"Collaboration takes risk and vulnerability": In conversation with artist Janet Echelman2018-09-24, Author: Demi Fang
Janet Echelman sculpts at the scale of buildings. Her work defies categorization, intersecting Sculpture, Architecture, Urban Design, Material Science, Structural & Aeronautical Engineering, and Computer Science. Echelman’s art transforms with wind and light, and shifts from being “an object you look at, into an experience you can get lost in”.
Her TED talk “Taking Imagination Seriously” has been translated into 35 languages with more than two million views. Oprah ranked Echelman’s work #1 on her List of 50 Things That Make You Say Wow!, and she received the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award in Visual Arts, honoring “the greatest innovators in America today.” Recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship, Harvard Loeb Fellowship, Aspen Institute Henry Crown Fellowship, and Fulbright Sr. Lectureship, Echelman was named an Architectural Digest Innovator for “changing the very essence of urban spaces.”
Echelman’s educational path has been nonlinear. After graduating from Harvard College, she lived in a Balinese village for 5 years, then completed separate graduate programs in Painting and in Psychology. Recipient of an honorary Doctorate from Tufts University, Echelman most recently served as Visiting Professor at MIT.
Using unlikely materials from fishnet to atomized water particles, Echelman combines ancient craft with computational design software to create artworks that have become focal points for urban life on five continents, from Singapore, Sydney, Shanghai, and Santiago, to Beijing, Boston, New York and London. Permanent commissions can be visited in Porto (Portugal), Richmond (Canada), San Francisco, West Hollywood, Phoenix, Greensboro, Eugene, and Seattle (USA).
Echelman giving her keynote at IASS 2018 at MIT.
Demi Fang: What is something you are currently working on that excites you?
Janet Echelman: I’m thinking about creating sculptures that people can physically enter and experience in a more intimate way. I want to bring that idea to the structural advances in my newest permanent installation, Dream Catcher on the Sunset Strip in California, which is the first work to utilize multiple structural levels and combines both tensioned and draped forms moving in between those levels. I’m also working on a commission from the German government for Beethoven2020, to give visual form to the composer’s work in a way that’s relevant today to a broader audience.
Dream Catcher, 2018, West Hollywood, CA, USA (permanent) (110’ W x 100’ H). Colorful sculptural elements combining tensioned and draped form float between four structural layers suspended between two hotel towers on the Sunset Strip. Inspired by the mapping of brain-wave activity during deep REM sleep.
DF: The theme of the IASS 2018 conference is “Creativity in Structural Design.” How do you interpret this theme? What does it bring to mind?
JE: When I began my career I was focused on expression through hand-work. I didn’t have any reason to think about "structural design." The first few times I attached temporary sculptures to buildings, we had structural failures, even with the modest loads involved. For my first permanent work at scale, I had to start learning about structure, engineering, documentation, permits, budgets, timelines — all requirements of permanent structures. Since then, my collaborations with structural engineers and computer scientists have become meaningful to my art-making process. The good news is that structural design is both fascinating and enjoyable; I find it can be as much of an outlet for creativity as the “fine arts.” The bad news is it’s really hard. Now, I often work at the intersection of art and structural design, moving fluidly back and forth. My approach has evolved from structural engineering as a requirement to structural concepts as an integral part of the evolution of the art itself.
DF: Describe the collaborations in your work. What do you think makes for successful collaborations?
JE: For me, a collaboration means that we’re seeking an outcome that none of us can predict, and that takes risk and a kind of vulnerability. I describe my work as a “team sport.” Some of my close collaborations with structural engineers and computer scientists have had a profound influence on the direction of my work (David Feldman, Peter Heppel, Clayton Binkley, Alessandro Beghini, Bill Baker, Caitlin Mueller, Jeff Kowalski, Peter Boyer, to name a few key collaborators).
I also collaborate daily within my studio with a tight-knit group of architects and artists; with independent architecture, landscape, and lighting designers; and with our fabricators, ranging from artisans who hand-knot carpets and cut precious stones in India, to American industrial workers who braid, loom, and splice our sculpture.
Dance Collaboration, Stuttgart Ballet, 2014, Stuttgart, Germany (variable size, approx. 30’ W x 30’ H). The artwork becomes an extension of the dancer’s body. As the music score intensifies, the dancer’s gestures match it and the sculpture echoes the movements in a fluid, mesmeric performance.
DF: In what ways do you blend the technical and creative aspects of your work?
JE: During my first attempt to collaborate with an engineer, he kept asking, “Whaddya want lady?” and I realized that I needed to understand what is possible first. Now, I approach technical questions with open-ended curiosity, and work with engineers who want to explore what is possible together. I see both old technologies (braiding rope, hand-knotting net) and new technologies (soft-body modeling and analysis) as a fertile ground for art. In addition to pre-industrial and post-industrial methods, I’m also looking at ways to adapt old industrial machines, like looms.
DF: What methods do you use to fuel creativity? How do you work?
JE: I travel and drink in the world as inspiration. I look at the forms of our planet in macro and micro scale, to the patterns of life within it, to the measurement of time, weather patterns, or the paths created by fluid dynamics. When I’m exploring ideas, sometimes I sketch with both hands simultaneously and my eyes closed, putting a brush or pen in both my dominant and nondominant hands. I also do gesture drawings of inanimate objects and site conditions to understand the implied movement within a space.
1.26 Denver, 2010, Denver, CO, USA (130’ L x 140’ W x 135’ H). Echelman’s commission for the Biennial of the Americas. Inspired by environmental data sets of complex, interconnected cycles of the ocean and the rotation of the earth. The earth’s day was shortened by 1.26 microseconds as a result of an earthquake and tsunami.
DF: What are currently the most pressing, interesting technical challenges that you tackle in your work, at present or in the future?
JE: Technical constraints have pushed my creativity. I design art to withstand typhoon winds, ice, and snow loads. I try to approach this structural challenge as a feature rather than a bug. In creating permanent work in climates with extreme weather conditions, I find that forms that are able to gracefully adapt to changing circumstances are the most successful, which has led me to design fluidly moving fiber structures. The immense weight of steel armature pushed us to search for the most minimal, elegant structural solutions - including a fiber more than 15 times stronger than steel - and fibers that are 100% impervious to UV from the sun’s rays, high temperatures, pollution, and even chemical reactions - all while remaining soft and fluidly moving.
DF: Describe the impact of your work.
JE: I sometimes observe my work like a fly on the wall and I frequently see total strangers talking to each other about it. In Boston, I watched a man in a business suit lay down in the grass for a minute, quietly staring up at the sculpture billowing in the wind - before he got up to head to his meeting. The Instagram community gives me insight into the impact of the work in their own words. In Washington D.C., a woman posted an image of herself with her child and the comment “Melting with art, as we become part of the exhibition.” My work is mostly seen by city dwellers, but that’s the majority of people on our planet. My sculptures have been installed in cities on five continents, from Singapore, Sydney, Shanghai, and Santiago, to Beijing, Boston, New York and London. I often experience cities as hard-edged and rigid – mostly concrete, steel and glass laid out in straight lines. My art is a counterpoint of softness to all that.
Every Beating Second, 2011, SFO Airport T2, San Francisco, CA, USA (permanent) (177’ L x 84’ W x 29’ H). The SFO Airport asked Echelman to create a “zone of recomposure” past security for their newest terminal; Echelman cut three holes in the roof from which soft forms emerge with color evoking the psychedelic music and beat poets of San Francisco.
DF: Who inspires you and your work?
JE: At the moment: Antoni Gaudi’s string models; Gordon Matta Clark and Robert Smithson’s site works; sculptors Eva Hesse and Alexander Calder; painters Giorgio Morandi, Mark Rothko, and Richard Diebenkorn; and Robert Rauschenberg and Trisha Brown’s performances.
DF: What advice would you give to your past self or to today’s students?
JE: Public recognition of my art has only come recently and I never counted on it. My advice to students is to pick a tradition which fascinates you, something you enjoy so much that you won’t mind practicing for a very long time even if public praise never comes. I also think we censor our vision and our dreams too much, and I still have to remind myself frequently to quiet the voice of the internal critic and avoid making compromises too soon.
This interview originally appeared in the proceedings for IASS 2018 at which the interviewee was a keynote speaker. These interviews make their first appearance online in this co-published series between this blog and the Form Finding Lab blog with the aim of inspiring a broader audience with the thoughts and insights of these outstanding individuals. Stay tuned on both blogs for more!
IASS 2018 at MIT
We had a great time last month hosting the 2018 International Association for Shell and Spatial Structures at our home on MIT campus! Caitlin Mueller was the Chair of the Organizing Committee for IASS 2018, joined by John Ochsendorf of MIT, Sigrid Adriaenssens of Princeton University, Bill Baker of SOM, and John Abel of Cornell University.
Much of the conference took place in Eero Saarinen’s iconic Kresge Auditorium.
Throughout the conference we enjoyed outstanding speeches from our plenary speakers. Stay tuned for our next blog posts featuring some of the interviews with our plenary speakers that we published in our abstract book.
Plenary speaker Janet Echelman, artist and principal of Studio Janet Echelman.
Plenary speaker John Ochsendorf of MIT and American Academy in Rome.
