SHIFTboston blog

‘Hydra’ Installation by SHIFTboston at Boston’s Landmark Center

SHIFTboston has recently been commissioned to build an installation in the tower of Fenway’s Landmark Center. Hydra – an installation that experiments with soft architecture – is a dynamic, self-transforming, semi-translucent membrane that floats and morphs into a series of different forms within a large light-well.

Hydra’s shape is defined by a shifting 15′ x 15′ surface derived from a simple methodology involving the use of only one basic form. The cellular skin is composed of over 1,000 semi-translucent disks in 4 sizes, each folded into 3 dimensional form. The cells are organized radially across the surface, inspired by the radial symmetry of ocean-dwelling organisms. The benefit to such an organization is that it makes the cells adaptable, by allowing us to connect them in a number of different arrangements.

The transmittance of natural light through, and reflectance of light onto, the piece, make the tiny orbs appear to glow from within.

Hydra, incorporates both architecture and technology. A sensor actuator system works discretely behind the installation to perform movement in response to changing light within the light-well. The evolution of the form is intended to reveal the subtle changes of light quality throughout the day. The piece takes a spiny, draped position when the sunlight is direct. The hard light rakes the surface to reveal a sharp contrast along the little protruding polyps. When light is indirect — later or earlier in the day — Hydra floats gently upward to expose the backside of its skin, absorbing the diffuse light to reveal a soft, luminous pattern.

Lessons learned in the construction of Hydra could contribute to much larger responsive design applications. The development of the skin alone provides examples of how to manipulate one basic form – in this case the disk – to build a complex undulating surface.

Hydra will be complete by Tuesday, April 29, 2014. Construction is underway and we are looking for volunteers to join our team right away to help assemble the skin. If you are interested in helping with construction please email: Zach at or

*The Hydra installation is an experiment with sensor technology, which is the focus of our next competition titled ‘Soft Architecture 01’ to be released this September. If you are interested in dynamic architecture please stay tuned .

Project Sponsors :

The Fenway Alliance

Samuels and Associates

Scaffolding: an Environmental Problem in Developing Communities

By Carolyn Lewenberg

Scaffolding is such a large part of our urban Infrastructure – it’s so woven into the landscape we often don’t notice it.  When was the last time you have stopped to take a good look at it?  In January when I visited a friend in Ethiopia I was really struck by the scaffolding methods I saw, and other construction practices.

In America, where people are so terrified of lawsuits from injury on the job, site safety is paramount. In Ethiopia this appears to be less of a concern. Although the construction practices in Ethiopia may seem to have less of an environmental impact because of the lack of site safety features, fewer heavy construction equipment, and the scaffolding is made from Eucalyptus, a renewable resource, I learned that the environmental impact of this plant is a serious problem.

The Eucalyptus scaffolding that surrounds buildings and is sometimes covered with a patchwork of tarps is characteristic of construction sites in Addis Ababa, and other small cities in Ethiopia. The eucalyptus logs are also lashed together to form ramps people can walk up to get to the top of the building (on top of which there are no safety railings). Eucalyptus grows prolifically in Ethiopia because it is very adaptable, fast growing, and when cut down it grows up again from the roots. It can be harvested at least every ten years, and grows very straight, so is ideal for construction. It can be found in roadside lumberyards throughout the country.

The problem with Eucalyptus however is that it is a very thirsty plant, which can dry up rivers and wells, absorbing water that would otherwise allow for grass cover and other native flora. This not only decreases biodiversity it can increase soil erosion, even though initially people had thought it was ideal in stabilizing eroding soil in watershed rehabilitation projects because it grows so quickly.

Eucalyptus was introduced in the late 1800’s/early 1900’s under Emperor Menelik. Addis Ababa was being developed as the capital of Ethiopia, and this necessitated a lot of timber. As the city became deforested due to the construction practices and need for firewood, Menelik endorsed the introduction of eucalyptus to Ethiopia from Australia, and encouraged its planting around Addis Ababa. Many plantations sprung up around the city and the tree spread to other areas throughout the country.

Addis Ababa seems to be experiencing another wave of construction activity, as the city seeks to “modernize” and countries like China are pouring capital into developing the country to gain more access to Ethiopia’s resources. Districts have been designated as focus areas to wipe out all the one story buildings that some would call a “slum” and build multi-story buildings in their places. Residents are being told that if their home or storefront is less than 2 stories then they need to build another floor, tear it down and build a 2 story building, or they would be displaced. The landscape of Addis Ababa is changing quickly.

