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Swift Series: A Tale of Five Towers

This July the students of URBANFRAME set out on a challenge to design and build five 12-foot towers that captivate the unassuming commuter and provide habitat for the Chimney Swift, a native bird on decline. This photo essay attempts to capture the milestones along the way, through the eyes of the student designers.

Design can be taxing. Designing with 38 minds for one project seems impossible. Before any design takes place, we acquaint ourselves with one another. What better way than an awkward “ice-breaker”?!

We brighten the dark and damp day looming over the town of Everett, MA during the march to the railroad in our highlighter yellow t-shirts. Our first visit to the site of the design challenge is a bit of a mystery. The task before us is to imagine ways to transform underused space for people and wildlife, seen through the eyes of commuters.

Prompt: “make a series of 10 compelling objects on a linear path”. Materials: unlimited sheets of paper, glue and rulers. Our exploration of the imbedded principles behind a series and a progression begin with this minimalist task and ends with inspiring discussions of balance, sensitivity, transformation and symmetry.

We break into groups of 10 and set out to sketch a progression – but as an experience, not as an object. We take turns sharing each group’s design concept and quickly realize a few common threads. With a little more exploration, we form a consensus around the idea of “the reveal”: an experience of change conveyed through an individual object and a series of them.

Behind every strong design is a pile of sketches and a heap of gestural models. With “the reveal” on our minds, we set out to the modeling table.

Reaching consensus as a (large) group and making decisions to move a concept forward is difficult but a crucial process.

Scaling Up: Moving our modeling process into physical, scale models creates the first real impression of the presence of the objects, individually and as a series. The question before us seems obvious: how would we actually build these?

Construction begins with a task to hang a massive tarp over the build area to keep us dry on those rainy days to come. A seemingly simple task or so we think. The tarp goes up, and then it comes back down. We climb trees and summit storage units. Persistence and optimism persevere and the tarp is finally in place…after an entire day’s work!

We quickly gain confidence with the power tools as we jump into production mode.

Even a complicated conceptual design begins as a very straightforward building process in the wood shop, as we kick off the construction phase.

Meta: A number of us work behind the scenes fabricating logos, press releases, videos, stop-motion “claymation” and other important pieces to curate the exhibition.

Liam slides inside each box to double-check for hazards, reminding us that this challenge extends beyond aesthetics by creating habitat for a species in need.

Using color seems like an obvious way to create a more dynamic visual experience. Exploring color schemes on the modules leads to a few dead ends and some important insights.

The “Learning Curve” becomes a metaphor for the task of cutting 100 fins, each one a series of curves. We run on faith that the full-scale construction will create the impression that our scale models hinted at.

Installation of the ‘fins’ to the exterior of the box is a trying and logistically complex operation. Each team glues 20 “unclampable” objects to a square tube the night after rain warps all of the boards.

We stand up the towers, each one weighing a few hundred pounds – a testament to the saying, “many hands make light work”.

A solidifying moment sweeps over us when all five modules stand in the yard at full scale. All of the built-up anxiety on whether the ‘fins’ will be a success quickly washes away and is replaced by reassurance and excitement.

Dan tests the structural integrity of each tower with a flying jump kick. Success ensues.

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