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Jenny Sabin Studio

Ithaca, New York, United States

July 2021


Jenny E. Sabin (Principal and Lead Architectural Designer)


Dillon Pranger (Project Manager), Clayton Binkley (Engineering Design), Vance Fabrication (Fabrication and Installation)


Kristine Mahoney, Cornell Human Ecology, Cornell University


John Munson & Jason Koski, Communications, Cornell University


The PolyForm project commenced in the summer of 2013 with a series of conversations and an afternoon visit to Cornell Human Ecology to tour labs and meet faculty. Featuring digitally fabricated advanced materials, the project takes inspiration from the transdisciplinary nature of work by Human Ecology faculty, including Professor Emerita Kay Obendorf in emerging material sciences. The project embodies the mandate of Cornell Human Ecology to promote human-centered design science. Obendorf’s seminal research in fiber science, films, and protective clothing made great impact in the field of textile chemistry. Discovering immediate synergies in these areas, JSS initiated a series of generative design iterations alongside material research exploration. In an ideal large-scale application of research studies from JSS, Obendorf, and CHE, the resulting material effects, specifically optical color change, transparency, and transmission, would be the result of geometric variation within a surface, a viewer’s relative position with respect to that surface, and the source of illumination upon or from behind the surface.

These relationships formed the basis for design iterations and simulations, with the goal of developing a project that would be highly transformational in its materiality, engage with its local context, respond to the sun, integrate cutting edge research and digital fabrication techniques, and most importantly inspire visitors and human interaction. A key component is how we perceive those subtle to dramatic changes of light and color within the material itself. These responsive and dynamic material properties were a driving set of parameters in the design process.


Commissioned by Cornell’s College of Human Ecology, PolyForm is sited on a busy public thoroughfare on the Cornell University Campus at the College of Human Ecology on the corner of Garden Avenue and Reservoir Avenue at the top of the west path along MVR and across from Bailey Hall. The organization and material expression of the pavilion, a public “square” made up of four crystalline water-jet polished steel quadrants framed by dichroic-film treated glass panels, are the result of circulation studies and site analysis as well as ongoing materials and digital fabrication research. Thus, the primary organization of the project activates two major circulation paths and marks a threshold to Martha Van Rensselaer Hall. It is through these transformations that passers-by get a sense of being embedded in the project becoming part of its ecology and materiality. Running concurrently to the launch of this project, the Sabin Design Lab was in year four of a collaborative research project funded by the National Science Foundation, eSkin, exploring responsive and bioinspired programmable materials and structural color. These topics and fundamental research informed the foundation for the PolyForm project. Light reflecting from and refracted on to the glass changes color and grows warmer or cooler, more opaque or transparent. The film within the glass selectively interacts through interference or reinforcement of certain wavelengths of light. Due to the connection with its context and design objectives, this project presented a unique opportunity to test ongoing materials research at the architectural scale.


PolyForm encourages circulation and engagement with its transforming nature, to inspire moments of pause, connection, and reflection in one’s daily routine. The project occupies 1,500 square feet and is 38 feet long on each side and nine feet tall.

The geometric language of the project was rigorously iterated to function as a spatial organizer and to choreograph and filter the highly intricate and kaleidoscopic dance of color, light, and shadow. As a spatial organizer, the project engages with its local campus context by transitioning from a rectilinear volume of tempered glass sheet to a complex, organic, and crystalline set of folded waterjet-cut stainless-steel modules. The outer volume relates to the rectilinear nature of the local campus buildings, while the inner modules fracture, reflect, and refract color, light, and human reflections to generate a collective and immersive experience. PolyForm is not a literal translation of human ecology but embodies its themes through a dynamic interplay of light, color and shadow that works across scales. The generative design process included the development of algorithms and topological modeling strategies to procedurally explore subdivision, folding, and fractal growth.

Per the Cornell Chronicle “…the project blurs the lines between art, technology, design, science, and architecture. It’s not an object, but a space that has a presence. It operates as a node in the environment to encourage community participation.” Beloved by students, faculty, staff, residents, and visitors to Ithaca, the project is a new gateway for the University and is now included in every campus tour.

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