Jenny Sabin isn’t a big fan of the word style. For the Cornell Professor, Principal Investigator of Sabin Lab and Principal at Jenny Sabin Studio, it’s an understandable reluctance. As an architect, designer, artist, researcher and educator investigating the intersections between art, science, biology and mathematics - trying to fit in one box is a little limiting.
“I identify not necessarily with a style but with a way of thinking and working. One that is materially-directed and looking to nature not to simply mimic the shape or form, but to try and understand the processes and contribute to the design and making of form in context. Understanding the dynamics between environment and form gives rise to pretty amazing outputs.”
Jenny’s work can certainly attest to that.
Her impressive project list spans a Nike installation at the global giant’s main campus, an ‘interesting but productive’ challenge creating a semi-permanent outdoor public canopy project in Abu Dhabi, a pop-up experiential canopy structure for non-profit organisation Art Production Fund in New York City, and - a crowd favourite - Ada: Microsoft’s ‘Artist in Residence’. The first-of-its-kind 18-month collaborative effort fuses artificial intelligence and interactive art with responsive architecture.
Pair this with the expansive list of game-changing exhibits, lectures and conferences pioneered by the Sabin Lab at Cornell AAP - and you’d be forgiven for thinking Jenny’s projects are her proudest achievements. But the Seattle-born creator finds another part of her day even more fulfilling.
“When I started teaching at 30, I didn’t anticipate it would become such a big part of my life - but it became very natural and rewarding for me to engage and communicate with students effectively. At the end of the day, I rely on my research and work to keep me going - it’s engaging and really exciting. But I think my biggest impact is getting my students to think a little differently, and go out into the world as leaders. I’m very proud of my students and research associates.”
The daughter of two artists, Jenny’s compulsion to explore and create is justifiably innate.
“I grew up in an environment where making and experimenting was just part of our daily life. Coming-of-age with the confidence around making things and working with materials was very formative. But I also really loved school - I did well in mathematics and the arts and sciences. I was always interested in how those frequently siloed and divergent disciplines could come together.”
16 years after graduating with her professional degree in architecture, that budding multidisciplinary student has become the teacher; overseeing a practice of five core architects and a lab of 10 researchers.
“I tend to always be on the experimental side of things and pushing the envelope. I’m very comfortable with ambiguity and not knowing how a project will unfold… That said, I pay close attention to rigour and working thoughtfully and ethically.”
Like any worthy endeavour, conscious pioneering doesn’t come without challenges. For Jenny - who wants to be remembered for her contribution to research and as an inspiring educator - it’s the isolating nature of discovering new frontiers.
“When you’re trying to craft new models for practice and research across disciplines it often means you have to forge ahead and pave a new path. It means a lot of long hours and frequently working alone - those can be difficult hurdles.”
But is it worth it?
A true team player, Jenny feels most alive when she’s working with her staff and students in what she calls ‘collective synergy’; the unique flow-state generated by pure creativity manifesting into the physical.
“I couldn’t do what I’m doing to the depth I’m doing it without the help of my team - that takes careful management and empowered people. The most fascinating projects involve collaboration.”
An advocate for creating your own fusion of style, Jenny’s all about the journey.
“I’m where I’m at because it’s been a process; of making important decisions but also listening to people I respected who were important mentors and teachers. I’ve come to learn that the straight and narrow path is not necessarily the one that’s going to be the most fruitful. There is no right set path, but that's a great thing.”