If you live or work in the Boston area, you’ll remember the sculpture – the 600’ long colorful net that hovered over the Rose Kennedy Greenway during the summer of 2015. The piece, titled ‘As If It Were Already Here’, drew amazing crowds and turned the Greenway into a real destination. It was also one of the best examples of creative collaboration we’ve seen in our city, which is why, in this post, we’re taking a deeper look into the project and the process behind it. We were thrilled to have the chance to talk with the artist, Janet Echelman, and the project’s structural engineers, Patrick McCafferty and Clayton Binkley of Arup, about their on-going partnership and how their team works together to create works of art that are impactful, memorable, and change the way people experience their cities.

(Cover image: Jovan Tanasijevic)

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The Echelman/Arup partnership, which has produced work in numerous cities over the years, began when the artist was commissioned for ‘Impatient Optimist’ at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle. The sculpture spanned two newly completed buildings for which Arup had been the structural engineer. Because of their deep knowledge of the buildings, Arup could effectively work with Echelman in designing the piece, verifying the loads that would be exerted on the existing structures, and custom-designing the proper attachments. This permanent piece is still hanging today.

One year later and across the country in Boston, the team faced a different challenge – tying a 600-foot ‘sail’ into existing buildings which hadn’t exactly been designed with that in mind. The team saw two options; they could build the sculpture exactly how they wanted to and reinforce the life out of the existing buildings or, alternately, take an approach the engineers describe as ‘harnessing the potential energy of the existing buildings,’ and design the sculpture to accommodate that. For obvious reasons, the team chose the latter.

The Rose Kennedy Greenway covers the stretch of I-93 that was buried during Boston’s ‘Big Dig.’ It’s a beautiful and open swath of park where there used to be a highway – a highway which itself was cut right through the city fabric. To reinforce her concept that ‘As If It Were Already Here’ would knit the city back together, Echelman wanted the piece to connect to at least three buildings. In order to create the form the artist wanted at the size she envisioned, Arup needed four connection points. So, without knowing yet exactly how it would work or what the final form would be, the team walked the length of the Greenway together, observing the existing buildings and strategizing about the sculpture’s location.

After additional research and identifying viable buildings, the team made a first pass at sketching a preliminary design for the structural layer. Arup ran a series of calculations and analyses on that sketch and returned to Echelman with further suggestions and advice on how the piece could develop. This kicked off a series of design iterations, working over the phone or sitting side by side, always aiming to balance the art and engineering. The exercise, McCafferty explains, was in respecting the flow of forces through the piece while manipulating them just enough to achieve the artist’s vision.

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Sometimes, though, formal needs take precedence, and the engineering has to support it. As Echelman explains, ‘Where We Met’ was designed “to celebrate North Carolina textile history, and the structure of [the] form was inspired by the historic railroad maps and the textile mills that dotted along them.” Lines in the project are true to the paths of historic railways, so the team had to carefully watch the impact of engineering decisions on the form.

For an interior installation, ‘1.8 Renwick,’ the team investigated how lighting design could work in tandem with the sculpture to create dynamic and evocative shadows on the walls of the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery. The piece, which has just been made part of the Smithsonian’s permanent collection, recalls the waves of the devastating tsunami that struck Japan in on March 11, 2011. In the artist’s words, the sculpture “reminds us of our complex interdependencies with larger cycles of time and matter. Its physical presence is a manifestation of interconnectedness – when any one element in the sculpture moves, every other element is affected.”

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Understanding the depth of the collaborative effort begins with knowing how the pieces are constructed. Echelman’s sculptures are made up of two distinct parts. What’s most visually prominent is the sculptural net – flowing and colorful, made of small-diameter twine. Supporting that form is a second, highly engineered structural net made from high-strength synthetic rope. It’s specifically designed to mitigate each installation’s particular constraints – gravity, wind, form, shadow, etc.

Underlying all of the work is a suite of specialized software. Echelman works very closely with Autodesk during her design process. Using Maya, one of the company’s 3d modeling platforms, they develop each piece’s form and model the sculptural nets. Driving the structural engineering are bespoke software plug-ins written by Arup’s Clayton Binkley who had, interestingly, written his master’s thesis on tensile structures and been thinking deeply about these types of forms before his work at Arup even began.

When the team began working together, Binkley dove head first into understanding the craft behind creating the nets – the knotting process, the materials, all of it. Using his plugins for the Rhino and Autodesk Revit applications, he models the form of the structural net, analyzes the impacts of external forces like weight or wind, and determines how thick each segment needs to be. “The most important feature of the software,” Binkley explains, “is the collection of tools that allow the shape of the structural net to be ‘sculpted’ by optimizing the rope lengths and balance of prestress forces at each connection to create the shape of the net that [Echelman] is after; be it tsunami waves or railroad networks.” Amazingly, there is no traditional shop drawing process for these sculptures – Binkley’s software generates drawings that already reflect how the nets will be fabricated.

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In the eyes of the artist and engineers, the sculptures are a true melding of three technological epochs. Splices in the structural net are hand-made with pre-industrial techniques by immensely skilled experts of the west coast’s fishing net trades. Large machines use industrial-era technology to knot the sculptural nets that make up the expressive volume of each piece. Post-industrial technology (the software) enables the whole project by allowing the engineers to precisely calculate, analyze, and make informed decisions. After all, when you’re hanging a 2000 lb. net over a busy, gust-prone thoroughfare in a crowded city, a best guess doesn’t really cut it.

What’s the take-away from this story? It’s unlikely most of us will ever design something as dynamic as Echelman’s work or need software as complex as what Arup and Autodesk have developed. Even so, the sculptures are great case studies in fundamental design team dynamics. In talking with them, it’s clear that this team learns a tremendous amount from each other, from the experience of each project, and that they’re smart about carrying knowledge with them into each subsequent piece. When do we get to see the next iteration? Currently the team’s working on what’s been hinted at as an amazingly ambitious project for New York City, though that’s all the detail we’re allowed to know right now. We look forward to seeing what they do next.

Thank you to Studio Echelman, Arup, Shawmut Design and Construction, and the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy for contributing to this piece.

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This Post Has One Comment
  1. This was such a great project–it brought contemporary art to Boston in a way (large scale / sensory / dynamic) that is sorely needed. Thanks for the interesting behind-the-scenes look at the collaboration that made it possible. I hope the city shake loose from its past of stale art to create a legacy of cutting edge installations and other public pieces.

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