Prototyping Festival Hacks the 16th Street Mall

The first-of-its-kind event strives to re-imagine one of Denver's most iconic public spaces as a gathering place for a growing and changing city.
The 16th Street Mall is entering an experimental phase.

Case in point: the 2016 Prototyping Festival, part of The Mall Experience, a collaborative effort of the Downtown Denver Partnership (DDP) and the City and County of Denver with RTD.

Modeled after the Market Street Prototyping Festival in San Francisco, first held in April 2015, Denver's event was designed to test ideas to reinvent and reinvigorate the city's signature public space with creative placemaking.

Selected from 34 applications and armed with a $2,500 stipend, nine teams of artists and designers installed prototypes designed to transform the 16th Street Mall with art, technology and design. Unveiled for Meet in the Street over the weekend of July 23-24, when the MallRide buses were diverted from the mall, the works are up through July 31.

"The festival allows us to see which prototypes the community finds most engaging, how the community interacts with these unique installations and how the prototypes withstand the elements," says Sharon Alton, DDP vice president of public events and activation. "The Prototyping Festival allows the community to participate in shaping the future of our public spaces and the feedback collected helps to inform The Mall Experience study as we work to bring more people to the Mall and encourage them to stay longer."

Adds Alton: "It was great to see the diversity of people that interacted with the prototypes. Little kids enjoyed spinning the bicycle wheels on Wheels Go Round while older adults gathered for competitions to see who could pass through the monkey bars on Peak1Six the quickest."

The living mall

Many of the prototypes are dynamic. "The team at Inworks plan to add a little bit to their Pseudopod prototype every day to further elongate the bench," says Alton. The trumpet mushroom-inspired, user-configurable bench offers a very different place to sit.

Fentress Architects' Iridescence projects ever-changing rainbows from oversized plastic prisms. Mile High Mosaics by Worth Group offers touch-friendly artworks of Colorado icons made from wallcovering samples. 

Another participant, Herb Kindsfater, a partner at Meta Landscape Architecture in RiNo, used to work near the 16th Street Mall. For his Summer Snowfall Diorama, he says he drew inspiration from the dioramas at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science and the nights when big blizzards shut down the MallRide buses. "One of my favorite times is when a Colorado snowstorm hits and everything stops," he says. "It's amazing -- pretty peaceful."

The Summer Snowfall Diorama aims to capture the essence of the 16th Street Mall during a blizzard.Made of Mylar strips and acrylic atop a wooden frame, the diorama is "a space within a space," he says. "You can get in there and have this moment. . . . The idea is to contrast the excess of the mall, all of the movement, with a moment of stillness."

"A lot of it is about exploring the light," adds Kindsfater. "This thing changes all day. It's reacting. In the morning, it's in the shade and it's really still. At 12:30, the light shines through and it's totally different. In the evening, the winds come into downtown and it's all about movement."

He says the Prototyping Festival brought some of the experimental placemaking of RiNo to the 16th Street Mall. "RiNo is nice ground for experimentation," he says. "We're around it all the time."

The mall "is living," adds Kindsfater. "It collects all these people. It needs that next layer . . . that's going to keep it moving forward and activated."

A performer uses Nick Fish's Rainbow Street Seating as a stage.Nick Fish, a designer with Atelier HAY, calls his team's Rainbow Street Seating "adaptive urban design," with colorful wooden benches that vary in height from 18 to 42 inches to be used as seating, a stage or a playground. At the festival, a performer danced on them and kids clamored on them. "It's really open for interpretation," says Fish.

The Prototyping Festival "made the mall more of a destination," he adds. "It had all these areas where people could meet up and socialize."

Moving the buses to adjacent 15th and 17th streets helped. "With [Denver] becoming more dense," says Fish, "it makes sense to have it be a pedestrian zone."

Rolling wheels, clouds roll in

Husband-and-wife architect and designer Brian and Meredith Dale of Denver's Sort Studio came up with Aperture, modeled after a beach hut that "gives you a spot to frame a view and watch the ocean," says Brian. "For us, the sky was Colorado's ocean."
Sort Studio's Aperture is modeled on a beach hut.
The Dales recently moved back to Denver after 15 years in the U.K., a move motivated by "a bit of a change, a bit of family and a bit of sunshine," says Brian.

"A lot of other parts of Denver have developed in the last 15 years, and it feels the mall has stagnated a bit," he notes. "It's interesting to find ways to enliven it and create new functions for it as a place for today and the future."

"I would like to see some of it pedestrianized," he adds. "It was nice to walk around on 16th over the weekend. We have a two-year-old, and when there's no buses coming, it was easier to let her run around."

Prototyper Kate Davis is a Denver artist who's focused on sculpture for the past decade. As a former physical therapist, she says that most of her work involves movement, "either physical movement with the body or how we move through life."
Kate Davis' Wheels Go Round makes noise when spun.
Her Wheel Go Round installation features interactive bicycle tires rigged to make sounds when spun. They glow with LED lights at night. "The response this weekend was overwhelming, with over 1,000 people spinning the wheels." says Davis. 

"Adults were sometimes hesitant, but kids ran right up. They would spin multiple wheels, then look closer to see what was making the noise," she adds. "I sat and watched it for an hour, and it was never silent."

On the Prototyping Festival, Davis says, "I hope it becomes an annual event."

The prototypes are on the 16th Street Mall through Sun. July 31 for visitors to experience and give feedback. 

Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
Signup for Email Alerts