Jenny Sabin’s curious greenhouse at APS Museum’s Jefferson Garden – an interview


Back in August, I had an appointment to talk with Jenny Sabin, architect, designer and Pew Fellow, at the APS Museum‘s Jefferson Garden (across 5th St. from the Museum). Sabin had designed and was in the process of building a very curious looking greenhouse as a temporary art installation at the site. It was two weeks before the soft opening and 3 weeks before there was to be a real opening AND a Fringe festival play performed in and around the structure.

Jenny Sabin’s greenhouse, under construction at the Jefferson Garden, Aug. 19, 2011

Workers buzzed around the thing, which looked like a cross between the bones of a beached whale or dinosaur and the ribs of a Viking sea vessel. Strange yet intriguing. The ramp at the entrance to the garden insisted you climb up it — there’s no room to go safely around. So I climbed aboard and asked for Jenny. She was at her studio I was told but they’d call and get her.

Jenny Sabin’s greenhouse, under construction Aug. 19, 2011

Meanwhile, behind the space more white ribs lay on the grass waiting to be installed on the greenhouse. And in the far corner of the garden on a small patio sat a bunch of colored-plastic boxes, which I guessed would be added to the structure. Aaron Cromie, playwrite, was there too. His site-specific Fringe Festival Play, A Paper Gardencommissioned by APS Museum, along with Sabin’s greenhouse and a few other pieces — was being written and he needed to talk with the horticulturalist about the plants in the garden. (All the commissioned works here are in conjunction with the museum’s indoor exhibit Of Elephants and Roses).

Jenny Sabin’s Greenhouse, the cold frames waiting to be installed, Aug. 19, 2011

Cromie’s play takes place in the past, present and future he said. There are different plants here now in the garden than back in the day. When the horticulturalist spoke she talked about four American holly trees (around 30 years old) that are spaced in parallel positions and pruned to a Christmas tree look. Usually holly trees sprawl from top to bottom and do not have this distinctive cone shape. But the Jefferson Garden architect dictated the shape so they achieve a kind of French-style formal garden look (consistent with what Jefferson saw in France). Apparently the hollies get hand-pruned three times a year. There are two white dogwoods and the groundcover is periwinkle or vinca minor.

The horticulture tour of the garden continued with the playwrite and his cohorts taking notes, but Sabin had arrived so I went off to look at her greenhouse with her and ask her some questions. Here’s our interview.

Jenny Sabin’s Greenhouse, under construction Aug. 19, 2011

When did all this begin?
Sue Ann Prince (museum director) and Merrill Mason (associate director) approached me last July (2010) to work on a project.

What’s the idea?
I wanted to invert the idea of the closed greenhouse. Turn that upside down. Themes are our relationship with nature and with technology…and how nature is communicated to people.

A very different looking greenhouse.
The greenhouse is the cold frames (small colored plastic boxes with lids). The cold frames populate the structure.

The greenhouse feeds off the exhibit inside APS that has to do with Empress Josephine Bonaparte’s (1763-1814) greenhouse.
Back then scientists studied nature in the field. Now it’s in the lab. For Josephine…Malmaison contained nature and put the scientist on display (in the greenhouse).

What kind of architecture do you do?
I do design computation. I’m an architectural designer. Now we can have direct control over the design and the drawings. I write with code and I draw with code. Any changes needed, I can redesign in the computer program instead of redrawing by hand.

Jenny Sabin’s Greenhouse. Cold frames installed with plants in the finished structure. Photo by Brent Wahl, courtesy of APS Museum

Talk about the idea of the cold frames.
I wanted the cold frames to be modules. How many could we fit? There are 125 in all, 109 fit in the structure and the rest will be in the garden. It’s meant to be interactive, and people will be able to open the cold frames and touch things (maybe harvest some things like lettuce, which they will be planting).

What plants in particular?
We started 10 vines a month ago that will grown up and onto the top arches (like a roof)

What kind of vines?
Clematis, moon eye and scarlet runner beans

Are you in charge of filling the rest of the cold frames?
The rest will be done by a landscape architect. It will be plants that grow in Philly in the fall, some lettuces..

