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
soft is FLEXIBLE / ADAPTABLE / RECONFIGURABLE soft is MOBILE / DISTRIBUTED / SPONTANEOUS soft is ACCESSIBLE / OPEN / INVITING
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.
Beijing is both hard and soft. It is marked by extensive physical infrastructure—ring roads, 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).
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 with 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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
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