The Science Behind Jenny Sabin’s Color-Shifting MoMA PS1 Installation

Inspired by butterfly wings and knit robotically, Sabin’s latest work combines biology and art.

Upon first glance, it looks like the courtyard has been covered by an organic, membranous canopy. Tubular, knitted protrusions hang so low you can touch them; they spray mist on your face if you get too close. When the clouds shift and the sun shines through, the white fabric begins to change colors. In some areas, it shimmers pink; in others, it takes on a light green tinge. Two tensegrity structures anchor the canopy to the ground, which is littered with stools whose textile wrappings were knitted together by robots.


This is Lumen, an adaptive architectural installation that opens Thursday at MoMA PS1, the Museum of Modern Art’s outpost in Long Island City, Queens. Created by the architect and researcher Jenny Sabin for the annual Young Architects Program, which provides funding for experimental works that push the medium of architecture forward, Lumen is the result of six years of research on materials that adapt to their environment. This summer, it will act as the backdrop to the museum’s annual summer concert series and will be on display until September 4.

[Photo: Pablo Enriquez/courtesy MoMA PS1]
The installation contains 1 million yards of recycled textiles mixed with two kinds of fiber: One is solar-active, and is programmed to change from white to pink, green, blue, or yellow when the sun hits it. The other is photoluminescent, absorbing energy during the day and emitting light when the sun sets.

Aided by strategically placed spotlights, it’s at night when Lumen really lives up to its name. Sabin says her favorite times to view the installation are in the peace and quiet of the early morning, in the late afternoon as the canopy casts its dramatic shadows across the courtyard’s gravel, and in the evening when it starts to glow.

[Photo: Pablo Enriquez/courtesy MoMA PS1]
Sabin runs an eponymous lab at Cornell University, where she has worked with material scientists, biologists, and physicists to engineer the fibers and the fabrication techniques that make Lumen possible. The biological appearance of the canopy–which is particularly striking when echoed by the amoeba-like shadows it casts–was actually designed using algorithms that took into account the movement of the sun, the site size, and the structure of the knitted forms. While Sabin has used the solar active and photoluminescent fibers in installations before, she’s never tackled something on this scale.

Lumen might be her largest installation using adaptive materials to date, yet some of the science behind it was inspired by something small–butterfly wings. She explains that in nature, organic materials like butterfly wings and sea shells have what’s called structural color; rather than using pigment to create the appearance of color, the hues of these biological entities are created entirely by the geometry of their molecules. Sabin and her team used this idea to create their own structural color with fabric. In Lumen, the solar-active fibers have a crystalline structure that enlarges and refracts light differently when the sun hits them; we perceive that shift as a color change. This kind of research typically takes place in her lab, while Sabin is able to use her studio practice to turn those ideas into real-life experiments that more people can experience–like Lumen.

Will this kind of material ever be used in a conventional building? For Sabin, practical building material isn’t really the point. “How does this way of thinking and fabricating innovate new conceptions of what a building is?” she says. “That thinking around context specifies form and function.” In other words, Lumen‘s purpose isn’t to make existing buildings more responsive; it’s to reimagine the built environment entirely, adding environmental context as a third vector in the relationship between form and function.

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.