Ready for Musical Traffic Lights? San Francisco Festival Unveils Prototypes for a Better Market Street

by Matt Alderton
- Apr 6 2015 - 4 min read

To the vast majority of people who run, walk, drive, bike, and ride on them every day, streets are a means to an end. Utilitarian slabs of concrete and asphalt, they’re a delivery mechanism connecting point A to point B. Like the ground beneath them, they warrant little thought.

To a visionary few, however, streets are much more than paved paths to and from work. They’re three-dimensional spaces in which communities engage, interact, and evolve.

Officials in the San Francisco Planning Department are among those visionary few. As the launching pad for Better Market Street—a $400-million initiative that will rehabilitate San Francisco’s carotid artery, the Market Street corridor—they’ve partnered with Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and the Knight Foundation to launch the first-ever Market Street Prototyping Festival. Taking place April 9–11, the three-day event will unite makers, designers, and artists to showcase more than 50 prototypical ideas for improving San Francisco’s civic seam.

Final prototype and installation of “Knock Stop Music” on Market Street in San Francisco

“The Better Market Street program . . . will be renovating mass transit, pedestrian, and automobile infrastructure along Market Street, but it also has a focus on improving street life and creating engagement with the citizenry,” explains Tristan Randall, strategic projects executive, business development, at Autodesk. “Unlike a public arts festival, where the event itself is the end game, this quite literally is the first step in a process that will inform the permanent infrastructure that will be built on the street.”

During the festival, citizens will have the opportunity to engage with ideas in five districts spanning a diversity of city neighborhoods. Each district will feature 10 grant-funded prototypes, as well as a “keystone” project pioneered by the district’s design captain.

As design captain for the Embarcadero district, representing San Francisco’s waterfront, Autodesk hopes its keystone project called “Knock Stop Music”—a series of “musical traffic lights” designed to connect pedestrians on opposite sides of the street—will inspire a spirit of shared exploration that infuses Market Street with camaraderie and community.

“Normally when you’re walking on the street, you’re thinking about getting to where you’re going,” says Sarah Brin, public programs manager at the Autodesk Workshop at Pier 9, a cutting-edge digital fabrication facility where the project was conceived and built. “This playful intervention on Market Street is meant to get strangers to interact with each other, and in doing so suggest the possibility that there might be neglected opportunities for innovation, discovery, or delight in this everyday space we spend so much time in.”

Montreal-based design studio Daily tous les jours was chosen for the project and developed its keystone concept during two visits to Pier 9 in December 2014 and January 2015. “Our approach is very context-based,” explains Daily tous les jours Co-founder Melissa Mongiat. “We wanted to understand the site, understand its inhabitants and visitors, and also understand the story—what rituals take place there everyday.”

Autodesk Workshop at Pier 9

When her team wasn’t outside exploring Market Street, it was inside exploring Pier 9, which opened in October 2013 to host artists in residence alongside Autodesk employees working on creative projects. “Pier 9 is like a wonderland for prototyping,” continues Mongiat, whose design team played with 3D printing and CNC machining, among other things. “We could scan street furniture with our phones, use Autodesk’s Fusion 360 software to create models on the computer, then use the 3D printer to produce objects to play with and ideate. It was quite magical.”

Brainstorming and experimentation yielded the final concept of “Knock Stop Music,” whereby pedestrians on opposites sides of Market Street will be able to engage one another with light and sound via cardboard installations resembling traffic lights.

“Knocking interface” on final prototype of “Knock Stop Music”

“San Francisco is famous for very big bridges, so we developed the idea of creating invisible bridges, using interactive technologies to connect two people on either side of the street,” Mongiat says. “Each cardboard traffic light has a knocking interface. When you knock, it sends both a light signal and a sound signal to the other side of the street. The sound you’re emitting enters a loop that people on the other side of the street can contribute to. Before you know it, suddenly you’re making music together.”

The result—a collective experience in a shared space—has the potential to create not just auditory harmony, but also social harmony. And in cities like San Francisco, perhaps even a new way of working.

“We view this as a rethinking of the role the community plays in getting capital projects built,” Randall concludes. “Because ultimately this is more than just putting concrete and steel into the ground, and it’s more than just improving the functionality of the street.”

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