Nonlinear Systems Biology and Design: Surface Design
Photography: Jenny E. Sabin Sabin and Jones’ cast model showing how final structures could, in effect, be the products of their own unfolding logic.

Since it was conceived in 2006, the AIA Upjohn Research Initiative—named after the Institute’s co-founder and 1857 inaugural president Richard Upjohn—has provided material support of up to $30,000 for “applied research projects that enhance the value of design and professional practice knowledge.” This defining statement broadly frames a pointed purpose: to push forward work that couples concepts of design with a multidisciplinary outlook as well as a toolkit that translates theory into action.

It was in this spirit that in 2007 the AIA awarded one of the first Upjohn grants to the team of Jenny E. Sabin and Peter Lloyd Jones for a project called “Nonlinear Systems Biology and Design: Surface Design.” Born out of the duo’s collaborative LabStudio, started in 2006 when both were based at the University of Pennsylvania, the research project is focused on analyzing biological patterns using enhanced technological capacities—in this case, 3D printing—with the purpose of generating new scientific hypotheses and new technological applications for biomedicine and architecture. The resulting process is one in which biology, in all of its complex yet inherently resilient and adaptable forms, can influence the practice of biomedicine into a more adaptive paradigm and to test out how self-assembling, malleable biological properties can be incorporated into architectural forms and materials.

“This was an effort to bring a science-based approach to architecture and generative design thinking to natural sciences and medicine,” says Sabin, who is now an assistant professor at Cornell University and the head of Sabin Design Lab, a Cornell research and design unit that further questions of how architecture and science converge.

Whereas Sabin brought an architectural focus to the “Nonlinear Systems” project, Jones, a biologist by training, looked for how one could use tissue context or architecture to control the development of a disease, including cancer. When the two researchers met, both were at the forefront of digital explorations in their own fields. Jones—now the first associate dean of emergent design for a U.S. medical academy and founder and executive director of the Thomas Jefferson University MEDstudio—applied his scientific training and expertise in matrix biology to the matter at hand.

“We both took a risk with this project. It changed our individual trajectories,” Jones says. “At the time, it didn’t fit the stereotype of either profession to be working this way. The Upjohn grant allowed us to do this by legitimizing the idea of our model, a hybrid research lab and studio at the intersection of science, architecture, and technology, generating a new field.”

LabStudio began its work by studying the behavior of human breast tissue in response to its surroundings. “Cells are like small looms weaving their architectural niche,” Jones says. The premise of the project held that the structure of a dynamic and reciprocal dialogue exists between the “language of form” at the molecular level, and the “reading of code” at the genetic level.

“Structure is a message in biology. Architecture is one means for how cells communicate; it controls the expression of genes,” Jones says. Using this guiding principle, Jones explains that, experimentally, if you engineer breast cancer cells to perceive a normal environment, they will behave like normal cells, reversing the disease.

“So the question then becomes, ‘Can we create environments in the tissue that model different environments to create different outcomes?’” Or, to interpret Jones, can producing those responsive environments provide a foundation to create a responsive architecture? Thus, the 3D prototyping began.

For Sabin and Jones, the study posed a challenge to quantify how different the use of a nascent technology. “We were the first to use 3D printers to look at basic part-to-whole relationships, including the use of metamaterials to introduce a fourth dimension,” Sabin says.

The project amounted to a process of what Sabin calls “reconceptualizing our approach to design beyond technology to synthesize biological processes and behavior and their potential application in architecture.” Sabin and Jones further studied the three-dimensional prototypes and proposed design-oriented building applications, particularly to conceive of adaptive building skins and their material structure.

The Upjohn grant for “Nonlinear Systems” laid the foundation for work that continues to this day. A 2010 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant was awarded to Sabin and Jones (along with researchers Nader Engheta, Kaori Ihida-Stansbury, Jan Van der Spiegel, and Shu Yang), to investigate sustainable and adaptable building skins that use biological principles in their designs. That work—as well as work parallel by other research teams—led to a second NSF grant to “explore materiality and kirigami [a variation of origami that includes cutting the paper] processes” that explore how buildings can respond to ecological and sustainability issues to behave more like organisms.

One legacy of LabStudio’s work is already being felt at universities such as Princeton, Penn, Stanford, Jefferson, and Cornell. Jones speaks of an emerging convergence between the medical and design fields.“If you train doctors to look at the world through the eyes of a visual artist or designer, their clinical skills and empathy improve,” he says. “The third-leading cause of death in America is medical error, and part of this may be due to an inability to simply see, listen, touch, and hear the patient in-depth and in intuitive ways.”

“An architect has a trained way and intuition of looking with empathy, pondering on form, expression, and intuition in a systems-based way,” Jones says. “This award helped set the stage for changes to come in medical schools to produce doctors that have broader points of view and, hopefully, higher levels of creativity, empathy, and critical thinking, all of which are essential for the best patient care.”