Prof. Manuel Baez and his team prepare to launch his pHacktory project Starling One in the Byward Market.

Balloon Canopy Takes Flight Over Ottawa

On Oct. 1, writer Joseph Mathieu found himself watching the launch of a pHacktory balloon experiment hatched from the mind of Carleton Architecture Prof. Manuel Baez. He brings you the story.

A new independent research lab launched its inaugural experiment concocted by Carleton Architecture Prof. Manuel Baez on Saturday, Oct. 1 – off the roof of a parking garage in Ottawa’s historic ByWard Market.

Starling’s One, a large helium-filled balloon canopy of string and LED lights, floated from three storeys up over William’s Square as a few hundred people watched expectantly.

pHacktory will test out wild ideas with the help of the Ottawa community

The cross-disciplinary lab, called pHacktory, will test out wild ideas with the help of the Ottawa community. The more difficult or impossible the idea seems, the better.

“The whole point of pHacktory is to create a lab outside of academia,” said Baez, artistic director of Starling’s One. “It’s about freedom. Freedom to do what you want and freedom from the fear of failure.”

Baez, an associate professor at Carleton’s Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism in the Faculty of Engineering and Design, was on the roof at York and William Streets at 9:30 a.m. After months of planning, just over 1,000 balloons were shaped into a square canopy and assembled by 50 volunteers from the Canadian Science and Technology MuseumCHEO and students from the Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism. Tiny LED lights were inserted into each balloon before they were inflated with helium and attached to a grid of string.

At 6:15 p.m., spools of string were lobbed from handlers above to others below, and the human anchors in the square clipped a safety hook onto their belts. Light winds tugged at the shape-shifting structure.

As classical music played, Baez slowly directed the structure off the parking garage and, when the last anchor was dropped, the floating shape steadied and the crowd cheered.

Starling’s One Takes Flight

Starling’s One—named after the amorphous shapes that starlings take mid-flight—and Baez’s previous balloon projects have all been in the spirit of Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí. A lifelong admirer of Gaudí’s use of weights to form catenary curves, Baez uses buoys to upright the curves into arches.

“I want people to walk inside the work of Gaudí,” he said as he flitted from one anchoring string to another. Children gathered in groups to weigh down the string and toured the canopy like they were on monkey bars. Pulling down on different portions of the structure changed its shape: it became a vase, an igloo, a vortex and a turtle.

Every interaction was a part of the experiment, and Baez said he plans to write a paper about it and present his findings to Carleton.

Andrew Pelling, co-founder of the “street-level” research lab, watched the sheet of biodegradable balloons wave and rock in the wind from the rooftop.

“Manuel and I have a mutual interest in things that shape-shift,” he said.

Pelling is an associate professor at the University of Ottawa and director of the Pelling Lab for Biophysical Manipulation.

“Originally it was supposed to cover all of York Street, and then it was supposed to be five installations. We decided to tone it down, to start with something smaller,” laughing at the still large proportions of Starling’s One.

For more information on the pHacktory research group, go to phacktory.com.