Multidisciplinary design firm Atelier Cho Thompson’s winning proposal for the eighth annual Flatiron Public Plaza Holiday Design Competition, first unveiled November 22, has brought colorful, interactive archways to a bustling public plaza carved out by the heavily trafficked intersection of Broadway, 5th Ave, and 23rd Street in Manhattan. As in previous years, the competition invited emerging designers to propose new methods for activating public space and bringing people together. Van Alen Institute and Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership Business Improvement District selected the New Haven, Connecticut, and San Francisco-based Atelier Cho Thompson’s Interwoven from a shortlist of three proposals, submitted by firms recommended to Van Alen through their network.
From a bird’s eye view, the form of this year’s temporary installation appears as three equal-armed crosses lined up end to end. At the pedestrian level, archways are hollowed out from the vertical planes that form the two intersecting lines of the cross. If one were to look up, the underbelly of each cross would resemble a groin vault (or the edges that would be formed by one) created by the intersection of two barrel vaults. The supports at the ends of each arch taper towards the floor. Visitors experiencing the installation appear to weave between columns, moving from exterior spaces to low-slung interior ones. Interwoven was “inspired by New York’s tapestry of cultures and people,” according to the firm in the project’s announcement. The title of the installation operates both formally and symbolically.
The structure itself was constructed from steel framing enclosed in resin panels and netting reminiscent of heavy-duty scrims. When the sun dips low, light penetrates the netting while the steel frames cast elongated shadows along the floor and the opposing arms of the cross. Per Atelier Cho Thompson, an AN 2021 Best of Design Awards winner, Interwoven was “inspired by the dynamic geometry of intersections that form the Flatiron Building.” The material affinities between the netting of the installation and the scaffolding mesh enclosing the Flatiron Building seem more evident than any geometric similarities, however.
A single concave bench, comprised of high-density cork, spans the middle cross, presenting an obstacle to an intuited path of movement. On my visits, I watched some visitors, particularly children, clamber over the bench. A few stood or laid down upon it, posing for photos. Others intentionally made their way around.
Atelier Cho Thompson cofounders Ming Thompson and Christina Cho Yoo state in the project description that, “Interwoven highlights our fundamental desires to connect with each other through shared experiences and to celebrate our differences.” The installation offers several means of fostering connection. Post-it notes paperclipped to the netting of the installation invite visitors to respond to the prompt, “I dream of a world where together we can…”
The reflections were mostly amusing or unabashedly optimistic; some stand-out ones include, “cuddle without expectations,” “bring back Victory Gardens,” and “love is always the answer.”
Signage affixed to and in proximity to the pavilion encourage visitors to “Cross the * together to make the matching arches glow!” The instructions seem ambiguous enough to be open to interpretation. I listened as visitors discussed whether two people should cross one asterisk together or each find their own asterisk to cross synchronously. They wondered if there was any significance to the colors of the decals along the floor where they chose to walk. The space carved by the human-scaled arches was intimate enough that those beneath could hear one another’s voices easily.
I witnessed how shared confusion is sometimes most effective in engendering connection—a young child skipped by an older man and insisted that what he was doing was wrong, waving his hand in front of the sensor to demonstrate his own superior method. Individuals shared their approaches with confused strangers who were still eager to hear the music and observe the changing lights.
At times, the same technique failed to work when reiterated a second time, and on a rainy evening a few weeks after the installation opened, some of the sensors appeared more responsive to motion than others. Interactive installations don’t need to work perfectly, however—the intriguing form of the installation still enticed many visitors to negotiate a busy intersection and observe the structure more closely. From there, an individual’s experience of interacting with the work and with others is arguably more valuable than any intended, ideal result.
Currently on view through January 2, Interwoven accompanies the Flatiron Partnership’s “23 Days of Flatiron Cheer,” an annual holiday program that supports local restaurants and retailers through community events. Atelier Cho Thompson will work with community groups in New Haven to relocate the installation to a public park after its run in Flatiron North Public Plaza concludes.