Needless to say, the need for scaffolding is growing as construction projects continue to grow. No other native plants are known to be able to replace this valuable and important resource. Research on the solution to this problem is pointing in the direction of better education and land management practices. These are some of the recommendations made in a report by the Forestry Department and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations:

1.  There is need for better education of farmers, and other stakeholders, in the selection of the best phenotypes for seed collection.
2.  Fewer trees per unit area should be planted, and existing plantations should be thinned to reduce the water consumption needed by eucalyptus in areas where water is scarce or demanded by other crops.
3.  Arising from the recommendation above, there is need for research on the optimum spacing of eucalypt plantations for different purposes, to ensure soil protection and the development of understorey or ground vegetation without      compromising the productivity of the trees.
4. The foliage and bark of eucalyptus should be left on the plantation floor after harvesting to minimize the impact of Eucalyptus plantations on soil nutrients
5. There should be wider spacing between trees to allow ground cover or agricultural crops to develop.
6. Comprehensive research is required before undertaking projects to determine impacts on soil nutrients, water, hydrology, wildlife and biodiversity
7. Native forest or even secondary regrowth should not be cleared to make way for Eucalyptus plantations
8. Eucalyptus could be tried in mixed species systems, using indigenous tree species and vegetation to minimize adverse impacts on biodiversity and wildlife


FAO (2011). Eucalyptus in East Africa, Socio-economic and environmental issues, by Gessesse Dessie, Teklu Erkossa. Planted Forests and Trees Working Paper 46/E, Forest Management Team, Forest Management Division. FAO, Rome(unpublished).







Q+A with Sophia Chang on “Suspense”

Sophia Chang, an American architect and former member of the SHIFTboston team, has created an interactive, cavernous-like installation entitled “Suspense” at the Invivia Gallery in Cambridge, MA. Stretched lycra fabric creates curving walls that blur the boundaries between interior and exterior space. Occasionally the fabric breaks to expose elements in order to frame both people and space in disorienting, new ways.

Meghan Maupin, a writer for SHIFTboston, interviews Sophia to find out more about “Suspense” and what projects she has in store for the future:

Meghan: Can you explain your design process and how the form developed? Did it come from seeing the space first, as a way to contrast the existing building through material expression and experience?
Sophia: One of the exciting aspects of working with installations is that these compact spaces can be an intensification of architectural experience. The results have always been a proof to myself of how powerful architecture in its space-making potentials can be. This is something to which people are generally unaware. For the most part, people don’t think about how the built environment is impacting the way they move or live. Many people I’ve encountered assume that architecture is about “making pretty buildings”, as if aesthetic considerations were the only ingredient buildings had to work with. “Suspense” not only creates an alternate experience to the ordinary, which makes people more aware of their own bodies in space, it also grabs onto and reframes the familiar, defamiliarizing the everyday for reconsideration of how that too affects our experience. I began by looking at this more familiar context where I would be intervening. What did I want to frame, and what were potential sequences that people would move through the project? Materiality was certainly part of the equation as only certain forms can be held through pure tension, but I had the intention of using fabric even before having seen the site. Lycra engages people’s sense of touch and allows people to interact with each other through walls, sometimes using the walls themselves. Shadows pass through from one side to the other, and and the object itself is changed by the action of people within the gallery. The project was always intended to not just be something to look at, but somewhere to participate. 


Meghan: How was it put together? Do you have any pictures of the framework before you stretched the fabric?
Sophia: The structural design was one of the biggest challenges of the work, but became a strong driver in reformulating the poche experience of the space. When I arrived to the INVIVIA gallery, I saw the polished concrete floor, brick walls, and a ceiling I was not allowed to touch, and at first, I was quite baffled as to where I would find any structural support. It takes two or ideally three people to hold the fabric in place while it is being attached, so the forces I was working with were not insignificant. This dilemma eventually led to the creation of a strong “thickened wall” scheme. We grabbed onto some of the wood cabinetry and one of the steel columns to build three stud walls at an offset from the original rectangle of the room, creating a structural box, and turning the rest of the gallery into a poche of the installation. Allowing people to walk within this thickened wall to the exterior of the fabric womb provided the opportunity to create varied sequences of interaction with the piece. Someone walking by might first look through a frame and see the outside of the fabric form and then walk by another frame opening up into an interior view before encountering a doorway which finally allowed them to enter within the fabric or into a middle layer of poche between the stud walls and suspended form. Creating most of the structure from scratch also provided the opportunity to create the connections in ways which allowed the frames and apertures to clearly read as being extruded into the new interior. The fabric had its own wooden frames which were then hooked into insets in the stud walls or metal framing around the room.  A flap of fabric wrapped to cover the metal connectors, allowing the connections to become invisible and the fabric to read as emerging directly from each orthogonal frame. 


