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How To Make A 1-Ton Fishnet Fly

With artist Janet Echelman as maestro, a team of envelope-pushing innovators creates aerial sculptures, each more daring than the last.

Not many artists need to factor in the wind force load on a skyscraper to see if she can add just a little more orange to the edge of her work. But before she could amp up the color on the vast, floating fishnet sculpture that was recently hoisted over Boston’s Rose Kennedy Greenway, artist Janet Echelman had to consult her team of engineers and software developers to see if it could be done.

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“We were given a limit of how many pounds of material the buildings could withstand as a calculation of wind force or load–70 tons of force on a single building–and of course, I wanted more,” she said from a room at Boston’s Intercontinental Hotel, overlooking the sculpture as it was being winched into place on the first Sunday in May.

“I wanted to make the outer bands brighter. I begged my engineers to let me expand the quantity of color. The weight of the twine changes with color, and varies in density so that in certain parts it almost disappears–and then it becomes bright again. So they did another analysis to determine exactly how many pounds I could have, which determines the thickness and spacing of the knots. I wanted more layers, but that wasn’t possible given the wind force in this location.”

Echelman needn’t have worried. The colors of her flying phantasmagoria, ranging from orange to magenta to green, are eye-popping against a blue sky. When lit at night, they’re nothing short of spectacular.

It’s easy to see why her earlier works, from an airport terminal in San Francisco to a plaza in Porto, Portugal, have earned her the No. 1 slot on Oprah’s list of “50 Things that Will Make You Say Wow,” and an invitation to give a TED talk on “Taking Imagination Seriously” that has amassed nearly 1.5 million views.

Melissa Henry, courtesy Studio Echelman

Her latest sculpture, a temporary public art installation (it will be up through October), titled “As If It Were Already Here,” is not only jaw-droppingly beautiful, but is a stunning example of what can be done if a team of committed techies, guided by an artistic vision, work in concert to push the envelope on innovation–in this case, how many pounds of rope can you make float?

In her studio in Boston, Echelman works with a tight-knit group of design colleagues in her studio, and an external team of computer scientists from Autodesk, as well as leading aeronautical, mechanical and lighting engineers from Arup. A general contractor, Shawmut Construction, built a full team of riggers and installers to hoist the net into place.

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In Washington State, a team of artisans and loom operators fabricate the sculpture, using age-old nautical techniques to hand-splice and knot the net to her exact specifications.

What’s unique about the Boston project is that it has no static ring as a base; instead, it’s anchored to three buildings on opposite sides of the Greenway–a design that presents not only engineering, but diplomatic challenges in getting three building owners to allow their structures to be part of the act.

“This is our fifth installation with Janet,” says Patrick McCafferty, a structural engineer with Arup, the international engineering firm behind everything from New York City’s Second Avenue Subway to the Water Cube at the Beijing Olympics. “We got pulled in early in the process, and we’ve established an interactive collaborative relationship with her ever since.”

Echelman was chosen to design the sculpture in a competition against 96 other international candidates. The theme of the challenge, says Jesse Brackenbury, executive director of the Greenway Conservancy, was “connections.”

“Janet’s proposal was literally to knit the two sides of the city back together,” Brackenbury says. The Greenway estimates the cost of the project to be $1.25 million, a combination of private funds and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

The Rose Kennedy Greenway, where the project is located, is a six-year old public park that now covers the site of the Big Dig–the $24.3 billion Central Artery Tunnel Project that depressed a roadway that formerly cut the city in half, separating the downtown from the waterfront with an ugly, rusty, elevated highway. It earned international notoriety as the most expensive highway project in U.S. history.

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After winning the commission, Echelman and McCafferty began their work by walking the length of the Greenway to identify what buildings could handle the hundreds of pounds of wind force that would be generated by the sculpture as it wafts in the breeze.

“Quite literally, we walked up and down the Greenway and said, ‘That’s a candidate, that one, and that one. That one isn’t.’ We identified seven possible buildings, then did additional analysis to see which among the seven were most viable,” McCafferty says.

“The logistical challenge of doing this piece, in this city, in this location have been enormous,” says Clayton Binkley, senior structural engineer with Arup. “It’s the biggest we’ve ever done, and the most congested area where we’ve ever located.

The sculpture weighs 2,000 pounds, contains over 100 miles of rope, over half a million knots, and covers half an acre–in the air. The rope itself is 15 times stronger than steel.

One significant challenge was to convince the buildings’ owners that they should allow this behemoth to be tethered to their structure. Another was to make sure that when the wind blew through the net, it was not only beautiful to look at, but safe for those standing underneath, and for the buildings themselves.

Melissa Henry, courtesy Studio Echelman
 

“At the decision-maker level, most building owners told us, ‘If my lawyers and my engineers tell me it’s okay, it sounds great,'” Brackenbury says.

