1 Million Yards of Fiber Were Digitally Knitted for This Architectural Canopy

Jenny Sabin Studio’s ‘Lumen’ is made up of photoluminescent fibers that change colors throughout the day.

Sydney Franklin Sydney Franklin

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A new immersive installation starring photoluminescent digitally knit and robotically woven fiber stretches across an open courtyard in Long Island City, New York. Barely hidden from street view, Lumen— the architectural headliner of MoMA PS1’s outdoor music series, Warm Up— takes over the museum’s entire walled-in space.

The project was brought to life by Ithaca, New York–based experimental architecture firm Jenny Sabin Studio. As the chosen winner of MoMA PS1 and the Museum of Modern Art’s annual Young Architects Program, it serves as a summer-long, interactive outdoor sculpture-piece and major point of conversation among architects, art enthusiasts and music-lovers alike.

The proposal for Lumen was borne out of biology. Acting as a sort of organically shaped brise-soleil, the individual cells that form Lumen connect to become an overarching canopy similar to the way human body cells network and take on new morphologies. Lumen’s cells change colors throughout the day and night in response to the density of bodies, sunlight and heat. Its evolving physical presence is based on this combination of cellular biology, materials science, mathematics and engineering; even its external misting system produces a refreshing microclimate that plays off of visitors’ proximities. Overall, the design calls for collective levity, play and interaction within a single space.

Jenny Sabin, principal of Jenny Sabin Studio, said that the multifaceted structure is meant to look and interact as if it’s taken on a life of its own, imitating the relationship that biological cells make with one another.

Lumen is a synthesis of deep investigation into cellular structures,” said Sabin. “But it’s not a mere mimicking of them. It’s about processes and behaviors and thinking about how architecture can be designed through relationships and respond and adapt to their environments and to human engagement.”

Lumen is the culmination of 10 years of research on cellular biology and experimentation with digitally knitted fiber. Over time, Sabin and her team have become specialists in designing cellular structures. The studio’s peculiar portfolio includes stratified sculptures, porous pavilions and walls made of 3-D-printed and fired ceramic brick. To design Lumen, they had to create an algorithm that would computationally sculpt the ideal tight-knit cell.

Sabin and her team worked closely with SHIMA SEIKI, a textile production company that fabricates for New York’s fashion industry. It sustainably produces products using innovative WHOLEGARMENT 3-D knitting technology. Its high-tech digital machines can piece together an entire item of clothing in one seamless process.

“One can say that 3-D knitting is much like 3-D printing in that you’re additively adhering material link by link, row by row,” said Sabin. “Textiles lend itself to working with complex nonstandard forms and elements.”

For the past six years, Sabin has relied on SHIMA SEIKI for its innovative technology, taking its work from couture fashion into the realm of architecture. Together, they made over 1,000,000 yards of fiber for Lumen. The two large-scale canopies that make up the widespread project feature 1,500 cellular components and 250 hanging tubular structures. One hundred recycled spool stools were also robotically woven for the space so that visitors could sit and find respite from the summer heat underneath Lumen’s shade. The canopy and the structural nylon webbing that bonds the cells are held up by to two 43-foot towers and an additional third tower that’s tied to the museum’s walls.

Throughout the day, the cells transform into a kaleidoscope of colors as the photons in Lumen’s many fibers soak up the sun via electromagnetic radiation. Once fully absorbed, the fibers emit light after undergoing a molecular excitation transition.

“Basically, this means that the molecules, in the presence of the sun, shift into a range within the electromagnetic spectrum that’s visible to the human eye,” said Sabin. “The pigment doesn’t actually change color, but we perceive a color change upon irradiation by ultraviolet waves. At a molecular scale, small crystals reveal their colors in the presence of the sun.”

When MoMA PS1 is filled wall-to-wall with people on Saturday nights, Lumen’s solar active threads radiate a series of intense tones that give a stark contrast to the dark sky. After subtly displaying a set of light colors during the day, Lumen becomes a bright otherworldly maze of twisted structures at night.

Lumen is on view at MoMA PS1 in Long Island City, Queens, through September 4.

Images courtesy of Jenny Sabin Studio, photos by Pablo Enriquez

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