Meghan: What’s next? Was this a site-specific installation or do you see it as a language that can take other forms?
Sophia: This was actually the second of two large fabric installations I have made. The first was in a house gallery where I took over the living and dining areas. There was a really compelling tension that emerged out of the very apparent domesticity of the space being drawn into and contrasted to the new fabric forms. I would love to have the opportunity to resite this first installation into a wireframe skeleton or framing of an american home. The Invivia Gallery offered a new context to respond to; none of the domesticity, but a chance to strengthen other ideas which were just beginning to be realized in the first installation. One example is right at the entrance where people are able to look into the large storefront window and see a space they do not yet know how to enter, a room directly next to their entry from the door. At just one step into the installation, already there is a play between two spaces which encouraged further exploration. I was able to create much better interaction at multiple layers of poche due to the larger scale of the gallery and its strong connection to a public street. So, while the installations are designed to be site-specific, the ideas can be transferred and transformed between various environments. 
I can track the ideas of poche and spatial decoding back into designs I have done for buildings. Architecture is able to imply and reveal. It doesn’t require complex geometrical play to pique curiosity. One of my projects was essentially a cube, probably the furthest thing someone would imagine from the soft sweeping geometries of ‘Suspense’. A lot of recent building has become obsessed with being as transparent as possible and making the interior life of a building completely obvious. Perhaps in a time where most people are too distracted and rushed to notice or investigate, obviousness is what architecture needs; but after doing these installations and seeing people’s reaction to them, I sometimes wonder if buildings should allow more discovery and ask people to slow down and notice the spaces around them. As a child, whenever I went to a new hotel, I liked to go floor by floor and investigate the entire building, somehow always expecting to find some interesting space to see. I was rarely rewarded for the effort, but the idea of there being something to find made the buildings a heck of a whole lot cooler. I’ve since given up on the idea that all buildings might reveal something worth discovering, but sometimes they do, and when its a surprise it somehow makes the experience even better. Though not necessarily in the same form, I hope to continue this project in future installations and architectural work.  


Meghan: Could you imagine it as a larger, self-supporting structure?
Sophia: There’s something about recreating the apertures of a space by linking directly to them that seems necessary to fully reinterpreting the existing structure, as the context itself becomes part of the installation. Seeing out of the fabric womb through a bay window to a typical streetscape is one example. That being said, by having the offset stud walls, ‘Suspense’ was largely self-supported and the gap between the frame of viewing and the original context of the gallery created moments where a person could actually appear in the frame. So a similar installation could certainly be self-supported, but the dialogue would become more about a zone held in-between the existing context and its intervention.


Meghan: I am really intrigued by the concept of poche in your installation- especially after seeing the image of the girl putting her hands up against the fabric. It’s really provocative! Can you elaborate on this a little bit more?
Sophia: A lot of recent interactive installations rely on the feedback of software to create interactivity and engagement with participants. I’ve personally invested a lot of time into these technologies and use them extensively, but would also like to believe that interactivity can, first and foremost, be created through the formulation of spaces themselves. Poche is the method through which I achieve that in this installation. If you think about old palaces where the walls were often thickened to contain all the passages and stairs for servants to live in parallel without being seen, that inhabitable wall space begins to get at the type of poche space in which I am interested. Poche is often thought of as leftover space, but in these palaces, the poche contains a carefully calculated second realm which are integral to the first. Spaces exist directly next to each other, forming each other. They can be hidden, or revealed; and if one switches from being in a room to being in its wall space, the understanding of the initial space is changed.  Wall becomes room and room becomes wall. In ‘Suspense’ there is a certain decoding that happens as people’s understanding of the space they are in keeps shifting depending on which layer of poche they are inhabiting. By creating a layered and changing experience, the poche enables and encourages curiosity and exploration. Many of the visitors to the gallery have described the experience as suspenseful even before finding out the title of the work. The picture of the child’s silhouette shows the intensification of this experience through the presence of multiple people sensing each other through the fabric walls and activating each other’s awareness of inhabitible poche spaces which were previously hidden to perception. With the flexibility of the fabric and tangency of all the spaces, people were constantly changing their own space and the space of others. It was exciting seeing how this promoted interaction between people through their own manipulation of their environment. 


Meghan: Where can we see more of your work?
Sophia: For now, the best place to see my work is at my website ( but there may be a smaller scale installation in the works for this spring. I don’t want to give away too much, but I’m looking forward to using my work to support an event for the local community. Keep your eyes out!



Finding Agora: An Exhibition





















Finding Agora: An Exhibition  12.13.13,  Watson Auditorium, Wentworth Institute of Technology, 5pm-8pm

Finding Agora is a collection of student work from Professor Zenovia Toloudi’s graduate studio that focuses on public space + architecture in the City of Athens.

“Agora, with etymology linked to aggregation, and a history of being the birth of democracy as well as the center of political, artistic, and commercial life in ancient Greek contexts, acted as please for people to come together. Finding Agora seeks to explore twelve M. Arch students’ in response to their experiences in Athens while identifying a contemporary Agora.”  Professor Zenovia Toloudi

To learn more about this exhibition and to see the student work please visit: