The dynamics of BIG, one of the world’s hottest architecture and urban design firms, are laid bare in a new exhibition at the National Building Museum and companion book. Taking on increasingly ambitious projects all over the world, BIG, at its best, shows how building and landscape can be merged, creating novel experiences in the built environment. Much like Weiss/Manfredi and other firms with a multidisciplinary approach, BIG wants to create hybrid places. Bjarke Ingels, the founder of BIG, joked at the exhibition opening that he wanted to call the show, “BIGAMY: you can have it both ways.”
Offering another way to understand the work, Ingels dismissed the one-size-fits-all solution of Modernist architects, aligning his projects with a long history of vernacular architecture that responds to local conditions. Just as the ancient temples at Angkor Wat used long passageways and buildings with apertures to stimulate air flow and create natural air-conditioning in the blistering heat of Cambodia or arctic igloos minimize thermal loss through their round form, BIG’s buildings are designed to “respond to existing conditions.” BIG particularly emphasizes the role of climatic conditions in their work, organizing the entire exhibition around the world’s temperature zones, with the theme “Hot to Cold.” The exhibition wraps around the entire second floor of the museum, showing the “journey across the planet’s climate in 900 feet.”
Just as buildings respond to the climate, they also shape it as well. Our buildings, as Ingels explained, account for a huge share of the world’s energy and therefore carbon emissions. “With climate change, buildings must now perform more intelligently.” Given a “good and bad building costs about the same,” Ingels argued, “it’s about how the ingredients are put together.” Buildings can either adapt to their environment and make a positive contribution to climate change or do the opposite.
As you loop around the second floor of the museum, you see BIG’s tactile models hanging from above, floating in each archway. Below the models are interactive explanations, often with videos. The high-tech, and most likely expensive, exhibition was financed by the Danish government and a Danish design non-profit.
Projects that leaped out really seek to integrate building and landscape. For example, the gorgeous Hualien Residences project in Taiwan features buildings created in the shape of limestone mountains, all covered in green roofs (see image above and below), certainly a response to Taiwan’s enviroment.
And then there’s the BIG U, which won $335 million in the Rebuild by Design competition organized by the U.S. department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), an impressive effort to spur more resilient coastal models in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. BIG explains how the landfill that has formed the southern tip of Manhattan is also the part of the island most at risk from massive storms. But by putting in various “pinch points,” Manhattan could add “flood compartments, much like the hull of a ship.” These compartments can open and close depending on conditions. And berms can double as parks. Public space as infrastructure, another smart hybrid.
And lastly, taking their ideas up to yet another scale: BIG is part of a team now working on Europa City in Paris, which is their take on “landscape urbanism.” With equal part cheek and smarts, BIG writes in the exhibition notes: “Europa City: 100 percent landscape and 100 percent building = 200 percent habitat!”
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, “HUD didn’t want to move at the speed of government” in its effort to create more resilient coastal designs in New York and New Jersey, said Marion McFadden, deputy assistant secretary at HUD, at an event at the American Institute of Architects (AIA). To avoid this, HUD decided to partner with non-profits and universities running the Rebuild by Design competition as well as the Rockefeller Foundation, which underwrote the competition. Using a little-known feature of the America Competes Act, HUD used the competition to spur government innovation. And it continues to do so, with its newest $1 billion competition for local resilience.
From the get-go, the intensely-collaborative Rebuild by Design competition was different from other design competitions. Usually, there is just one winner, but with Rebuild by Design, a total of six projects received $930 million in funds. According to Scott Davis, a senior adviser at HUD, “each team was competing against the standard. There were 10 places, 10 problems.”
The competition set-up was tough because of the “compressed time frame and raw emotions. It was a really difficult design environment.”
Each design team was either led by an architect or landscape architect and purposefully structured to be multi-disciplinary, with planners, engineers, ecologists, scientists, and communication specialists included. Davis said, “we brought tons of resources to these teams, including workshops at universities that covered all the latest research.”
Designers were immersed in the latest climate science and asked to create elaborate cost-benefit analyses as well as meet with community groups hundreds of times. It was also important for the design teams to be able to “know how to conceive of their efforts in economic terms. It may be boring, but it’s vital for policymakers.” The solutions that ended up being financed made the best case for how to meet a range of social, ecological, and economic requirements.
