What I Am Thinking: Biologist-Turned-Architect Doris Kim Sung Makes Buildings Breathe

During my Art Residency  in Bellagio, Italy, I had the privilege of interviewing USC Architecture Professor and Princeton alumna Doris Kim Sung. In her work, Doris interprets architecture as an extension of the body and explores how buildings can passively adapt to their environment through self-ventilation and shading by using smart materials and design. 

Russell Fortmeyer, Doris Kim Sung and Sigrid Adriaenssens in conversation in Bellagio, Italy.

Sigrid Adriaenssens: What are the research questions that your designs address?

Doris Kim Sung: Can the geometry or the unit design of a smart material such as thermobimetal affect the architectural performance of a larger tessellated surface intended to shade, ventilate, stiffen, or propel? 

What is “unplugged” architecture? Can you exemplify that concept with one of your projects?

This reference from rock or pop music means without electronic amplification or disconnected from the world of gadgets. I have a deep-seated interest in finding solutions that don’t require added electrical energy or computer controls. For this reason, I have been working with smart materials such as thermobimetal, a material that reacts to heat (it curls), and developing for building use (for auto shading and ventilation in “Bloom”) and construction techniques (for one-hand/one-person assembly systems). Because the use of the material does not require energy, it is a “passive” type of system, but the responsive nature of the material to the sun and ambient temperature make it surprisingly active.

What can you tell us about your latest innovative project?

I am working on a few projects, both patented. One is an auto-shading window system for commercial use and the other is a new type of fastener. I also have an installation for VICE/Toyota that will be opening this summer. It’s a lot of fun.

To what extent do you see yourself as an artist or a scientist/engineer? In that context what is the relevance of STEAM?

In my junior year at Princeton, I switched my major from biology to architecture because my advisor thought it might look better on my medical school application. Well, as you can see, I did not pursue a career in medicine but instead found a way to make architecture meet the sciences. I sometimes wonder if it would have been more direct to have just been an engineer! Regardless, architecture seems to suit me because aesthetics and art also play a big role in my work. It’s a way to connect science to culture in a very visceral and holistic way. So it is probably no surprise that I think the A in STEAM should have been there all along. 

How do you think architecture and civil infrastructure can address societal challenges such as equity?

We need to rack our brains to find solutions that are accessible to everyone. If we design for the vulnerable and under privileged, the solutions are applicable to everyone. But, to make them truly sustainable, they need to be simple. In design, it is so much harder to find a simple solution to a complex question, than to resolve it in a complicated way. It requires conviction, hard work, resourcefulness and creativity. But, when you get closer to the answer, things seem to fall into place. Sometimes as designers, we too have to think in an unplugged way.

What is your greatest achievement and why?

Gee. This is a hard question because it is probably not a single design, but rather a way of working and a way of thinking. When I reflect back on my work, I am amazed that I have built so many different full-scale prototypes from a single material with so little money and very little skill. To me, that was probably the most resourceful achievement of mine thus far!


Bloom © DO|SU Studio Architecture

What questions do you never get asked but would like to be asked? What would be the answer?

My question would be: “Do you want unlimited funding for your research?”

And the answer:  “Yes.”

I am being facetious mainly because I prefer questions that challenge the limits–that position us in an area of ignorance until we have not other choice but to think creatively. So, the questions that I like to be asked are ones that I cannot answer with any kind of certainly such as: is there a way to blend the scientific method of research with the creative process of design? How do you teach creativity in fields beyond the arts? Where does one find the courage to think outside the box? And with 20+ years of teaching, I still don’t have the answers. 

Author: Sigrid Adriaenssens

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