Idea Tree    , , ,

Self-Sustaining Ecology of Ideas Grows in San Jose


With a commission for a public artwork to commemorate the expansion of the San Jose McEnery Convention Center, Lifethings completed Idea Tree, a permanent participatory interactive artwork, in the newly renovated entry plaza.  Standing in front of a mural from 1989 which celebrated completion of the original Convention Center, Idea Tree demonstrates a changing attitude for public art, providing an urban space for public gathering as well as creating a self-sustaining digital ecology where spoken ideas of the citizens are gathered, remixed and evolved over time.


The site for Idea Tree, San Jose McEnery Convention Center, is located between two public spaces, Plaza de Cesar Chavez and Guadalupe River Park and Garden. The Convention Center area is a developing neighborhood with multiple residential projects planned in the near future as the population density is expected to rise.  It is the City’s desire that the entry plaza to the San Jose Convention Center, currently under utilized, be developed as an active civic space.


Idea Tree creates an artificial floating ‘Canopy’ under which various outdoor activities, convention-related and otherwise, can happen. The Canopy, a thin circular volume with a diameter of 40 feet that hovers 16 feet above the plaza, mediates the large scale of the plaza creating a ‘human scaled space’ as a transition from the street to the building’s entrance.  The Canopy is skinned with translucent polycarbonate panels, the ‘Leaves,’ that provide protection from the sun.  These Leaves, vacuum formed from embossed polycarbonate sheets, refract the sunlight into fragments of small spotlights in a way that creates visual experience of seeing the sun through dense volume of leaves in a forest.  The steel branches of the ‘Canopy’ suspends an opaque sculptural volume at the center, the ‘Fruit’, which houses electronic and sonic equipments for interactive participation. Idea Tree is carefully places near three newly planted trees.  These baby trees will grow and form a small urban forest with the Idea Tree in the future as their branches tangle with the steel cables and their leaves fill the gaps between the polycarbonate ‘Leaves’.


The interactive programming of the artwork is inspired by the Convention Center itself as the “meeting room of Silicon Valley” where iterative innovation happens over time. Majority of events at the Convention Center are booked as recurring events over multiple years — five years minimum and often between ten and twenty years. This invisible cycle inspires the artwork to respond to a unique time scale. Since events are scheduled annually and at approximately the same time of year, there exists an interesting cyclical ecology of ideas at the Convention Center. Simply put, if a particular group of people with similar ideas attend an event at the Convention Center this year, the same group of people will be back in the years to follow. This is an amazing opportunity for interaction that can be experienced over time.


In response to this cyclic context, Idea Tree creates a self-sustaining ecology of ideas that evolves and devolves over time. The public can share their ideas by leaving a short voice message into the ‘Seed’ placed on the plaza. ’Seed’ is a freestanding sound booth where a single person can engage the artwork and participate by leaving a spoken idea, an idea gene. Upon approach, the ‘Seed’ talks to invite a passer by with messages like ‘Hello, please come close. Your everyday thought could spark somebody’s imagination. Tell me, what’s on your mind right now?’ or ‘Hello…please come close (pause one second) Please share your inspiration with the tree and inspire others.’  When a passer by shares a spoken idea with the ‘Seed’, three messages are remixed into an exquisite corpse-style haiku.  Walking under the ‘Fruit’, people hear whispers of these haikus. By measuring how much time people spend listening to each haiku, popular haikus will “live” and stay in the playlist to have a chance to be whispered again in the future.  Unpopular haikus “wither” to “compost.” These haikus lose their literal content and are distorted into an abstract soundscape through algorithmic composition process. The ambient soundscape will be audible from underneath the surface of the ‘Canopy’ creating a condition that has the potential to stimulate people’s mind and work as fertilizers of new thoughts.


Working specifically in participatory public art as an artist, Soo-in Yang recognizes that participatory public artwork can be a double-edged sword in that lack of participation could lead to failure. “Past experiences have taught me a few lessons about participation.” says Yang, “The artwork should be placed at a location where people are willing to participate.  An artwork on a New York subway platform in rush hour will not draw people’s attention, no matter how well designed the interface is.  The artwork should have an intuitive interface, where a mother on a walk with a five year old daughter can figure out a way to participate within a minute.  The artwork should have an immediate incentive, a reaction, to somebody’s participation, thereby increasing the chance for participation.  However, these attributes only increase the chance of participation. I can’t really guarantee that there will be enough input.  In Idea Tree, the artwork has within it an ability to sustain its life,  a computer algorithm that self-generate remix of participant inputs and a rating system that further evolve the outcome.  With this, Even a small number of participation can create an ever-changing experience.”





