The Big Dig freed Boston of its much-maligned Central Artery, an elevated expressway that divided the city. While the resulting underground tunnels opened to traffic beginning in 2003, much of the city’s residents still had to navigate under the defunct highway’s imposing steel remnants to reach the city’s North End neighborhood and waterfront.
In 2008, as the last vestiges of the expressway were hauled away, Boston found itself with a new marvel: the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, a 1.5-mile-long urban park. And residents did marvel, initially uncertain of how to use—and enjoy—17 acres of reclaimed green space. Spearheading the initiative to bring programming and events to the park is the nonprofit Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, which works in partnership with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
As part of its vision to bring public art into the park, the Conservancy commissioned artist Janet Echelman to create a signature installation over the Greenway following a 2013 competition. Anchored at four points located on three high-rise buildings adjacent to the greenway, the 1-ton, 600-foot-long mesh sculpture soars up to 365 feet above the bustling traffic and pedestrian park, creating a destination in the center of the Greenway.
The installation’s 100-plus miles of multi-filament polypropylene were knotted together using a combination of industrial-size loom machines, hand-splicing, and hand-knotting. Blanketing a ½-acre area in projected plan, the mesh becomes a dynamic screen that flaps and dances over the parkway throughout the day. At night, 32 individually programmed LEDs informed by sensors that measure fiber movement and tensile forces in the ropes illuminate the sculpture’s form.
The colorful folds of the suspended mesh are a nod to Echleman’s memories of the “other Green Monster”—a slight on the former Central Artery’s green-painted and rust-stained finish in contrast to the city’s beloved left-field wall of Fenway Park—as well as the site’s history, she said during a recent press tour organized by Autodesk, which developed a custom software tool for Echelman. Three voids in the 20,250-square-foot mesh represent the Tri-Mountain, or the once-three-peaked Beacon Hill area, which was razed in the 18th century to create the Boston Harbor. Its vibrant bands of color recall the six traffic lanes of the former Central Artery. As wind runs through the Greenway’s corridor, the sculpture ripples appreciatively, activating each of its nearly half-million nodes one by one. The installation, Eichelman says, relies “on nature to be the engine of [its] beauty.”
Realizing the Brookline, Mass., resident’s vision required lighting design and a thorough structural analysis by Arup, an advanced, custom-made software tool by Autodesk, and the coordinated efforts of Shawmut Design and Construction and local steel supplier Daniel Marr & Son Co. Arup’s engineers had to evaluate which high-rise buildings lining the greenway had available structural capacity to accommodate upwards of 100 tons of force that the installation can exert due to the dead load of the mesh and, moreover, loads generated by up to 105 mph winds.
Though the sculpture's form appears amorphous, its design was rigorous and purposeful. Echelman says her process changed dramatically three years ago when Autodesk CEO Carl Bass and chief technology officer Jeff Kowalski approached her following her TED Talk, “Taking Imagination Seriously,” and offered to develop software to analyze and visually display how soft material drapes in response to gravity, wind loads, and weather.
The tool, which manifested as a Maya plug-in, has allowed Echelman to experiment with virtually infinite combinations of sculpture geometries and node locations in any given day; previously, she was at the beckoning of an engineer of yacht sails, whose feedback could take as long as two months. Unfortunately for now, Autodesk senior director Rick Rundell says, the company has no plans to make the tool available commercially.
Though Echelman still makes physical models and hand sketches, the program has not also expedited her design process, but also enabled her to model everything down to how the color bands of the nets would appear in the wind. Her first project using the plug-in was “Skies Painted With Unnumbered Sparks,” which was installed at TED2014 in Vancouver.
From start to finish, the Boston project—which is Echelman’s
tallest as well as her first installation on the East Coast, and her first to
connect three independent buildings—took two years to complete. The planning
paid off though. It took six cranes just eight hours, between 3 a.m. and 11
a.m., to raise the sculpture into place on May 3, minimizing disruption to
The sculpture had an immediate effect. “The city was transformed in a matter of hours,” Echelman says. In a city populated by longtime residents, harried professionals, and overworked students not known for striking up casual discourse, Echelman has seen her sculpture become a frequent talking point among locals and tourists alike [previous three groups have a lot of overlap]. “It’s a shared experience in the city that’s authentic,” she says. “It breaks down barriers,” which is particularly thrilling to her because “in the most densely populated areas, we can feel the most isolated at times.”
Though the installation is scheduled to wrap in October—it was not designed to accommodate snow or ice loads, per its
commission as a temporary structure—Echelman says that the sculpture has helped
the city embrace the Greenway. In fact, she says, the
installation is named after an early visitor’s observation: “As
If It Were Already Here.”
This article has been updated since first publication.