The Boston Society for Architecture announced Wednesday that Janet Echelman’s 2015 sculpture “As If It Were Already Here,”which hung above the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway that summer, is the 2022 recipient of its highest honor, the Harleston Parker Medal. It’s the first time the medal has been awarded to an artist and to an ephemeral work.
The award, founded in 1921, is given annually to “the most beautiful piece of architecture, building, monument, or structure built in the metropolitan Boston area in the past 10 years,” according to the BSA’s website. A jury of architects and non-architects considers submissions against the Framework for Design Excellence, established by the American Institute of Architects, of which BSA is a chapter. BSA has traditionally recognized buildings, making this a departure from previous years.
“It certainly sets the precedent and sort of helps redefine what shapes space,” said BSA President Andrea Love of the jury’s choice for 2022.
Echelman’s sculpture, one of five finalists for the Harleston, was commissioned by the Greenway Conservancy’s public art program and on display from May 3 to Oct. 25, 2015. The shimmering, knotted sculpture, attached between buildings, incorporated more than 100 miles of twine and weighed about 1 ton. It combined ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene with polyester fibers and LED lighting, according to Echelman’s website.
The jury debated the sculpture’s ephemerality and the colorful craftsmanship, said Eric White, the BSA’s executive director. “They described it as reminiscent of [a] child’s blown soap bubbles that are connected to memory and history,” he said.
Within the 10-point Design Excellence framework, the sculpture strongly exhibited the “Design for Equitable Communities” standard, Love said, given its function as a public artwork that “brought people together.”
Echelman said she found that the sculpture encouraged people to interact with the Greenway and with each other. She said she heard frequent anecdotes from observers, including workers in the Greenway area who would carve out time in their day to watch the sculpture flow in the air. One woman told her the presence of the sculpture made her feel safer.
“I loved that it changed the pattern of daily life; it became a part of people’s lives,” Echelman said.
Even the name of the sculpture came about organically. The morning of the installation, someone made a comment that it felt as if the sculpture had always existed. “As if It Were Already Here” symbolizes “the phenomena of humans imagining a reality that does not yet exist,” Echelman said.
The capacity for imagination in cities is crucial to Echelman, who said she was surprised to win the Harleston because she is not an architect. The recognition speaks to the cross-pollination that can happen between fields, she said.
“Boston has an incredible confluence of creativity that bridges multiple disciplines,” she added.
Echelman lived on and off in the Boston area from 1983 to 2020, moving back to Florida during the pandemic, but she still travels back often for her work: She is currently a distinguished visiting artist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In 2024, Princeton Architectural Press will publish a book on Echelman’s work called “Radical Softness: The Responsive Sculpture of Janet Echelman,” edited by Gloria Sutton, an associate professor at Northeastern University.
“Merging craft and computation, Echelman’s works make a powerful argument for the vital role of public art, transforming invisible histories into textile structures that breathe new life into often overlooked urban spaces,” Sutton said in a statement.
While the majority of Echelman’s work involves permanent commissions, she values the temporary nature of art. Winning the Harleston for “As If It Were Already Here” shows how art can endure through memory, she said.
“What’s meaningful to me is how it shines a light on how ephemeral experiences can live robustly in our minds even after its physical presence is gone,” Echelman said.
Abigail Lee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.