Published August 12, 2019
It’s an Instagramable, bioluminescent, undersea-themed world. In the middle of Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood.
Dip your toes into the first of five rooms and you’re greeted by a canopy of vibrant, pink, flowing strands representing soft coral. Next, wade into the deeper waters of Net Guard, whose colorful waving fishnets shield you from the polluted surface. Then, dive deeper below, into Jellyfish Station, and marvel at the beauty of a giant steel whale illuminated by hundreds of lights.
There’s no actual water involved here, so if you can’t swim you can still dream in this sensorial, made-for-selfies seascape. Since debuting last month, the immersive pop-up exhibit “Ocean Cube” has made a splash, wowing thousands of visitors while garnering reviews in The New York Times and on Smithsonian.com.
The fabrication work for the roughly 2,000-square-foot exhibit took place at UB, taking advantage of the Fabrication Workshop in the School of Architecture and Planning and the SMART Fabrication Factory, part of the university’s Sustainable Manufacturing and Advanced Robotic Technologies (SMART) Community of Excellence.
That’s because Randy Fernando, one of three “Ocean Cube” designers, received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architecture at UB and worked in the Fabrication Workshop as a student.
The idea behind the installation is to bring the sea — especially its plight due to pollution — closer to people’s minds. “The ocean is pretty distant from the general population,” says Fernando, who designed and built the pop-up with Kun Wu and Carol Zhang. “The cause and effect of our lifestyle doesn’t resonate with many people because they don’t see the effect firsthand that often.”
“Ocean Cube” attempts to foster a sense of wonder about the sea before provoking visitors to think more deeply about how human activities are impacting water bodies globally.
“We needed to make people appreciate the environment first so that they could resonate with it more intimately,” Fernando says. “Then, we had the ability to make a statement.”
Fernando and the team came to UB in early May to begin fabricating each element of the exhibit. Lindsay Romano, director of fabrication in the School of Architecture and Planning, was happy to hear from Fernando, who had reached out about using both labs. “We have lots of students that call and ask if they can come back and use the shop, and that’s great. We try to keep our connections with our alumni,” Romano says.
“Ocean Cube” designers work on the project in early May at the Fabrication Workshop in UB's School of Architecture and Planning.
“Everything was custom made, from the smallest piece all the way up to the jellyfish and whale,” says Dan Vrana, UB SMART Fabrication Factory technician.
The Fabrication Workshop is available for all UB faculty, staff and students to use, while the SMART Fabrication Factory is geared toward faculty research and industry engagement.
By the time they arrived at UB to begin working on the installation, the “Ocean Cube” design team already had everything in place, from the footprint of the exhibit to how it was going to be laid out.
UB’s Fabrication Workshop and SMART Fabrication Factory team, which included Wade Georgi, manager of shop services, served in a more consultant role.
“We were really just helping them figure out the best way to design it, and the most efficient way to do things,” Romano says. “It’s hard to work with metal, but we have a metal room. They wouldn’t have been able to make their whale on the spot there. We have access to machinery that made it easier for them to produce this.”
“Everything was custom made, from the smallest piece all the way up to the jellyfish and whale,” adds Dan Vrana, a SMART Fabrication Factory technician. “Nothing was off the shelf. There was no part of it they just took out of a box and then put up.”
Once the fabrication work was completed, Fernando and the team loaded everything into a rental van and drove it back to New York. Romano and Vrana assisted with the setup the week before “Ocean Cube” opened.
“It was nice to see an empty space transformed into this underwater world,” Romano says. “People were poking their heads in all day long each day, asking all kinds of questions. It was great to see that people were interested in it even before it was open.”
Visitors purchase tickets to enter the exhibit, starting with the Coral Tunnel, where they navigate through a canopy of touchable, 3-D coral reef models. Next, Net Guard features a room marked by shining buoys hanging from above. This leads to the Jellyfish Station — a 22-foot-by-22-foot cube designed to make visitors feel like they’re submerged deep in the ocean — followed by Bubble Mall.
Of the five rooms that comprise “Ocean Cube,” the last, called Recycle Bank, is the most poignant: 1,000 plastic beverage containers — and counting — dangle from the ceiling
“The tone of the story abruptly changes,” Fernando explains. “It’s more effective because the contrast from the playful to the reflective really shocks people. They come out talking about recycling, waste and how we need to do better.
“They also come out conflicted because sometimes they’ve entered the space with a plastic bottle of their own and feel both happy about the message and also guilty about their own daily routines. That internal conflict is the stepping stone to getting others to create change.”
To ensure that the rooms mimic the beauty of the ocean, Fernando and the team researched prominent colors, tones, lighting conditions and, of course, marine life.
“The composition of all of these elements is what created such a magical experience, one similar to if you were to dive into the depths of the ocean yourself,” he says. “Subsequently, our team identified the elements that also play a bigger role in the narrative of sustainability.”
The design team is also collaborating with a company called Sure We Can, which is helping with recycling during and after the exhibition. They’re also working toward purchasing a new 3D printer paired with a machine that can break down plastic and extrude it into printing material for architectural use.
“Ocean Cube” took about five months to complete, including four weeks fabricating the installation elements alongside members of UB’s Fabrication Workshop and the SMART Factory, as well as with members of a New York-based group called MOV.E.
The exhibit has been warmly received by visitors, who’ve documented their journey through the installation with countless photos posted to social media.
“It’s exciting to see,” Fernando says. “The children are also overly enthusiastic when they explore the exhibit. I even see many parents explaining the message to their children as they finish off at the Recycle Bank.”
That prompts the question: Will “Ocean Cube” tour other cities?
“We’re definitely open to the idea,” Fernando says. “I would love to see it move to other locations and generate a conversation wherever it is housed.”
“Ocean Cube” is on view through Aug. 18 at 60 Grand St. in New York. Tickets are available online.