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.

Octopus Pavilion is LIVE

After over two months of work, and so much help from Nicholas, Amanda, the crew at K1ND, Yanglei, Sheng Qiang, and his students at Beijing Jiaotong University, and of course Bea, Evelyn and the rest of the team at Beijing Design Week, the Octopus Pavilion has finally come fully to life! Opening party on September 24th was a big hit. Thanks all for the incredible work, perseverance, and support from everyone involved!!

On Site


The fabric officially moved onto site this afternoon. One team remains in the studio working on the assembly, while a second team has moved to the site to start installing the fabric cells. Things are moving fast now, though sadly we won’t get the canopy finished before Nicholas leaves tomorrow morning. He will be there in spirit for sure when it finally lifts off the ground and comes to life. Nicholas thanks so much for all your hard work, this project would never have been possible without you!


Final Prototypes + Tests

Testing the final fan characteristics, pillow shape and size, pillow connection details, LED’s. Pillows and electronics have been sent off for fabrication. We should receive these components by Monday and/or Tuesday. Sadly we were not able to find a suitable fan that could be run in both directions, so we will only have inflation (with at 12v 1a fan), unless we can find a reasonable way to rig up two fans in the pillow. Tests so far indicate that two fans is too much weight.

Structure elements are purchased and on site. Still need to figure out the carriage design. Will start using the controller prototype to start testing the software this weekend. Final installation fast approaching!



Overall Design Progress

The latest visualizations and drawings of the project, closing in on a final design. Prepared for use during a presentation to the residents tomorrow morning. Work continues on the overall structure, connection details, the fan+controller carriage, and software. Controllers are being fabricated now by our partner, K1ND. One more day of planning and final design, cell fabrication will start in full on Tuesday.

160911_zoom-section copiebirdview3adjmassingedit

Pentagon Tiling

In searching for a good geometric system for the tiling of the pillows, we have become very interested in pentagon tiling. This system allows for a great deal of variation in the pattern while using the same shape. While we are not entirely constrained to use only one shape, this will make the fabrication process easier, and allow us to continue to design the overall shape after we start production of the individual pillows.

The definition of pentagon tiling patterns is a rich mathematical subject, with new patterns continuing to be discovered. So far, 15 have been discovered, the most recent in 2015. We are focusing on types 7 and 8, as they produce the most interesting, non-repetitive patterns:


Good sites as a reference:

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:


Octopus Pavilion Progress – 20160906

Opening in 15 Days

On Site in 8 Days

Much progress over the weekend. Full scale mock up of a 2m x 2m pillow with electronics installed, including fans, LED’s and sensors. Good tests during the day and night. We still need more power in our fans, and there are many sensitivity issues with the sensor that we are working through. The interactive company we are working with will provide a final prototype by the end of the week. Grasshopper simulation was made more usable thanks to the help of Casey and Han at MAD.

For the next few days, while we wait for the final prototype, we will focus on the overall design, including cell shape and size, overall shape in the site, carriage design, structure, and rain-screen, both in digital simulation and physical prototypes.





Octopus Pavilion Progress – 20160831

Opening in 22 Days

On Site in 15 Days

New simulation animation in site. Much to do.

This weekend workshop we will:

  • Get full prototype working with four pillows (need to buy additional electronics)
  • Test new fans and different pillow sizes
  • Work on shape and structure in simulation
  • Produce high quality renders, plans and sections