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To that end, Arup developed software that analyzed the force load. “The challenge was to make the net as dense as possible so that it’s visually rich,” Binkley says. “But that attracts more wind.” Arup’s software modeled that relationship, and determined the stress on the buildings.

At night, load cells measure the force on the cable in real time. An algorithm translates the force distribution in the nets into wind direction, which changes the lights on the sculpture accordingly.
“We’re measuring the force on the tethers to the building as they’re changing dynamically,” Echelman says. “That translates into changing the colors of the light. You’ll be looking at your relationship to forces around you–forces you’re not even aware of, made visible.”

To complement Arup’s software, Autodesk also developed a custom plug-in to Maya, its 3-D animation software. It simulates the way the net is loomed, taking into account the weight of the fiber and the knotting density, and how each panel should be trimmed and attached to other panels.

“My craft is so unique, that there was no tool to model it,” Echelman says. “It’s porous and it’s moving. We measure how much twine is in a knot by measuring each and plugging in the specifications. We really know how much it weighs, how it will block the wind, and how it will look at 30 mph versus 90 mph.”

“That software let Janet see what it would look like in the air, and gave her a sense of how something this large and elaborate will behave in place,” says Rick Rundell from Autodesk.

The software let the artist do animations of what it would be like to walk underneath, to see it when you drive toward it over the bridge, or to view it from a blimp that may be hovering over a Red Sox game.

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Echelman had used Autodesk’s software to model projects in the past, but this was the first time that the tool could model what happens with changes in color. “This is the most complex color I’ve ever had in a sculpture,” she says.

Having had disappointing results from earlier software, she was worried about how this project would look in the air.

Melissa Henry, courtesy Studio Echelman

“The overlapping of the color bands is so exciting to me. I’ve been nervous, afraid that it would be invisible, that the colors wouldn’t sing,” she says. “This tool has transformed my art. It’s a dream come true.”

The colors in the piece are highly symbolic. The green represents the old highway that was torn down to make way for the Greenway; the orange represents the rust of the old bolts that held the monstrosity together. The white and black lines that intersperse throughout signify the traffic lanes that once ran through the city at about the height of the sculpture.

Three holes in the work recall the three mountains that were leveled at that location to create the landfill for the city back in the 1700s. One of the buildings to which the work is tethered still houses the granite blocks from the seawall that existed when John Adams had his office in the basement.

While I was designing the sculpture, I thought “about the ropes that I’m using, and the mooring of the boats filled with crates of tea that were docked here,” she says. The Boston Tea Party took place nearby, with replica ships marking the spot.

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Echelman, 49, didn’t start out planning to use fishnet and ropes as her artistic medium. After graduating from Harvard with a degree in visual and environmental studies, she began her career as a painter, and won a Fulbright to India to paint and exhibit her work. She shipped her paints and brushes, but somewhere along the way, they went missing. As the deadline for her exhibit approached, she realized she’d have to come up with a Plan B.

At the time, she was living in a fishing village, and at the end of the day, she’d walk along the harbor and marvel at the beautiful nets the fishermen would lay out at the end of the day. “I thought, ‘there’s another approach to volumetric form without having solid materials. That was 18 years ago. Since then, I’ve been trying to take a humble material and method and push it in new ways for new purposes.”

Despite all the technological wizardry, Echelman’s real goal is just to create a beautiful experience for viewers.

“OMG! Look at that!” she exclaimed, early on the day of the installation, as people wandering by spontaneously began kicking off their shoes, grabbing a patch of grass, and turning their heads to the sky.

“I want people to lie down on the grass and take time with it to have their own experience.,” she says. “A moment of calm in the midst of our harried connected lives to look at the wind, and the softness, and contemplate that kind of change.”

She recalled her own first experience of the space as a student, which left her feeling lost and unsettled. “I felt like I was in the wrong place, walking under the green Central Artery with its rusty bolts, trying to find my way to the North End, feeling like I didn’t belong.”

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“Now the sense of urban transformation is incredible. What’s inspiring to me is that we could make a change–to recognize that our values had changed and we reclaimed the land back from automobiles to people to enjoy as we had hoped–to lie down on the grass in the middle of the city and look up and contemplate our ability to transform our space.”

For their part, her collaborators can’t wait to see what’s next. “Each project is a prototype for the next one,” says Binkley. “and it opens up new opportunities . That’s the way artists work. That’s not necessarily the way we work, so to collaborate with an artist over a long period of time is a unique opportunity for us. “It’s the standing relationship we have; we know where we stand now, and can constantly push those boundaries further and further.”

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About the author

Linda Tischler writes about the intersection of design and business for Fast Company.

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