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Artful and Sustainable Canopy to Provide Shade for Commencement

Pomona's new sustainable commencement canopy before commencement.

The canopy as it appeared before Commencement.

Pomona's new sustainable commencement canopy during commencement.

The canopy during Commencement ceremonies.

Art, science and mathematics all promise to meet function at Pomona College’s 116th Commencement ceremony, which will take place under the shade of Pomona College: String Theory, a canopy of blue and white streamers that will undulate over graduates and their guests seated in Marston Quad on May 17.

Last year’s ceremony was held on a scorching afternoon, with no relief for students and families “visibly wilting” in direct sunlight, as Kathleen Howe, director of the Pomona College Museum of Art, recalls.

Brainstorming began and yielded some practical but unappealing ideas, such as tenting the entire event, which would defeat the entire purpose of holding the ceremony on Marston Quad, said President David Oxtoby.

“We decided to see if we could combine a creative piece of public art with the generation of shade for the ceremony,” he said.

Artists Jenna Didier and Oliver Hess and architectural designer Emily White presented a solution that’s well-suited to the special character of Pomona, as well as being sustainable and reusable.

The shade structure is based on Voronoi tessellations, algorithms of weaving and lace-making, coordinated with a solar incidence angle study that determines an optimum density pattern, allowing for shade where most needed, and keeping the canopy as lightweight and wind transparent as possible. The net’s lattice of trucker’s nylon strap webbing and rip-stop parachute materials follows a pattern derived from string figures called “clown’s collar.”

The streamers will hang 10 to 20 feet overhead. Students, faculty and staff will be attaching the hundreds of streamers to the overhanging net this Saturday afternoon. Afterward, they’ll hoist String Theory into place. The shade will be packed away after Commencement to be reused in the future.

“I will be a striking statement of our artistic values and their connection to mathematics and science, as well as being a quirky and memorable feature of graduation,” said Oxtoby.

It’s just as much a statement of sympathy as it is striking, according to Howe: “Nobody likes to watch their favorite graduate fry.”

Visit our Flickr account to view more photos of the canopy being built.