On a recent rip to San Francisco, I was walking along the tourist-packed Embarcadero when I came upon a cluster of large, white, chunky, donut-like forms. Dozens of kids were frolicking up and over the funky constructions, sliding down angled planes and popping out of the center hidey-holes. Even better, older kids and adults were getting in on the action, albeit in more subdued manners. I was immediately drawn to the scene and discovered that my enthusiastic first impression was only the tip of the iceberg… or in this case, the barnacle.
Turns out I had just stumbled upon the “Barnacle Benches” by Surface Design, Inc. Located at Pier 9 and the entrance to the renowned Exploratorium, this project was recently installed last summer and is categorized as “public seating” according to the firm website. What a lovely understatement for such a richly conceived design.
Taken on their own, the form of the benches invite users to sit, bask, climb, balance and even ride along the clean, lightly textured surfaces. (Of note – the absence of protective guards makes me wonder if the design team was giving tacit approval to skateboarding? How radical!) The siting of the benches was varied and perfectly scaled – enough space to run full speed between, but close enough (for some) to leapfrog from one to the other. What a great example of play beyond the playground. And play in an urban context. And play on objects other than ASTM-approved structures… with not a wood chip in sight!
As the name makes clear, the benches draw their inspiration from the clusters of hard-shelled barnacles present at high tide, as well as “people’s natural tendency to cluster together, like barnacles.” Nearby signage explains the ecological niche occupied by barnacles within the tidal zone as well as some interesting facts about the barnacles life cycle. Pretty cool- a straightforward, simple concept clearly linked to/inspired by its surroundings.
Now see how the concept was carried through, almost literally, to the fabrication process. Just as the repeating six-sided geometries of real barnacles gives them strength, so follows the structure of the benches. Turns out the benches were a joint venture with design software giant Autodesk and Concreteworks, a company that specializes in lightweight, fiberglass reinforced concrete. So for all those digital fabrication geeks who love parametric tectonics, there you go.
In the end, my accidental encounter with the Barnacle Benches was an inspiring reminder that a clear concept, thoughtfully located, beautifully detailed, can truly elevate the experience of a place.