McFadden said the teams worked with a high level of uncertainty, given HUD was never sure if the $930 million was even going to be allocated. “But we learned that people can live with uncertainty if they have their hearts in it.”
Now, projects are starting to be implemented in phases, over the next 5-8 years. HUD’s funds are really meant as a kick starter, as they won’t pay for the entire projects, which must now be carried forward by the local governments tasked with coming up with action plans to be sent to HUD.
Based on the success of Rebuild by Design, HUD has now launched a new $1 billion competition to finance resilience open to state and local governments declared disaster areas in the past few years. Davis said, “we are asking cities and states to rethink from scratch and emphasize planning.” HUD is once again partnering with the Rockefeller Foundation and its resilience academies as well as local non-profits.
Davis said with its latest competition, HUD will be again be promoting the innovative use of green infrastructure in its efforts to improve local resilience to disasters. Where relevant, “we will maximize the role of green infrastructure.”
“New York City’s mean streets are getting a little sweeter,” said Janette Sadik-Khan, former NYC Transportation Commissioner under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, at the Transforming Transportation conference in Washington, D.C. That sweetness takes the form of a “new ecosystem of pedestrian plazas and bike lanes.” In a wide-ranging talk, Sadik-Khan showed what NYC accomplished over her term and where the rest of the world’s cities still need to get to make streets everywhere sweeter — and, really, safer.
“New York City now has the lowest traffic fatality rates in the world. But this is not because New Yorkers are nice. It’s because global cities have a long way to go.” Worldwide, traffic deaths total around 1.25 million per year. Traffic fatalities are the 9th leading cause of death, and the number-one cause for young people. In the U.S. alone, some 33,000 people lose their lives each year in accidents. “This is a public health crisis.”
New York City has made much progress since the pedestrian-unfriendly 1920s, when official city planning documents actually included the phrase: “here, pedestrians will be removed and cars will invade.” Streets were remade by car companies and the city government to be habitats for cars, not people. For the decades that followed, “this was an issue hiding in plain sight.”
In 2010, the city created its first pedestrian safety action plan. Six years of data had been collected showing the “who, what, why, and where of traffic fatalities in the city.” For example, the research found “27 percent of accidents were caused by when drivers failed to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks. Another third of accidents was due to driver inattention.”
The city decided to make simple, inexpensive changes that “reversed the pyramid, putting pedestrians on top, then bicyclists and public transportation systems, with cars at the bottom.” Sadik-Khan discovered that “cities can change their streets in real time, aiming fixes at the most vulnerable — kids and seniors.” The result: between 2008 and 2012, traffic fatalities dropped 20 percent.
The plan called for hundreds of specific street-level improvements in dangerous areas. “The goal was to integrate people and transit.” With 400 miles of new bike lanes, bicycle ridership quadrupled as well.
To spread what NYC and other forward-thinking cities are doing, Sadik-Khan spearheaded the effort to create NACTO’s Urban Street Design Guide. Before, many cities had outmoded traffic guidelines created by traffic engineers. “We created a new standard guidance that gave cities permission to innovate.” The U.S. Department of Transportation has since adopted the principles of the Street Design Guide. And the same NACTO team is now working on a global street design guide, with real lessons from developing world cities.
For NYC, vision zero — that is zero traffic fatalities — is the new goal. NYC’s new road safety advertising campaign, which is aimed at “cutting through the noise,” uses shocking ads to change the culture. Other cities are creating equally as dramatic campaigns to “end the indifference to death on streets.”
Sadik-Khan did warn though that changing from a car-centric to a pedestrian-centric street culture isn’t for the fainthearted. “Some people will treat each parking spot like their first born child.” Sadik-Khan was indeed brutalized by some constituencies and communities for pushing forward change so rapidly. But hats off to her. If New York City can make their mean streets sweeter, any city can.
The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) has embarked on a $4 million plan to renovate its headquarters building and create a Center for Landscape Architecture. ASLA aims to raise $1 million in private donations for the Center this year.
The Society purchased its 12,000-square-foot building, which is located at 636 Eye Street, NW, in 1997 for $2.4 million, just as D.C.’s Chinatown neighborhood was being revitalized. After 17 years of occupancy, any building would be in need of renovation. But ASLA leaders saw the opportunity to do much more.
Mark A. Focht, FASLA, immediate past president of the ASLA, in presenting the renovation plan to the Society’s Board of Trustees for approval in late November 2014, said: “This is an opportunity to create a facility to reflect the image and ethic of our profession—a world-class Center for Landscape Architecture that will inspire and engage our staff, our membership, allied professionals, public officials and the general public.”
The ASLA Board of Trustees approved the $4 million plan with nearly unanimous support. “ASLA paid off the original mortgage last summer, so the Society is in an excellent financial position to take out a $3 million mortgage and raise the balance of what we need through fundraising and product donations,” said Nancy C. Somerville, Hon. ASLA, executive vice president/CEO of the Society.
Focht made a personal pledge to contribute $15,000 to the project and challenged the other Board members to join him in launching the fundraising efforts.
James Burnett, FASLA, founder of award-winning landscape architecture firm The Office of James Burnett, donated $25,000 to the project and volunteered to chair a fundraising task force to raise the remaining funds needed. “Since the Board approved the project on November 20, we’ve received more than $340,000 in payments and pledges—that’s over 34 percent of our goal,” said Burnett. “We’ll also seek in-kind product donations lighting, furniture, green walls, kitchen appliances, surfacing and other items. We’re committed to creating a space for ASLA’s national headquarters that reflects the complexity and vitality of our profession, and the more successful our fundraising is, the more successful the project will be.”
Global architecture firm Gensler was selected through a request for proposal process to lead the design team, which includes landscape architecture firm Oehme, van Sweden, to ensure the profession’s values will be well-represented. The building will be designed to LEED Platinum and WELL™ building standards. Gensler has developed a number of exciting design concepts to modify the building:
The façade will be slightly altered at the ground level to provide more of a street presence (see image above).
The street level will be reconfigured to become the public face of the Center for Landscape Architecture and will feature flexible meeting/event space, exhibit space, a catering kitchen and restrooms to provide for increased industry and public engagement.
The current closed, double staircase will be opened up to create a three-story, day-lighted atrium, engaging the floors vertically and providing an opportunity to display elements of landscape architecture.
Office space will be reconfigured and furnished to meet current staff needs and provide for future growth. Staff will also have access to a wellness room, focus rooms, small conference rooms, and upgraded kitchen, break, administrative, and restrooms.
As more communities invest in green, complete streets to create environments that are both safer and more accessible for pedestrians and bicyclists, there are growing problems for those who must move goods, said Peter Plumeau, Resource Systems Group, at the Transforming Transportation conference in Washington, D.C. Complete streets by their definition must accommodate all users, but they aren’t doing as good of a job in accommodating trucks and delivery vehicles, which are critical to goods movement, argues Plumeau. For example, curb extensions, which have many benefits, are a great way to block access for a truck. And more people-friendly roundabouts, which feature tighter streets, are becoming a nightmare to get around. Plumeau said the answer is more creative thinking about how to move goods.
Some communities are creating exemptions for some streets. In Seattle, which now has a comprehensive complete street program, “there is flexibility in industrial areas where there are lots of goods being moved in and out.” Others are making it easier on those haulers: Ontario, Canada, has a “guide for local truck routes.”
Some cities are using flexible street design to accommodate goods-carrying vehicles. In some of Boston’s busy complete streets, there are “curb space allocations” just for trucks.
And still others are coming up with novel policy approaches for access: In Philadelphia, trucks can idle in traffic to make deliveries if they have the right windshield ID, effectively allowing sanctioned parking in no-parking zones. New York City is also looking into a similar approach but combined with overnight delivery, taking advantage of less-congested time frames. And in some neighborhoods in Germany, there are secure kiosks trucks deliver to, places where people must walk to in order to pick up parcels.
Plumeau’s point is “economic vitality is also key to sustainability.” And furthermore, it’s often not the truckers fault if they are stuck trying to navigate a complete street: “the goods movement is now driven by demand. These truckers are not acting on their own schedule.”
