American Philosophical Society's 'The Greenhouse Projects' project past into present

The Greenhouse Projects, at the American Philosophical Society, are inspired by the Empress Josephines hothouses.
The Greenhouse Projects, at the American Philosophical Society, are inspired by the Empress Josephines hothouses. (BRENT WAHL)
Posted: September 08, 2011

In the universe of the American Philosophical Society, a giraffe is never just a giraffe.

In the current instance, la girafe is a prime example of how 19th-century French natural historians gobbled up global flora and fauna and set a course of scientific exploration that zipped at warp speed into the future.

Which brings us to Jenny Sabin's greenhouse.

Sabin is an award-winning Philadelphia architect whose métier is digitally conceived and created designs that start with abstract concepts like "what would unraveling knots look like and how can they be mashed up (design-wise) into the idea of a mastodon skeleton like the ones scientists obsessed over in 19th-century France?"

Or, as playwright Aaron Cromie describes her work: "It's totally badass! You can quote me. Jenny Sabin is from the future."

Sabin's greenhouse is currently on view in the Jefferson Garden of the American Philosophical Society, on Fifth Street between Chestnut and Walnut. The centerpiece of the society's "Greenhouse Projects," it's a ruminative, multi-platform exploration of the question: "If Empress Josephine had been trying to create her famous hothouses in 2011, what would they look like?"

Using "Of Elephants and Roses: Encounters With French Natural History 1790-1830" - the exhibition currently in the APS museum - as a starting point, the society commissioned Sabin, Cromie, composer Kyle Bartlett (her piece, Conference of the Birds, is piped into the Greenhouse), geocaching tour guide Erin McLeary (she developed a family-friendly treasure hunt), and food podcaster Lari Robling to reinterpret "Elephant and Roses."

But it is Empress Josephine - who in the early 19th century installed black swans and nurtured rare flowers at her Malmaison estate, sending seedlings out to "enrich the soil of France" - whose presence seems to have made the leap in time most forcefully.

Sabin took Josephine Bonaparte's wood-and-glass greenhouse, plus the carrying cases scientists used to send back flower specimens, and transformed them into her glassless, heatless structure of white synthetic undulating (unraveling) ribs with 125 translucent "cold cases" attached to the sides.

Sabin, 36, says she conceives designs not on an idea she envisions but on digital theories and computerized experimentation. She creates the intellectual questions, works out the algorithms, and lets the digital architectural bricks fall where they may.

The greenhouse will be on display until Dec. 9. Its future and/or permanent home - if any - is still being debated.

In the greenhouse the cold cases, some of which gleam with a neon glow, showcase examples of botany and an imaginative "Cabinet of Future Fossils" conceived by the all-neurons-firing Sabin (off this fall to teach at Cornell University).

"I was intrigued by shifts in how research scientists went from being out in nature, in the terrain, to scientists in the lab," she says.

This "inside/outside" dichotomy led her to the "unraveling knots" idea, which resulted in a greenhouse of plastic white ribs that evoke the rib cage of a mastodon. The sections used to assemble it were fabricated by a computer-controlled table saw.

"I reinterpreted how we're inhabiting spaces," says Sabin. "It's not all at 90 degrees, Euclidian geometry. Maybe this is the idea of the future."

While Sabin was conceiving advanced mathematical and environmental interpretations of the burst of scientific energy found in this era of French natural history, Cromie was trying to come up with jokes.

In his play, A Paper Garden: An Idiosyncratic and Indefatigable Account of Empress Josephine and Andre Michaux's Love of Botany, part of the current Philly Fringe, the greenhouse is a character.

"He told my the character was 'The Future' and I said, that's perfect," says Sabin.

Says Cromie: "You look at her thing. Our thing is about writing a goofy song about different kinds of oak leaves. Both are inspired from the same room. In the way she thinks of unraveling knots and mathematics, we think of goofy ukuleles."

"The Greenhouse Projects" is the latest effort by the nearly 300-year-old Philosophical Society to take its museum shows - compelling and intellectually grounded in history and science - and, essentially, blow them up with contemporary artistic reinterpretations.

"We're making things relevant," says Sue Ann Prince, founding director and curator of the APS museum across the street from the garden. "We were at the center of science before the Smithsonian, we were right at the center of the founding of this country."

Contemporary artists are jazzed by the idea of the stately APS as their launchpad. "No artist has ever turned me down," says Prince.

Just as "Elephants and Roses" describes how post-Revolutionary Paris studied nature "in the hopes of producing new knowledge and bettering human lives," she says "The Greenhouse Projects" address issues of our relationship to the natural world 200 years later.

"Many of the same questions are being asked today. How do we best manage the depletion of natural resources? What should we eat and where should it come from? How should animals be treated when serving the cause of science?"


Contact staff writer Amy S. Rosenberg at 215-854-2681, arosenberg@phillynews.com, or @amysrosenberg on Twitter.

 

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