Soft Space / Soft Structure

This article outlines the Octopus Pavilion, an interactive pavilion designed and installed by Jordan Kanter and Max Gerthel in 2016 as part of Beijing Design Week. This text was published in the 2018 Proceedings of the ACADIA Conference, Mexico City: Re/calibration: on imprecision and infidelity




The Octopus Pavilion project engages soft systems1 in the design of an interactive pavilion in Beijing’s historic neighborhood of Baitasi. Installed as part of the 2016 Beijing Design Week, this project employs softness as a strategy to intervene in a complex, highly informal market area of the Baitasi neighborhood. As its name suggests, this project draws on the unique evolution of the octopus as a key reference for developing a flexible, modular, interactive intervention into this contested public space.

Soft Space

Beijing is both hard and soft. It is marked by extensive physical infrastructure—ring KanterJordan_05roads, megablocks, and monumental architecture—yet it also supports a host of informal, nomadic, spontaneous systems. These include everything from mobile food carts and Weixin payment nodes to the atmospherics of air pollution and data collection. Nowhere is this more evident than in hutong areas such as Baitasi, where complex entanglements of historical, infrastructural, commercial, and social strata overlap with unexpected, often innovative, results. Exhibiting a dearth of formal public places (squares, boulevards, etc.), these neighborhoods nevertheless possess vibrant public space in a fragmented topology of informal gatherings, itinerant market stalls, and outdoor BBQ stands. The ephemeral publics found in the hutong neighborhood and other interstitial spaces in the city not only represent opportunistic and at times innovative occupation of a limited spatial resource, but also foster alternative public spheres that challenge the dominant modes of spatial politics and public discourse (Fraser 1993; Farquhar 2009; Nguyen 2017). Much of the vitality of the hutongs can be traced to the lived experience of this soft space, yet a lack of concrete anchoring makes it vulnerable to disruption.2 Work remains to provide a degree of spatial formality and durability without curtailing its improvisational energy (Leanza, 2017).

Soft Structure

Possessing pliable, boneless appendages with infinite degrees of freedom of movement, octopuses have evolved unique strategies for mapping and controlling their body. With two-thirds of their nerve cells distributed peripherally, and bundled KanterJordan_04with muscles, sensory receptors, and pigmentation cells, their mind is quite literally in their skin (Hochner 2012). This embodied intelligence, coupled with behaviors such as camouflage, mimicry, and tool-use, allows octopuses to forge highly specific, improvisational, soft affiliations with their environment (Godfrey-Smith 2016).

The pavilion consists of 29 identical modules integrates a pneumatic pillow with sensors, controllers, and inflation/deflation fans. This modularity and distributed control system allowed the allowed the pavilion to be deployed either as individual cells distributed across the neighborhood or as a unified body at a single location, in any number of arrangements to conform to complex sites. Each module was programmed to react to movement and sound, cycling through a program of inflation/deflation and LED color/intensity modulation. Adaptive programming allowed self-calibration to match the activity in the plaza, from everyday wandering to event crowds. The pneumatic, nylon construction allowed for a lightweight, pliable structure that could be quickly installed with minimal disruption to the neighborhood. This “soft tectonic” generated variable structural rigidities during inflation and deflation, creating an indeterminate, always adapting form. Modules reacted independently, but tied together as an elastic surface, their responses propagated across the canopy with macro-scale effect, deforming to the public space beneath it.

Simulation of elastic propagation across canopy

Installed over a two-week period, this project transformed a previously fenced-off plaza in the center of Baitasi’s market area into a magnet for activity. Children were quick to grasp the interactive potential of the pavilion. They incorporated it into their play, challenging each other to see who could make more modules light up or inflate. This playfulness brought the plaza to life for people of all ages, while helping to open a dialogue on use, ownership, and design of public space.



SoftCity_160912_Electrical Assembly Diagram


  1. Soft systems encompass an intellectual trajectory that challenges linear, top-down approaches, embracing adaptability, modularity, and performativity (Negroponte 1976; Kwinter 1993; Manaugh 2013). Soft systems thinking grew out of cybernetics, emerging computational paradigms, and a critique of top-down planning and management regimes in 1960s and 1970s. Reinvigorated by the emergence of pervasive information and computation technologies, as well as in response to rising apprehensions about the capacity of the neo-liberal nation-state to meet the challenges and anxieties of an interconnected, destabilized global condition in the aftermath of the twin crisis of 2001 and 2008, soft systems have found new relevancy, serving as a core paradigm for disciplines from business management to interactive design and robotics.
  2. The tenuous nature of these public spaces was dramatically illustrated in the recent “bricking-up” campaign that effected many hutongs throughout Beijing in 2017. City government-initiated sweeps resulted in wholesale demolition of any construction deemed illegal, including a large proportion of the small shops and restaurants located throughout these neighborhoods. See: Steven Myers, A Cleanup of ‘Holes in the Wall’ in China’s Capital, New York Times, July 17, 2017


Farquhar, Judith. 2009. “The Park Pass: Peopling and Civilizing a New Old Beijing.” Public Culture 21 (3): 551–76.

Fraser, Nancy. 1993. “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy.” In The Phantom Public Sphere, edited by B. Robbins, 1–32. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Godfrey-Smith, Peter. 2016. Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Hochner, Binyamin. 2012. “An Embodied View of Octopus Neurobiology.” Current Biology 22 (20): R887–R892.

