Professor Doris Sung named 2014 United States Artists Fellow

School News

Professor Doris Sung named 2014 United States Artists Fellow

November 19, 2014


Professor Doris Sung believes in serendipity. And hearing the story of this would-be-doctor-turned-architect who was recently named a 2014 United States Artists Fellow, one might believe in serendipity as well.


‘I’m still a little stunned that I would be named “one of America’s most accomplished and innovative artists,”’ said Sung. “To be grouped amongst some major figures in contemporary architecture is an amazing accolade.”


United States Artists recognizes originality and creative accomplishment, while seeking to invest in the value that individual artists offer to society. Initially founded in 2006 by a coalition of the Ford, Rockefeller, Prudential, and Rasmuson foundations, United States Artists is one of the largest granting organizations providing direct support to artists.


34 artists across eight disciplines were awarded fellowships this year, and Sung was one of two Architecture & Design fellows selected. Recipients are nominated by peers and chosen by a panel of experts in each discipline. The award comes with a prize of $50,000, which Sung hopes to use to buy a lasercutting machine that can cut metal, so she can instantly prototype pieces.


Sung’s work focuses on thermobimetals, and she is the first to apply this material architecturally. The laminated metal alloys have different coefficients of thermal expansion; when heated, the sides expand at different rates, causing the material to bend. It is this responsiveness and changeability that first drew Sung’s interest.


Sung started to think about working with thermobimetals in 2006, when she was teaching her first studio at the USC School of Architecture. “I was obsessed with global warming. So much that I was losing sleep over the catastrophic projections,” explains Sung. She questioned why people continued to construct the same energy-consuming buildings. “We can now expect the climate to change over the next 50 years. It is changing all the time. Even in a single day, it fluctuates. So, why don’t our buildings respond?”


As a premed undergraduate at Princeton, Sung was advised by faculty to major in a non-science to make her medical school applications stand apart from others. What became most compelling to Sung was architecture. Armed with a background in biology, as well as design, Sung began considering ways to address climate change. “All we can do is find ways to adapt, because it is impossible to reverse climate change. We need to reconsider our role as architects in this changing world.” In thermobimetals, Sung found a “smart” material that would adapt to temperature change, acting as a “third skin” (the first two being actual skin and clothing).


Sung and her research have received a flurry of recent recognition, including Architect Magazine’s R+D Award for her project, Exo Structural Tower, a fastener-free, thermobimetal structure. In the Exo Tower, the pieces are individually heated for assembly, and when a piece cools and flattens, it Is locked into place. Sung estimates that the resulting shell could support one ton and envisions the structure multiplied to create a tower. She previously received Architect's R+D Award Honorable Mention for her project Bloom, a thermobimetal installation, whose pieces would curl with sun exposure, providing shade and creating openings for ventilation. She is currently working towards exhibiting Bloom at the AIA headquarters in Washington D.C.


Sung feels that awards like the USA Fellowship and the R+D Award are valuable beyond intrinsic validation. “It’s great to get ideas out there—first, to architects and industry and eventually, to the public. In some ways, it’s one of the few ways we can disseminate innovation in architecture.” As many researchers do, Sung struggles against the “Valley of Death,” the limbo in which many ideas and discoveries languish, lacking the funding for widespread application.


“Combining scientific intensity and design sensitivity, Doris has developed a zone of research that will change the ways buildings are perceived and constructed,” said Dean Qingyun Ma. “While the industry has not caught up to the potentials, Doris’s students have benefited in the classroom.”


“My students keep me relevant,” admits Sung, “and I hope I do the same for them.” While acknowledging the benefit of digital applications, particularly in her own work, Sung finds herself encouraging her students to fabricate physically. “I’m starting to demand more and more precision from the students. It’s because of the work I do, in which the smallest mistakes have the hugest ripple effect. I don’t mean monetarily, but geometrically. As a result, I push my students to fabricate physically and prove that their project really works as they say.”


Sung started teaching at USC, initially from a desire to be part of a research institution, and in 2011, she was appointed to a tenure track position. The opportunity to focus on research, as well as the support received from USC, have proved invaluable. Sung has developed a slate of projects that includes a window shutter system in which thin pieces of thermobimetal open and close depending on sun exposure; building blocks that “breathe” and self-ventilate; and a canopy that filters light and uses solar reflectors to drive its self-ventilation. She continually develops new ideas, often without knowing the eventual application. “You make the best decisions you can and look for those moments of serendipity to happen.”


Exo Structural Tower / photo:  Alex Blair