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The Leonardo Museum’s commission for its new home is part architecture, part artistic innovation.
After years of renovations, Salt Lake City’s Leonardo museum is poised to move into its new home in the city’s former downtown public library building. Conceived in the spirit of Leonardo da Vinci, the art, science, and technology museum hosted a design competition to create a permanent media wall that would represent its creative mission while serving the programmatic role of dividing two first-floor galleries in the new building. Last summer, the museum awarded the commission to recent Columbia GSAPP graduates Yong Ju Lee and Brian Brush, founders of the New York- and Portland, Oregon-based design and digital fabrication practice SoftRigid. Their installation, Dynamic Performance of Nature, is not only a fluid solution to the building’s architectural needs but also a high-tech presentation of real-time environmental data from around the world.
“Our interpretation of their goals was that they wanted a piece in their museum that performed on numerous levels,” said Brush. “They want to connect the people of Salt Lake City and Utah and visitors from around the world to a larger perception of awareness of technology and the environment.”
After creating initial studies of wall of fins to separate paid and unpaid sections of the museum, Brush and Lee began by scouring the internet for the right material with which to fabricate the design. They landed on recycled/recyclable HDPE (high-density polyethylene) sheets from Minnesota-based Reprocessed Plastics Inc. (RPI). The material met the museum’s sustainable goals and had unique light-transmittance properties, which had become key to the team’s wish to present environmental data through the installation’s lighting. “What was fascinating is that it appears extremely opaque, but when you put a high-powered LED behind it, it lights up. The distance between being opaque and being translucent was very large.”
While the 92-foot-long, 1,300-square-foot media wall’s shape would convey what Brush described as a “frozen flow”—representing the museum as the nexus for creativity flowing through the city—it had to be static and structurally tied to the floor for code compliance. Lighting would provide another sense of movement as computers captured information about wind, seismic activity, and precipitation from around the world and relayed it to LEDs embedded in the architectural fins.
Lee and Brush created digital fabrication models of their design using Rhino and Grasshopper, then delivered the code to RPI’s facility, where the 4 ½-by-12-foot, ½-inch-thick sheets were machined using a 3-axis CNC mill. Fins range in length from 12 feet to 20 inches, but all are made with two mirror-image plates from which the negative space of the LED chain has been carved. The design incorporates 28 strands of full RGB spectrum Philips Color Kinetics iColor Flex LED nodes and cables, which are daisy-chained through the fins in groups.
When the museum opens this fall, SoftRigid’s work will be in good company alongside architect and artist Philip Beesley’s Hylozoic Soil, an interactive geotextile mesh installation that the museum has purchased as a permanent exhibit. All of Dynamic Performance of Nature’s 176 fins have been installed and the lights—1,888 in total—and the data visualization software behind them, are now undergoing their final rounds of testing. In the current incarnation, local temperatures are indicated by LED color, while the display’s speed and directionality mimics wind conditions. If an earthquake occurs anywhere in the world, a distorted world map supersedes weather data and its intensity is indicated with color and blinking that coincides with magnitude. Visitors can also influence LED color by tweeting a color using the wall’s hashtag. Future data visualization could include other data from across the globe, or even other lighting designs by visiting artists. “It’s a scalable site for any sort of light visualization the museum can come up with,” said Brush. “It can be developed in many different ways.”