Our growing populous has evicted nature to the fringes—with the exception of national parks and wilderness reserves, most city and urban folk must travel great distances to converge with nature. This dichotomy of expansion vs the need to commune and connect with nature is by large heavily unbalanced in favour of infrastructure. Yet pockets of green continue to emerge in our cities, roof-top and community gardens spring-forth determined to prevail alongside progress.

Bending Arc, St. Petersburg. Photograph by Amy Martz
Bending Arc, St. Petersburg. Photograph by Amy Martz

Architects have also begun reimagining nature to embrace the tranquil benefits of living ecosystems by exploring the potential of unlikely materials and engineering with the elements. One of the world’s foremost and celebrated innovators of this visionary approach to bringing nature back to cityscapes, is Janet Echelman. Echelman’s ethereal sculptures celebrate natures whimsy in colorful displays that inspire the imagination and restore a sense of balance to the concrete worlds we inhabit.

In 2014 the Smithsonian acknowledged Echelman’s work lauding her as “one of the greatest innovators in America today!” Receiving the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award in Visual Arts for projects she completed in 2013 (including: Impatient Optimist, an iconic sculpture for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s headquarters in Seattle; Pulse, a Philadelphia commission for the City Hall’s Dilworth Park; Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks, a 745 ft aerial sculpture which premiered at this year’s TED Conference in Vancouver; and her first collaboration with live performance, commissioned by the Stuttgart Ballet).

Bending Arc (pictured above), is a sculpture of many dimensions representing transformation, ocean life, and human rights. Echelman’s art is unique in this way, it unifies many themes in a delicate form which inspires wonder.

With the opening of St. Petersburg’s new 26-acre waterfront Pier, Janet Echelman unveils her newest permanent work, Bending Arc. Composed of 1,662,528 knots and 180 miles of twine, the aerial sculpture spans 424 feet and measures 72 feet at its tallest point.

Echelman’s art embraces change. The monumental sculpture gently billows above the Pier District, allowing the wind to create a choreography of constantly changing shape in the sculpture’s soft surface. The sculpture’s color also transforms at every moment while its surface interplays with natural and projected light. In daytime the sculpture casts shadow drawings on the park and people below, and at night it transforms into a glowing beacon of magenta and violet light.

The internationally-renowned artist, born and raised along the shores of Tampa Bay, was inspired by historical postcards depicting blue and white striped beach parasols together with the geometric forms made by colonies of barnacles growing on the underside of the pier itself. The sculpture’s design in aerial view can be read as three barnacle-like parasols nestled together.

As she continued her design process, she learned of the site’s important Civil Rights Movement significance, as the place where local citizens began peacefully challenging racial barriers, leading to the 1957 US Supreme Court case ruling which upheld the rights of all citizens to enjoy use of the municipal beach and swimming pool without discrimination. The sculpture’s geometry in section is composed of multiple arcs, which gently billow in the wind. The artist titled the sculpture Bending Arc in reference to MLK’s words: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

A public-private partnership, the fiber sculpture was funded entirely by private donors, and the cost of its related infrastructure and park was covered within the city’s $92 million Pier District project. Made entirely of lightweight fiber, the monumental sculpture is engineered to withstand 150 mph winds, and the maximum force applied to its masts is 65 tons. The rope is made of a fiber 15 times stronger than steel by weight and was used by NASA to tether the Mars Rover. The net in plan covers 47,500 square feet. The net and ropes weigh a total of 5,330 pounds.

Echelman’s artwork offers visitors an oasis where they can seek a moment of calm sensory experience and heightened awareness of nature and our place within it. “The sky is the canvas for my artwork,” says Echelman.

BEJournal presented Echelman with two design challenges, encompassing the principles at the heart of her work.

1. The Office Challenge: How would you reimagine the home office to promote productivity and innovative thinking?

I would maximize exposure to natural light. When I was a kid, my elementary school had round classrooms and no cafeteria, so we ate our bag lunches in the trees. I suppose that created my ideal working environment.

2. The Bedroom Challenge: How would you design a space for creative dreams and refreshing slumber?

I lived on the island of Bali, Indonesia for five years, and my house had a grass roof, thatched bamboo walls, and wooden floors. Instead of glass windows, I had bamboo panels that hinged open, allowing breezes to waft through. I slept so well in that house, I think partly because of the natural ventilation. If we could design to reduce our need for air-conditioning and heating, I think we’d all sleep better.

Explore the Art and Imagination of Janet Echelman

The artist Janet Echelman (center).