Plenary speaker Tomohiro Tachi, associate professor in graphic and computer sciences at the University of Tokyo.
Plenary speaker James O’Callaghan of Eckersley O’Callaghan.
Plenary speaker Chuck Hoberman of Hoberman Associates.
56 technical sessions took place throughout the week, where 450 papers were presented.
We also introduced two new events to IASS: a panel on women in design and engineering, and a young designer’s mentorship lunch. These were made possible by Thornton Tomasetti and SOM, respectively.
The panel on women in design and engineering was moderated by Maria Garlock, professor in civil and environmental engineering at Princeton University.
Panelists included Mariana Ibanez of I-K Studio and MIT (podium), Alloy Kemp of Thornton Tomasetti (third from right on stage), Lucile Walgenwitz of Guy Nordenson and Associates (second from right on stage), and Jane Wernick of engineersHRW (far right on stage).
Attendees of the panel were asked to submit and vote on questions to ask the panelists via a live portal.
At the Young Designers’ Mentorship Lunch, conference attendees enjoyed interfacing with peers and mentors at randomly assigned tables over lunch.
Another new feature of the conference was our video competition, which featured 21 fantastic submissions. Check them out!
The Young Designers’ Reception sponsored by Guy Nordenson and Associates took place on the 6th floor of the MIT Media Lab. Attendees enjoyed dinner with views of the Boston skyline and live music performed by Digital Structures’s Demi Fang on the violin.
Photos by Irina Chernyakova
The conference ended with an evening cruise on the Boston Harbor.
Photos by Olivia Huang
Not pictured are the workshops that kicked off the conference and the technical tours that were given throughout the New England area.
We had a great team of volunteers that made sure things went smoothly, in uniform… (photos by Danniely Alexandra and Courtney Stephen)
… and a final shoutout to Danniely Staback who made many aspects of the conference possible and successful!
IASS 2018 would not have been made possible without the support of our sponsors. Thank you!
Photos by Julia Irwin unless otherwise noted. Stay tuned on IASS 2018’s Facebook page for more photos.
Paul Mayencourt presents at 2018 International Mass Timber Conference2018-03-21, Tags: conference digital-manufacturing optimization structural-optimization timber fabrication
Paul Mayencourt is presenting his work on "Digital Fabrication and Structural Optimization of Timber Beams" at the 2018 International Mass Timber Conference in Portland, Oregon on March 21, 2018. Demi Fang will also be attending the conference to represent Digital Structures.
Digital Structures attends IASS 2017 in Hamburg
Members of the Digital Structures research group recently participated in the 2017 Symposium of the International Association for Shell and Spatial Structures in Hamburg, Germany. This conference brought together researchers from all over the world interested in topics such as digital design technology, shell and membrane structures, deployable structures, and conceptual structural design.
From MIT, Nathan Brown first presented his research on how to use data analysis techniques to automate and simplify early-stage, performance-based design spaces. Next, in a session about inflatable structures, Prof. Caitlin Mueller gave a talk about her research with Valentina Sumini into formfinding for deep space habitats, which could eventually be used to house communities on the Moon or Mars. Finally, after patiently waiting until the last day of the conference, Paul Mayencourt presented his recent work on shape optimization of timber beams, which has the potential to reduce weight and environmental impact in what is perhaps the most commonly used structural member (although columns may have a thing or two to say about that).
The conference also gave Digital Structure members the opportunity to visit historic and contemporary structures in both Hamburg and Berlin. Highlights in Hamburg included the Philharmonie, a glass roof for the central bus station, and a tour of the Hamburg Grossmarkt, a historical concrete roof from 1962, which was organized by the conference. These tours, which often involved a crowd of people exiting a seemingly non-descript, 50-year-old concrete subway station, and then turning around and dodging traffic while trying to get a good picture, must have been curious sight to the locals.
The Philharmonie (left) and interior of the Hamburg Grossmarkt (right)
Berlin also contains many interesting buildings and structures to visit, such as the Sony Center roof, the House of World Cultures, the renovated Olympic Stadium, and the dome on top of the Reichstag building. It also offered the opportunity to visit in person the East Side Gallery, which was the site of a recent Digital Structures bridge design competition submission. As a result of an utter lack of planning, climbing the Reichstag dome was only possible due to a fortuitous, last minute visitation slot opening up at the perfect time. German security must have sensed two young, bright-eyed structural designers who would jump on the opportunity.
Sony Center roof (left) and glass dome of the Reichstag building (right)
Digital Structures members also spent much of the symposium gaining inspiration for how to best organize IASS 2018, which will be held in Boston next July. We are looking forward to hosting next year’s symposium at MIT, and welcome all who are interested in these topics to submit papers and consider participating in the workshops, talks, and other events that will take place next year!