an integral part of the life cycle. Other questions concern the types of sensors to be used, which are also not specified. Most sensors function within a digital computational network, yet Sabin and her colleagues are proposing to create a “passively responsive” skin. Given that the early simulation processes of the optical effects were impossible because of the amount of computational memory involved, one would hope that the final product would require little to no energy for its responsive attributes. (Sabin cites another NSF EFRI SEED grant recipient, Maria-Paz Gutierrez, director of the BIOMS research center at UC Berkeley, whose “breathing membrane manages multiple functions through zero energy input” using “an array of pores and apertures.”) Finally, the ways in which cellular responses to their matrix are affecting the design of the nanoscale material or its performance goals are unstated and not obvious.
Apart from eSkin, Sabin’s other installations (Branching Morphogenesis, PolyThread, and others in the Poly series or works visible on her website) face a similar critique as the works of Achim Menges and Beesley. Undoubtedly, the work of all three is very smart, visually stunning, even breathtaking, and in different ways highly innovative. As sculpture, interior architecture elements, or design, the works generate a powerful presence and affect. But in relation to architecture, the pavilions and installations function more as pure research or as prototypes with yet-uncertain applications in the creation of habitable structures. One of the goals shared by all three is to inspire new modes of thought about the materials and processes that can be used in the conception, design, fabrication, and function of architecture. For each, this entails the use of advanced digital technologies at almost every level of production, apart from the hand-assembly required for most of the final products. Yet, the ways in which their works are “environmentally responsive”—to humidity, light, or human motion and heat—are predicated on very narrow definitions of what counts as an environment, much less as an “ecology.” Sabin and her colleagues’ use of the word “ecological,” with regard to eSkin, seems to resonate more with Menges’s “morpho-ecologies” than Sabin’s theoretically current knowledge of systems biology and biological complexity would suggest. Systems do not end with humans and their buildings; as life cycle analyses show, that is just the start of the process.
But in many other ways, Sabin’s work and that of LabStudio stand out as radically different from the work of most other generative architects. LabStudio’s niche within the field of generative architecture derives from Sabin and Jones’s fundamental adherence to biological theories that prioritize context and connectivity, not genes, as the primary determinants of form and function. While genes are indispensable for living forms, they did not evolve and do not exist in isolation from their contexts: the genome and epigenome, cells, extracellular matrices, tissues, organs, other organisms, and the forces and substances in an organism’s external environment. Rather, these four-dimensional contextual “layers” are systemically networked throughout development and maintenance of morphological form and function. This stance—favoring context as primary—positions LabStudio theoretically far beyond the neo-Darwinian central dogma and differentiates their work from that of most other generative architects.
Furthermore, Sabin and Jones began LabStudio by studying real biological morphogenesis in cells affected by breast cancer or pulmonary arterial hypertension. Their in vitro experiments simulated as closely as possible in a laboratory three-dimensional in vivo conditions. Sabin wrote the algorithms for modeling these in silico and printing them in composito, making biological tissue architecture visible and tactile to human eyes and hands. This type of lab experimentation is completely unfamiliar to most generative architects. Furthermore, Sabin does not rely on genetic algorithms or evolutionary computation for form generation but rather writes her own algorithms, often using Generative Components. These allow her to interpret the geometry of specific biological morphologies: development, cellular growth and proliferation, tissue architectures and their transformations over time via mechanical forces into different shapes. LabStudio’s understanding of architectural structure and morphogenesis is particularly broad and deep, spanning biological and cultural architectural realms. Furthermore, it has had implications for new understandings of health and disease, although with Jones now being more involved with design and less involved with scientific laboratory research, the collaboration has shifted into new domains.
Finally, LabStudio’s work shows that an even deeper interdisciplinary alliance is in the process of being forged by researchers who are seriously interested in the function and architecture of complex biological and environmental systems. The NSF EFRI SEED call for proposals signals a broader shift occurring as funding organizations recognize the need for different types of minds, trained in different disciplines, to work together to solve the crises we face and to innovate new strategies of conceptualization and not just problem-solving. A 2009 story from the Penn Gazette boldly stated that LabStudio’s “unusual partnership” may “rewrite the rules of biomedical research,” a summation that along with the article’s title—“An Architect Walks into the Lab”—hinted that the collaboration may lend more to biomedicine than it does to architecture. Yet the obverse—that science may transform architecture through such inventions as the potential creation of energy-minimizing “intelligent skins,” new tensegrity constructions, or mobile skeletal structures that allow buildings to change shape (should that be deemed necessary)—alludes to the ways architects are also using scientific research and development to rethink the potential of their practice.