Fifteen Years of Environmental Art at the Schuylkill Center

By Christina Catanese, Director of Environmental Art

In 2000, Mary Salvante had an idea that the Schuylkill Center could be the perfect place to showcase environmental art. Nearly 15 years later, I’ve been reflecting on the past decade-and-a-half of environmental art at the Schuylkill Center: 20 outdoor exhibitions, 11 artist residencies, and dozens of shows in our gallery. Over the years, artists have grappled with issues and wonders in our ecosystem and shared their responses in diverse media. This post shows just a smattering of highlights of the art program going back to our very first gallery show and first artist-in-residence.

This January, we are kicking off the Schuylkill Center’s 50th anniversary celebration and celebrating fifteen years of environmental art at the Schuylkill Center with our fourth Annual Richard L. James Lecture by artist Mary Mattingly. Along with an interdisciplinary panel, Mattingly will reflect on the role of environmental art in a changing environment. With ecological challenges growing in complexity and scope, 2015 presents the perfect opportunity to consider the relationship of art and environment, and what it might look like in the next 15 years, 50 years, and beyond.

LandLab Residency (2014-2015), Artists: Jake Beckman; Leslie Birch; WE THE WEEDS (a collaboration of artist Kaitlin Pomerantz and botanist Zya Levy); Marguerita Hagan, B.H. Mills, and Maggie Mills

LandLab is a unique artist residency program that integrates art, ecological restoration, and education. A joint project of the Schuylkill Center and the Center for Emerging Visual Artists (CFEVA), LandLab residencies will make innovative installations that prevent or remediate environmental damage while raising public awareness about ecology. LandLab artist Jake Beckman created this mind-map to depict his early conceptualizing of his work on the cycles of soil formation and decay in the forest. Continue reading

Ecological Design Thinking

by Jenny Sabin

Figure 1 – Sabin’s myThread Pavilion for NYC Nike FlyKnit Collective; featuring a responsive Whole Garment knitted structure; image courtesy of Nike Inc.

Sustainable building practices should not simply be technical endeavors. They should include the transformation of existing built fabric into sustainable models that inspire both positive socio-cultural change and innovation in design, science, art and technology. Professor and architect, Michael Hensel at a recent symposium hosted by the Department of Architecture at Cornell University titled Sustaining Sustainability, underscored this notion (see full review by Sabin in The Architectural Review Issue #1381, March 2012). The symposium featured lectures by a diverse group of researchers and practitioners spanning multiple disciplines from biology to architecture who share a common concern for what Hensel has labeled ‘sustainability fatigue’. This symposium was not centered upon exhausted issues including energy, optimization and performance, which tend to dominate most conferences on sustainability in architecture today, but was instead focused on re-thinking the entire conceptual foundation for the project, one which fundamentally examines our relationship with nature and nature’s relationship with humans. Important to this shift, is a move away from purely technical solutions to environmental sustainability and a move towards an understanding that our built and natural environments are equally becoming the contexts for thriving hybrid ecosystems. How might architecture and art respond to issues of ecology whereby buildings and environmental interventions behave more like organisms in their built environments? And further, what role do humans play in response to changing conditions within the built environment using minimal energy consumption?

My work investigates the intersections of architecture and science, and applies insights and theories from biology and mathematics to the design of material structures. I am Assistant Professor in the area of Design and Emerging Technologies at Cornell University in the Department of Architecture, co-founder of LabStudio and principal of Jenny Sabin Studio, an experimental architectural design studio based in Philadelphia. I am interested in looking to nature for design models that give rise to new ways of thinking about issues of adaptation, change and performance in architecture.

Intersections between architecture, environmental art, materials science and biology offer fruitful models for ecological design thinking where collaborative pursuits offer new approaches to how we interact with nature in the built environment and to long term sustainable solutions in each of our individual fields.

Buildings in the U.S. alone account for nearly 40% of the total national energy consumption. Therefore, the design and production of new energy efficient technologies is crucial to successfully meet goals such as the Net-Zero Energy Commercial Building Initiative (CBI) put forward by the U.S. DOE, which aims to achieve zero-energy commercial buildings by 2025. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a rating system launched by the U.S. Green Building Council for new construction and existing building renovations. The LEED green building certification program is the industry standard for accelerating global adoption of sustainable green building and development practices. While this certification program serves as a positive and productive report card for assessing a building’s impact upon its environment, it ultimately enforces a short-term ‘check box’ mentality over long term and systemic ecological design thinking. Ecological design thinking requires a radical departure from traditional research and design models in architecture, art and science with a move towards hybrid, trans-disciplinary concepts and models for collaborating. Although there have been tremendous innovations in design, material sciences, bio- and information technologies, direct interactions and collaborations between scientists, architects and artists are rare. All of this is regardless of the fact that science, engineering, art and architecture all share the need to comprehend key social, environmental and technological issues. One approach is to couple architectural designers with engineers and biologists within a research-based laboratory-studio in order to develop new ways of thinking, seeing and doing in each of our fields.

