Architecture Firm Creates 4-Story-Tall Whale From Ocean Plastic

New York architecture firm STUDIOKCA is drawing attention to our relationship to the ocean with a five-ton sculpture made of garbage.


May 31 2019, Updated 11:36 a.m. ET

The Contemporary Art and Architecture Triennial has returned with a splash to the northwest Belgium city of Bruges, featuring poignant works of art and architecture exploring this year’s “Liquid City” theme.

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Peppered among the city’s famous canals, medieval buildings and beloved cobblestone streets rises a trail of installations by artists and architects from around the world that will be on display through Sept. 16. At one poignant spot—where the canal dips underground and disappears—rises a particularly noteworthy installation: a breaching, four-story tall whale called “Skyscraper,” made entirely of plastic plucked from the ocean.

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Triennial Bruges 2018 explores concepts of resilience in uncertain times.

Triennial Bruges is a non-profit organization that organizes an art and architecture trail through the city. The group’s opening event, Triennial Bruges 2015, explored themes related to global urbanization. Following that success, this year Triennial Bruges has set out to tease the question of how flexible, liquid and resilient historic cities like Bruges can be in an era of so much global uncertainty. 

The concept of a liquid city comes from Zygmunt Bauman, a Polish-born British sociologist and philosopher who studied globalizing society and concluded these changes in culture threaten old ways of life and established ideas. He referred to this as a kind of “liquid modernity;” a concept that change in our society will be relentless. 

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The event is curated by Till-Holger Borchert and Michel Dewildel, and includes an uncrossable bridge by Polish artist Jaroslaw-Kozakiewicz; a floating classroom by Netherlands-based Nigerian architect Kunlé Adeyemi; and a pavilion with transparent walls constructed by Spanish architectural firm SelgasCano that changes from bright pink to yellow to orange depending on the angle of the sun.

And then there’s the Skyscraper—or, as some like to call her, the “Bruges Whale.”

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The Skyscraper highlights how much waste humans put into the ocean.

The group behind the Skyscraper is STUDIOKCA, an award-winning architecture and lighting design firm led by Jason Klimoski and Lesley Chang and based in Brooklyn, N.Y. STUDIOKCA is well-known for its public installations and sculptures, many of which relate to sustainability and have been featured across New York City, on both coasts, and internationally.

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“Thinking about the ‘Liquid City’ got us thinking about the ocean, and our relationships to the cities we live in compared to this liquid city,” Klimoski told Green Matters by phone as he was setting up for the installation in Bruges.

“This relationship, unfortunately, is through trash and waste,” he added. “There are 150 million tons [of plastic] in the ocean now, with 8 million tons a year dumped in on top of that. So for the Triennial, we wanted to make a large thing to make a large statement.”

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That “large statement” couldn’t have been more literal. 

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Sadly, there was plenty more where those 5 tons of trash came from.

Klimoski and Chang’s vision—to create a sculpture of a four-story whale breaching from the canal—would be central to the event, which Klimoski said is expected to draw two million people from its opening May 16 to its mid-September closing. “The nice thing about Bruges is it’s a very old city, a UNESCO World Heritage City. The immediacy of the water and the water system is there for us to kind of work with since the whole city is built around the canals,” Klimoski said.

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The Skyscraper project required teaming up with cleanup crews along the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, a massive construction effort, and shipping separate pieces of the whale (numbered and boxed up) to Bruges to be reassembled in the middle of the city. 

“We wanted to let that whale breach from the canal basically at the center of the city so people start to think about this,” Klimoski said. “We pulled 5 tons [of plastic from the ocean], which sounds like a lot but isn’t. We worked with great groups to pull this much out over the course of four months.”

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No matter how much you clean the beach, more plastic comes in with every tide.

The main location STUDIOKCA used as a plastic collection site was a quiet, far-removed cove in Hawaii where, without a person or building in sight, the tides and winds nevertheless deliver a seemingly endless delivery of plastic. This was an important detail to the architects, who would need that sort of steady supply if they were going to sift it all down into 5 tons of varying shades of blues, grays and whites.

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“You can go down to where we were—this is a very remote area—but every day you go down there, there’s more,” Klimoski said. “It’s so remote, there’s nothing around it but horse farms and lava rock. There is so much plastic strewn around these coves. We wanted to pull from that area, and also pulled from the Atlantic. We worked with people in New York, and did daily walks between the office and house to find more.”

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Turning plastic garbage into a whale is no small potatoes.

Cleaning all the collected plastic took two months—”something we didn’t realize,” Klimoski said. “Four of us with power washers worked on it outside, in upstate New York. We were done before the first snowstorm hit, got it cleaned, and then worked with a pretty great engineer to [sort it and] put it together.”

The final product? A four-story whale with cantilevered tail kicking far out and away from the sculpture’s center of gravity: Hardly an easy feat.

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“The plastic blubber of the whale has a loose aluminum grid on the back,” Klimoski said. “We had to make it into 16 parts — it’s like a big jigsaw puzzle. Once we got the halves put together on site, we started to slowly, piece by piece, cut and screw and tie it together like a mosaic.”

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Stay tuned to find out where the whale might swim to next. 

This is the third piece STUDIOKCA has created dealing with plastic waste. “The other two we built a system that was much more uniform,” Klimoski said. “The whale is like a mosaic because every piece is different. Four thousand square feet later, this thing was done. And we just broke it apart, put it in containers and shipped it over here.”

While The Skyscraper is up, Klimoski and Change will be giving lectures, educating the public about ocean waste and the advanced process of engineering this behemoth, and finding the next place for the whale to swim to.

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