From a distance, it appears to be a prow-like pergola from which a delicate collection of puzzling elements are suspended. While approaching, hanging ribs that sway in the wind become discernible. The eye is drawn to this movement, an illusion of the entire structure wavering in the wind, similar to a boat rocking on waves. Upon closer encounter, the chattering of wood is heard, and the suspended elements reveal themselves as a field of dancing dowels. The wind picks up amplifying both movement and sound. The wind dies down and it all becomes more subtle. People passing by turn to move beneath the structure, gazing up at the colorful wooden objects. Parents carry children on their shoulders allowing them to knock the dowels with their hands, adding an instant ripple effect. These are the sensory experiences of ‘Murmur’.
Murmur at the 2019 Seattle Design Festival
Each year, the non-profit Design in Public hosts the Seattle Design Festival (SDF). SDF is a space for the local design community to come together and create an engaging and interactive experience for peers and the public alike. The installations are guided by a suggested theme; analyzing how each design team interprets the same prompt can reveal trends in current design thinking, narratives, and inspirations. Often, designs provoke thoughts on our shared experience of life in ever-changing Seattle and point to ways design can help shape and enhance our beloved city.
This year’s SDF theme was ‘balance’. The design team at Weber Thompson knew right away that our interpretation of balance would lean dynamic rather than static. We imagined natural systems and ecosystems in a constant state of change; an organic search for equilibrium that ebbs and flows. We challenged ourselves to create an installation that allowed viewers to feel their individual impact in a larger system. We asked, “What if we could make a small cosmos for people to enter and experience this interpretation of ‘balance’?”
Enter our muse: a video of a flock of black birds known as starlings flying together in undulating forms against a pastel sunset backdrop. Swirling and diving, creating nebulous, hypnotic patterns with no apparent logic. We later discovered that this starling phenomena is called a “murmuration.” It is unknown what inspires these beautiful displays, but it is known that the flowing changes of direction are caused by the movements of one bird rippling out to the handful of birds surrounding it. The action of one bird can influence the appearance of the entire murmuration.
From here the Weber Thompson design team set out to create an installation made up of many smaller pieces that would flow together in the wind, emulating the ever changing murmuration of starlings. While the process of design and construction took many months, and the nature of our installation took many shapes on its journey from a kernel of an idea to a tangible form, we landed on a profound connection when all was said and done. The Seattle design community, and the process of design itself, is not so different from a starling murmuration. We all are operating from our own points of view, our own languages of expression, and our own motivations for being designers. Each year we come together, called to design under a common theme, to create a fleeting display for others to observe, question, and from which to draw inspiration. We seek both to connect, and to help one another understand a little more deeply this thing called life.
So while we do not know why the birds dance together, we certainly know why we do.
About the author
Brittany Porter AIA, CPHC, LEED Green Assoc. is a member of Weber Thompson’s commercial office team and is a passionate advocate for all things sustainability and design. She was a core member of this year’s WT Seattle Design Festival team.