What happens when top-notch designers, scientists, artists, and extreme athletes all hang out together in NYC? Apparently, you get a running shoe that only weighs 1.2 ounces, and the installation of a half-architectural, half-technological exhibition at Nike’s Bowery Stadium in Manhattan. Jenny Sabin–artist, architect, and professor–lead the concept and creation of the display here in the United States, working as part of a group known as The Nike Flyknit Collective. The team, comprised of innovators in fields ranging from engineering to visual arts, worked to conceive a progressive design for the Nike Flyknit Trainer. These architectural feats are now being displayed as large interactive exhibits in New York, London, Shanghai, Rio, and soon to launch in Milan and Tokyo. Here, Sabin gives us the inside scoop on her experience working with the Nike team, the beauty of the human blueprint, and what exactly is “experimental design.”
Your work is called “the intersection of architecture and science,” so how is the Nike Flyknit Collective an ideal project for you?
Frequently, topics such as sustainability are addressed in technical or statistical terms only. I’m interested in re-thinking the entire conceptual project around such topics and mining the body for biodynamic models that may afford new ways of approaching issues of performance and adaptation in architecture. This is not all that dissimilar to how Ben Shaffer, Nike Innovation Lead, and his team at the Innovation Kitchen approach problems. It’s a dream brief as we are really dealing with the same issues, just at different scales.
You are now a professor at Cornell, one of the leading architecture schools in the nation; how did your experience and education, both in and out of the classroom, drive you to teach?
The summer after I graduated from PennDesign, I was invited to teach graduate level studios. I had not considered a career in academia, but it was an incredible opportunity and I accepted. I was terrified! How could I be entrusted with graduate students that were, for the most part, only 3 years younger than me? I soon realized that teaching was something that I cared deeply about and was pretty good at. Connecting with others is at the core of everything that I do. Securing a tenure-track position at Cornell is very exciting as I am now able to engage both graduate and undergraduate architecture students, help shape programs and move my research forward in ways that were not possible previously.
What was your favorite part of working on the project with the Flyknit Collective and with the Nike team?
Spending time with Ben Shaffer and his team was a big highlight. They have labs and creative studios similar to what I engage in, but with altogether different directives and resources. I had not had the opportunity to work with a cutting edge corporation before. It’s really fascinating to see how they conduct research and turn it into reality. The second aspect of the FlyKnit Collective that I really enjoyed was working with the diverse groups of participants during the summer workshops in NYC. I had never had to organize a workshop brief for extreme athletes, artists, scientists and designers! There were some great results and experiences because of this fantastic mix.
How does your work in large-scale architecture translate into design for the dynamic body?
I start by mining the human body for biodynamic models that may provide insight into issues such as sustainability and performance in architecture. The material and structural translations, such as those revealed in the myThread Pavilion, exhibit the unseen beauty inherent to these natural systems. I think beauty and play are very important topics that impact practical concerns when it comes to translation. The large-scale architecture reflects a collective and dynamic body of data.
What were your inspirations for this project?
The starting point for my project was to bridge the complexity of the human body in motion with the simplicity of knitting. Some of the big questions that I had were: What if you could knit, weave and braid buildings? What if you could personalize and enhance architecture with the bio-architecture and performance of our own bodies? How might sport influence next generation buildings? Ultimately, myThread integrates data from the human body with lightweight, high performing, formfitting and sustainable materials. The myThread Pavilion uses the flexibility and sensitivity of the human body as a biodynamic model for pioneering pavilion forms. myThread features novel formal expressions that adapt to changes in the environment and increase building performance.
Your installation of the myThread Pavilion at the Bowery Stadium is a decidedly interactive experience. Is the role of the human being always a consideration in your work?
Yes. I’m very interested in the topic of personalized architecture and how our very own bodies may inspire new models for negotiating pressing topics such as building performance and sustainability. Beyond these practical concerns, I’m interested in how architectural form may materialize and visualize that which is intangible. We live in an increasingly data-centric world. I’m interested in probing how architecture may provide an interface for making this paradigm meaningful, playful and fun and ultimately put the role of the human being first.
Your studio in Philadelphia is constantly referred to as “experimental design”, what separates your type of work from other 21st century architects and designers?
My practice follows a different model for what an architectural designer may pursue and do. I am a researcher with funding coming from entities such as the National Science Foundation; I am an educator that links serious design research with the design studio; I run a small practice to move these ideas into reality. All three of these pursuits inform what I do and I have had to navigate this for the most part on my own. Yes, my work is experimental, but the model in which I conduct this work, is even more experimental.
Technology is a clear component of the design of the Nike Flyknit running shoe, which only weighs 1.2 ounces. How has the evolving digital world changed your practice over the span of your career and how has your adaptation to these new techniques affected your success?
Yes, the explosion of digital techniques in architecture has radically transformed everything from how buildings are fabricated to the types of tools that we teach our students. I was fortunate to attend graduate school during the midst of this transition. I started school with traditional hand drawing at the drafting table and ended school with the writing of my own design tools through scripting logics. This coupling of the analog, of issues of craft and making, with sophisticated digital explorations continue to impact my creative process and the results.
Are there any specific projects or collaborations that you look forward to taking part of in the future?
I’m currently working with a hospital on a project that will act as an interface between patients, clinicians and scientific researchers. This is a tough project and one that I have not been ready to tackle until now. I nailed something in the Nike FlyKnit Pavilion project. The pavilion has its own nature and through that it says something about human beings. Working with Nike and their resources afforded me to discover this level of intricacy and coherence. I think this type of collaboration is the future. I am extremely excited to bring this expertise to this next project and to continue to refine it.