Introduction: Glimmer, by Variable Projects

About: architect + educator

Glimmer is a public art installation designed and built by Oakland-based architecture office Variable Projects. The project was designed for San Francisco’s Market Street as a dynamic pavilion that invites passersby to enter, touch, and interact with a plush thicket of colorful suspended filaments. These strands, consisting of colored paracord suspended from a simple steel and wire mesh canopy, are cut at varying lengths to form a single volume. The form of Glimmer reinterprets the notion of a masonry vault—typically heavy, solid, and static—as a light, porous, and highly dynamic structure. The project dematerializes a familiar symbol of structure, stability and fixity into a kaleidoscopic, indeterminate environment of fibrous material that is constantly in flux. Its mirage-like quality—disappearing, then reappearing, as it indexes the local airflows along Market Street—generates multiple readings at multiple scales for passersby. From afar, the hanging filaments coalesce into the form of a solid masonry vault; yet this figure is constantly shifting as it reacts to the airflow of its surrounding environment. As visitors approach the installation, they are encouraged to enter and inhabit the structure’s soft “poché," and to touch and interact with the soft hanging threads. The material becomes an immersive, tactile environment of color and softness that provides a bright oasis in the urban environment and invites playful interaction for all visitors. At night, LED strips concealed within the top of the canopy highlight the project’s blushes of gradated color and create a soft, inviting glow for pedestrians traveling by.

Glimmer was selected as one of thirty projects commissioned for the Market Street Prototyping Festival. For four days in October 2016, it was installed on Market Street in San Francisco's Financial District, where thousands of pedestrians experienced a bright, colorful, and interactive addition to the streetscape.

Link: Glimmer project page on Variable Projects website

Step 1: Materials

Glimmer is made of a simple palette of readily available materials:

  • Steel frame. The frame is made of standard 2" steel pipe joined with standard aluminum clamps. Such systems are commonly used for temporary applications like scaffolding or temporary platforms. The frame was left unfinished so that the frame could be reused in other projects after the duration of the 3-day Market Street Prototyping Festival.
  • Concrete footings. Four footings anchor the installation to the ground. These were made using a custom-fabricated melamine mold and standard Quikcrete, available at any home depot. Steel tube sleeves were embedded in the footings to receive the steel frame posts.
  • Wire mesh panels. Standard "chicken wire" mesh (available from Home Depot in 50'-0" lengths) was used to fabricate ten panels from which the paracord is suspended. Because the mesh comes in rolls and has a natural "curl" to it, these panels were stiffened with 1/4" steel rods, which were also used to attach the panels to the structural frame.
  • Paracord. Paracord is a common and very durable cord material commonly used for craft purposes. This project utilizes over two miles of paracord, distributed in five colors.
  • Zip ties. The "glue" of the project; zip ties were used to attach the paracord panels to the structural frame.
  • LED lighting. Two 10W LED flood lights were used to illuminate the installation at night.

Step 2: Design

Glimmer was designed using the Rhinoceros 3d modeling platform and the Grasshopper parametric modeling plugin. These digital tools proved essential not only for creating the form and coloration of the project, but also for more pragmatic and logistical purposes: managing the material quantities, ensuring that the project remained within budget, and providing fabrication and assembly drawings.

Variable Projects worked closely with Tristan Randall, our Design Captain, throughout the design process to ensure that all requirements were met. We also presented the project at a summer Community Open House event, where the public was invited to comment on the projects proposed for the festival.

Step 3: Fabrication

Fabrication was completed in the three weeks leading up to the Market Street Prototyping Festival.

The steel frame was fabricated by Nicholson Design and Fabrication, an expert metal fabricator in San Francisco. The steel fabrication process was relatively simple: cutting stock pipes to size, sourcing the aluminum clamps, and fabricating the corner braces.

The concrete footings were produced using a custom-fabricated melamine mold that was reused for each of the four footings. Steel pipe sleeves were embedded in the concrete, sized to accept the frame posts.

The bulk of the fabrication time was spent completing the ten paracord/mesh panels. The installation consists of over 1,600 individual strands of paracord, each cut to length. The digital, parametric model used to design the project provided precise instructions for cutting each section of paracord, by length and by color. The model was also used to produce a shop drawing indicating the location for every cord on each of the ten mesh panels. The paracord was tied to to the mesh using a simple overhand knot.

Step 4: Installation

Installation on Market Street was completed by a team of eight people on the evening of October 5, 2016. All materials for the project packed easily into a small flatbed truck. The frame was assembled first, and then each of the paracord/mesh panels was lifted in place and zip-tied to the frame. The final step was to fasten the LED uplights to the frame and connect their power to an extension cord concealed along the upper steel members.

The installation process lasted approximately 3 hours.

Step 5: Interaction

Glimmer was open to the public on Market Street for three days from October 6 to October 8, 2016. Tens of thousands of people passed by and passed through the installation, enjoying its tactile qualities and invitation to play. Children in particular enjoyed the installation, often reluctant to leave the hanging thicket of paracord until their parents insisted. People remarked how the addition of bright color to the public streetscape provided a refreshing and uplifting presence for the pedestrian experience. The changing lighting conditions throughout the day provided an additional layer of unexpected aesthetic effect; as direct sunlight appeared and disappeared behind the tall buildings on Market Street, Glimmer took on very different spatial qualities.

Glimmer was disassembled on October 9, and all materials have been recycled. The steel frame was returned to the fabricator for use on other projects, and the wire mesh and paracord will be donated to material reuse centers for future arts & crafts use by children and students.

Step 6: Project Credits

Project Credits:

Client: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts / San Francisco Planning Department

Design: Adam Marcus, Frederico Leite Gonçalves, Sean Gentry

Steel Fabrication: Nicholson Design & Fabrication

Fabrication & Assembly Team: Adam Marcus, Sean Gentry, Mark Nicholson, Gabriel Ascanio, Rajah Bose, Jenny Gonzalez, De Huynh, Jonathan Joong, Eva Lai, Mrnalini Mills-Raghavan, Skye Pan, Ernesto Preciado-Canez, Nicolas Cilloniz Tanji, Joaquin Tobar Martinez, Dustin Tisdale

Photography: Joseph Chang, Adam Marcus

Thanks to: CCA Digital Craft Lab, Tristan Randall / Autodesk

Link: Glimmer project page on Variable Projects website