Catalyzing Public Space 


Yukiko Bowman


(Originally published in SPACE, Vol.49, No.1, January, 2014)


Evolution thrives in Silicon Valley, where a dense ecology of tech startups compete in a fast-paced race for venture capital, young talent, and market share. The shear volume of innovation in this region upends the myth of pure invention, since the tech industry thrives less on a series of isolated explosions and more on a messy process of iteration, failure, reconfiguration, and refinement. And as the rare success story attests, a good idea only becomes a lasting product through intuitive design and social relevance—two key dictates of evolutionary survival.


Seoul architect and public artist Soo-in Yang thoughtfully materializes this regional dynamism in his large-scale installation, Idea Tree, recently completed at the San Jose Convention Center. Replacing a formal, rectilinear fountain that once adorned the Center’s main plaza, the 16’-foot tall, 40’-diameter sculpture comprises a custom-fabricated concrete and steel base, a canopy of cables and polycarbonate panels (the ‘Leaves’), a fiber-reinforced plastic audio core (the ‘Fruit’), and a bronze ‘Seed,’ located several feet away near the Plaza’s entry. Offering the public an interactive artwork that is more than just a static figure, Yang’s Idea Tree takes its inspiration from the cyclical nature of the Convention Center’s conference calendar, in which year after year, return visitors gather to meet and exchange ideas. By collecting the thoughts of these visitors over time, Idea Tree functions, in Yang’s own words, as a “self-sustaining ecology of ideas,” evolving over time.


Idea Tree achieves this through a complex process that seamlessly combines the hardware of sculpture and computer electronics with the software of algorithmic programming and long-distance monitoring and control. Visitors approaching the 8-ft tall freestanding Seed hear a message from within that invites them to leave their own mottos, inspirations, or ideas. Each person’s recorded message is then automatically mixed with two other messages to form an exquisite corpse “haiku,” which is then played from the Idea Tree’s central Fruit, triggered by a sensor when a visitor passes below. Over time, as each message is mixed and remixed into various haikus by a custom algorithm, another algorithm rates each message’s popularity based on how much of the whole message a visitor listens to. Messages that receive too many negative points are ‘composted’ into indistinguishable sound bites that become part of the ambient soundscape—also evolving—that emanates from the Fruit when the sensor is not triggered.


Thus the aural quality of the Idea Tree vacillates between an atmospheric, contemplative abstraction as one wanders around the sculpture, and a distinct collection of human voices as one passes directly beneath the Fruit. This vacillation lends the Idea Tree the uncanny quality of being alive, as if shocked out of its meditative reverie by the unexpected visit of a conversation partner. The collected voices of previous participants combine in expressions both mundane and meaningful, from “San Jose is the healthiest, happiest city on earth,” to “Give to give,” for example.


Idea Tree also engages the nearby changing physical landscape. The recently renovated plaza boasts young saplings that will someday grow to maturity, providing a shady canopy that will intermingle with the Idea Tree’s own. An outdoor coffee kiosk is also slated to open. With time, as the trees’ branches grow in size, the Idea Tree’s voices grow in number, and retail opportunities expand, it’s easy to envision the Plaza as a lively outdoor social setting.


Following upon his completion of several other participatory public artworks, Idea Tree establishes Yang to be as much a public artist as he is an architect. A critical architectural practice like Lifethings, established by Yang in 2011, is distinguished by its drive to challenge conventional boundaries of what architecture can be, formally, socially, politically. Achieving this freshness demands a departure from practice in order to engage in parallel experiments that test new media, push material limits, and defy ‘architectural’ expectations of shelter, scale, or function. Through his public art projects, Yang has honed his knowledge of bronze casting, custom steel and glass work, software engineering, and globally distributed fabrication processes, among others—all assets that will deepen his architectural practice.


Working as a public artist also gives Yang the powerful opportunity to be impactful within a contemporary timeframe, a privilege many architects don’t actualize until late in their careers. For Yang, this means deepening the quality of a person’s engagement with public space in a way that is not just about pleasure, but can also challenge latent power structures. His 2011 Itjanayo, in Seouls’s Chyeong-Gye Plaza, functioned as a public messaging system that engaged the site’s historic complexity as a place where expressions of free speech have occasionally met government pushback. Following Yang’s installation, the city mayor’s office introduced its own soapbox-like structure where citizens could voice their thoughts and concerns via microphone. Yang, humble, is careful not to take credit for this antecedent, but this example places Yang’s artwork within a tradition that seeks to highlight and affirm the invaluable, but oft-intangible, nature of public.


Design Team


Soo-in Yang + Heunjoo Lee, Principals

Heewon Lee, Project Manager

Minhwa Jeong, Designer


Structural Engineering

Arup in San Francisco

Laufs Engineering Design, New York City






Sihwa Park

Min June Park



Redwood Electric Group



Demiurge LLC

Joseph J. Albanese, INC.

Shiro’s Collision Center

Top Notch Kustoms

Hyundai Art


Junheung Art

Jung Hyun Oh



City of San Jose

Mary A. Rubin, Project Manager (San Jose Public Art Program)



© Kyungsub Shin (except construction photos)



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