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Fabric art to be featured at 2010 Winter Olympics

March 1st, 2009 / By: / Markets, Projects

The 2010 Winter Olympics will host world-class athletes and fabric art worthy of the event.

Janet Echelman likes a good breeze. Her massive fabric sculptures pepper the world—from Phoenix to Portugal, Bombay to Hong Kong—often designed specifically for engaging the wind elements that surround them. Her last project, “She Changes,” a 160-foot-tall netted wind sculpture in Porto, Portugal, won an IFAI International Achievement Award.

Her latest project, outdoor public art for the 2010 Winter Olympics, takes to the sky. The Richmond Olympic Oval, created for the Vancouver Olympics, is home to the large $1.2 million public art installation—the city of Richmond’s most lavish public art expenditure to date. Called “Sky Lanterns,” the two pieces hang above a water garden lined with a striking red walkway. The entire installation is called “Water Sky Garden” and is a feature of the Olympic Oval. The massive red netlike sculptures on the eastern and northern ends of the building sway in the breeze, glow red and translucent in the night sky and draw viewers in to their several layers of complex weaving.

Designers overcome various challenges to hang massive netted sculptures

Hanging massive netted sculptures in the sky takes some strong material. Wind, open air and sunlight—never mind gravity itself—are constant factors that challenged the design of the lanterns. Seeking a durable, lightweight material that could withstand the elements, Echelman turned to a leader in the industry.

“The sky lanterns are suspended from painted galvanized steel rings from which a GORE™ Tenara® Architectural fiber net sculpture is hung,” Echelman says. Tenara is made of polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), the same material commonly known as Teflon®. Manufactured by W.L. Gore and Associates of Newark, Del., the material is also a component of astronaut space suits. Its high light transmission, long life and availability of custom coloring made it a natural choice for the project.

“Tenara is a high-technology yarn that is manufactured from 100 percent expanded PTFE, making it two to three times stronger than conventional Teflon thread,” Echelman says. “It is a fiber designed for outdoor use, resistant to rot and mildew and completely unaffected by ultraviolet radiation.”

To construct the netting, Echelman and her team had to braid and, in some cases, hand-knot the material to create the netting that characterizes the artwork. “[The netting] is 100 percent UV resistant so that it does not lose strength at all through time,” she says. “It is also nonporous. It doesn’t have any stretch; it is very colorfast and available in a broad range of colors.”

Hoisted in the air, the larger of the two net lanterns is in the eastern portion of the Oval and reaches more than 75 feet in diameter and 25 feet in depth, supported by an 82-foot galvanized steel pylon. The smaller lantern to the north stretches to 52 feet in diameter and 20 feet in depth, supported by a 66-foot pylon.

Before a single knot was tied, however, design software was employed to measure the effects of gravity, the shape of the structures and their weight. The project’s official fact sheet states, “Analysis of [the 3-D] model provides information necessary to determine the twine tenacity required for each loomed net panel. This information was then translated into construction drawings that specified the exact looming patterns for fabrication, including the description of color information for each individual bobbin and the varying length of the meshes for knotting, hand baiting and hand splicing.”

The fabrication of the nets involved an immense amount of handcraftsmanship. Hand-knotting, splicing and baiting skills were used that have been practiced by fishermen and lace makers for thousands of years.

Designer finds inspiration from cultural communities

Echelman drew inspiration from Richmond’s diverse population to create her art.

“The sky lanterns, as well as the red pathways, are inspired by Richmond’s cultural communities. The city has the largest immigrant population by proportion of any city in Canada, with the majority of those immigrants being of Asian descent,” says Echelman. She visited local parks and gardens for ideas of how to incorporate culture into her design.

The unique netted quality of the sculptures also gives them added significance. The local native Musqueam band continues to teach its children to fish with nets in the Fraser River adjacent to the Richmond Olympic Oval. The Vancouver and Fraser River area has a long history of fishing that has sustained many ethnic groups over decades.

“The sky lanterns provide a new visual experience, putting art in the sky,” Echelman says. “Made of netted material, they are transparent and integrate with the landscape they inhabit, allowing viewers to look at them and through them at the same time. At night, they glow like lanterns, though with a rippled effect produced by the fact that the lighting has been submerged underwater.”

Designed to move with the wind, the sky lanterns are layered with three different colors of red in horizontal bands. “Wind choreography is a critical part of the work,” says Echelman. “Sky lanterns make the choreography of wind visible to the human eye. It brings us in touch with the forces around us.”

Planning committee incorporates environmental responsibility

The monumental installation took careful planning, holding designers to high environmental and aesthetic standards. Environmental responsibility was a primary goal of the planning committee. As a result, “Water Sky Garden” not only catches the eye, but plays a significant role in helping the environment, as well. Echelman worked closely with landscape designers and architects, combining water purification from storm runoff by the use of special plants and aeration fountains, and reuse by channeling the runoff to flush toilets and sustain plant watering facilities in the Richmond Olympic Oval.

The unique plants used in the garden are specially cultivated to reduce heavy metals, prevent siltation and remove impurities from the water, resulting in a reduction of phosphorous levels in the water by 40 percent.

The 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics will no doubt be a memorable event, rendered more so by Echelman’s artwork. In combination with the dragonlike meandering of the red walkway and the reflective water garden beneath, the sky lanterns will be an iconic part of the games. Each day after gold, silver and bronze medals are won, the shimmering red lanterns will dazzle the Games’ attendees and television viewers across the world.

Jake Kulju is a freelance writer based in St. Paul, Minn.

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