Since the official public launch in the fall of 2010 of our National Science Foundation (NSF) Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation (EFRI) Science in Energy and Environmental Design (SEED) project titled, Energy Minimization via Multi-Scalar Architectures: From Cell Contractility to Sensing Materials to Adaptive Building Skins, I (Co-PI) along with Andrew Lucia (Senior Personnel) have led a team of architects, graduate architecture students and researchers in the investigation of biologically-informed design through the visualization of complex data sets, digital fabrication and the production of experimental material systems for prototype speculations of adaptive building skins, designated eSkin, at the macro-building scale. The full team, led by Dr. Shu Yang (PI), is actively engaged in rigorous scientific research at the core of ecological building materials and design. Our project contributes to an area within architecture called responsive architecture while also presenting a unique avant-garde model for sustainable design via the fusion of the architectural design studio with laboratory-based scientific research.

Figure 2 – eSkin project, sponsored by NSF EFRI SEED, UPenn & Cornell; our emphasis rests heavily upon the study of natural and artificial ecology and design, especially in observing how cells interacting with pre-designed geometric patterns alter these patterns to generate new surface effects.

Responsive architecture, a term first coined by Nicholas Negroponte, is a type of architecture that has the ability to alter its form in response to changing conditions, particularly at multiple scales. Popular examples include Galleria Hall West (Seoul, South Korea), Institut Du Monde Arabe, Aegis Hypo-Surface, POLA Ginza Building Façade, and SmartWrap™. Most of these examples, however, rely heavily upon the use of mechanically driven units that communicate through a mainframe, and they have to be nested within a building façade system. A building’s envelope must consider a number of important design parameters including degrees of transparency, overall aesthetics and performance against external conditions such as sunlight levels, ventilation and solar heat-gain. SmartWrap™ by Kieran Timberlake architects, integrates currently segregated functions of a conventional wall, and combines them into one advanced composite system. In contrast to these examples, our emphasis rests heavily upon the study of natural and artificial ecology and design, especially in observing how cells interacting with pre-designed geometric patterns alter these patterns to generate new surface effects. These tools and modes of design thinking, are then applied towards the design and engineering of passively responsive materials, and sensors and imagers.

The synergistic, bottom-up approach across diverse disciplines, including cell-matrix biology, materials science & engineering, electrical & systems engineering, and architecture brings about a new paradigm to construct intelligent and sustainable building skins that engage users at an aesthetic level with minimal energy consumption. We hope that our interdisciplinary work and modes of ecological design thinking not only redefine definitions of research and design, but will also address pressing topics in each of our fields concerning key social, environmental and technological issues that ultimately impact all humans in our built environments.

©Jenny Sabin 2013

Hear from Our Team!

By Jenny Laden

Now it’s time to hear from our team !  Here they are, discussing our planning project, the art program’s goals, and what makes The Schuylkill Center unique. Our Advisory team is collectively committed to progressive collaboration in art and science, and after our time together have a sincere fondness for the site and the program.

Moving forward, we will be sharing some thoughts and ideas from the team members themselves in the coming weeks. In the meantime, watch these smart amazing people, and join in our Walk in the Woods.
Special thanks to Mangrove Media for their gorgeous filming.

What Makes the Schuylkill Center Unique

The Goals of this project

Advisory Team Meets at Schuylkill Center

By Jenny Laden

On August 16th and 17th, SCEE hosted seven Advisory Team Members to visit our center and assist in the re-visioning of the Art Program’s direction. As part of the Pew Philadelphia Exhibition Initiative’s Planning Grant, the Team was invited to convene over the two days to discuss the Center’s opportunities, challenges and help craft a clear vision for the direction of the Art department at SCEE. Learn about the team here. Visiting us over the meeting were Deenah Loeb, SCEE board member and Art Committee chair, and Mary Salvante, founder and former Director of the Art Program.

Over the two days, the team was introduced to the Center’s land with a long walk with staff members: Mike Weilbacher, Joanne Donohue, Gail Farmer and Jenny Laden.

We walked though Penn’s Native Acres and Joanne and Mike discussed the restoration efforts at SCEE, and the contrast between the “restored”/”managed” areas and the rest of our property – delving into the details of soil composition changing as a result of non-native earthworms, invasive plant species such as stilt grass and why it prevents forest growth.

We saw erroded paths – the result of stormwater runoff from our building which runs down our hill. This errosion prevents growth, and brings unwanted debris to ponds and streams.

Gail Farmer, Education Director at SCEE, discussed the importance of environmental education, and the experience city dwellers have when they visit us here. She mentioned this book, which is an interesting perspective on why kids are reticent to fully engage in nature.

The team discussed other projects where art served to restore, remediate, revive bruised broken down space. We created a list of goals for our new work – including the notion that our projects must make visitors/participants and users Think, Feel and Do;  provide well interpreted information, offer a moving/surprising/effective experience and clearly present ideas to bring home which might alter their behavior, or the world around them.

We discussed the value of collaboration, and the importance of experimentation, the problems with the term “sustainability,” using art to educate an urban community about nature, the relationship between art and science, on various levels (personal, institutional, national, global). The team felt strongly that our work here must consider multiple time frames (short, medium and large) – so that our art projects might have a variety of ways of becoming, being and remaining (or not). Nothing replaces the time spent in a place. Our most successful artist projects (like Jennie Thwing’s brolo hill project)  thus far have come from artists who spent significant time here and arrive at a deeper understanding of the complexities that exist on our site.

At the end of a long two days, we collaborated on the following mission statement, paving a new way forward for the Environmental Art Program: 

SchuylkillArt provides opportunities to investigate, innovate and interpret the nature of place

Stay tuned for team member interviews, blogposts and more.