Also, I am making a cabinet of future fossils…

Jenny Sabin’s Greenhouse, the ramp to the pavillion insists you enter not go around

What’s that?
The exhibition (inside APS) has some ceramics (with plant motifs painted on)…giraffe handbag…high end and low end…I’m going to make some ceramic objects and some 3D printed objects, made using algorithms that are biomorphic. I’m making mathematical flowers.

Where are you printing? I saw some 3D printers at NextFab.
I was an artist in residence at NextFab.
I have a printer we bought through a grant. (Z Corp has done some printing for her; her machine is Z Corp).

Do you design buildings?
I’m not an architect in the way you think of architects. I’ve never done anything this scale. (dimensions of the greenhouse – 52’ (l) x 14’(w) x 12’ (h)) I teach design studios; design and materials; techniques. My degree is from UPenn. I was teaching there but just got a professorship at Cornell.

Where was this project designed?
The project is happening in my design studio — Lab Studio…I run it with biologist Peter Lloyd Jones…we’ve done a lot of transdisciplinary work. I do one project a year — in the summer months. I do installations. This is my first pavilion.

Where is your studio?
Crane Old School. We’re in what I think was the library. I have a kiln in the basement.

Do you want to build buildings too?
I hope to do buildings.

Jenny Sabin (2nd from the left wearing hat) and her gang, who were on a lunch break.

You have a gang of workers. Who’s helping you?
Four architecture students from Penn; and a graduate of the Penn program is doing the fabrication. Mike Avery, my former student, is now a fabricator. His workshop is DraftWorks. It’s neat working with a former student

What kind of programming do you use–CAD?
I use CNC

What’s that?
Computational Numerically Controlled

So every bit, every rib, every connector, everything was designed by you on the computer…the cold frames too?
I designed the cold frames. They snap together.

No glue or screws? Why?
It’s a nice design. Kids could build it.

The colors are great. The green pops from far away.
The green is fluorescent. It costs more and I only wanted one fluorescent.

Jenny Sabin’s Greenhouse, the finished pavillion. Photo by Brent Wahl, courtesy of APS Museum

What’s the timeline of the project?
July 2010 Sue Ann and Merrill approached me with the idea of doing a project. The proposal was in the beginning of the fall. They went after funding and got it in mid-April and we started.

Who’s the funder?
Pew Heritage Trusts

Did you have enough time to do all this? 4 months?
A greenhouse pavilion this scale needs 6 months. I haven’t had a day off in 2 and a half months.

It looks pretty sturdy…
It’s sturdy but small. We will probably limit it to 25 people at a time (on the inside of the structure).  Prince said, “There there will be guides here at all times to explain the project, and extra hours in the fall.”

Why did you put the ramp so close to the garden’s entrance?
It’s important for people to enter the garden through the greenhouse. The ramp is there (at the entrance) to force people to enter through the greenhouse.

How did you get into this computer-programmed architectural design? Were you a computer science major?
My degree is in ceramics and interdisciplinary arts.

University of Washington (Seattle). After that I ran a studio in Seattle for seven years.

It’s a leap.
I was in biology and pre-med before that (ceramics). And studied architecture at Penn.

You took to architecture right away?
I came to Penn at an interesting time.

The first year I was drawing everything by hand [the traditional way]. By the second year it was digital. Penn was the second architecture school to go digital. Columbia was first. I clicked with the code.

What’s the future for you?
My studio practice (and personal life) will remain here. But I just got a professorship at Cornell and I have a lake cabin in Ithaca. I start teaching this week (8/19).

Talk about the unusual structure–looks like dinosaur bones.
I saw the anatomy museum in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris….mastodon ribs  I also have a cabinet of future fossils. 3D-printed fossils and slip-cast ceramic fossils.

So the ceramics come around again…
At the end of the day I’m a maker. Materials and making are what drive me.

Jenny Sabin’s Greenhouse is on exhibit until Dec. 31.  Hear a lecture by Jenny Sabin on Oct. 20, 6pm at the APS Museum.



american philisophical society, aps museum, architectural pavillion, cold frames, greenhouse, jefferson garden, jenny sabin, plants, temporary sculpture



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