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UN Plaza LIZ Takes Shape

UN Plaza LIZ Takes Shape

Starting this week, the sound of saws and hammers filled UN Plaza near San Francisco’s Civic Center. Within the month, construction sounds will be replaced with the ringing of chimes and other harmonics as part of Sound Commons, an interactive, sound-based installation designed to encourage playful social activity in this challenging public space.

The plan calls for wooden boardwalks winding through the trees that line both sides of the Plaza thoroughfare. The installation will invite passers-by to leave the formal pathways and spend some time with a collection of engaging, Exploratorium-like interactive experiences.

Large chimes, a quartet of xylophones, and a forest of leggy noisemakers will all encourage people to add interesting notes to the Plaza soundscape. Three long Echo Tubes, looking like exposed ductwork, will create surprising echoes and other sound effects as people clap and talk into them. Another experience will inspire quietude: a bed of gravel embedded with sound-sensors will challenge users to walk as quietly as possible and score them on their tip-toeing skill. Scattered throughout the site will be small, written notes that provoke new ways of thinking about sound.


The giant chimes as envisioned in the SPS plan (top) and as prototypes being tested by Exploratorium visitors (bottom).

The new space was created in partnership with San Francisco’s Office of Planning,  and is the latest project built under the city’s Living Innovation Zones (LIZ) initiative. SPS is increasingly involving itself in such collaborations with city agencies and community groups to develop public spaces that achieve multiple goals: supporting inquiry, improving public health and safety, and making the city more livable.

On this project, we worked closely with the Tenderloin community and the UN Plaza Farmer’s Market to be sure existing uses were considered in the plans.

This is the fourth LIZ to be created under the city’s program to populate public spaces with active, socially inclusive installations that demonstrate the San Francisco’s innovative spirit. The Exploratorium built Pause, the first LIZ, on Market Street in 2013. This new community space was created with parks-focused funding from the California Department of Housing and Community Development. It opens in June, and then can be played and heard in UN Plaza for the next two years.