He called for “getting rid of parking regulations in cities, which undermines affordability to begin with.” He believes expensive, highly regulated parking is one reason “jobs are heading to the suburbs because these places have cheap parking.”
However, the other side of this argument — as one audience member noted — is that “more parking just creates more sprawl.” If parking is ample in a community, it can prevent more transit-oriented development.
The debate about truck access and parking will no doubt continue as more communities remake their streets.
“The science is clear. Climate change is already costly and shaping development,” said Rachel Kyte, the World Bank’s chief climate representative, at the Transforming Transportation conference in Washington, D.C. “The problem is this poor trade-off has been set-up: we can either have growth, progress, prosperity, or we can halt all our dreams to reduce carbon emissions. It’s not a vote getter.” Kyte believes sustainable development needs to be sold differently. With a smarter, more sustainable approach, “we can live differently, that’s exciting. We can live in cities with clean air, that’s exciting. We can create new jobs in a greener economy, and that’s exciting. It doesn’t have to be zero-sum; we can all benefit.”
“Transportation currently accounts for 15 percent of global carbon emissions. If we do nothing, it could account for 50 percent in 20 years.” Kyte said this kind of tired, hectoring narrative no longer works. “We need to step back and revolutionize cities and make them exciting.” What excites you about cities and transportation?
A group of panelists were tasked with answering this question:
For Kevin Austin, with C40, a group of leading mayors fighting for climate-friendly development, what’s exciting is out of the C40’s list of the top things cities can do to reduce climate change, 14 relate to transportation and urban development. “These things include more compact, transit-oriented development; reclaiming brownfields; congestion charging; electric vehicles; and non-motorized transportation.” Austin said what also excites him is more global cities are actually committing to achieving measurable targets. “When cities commit, they achieve three times more.”
Robin Chase, founder of Zipcar, said “technology is what’s exciting as it enables us to share assets in a transformational way. The old idea of one household and one car is going out. Using technology, we can achieve 100 percent shared vehicles. We can even achieve shared trips on shared vehicles.” Chase pointed to the rise of Zipcar as well as Uber and Lyft as an example of how a new system can come out of “many small parts.” Today, she said most car-owners spend 18 percent of their income on their vehicle, but end up using it only 5 percent of the time, a huge waste. Car sharing, Chase believes, can also work in non-compact cities. “We could use just 10 percent of the cars on the road today to satisfy needs.”
And Vincent Kobensen, PTV Group, thinks it’s the ability of new technology to “spread out existing infrastructure.” Given so few cities have the money to build brand-new infrastructure or even significantly upgrade it, technology can be deployed to “optimize multi-modal systems.” Already, 2-4 percent of global GDP is wasted due to congestion. In the future, congestion could disappear as more people take advantage of car sharing. It could be: “I don’t own a car, but I want to use one.”
According to Holger Dalkmann, head of EMBARQ at the World Resources Institute, Mexico City’s recent gains are a cause for excitement, as is its new mayor, Miguel Angel Mancera, a “champion of sustainable urban transportation.” The city has just created a new mobility law, which aims to give each of its 17 million inhabitants the right to people-friendly transit, with complete streets, safe sidewalks and bus stops, and an easy, consolidated payment system for all public transportation. There are also ambitious new greenhouse gas reduction targets (40 percent).
Alain Flausch, International Association of Public Transportation, pointed to the growing global commitment to reach his organization’s target of doubling public transportation worldwide. “We have 110 networks that have made 350 commitments.” Flausch added that “public transportation needs to lead the pack in the climate fight. We need new fuels, vehicles, and systems.”
And for Patrick Oliva at the Michelin Group, setting urban transportation emission expectations low is what’s exciting. London’s low-emission zone, made possible with a congestion charging scheme, was launched in 2003 and has resulted in positive action on traffic and car-related emissions.
The answer is a resounding yes, said Felipe Calderón, former president of Mexico and chair of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, who spoke at the Transforming Transportation conference in Washington, D.C. The economy and the climate are intrinsically connected and so are their problems. Today, those problems are low growth and climate change. But, in the future, higher, more productive growth could be linked with more stable climatic and ecological systems.
