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10-16-20 | Department

Interactive Play-Space Celebrates Waterfront Ecology

The Barnacles at Pier 9 in San Francisco Bay
by Michal Kapitulnik, ASLA, Surfacedesign, Inc. - Photography: Marion Brenner

The Barnacles at San Francisco's Pier 9 transformed a wharf into an educational playground informed by waterfront ecology. They are inspired by crustacean clusters and were created for communal gathering. Constructability was tested with 3D-printed small models. Resin molds were crafted from the models, from which the team poured concrete mock-ups to test textures, colors and materiality. Furthermore, the team used a 5-axis CNC mill to create forms for the precast concrete and to add texture to the surface of each bench. The technology has precise toolpaths, making elaborate textures on the benches' surfaces possible.
The Surfacedesign team began the project by studying barnacle clusters. The knowledge they obtained was implemented into the digital modeling and 3D printing that was used to design and manufacture The Barnacles. At night, Nova Flex strip LEDs illuminate the seven barnacle benches that cover the 7,000 square feet of design area. Multiple precast concrete modules were created for each barnacle. The final assembly took place on-site and complied with local seismic codes.
Known for their ecological waterfront projects, the landscape architects finished The Barnacles installation with a 3D educational display, incorporating a series of bronze barnacle casts.
The team used AutoCAD for the two-dimensional construction drawings and Rhinoceros, a 3D graphics and computer-aided design software, for the creation of the three-dimensional modeling. The final surface texture softens the benches' facets, adding lines that reinterpret the barnacles' biological forms while showcasing the CAD/CAM technology behind the finished product. These same digital tools were used to create The Barnacles' educational display, which celebrates the ecology and history of San Francisco Bay's intertidal zones.
The team used AutoCAD for the two-dimensional construction drawings and Rhinoceros, a 3D graphics and computer-aided design software, for the creation of the three-dimensional modeling. The final surface texture softens the benches' facets, adding lines that reinterpret the barnacles' biological forms while showcasing the CAD/CAM technology behind the finished product. These same digital tools were used to create The Barnacles' educational display, which celebrates the ecology and history of San Francisco Bay's intertidal zones.

Of the many public waterfront projects Surfacedesign has created, one of the most playful is The Barnacles at Pier 9, which transformed a marginal wharf between two San Francisco piers into an interactive plaza that celebrates intertidal ecology. Sited along the San Francisco Bay Trail, 500 miles of publicly accessible waterfront within San Francisco, the project focused on creating a flexible plaza space animated by sculptural seating elements. The Barnacles provide a playful counterpart to the diverse attractions in the Embarcadero Historic District along the city's eastern shoreline: the site-adjacent Exploratorium museum, fishing vessels, shops, restaurants, boat docks and open space.

Setting the Stage for Imaginative Play
By exaggerating the scale of small barnacles into oversized features, new whimsical forms invite children to climb, jump, touch-and inspire them to learn more about San Francisco's coastal ecology. Rather than pre-programmed/prescriptive play elements, The Barnacles are open-ended forms that encourage children to invent their own games and promote imaginative play, all set within the backdrop of open views to the bay.

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As a point of inspiration for the plaza, the barnacles that cling to the area's piers, docks, and seawalls were studied at multiple scales-from the surface texture, to the clustering of multiple barnacles, to their role within the broader intertidal community. These formations were abstracted to create the design language for the unique barnacle site furnishings.
Tactile signage within the plaza delves into the ecology of the San Francisco Bay's intertidal zones through imagery and diagrams accented with bronze barnacle clusters to touch.

Celebrating Process
Collaborating with Autodesk's Pier 9 Workshop, prototyping was part of the design process from concept through construction. Initial sketches and paper maquettes were used to translate barnacle studies into three dimensions before the forms were digitally modelled. These models were then 3D-printed in order to study the planar geometry of the forms. It also allowed the various barnacle modules to be arranged in "rooms" to facilitate a diversity of spaces for people to play, gather, cluster and move within
the plaza.

Project fabricators Concreteworks-an industry leader in architectural concrete innovation-used the models to vet the highly sculptural barnacle forms for constructability and to create a modular system that could be precast and then assembled on-site. A 5-axis CNC mill was used to manufacture the modular formwork, made from flat starboard panels assembled in a complex framing system. As part of fabrication process exploration, a woven pattern was encoded into the CNC-router to showcase the technology and manufacturing as part of the surface patterning on the seating elements. This pattern becomes a tactile element that is also reminiscent of barnacle shells, which grow and become textured through accretion.

The precast barnacle modules were assembled on-site. Their lightweight, GFRC (glass fiber reinforced concrete) shell construction was ideal for the project, given the historic pier's structure. The modular configuration also allowed for seismic adjustments to be made as the individual barnacles were installed. The result is playful, flexible seating, helping scale the space and accommodate multiple gatherings and events simultaneously.
Inspired by crustacean clusters, The Barnacles at Pier 9 engages San Francisco's land and water threshold-an area both ecologically and culturally rich. The barnacles aim to blur this edge and create a forum for gathering and celebrating through play, education and exploration.

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