Kwinter, Sanford. 1993. “Soft Systems.” In Culture Lab, edited by Brian Boigon, 207–28. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

Leanza, Beatrice. 2017. “Hutong, A Testing Ground for Modernization.” Arbitare 569, October 27, 2017.

Manaugh, Geoff. 2013. “Soft Serve.” in Bracket 2: Goes Soft, edited by Neeraj Bhatia and Lola Sheppard, 10–16. Barcelona: Actar Publishers.

Negroponte, Nicholas. 1976. Soft Architecture Machines.

Nguyen, Victoria. 2017. “Slow Construction: Alternate Temporalities and Tactics in the New Landscape of China’s Urban Development.” City 21 (5): 650–62.

Soft Sentience Work Group

Soft Sentience is a research collaborative operating at the intersections of neuroscience, computation, urban theory, and design. It explores new modes of representation and mapping in the space of the computationally- and cognitively- mediated city: the ways we map the city and the ways the city maps us.

The focus is on mechanisms of representation and abstraction. The basic assumption is that the brain has has no a priori structure for mapping the perception of space or time, rather it emerges out of experience and an active engagement with the world – “scanning the landscape and learning to think”. Extending out to the city, this idea of abstraction is considered both from the perspective of embodiment – projecting-in to create models or maps of the world  – and enactment – projecting-out to construct or produce the world based on these maps. We are interested in how these two mechanisms entangle, particularly in the context of the increasing dispersion of autonomous and partially autonomous agency in the fabric of the city.

These issues are explored through the intersection of multiple discourses, techniques, and modes of inquiry,  drawing on geospatial analysis, critical cartography, agent-based modeling, physical computing, machine learning, genetic neurology, cognitive mapping, spatial learning, and more.

New York Times Geographies

The folks at New York Times infographics department have found and made great use of another extraordinary dataset:

This map was generated from a new data-set of 125 million buildings created by Microsoft and released open source on OpenStreetMap. The data was created using the CNTK Unified Toolkit, an open-source machine learning library that analysed satellite imagery to trace and then polygonize building footprints.

The approach to generating this data brings up issues of accuracy and validation.  The Nytimes mappers address this to some degree, discussing how they addressed inaccurate tracing of building footprints by replacing areas where better data was available. This approach of validating across multiple data sets is of course an essential part of geodata modeling, and something we often discussed with students – part of the broader “author your own data” initiative, which encourages the interrogation of existing data, and the generation of new data on the ground as a way to take ownership of the regimes of data production and visualization, and the agency derived therein.

What is perhaps most interesting here is the ways computer vision takes on an increasing function in the interpretation – and design – of the world, as computational systesms are endowed with the ability to “sense the world and learn to think” (to paraphrase Ben Bratton). What does it mean to design objects (buildings or otherwise) that respond not just to the human visual sensitivity, but also to computational visual biases? Will driverless car visioning make us rethink Kevin Lynch’s characteristics of a “well imaged city”? Will building footprints and the figure-ground relationships of the city be transformed through the   eye of OpenStreetMap’s all seeing and now all drawing eye? What do urban features – building, parks, cars, benches, trees, etc. look like to an AI vision system – and will these non-human “aesthetics” have any impact on how objects are designed?

On another note, another great post from Derek Watkins from the NYTimes discussing the challenges and computational approaches involved in displaying super-high resolution simulations of Antarctic ice flows with web motion graphics:




Octopus Pavilion Progress – 20160908

Opening in 13 Days

On Site in 6 Days

More work on the simulation and overall layout. Received new, more powerful fans. Honing in on the final schematics for the controllers. Bought waterproof fabric and elastics. Testing tiling patterns. A few images and animation from the past 2 days:


(Inhabitable) Bubbles

Inspired by this recent radiolab episode on bubbles, in particular, David Stein’s “big bubble thing” apparatus. This gets me thinking about the form that the BDW pavilion might take, these could prove useful inspiration. The idea of bubbles inside of bubbles is one direction worth exploring. Mostly just fun, with my friend Nick Hanna’s amazing bubble machine kicking it off:

As well as some impressive bubble artistry:

and this guy…

Spatial Identity (Politics)

This fascinating, and somewhat unsettling study came out last year that illustrates techniques for user profiling based on a relatively small number of geolocated tags:


The underlying implications of this paper radically shifts the conversation on user profiling from a purely relational analytic to one with a distinctly spatial dimension. “You Are Where You Go” as the paper says. Looking at geospatial checkins taken from Weibo users in Beijing and Shanghai, the study had success in predicting demographic profile information such as “gender, age, education background, sexual orientation, marital status, blood type and zodiac sign.” Columbia University students also recently implemented the application for the US and US based geolocation/social media platforms.

Screen Shot 2016-05-15 at 12.02.46 AM

How does this change the way we think about identity as a spatial construct in the city and the various (soft) tactics for manipulating our identity the city: camouflage, mimicry, misdirection, jamming, etc.? Is even Banksy safe? What new counter-mapping platforms are needed deploying tactics for amplifying or obscuring one’s geo-digital footprint, not only to foil the impending geospatial tracking capacities of governments, corporations, and other potential adversaries, but also, and more importantly, to open up a more engaged conversation with our (increasingly data-mediated) environment?

In this spirit, here is a great collection of maps and mapping practices that sought to “transgress space”, from the Situationists’ Naked City, to William Bunge’s radical cartography of 1960’s Detroit, to forensic maps of drone strikes or toxic waste spills.