Air Space

Text Mari Fujita

Photos Gavin Mackenzie

Over the course of three days, light, white, air-filled glowing nylon orbs attracted over 3,000 people to an alley in Vancouver. “An Asian-infused surreal experience of cylindrical forms in a rectilinear environment,” described Michael Gordon, Senior Planner, City of Vancouver. Balloon Caught, the urban installation by Tokyo architects Satoshi Matsuoka and Yuki Tamura, brought about a shift in perception of the otherwise disputed, avoided, or forgotten space of the alley. Winner of SPACEAGENCY’s international design competition to rethink Gastown’s alleyways as urban frontier spaces, the installation drew local residents, planners, tourists, ESL classes, families and designers to explore the public space through an array of programmed and spontaneous activities.

The success of Balloon Caught is in the tactics of its installation and material form. Rather than produce another “other” space through obfuscation or reprogramming, the functions of the alley were maintained. Squeezed overhead between buildings, the light structure nonetheless introduced a new spatial experience that encouraged the public to reconsider the space too often associated with infrastructure, garbage and illicit activity. Materially, the punctuated canopy brought a sense of enclosure, spatial continuity, and place. Over the course of 24 hours, the quality of light in the alley heightened a shifting spatial experience, as the nylon orbs changed from translucent to opaque white throughout the day to a soft warm glow in the evening.

The significance of Balloon Caught is that it is a succinct provocation. In a city of delineated, regulated and over-programmed public space, the project instigates the appropriation of existing overlooked spaces. With the majority of Vancouver’s civic life and its public spaces oriented towards the water and landscape at the outside edge of the city, the project also redirects the focus inwards to spaces of distinctive scales with unique potentials for public gathering. A space temporally in flux, the opportunities for dynamic and varied forms of public activity in alleyways are many. The city is alive, and not only for three days.

Mari Fujita is an Assistant Professor at the UBC School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, Principal of Studio Fujita Neumann, and a member of SPACEAGENCY.