To create that new model for development, Calderón and Nicholas Stern, a renowned climate expert from the UK, have assembled an impressive team, with many mayors, two Nobel Prize winners, business leaders, and hundreds of institutions and research partners around the world. The commission’s goal is to create an action plan for environmentally and economically-sustainable development, which can inform the creation of the new UN Sustainable Development Goals, now being hashed out, and move government and business leaders to make more effective investments for the future.
Calderón believes three systems need to shift over time: energy, land-use, and cities.
On energy, Calderón says we must “decouple economic growth from carbon emissions.” He said the “cost of renewable energy is dropping rapidly. Solar power is now 80 percent cheaper than it was 8 years ago.” He also pointed to successful energy efficiency programs in Mexico, where over 2 million old refrigerators were swapped out for more efficient models in just 3 years.
As for land-use, which accounts for 20-25 percent of global emissions, the challenges are severe. “We need to produce 70 percent more calories over the next 20 years, meeting an expanding population’s food needs on the same surface we have now. We need a new green revolution but one that protects the environment. We must also recover degraded ecosystems.”
The city, one of our most complex systems, also needs to change. “In the next 15 years, one billion people will come to cities.” To accommodate all those new urbanites, the world will need a “Washington, D.C. every month for 5 years.” Calderón called for “connected, compact, and coordinated cities.” The cost of sprawl is just too high: In the U.S., the loss productivity of sprawl is estimate to be around $724 billion a year, if we account for public and private born costs.
To hit home the high costs of inefficiency, Calderón compared Atlanta with Barcelona, two cities with around the same population, about 2.5 million. Atlanta covers 4,280 square kilometers and each person emits about 7.5 tons of carbon per year. Barcelona covers just 162 square kilometers and each of its residents only emits about 0.7 tons of carbon.
Given it’s so hard to change old cities, “we need to create new cities right,” which is why his commission recommends aiming efforts at “emerging cities in the developing world,” where all the future urban growth will be. And what’s key to creating these connected, compact, and coordinated cities of the future? Smart transportation systems.
There are many reasons to invest in better urban transportation. In Beijing alone, the cost of congestion and pollution equals 4 percent of that city’s GDP. Air pollution does untold damage on urbanites’ health, with millions of deaths worldwide from bad air. Sprawl also “promotes inequality.” Calderón said people without a car are paying for the privilege of those who have a car. Instead, cities could invest in bus rapid transit (BRT), which “promotes equality and inclusion” and is far cheaper than subway systems.
Calderón’s commission believes the only way to support positive change in these areas is to create “better growth.” The drivers of this will be improved natural resource efficiency, labor reforms, and infrastructure investment. Over the next 15 years, the world will spend $90 trillion on energy, land-use, and cities. “We can use that money to invest in a new model with low carbon emissions and better quality growth.”
In 2014, the Earth reached its hottest levels at least since 1880, when global temperatures were first recorded. According to NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), much of the 1.24 F (0.68 C) temperature increase over the 30-year average was driven by warmer oceans, which were up 1 degree F over the average.
According to a new report, rising ocean temperatures and increased acidification due to the addition of carbon are already wrecking havoc on marine ecosystems. Malin L. Pinsky, a marine biologist at Rutgers University, told The New York Times: “If you cranked up the aquarium heater and dumped some acid in the water, your fish would not be very happy. In effect, that’s what we’re doing to the oceans.” Coral reefs, which are among the richest of all marine habitats, have already declined by 40 percent. Many fish are now migrating to cooler waters, creating shifts in intricate food chains.
Things are not much better on land. While temperatures didn’t reach the record-setting levels from a few years ago, they were still near peak levels, ranked at fourth-warmest since 1880. According to The Washington Post, “California, much of Europe, including the United Kingdom, and parts of Australia all experienced their warmest years.” All of the 14 hottest years on record for land and sea are from the past 15 years.
A number of scientists have explained how climate change will lead to more “climate weirding,” as more extreme events happen in more random places. The World Metereological Organization (WMO) keeps track of these extreme weather events. According to their review of 2014, as relayed by BBC News: “In September, parts of the Balkans received more than double the average monthly rainfall and parts of Turkey were hit by four times the average. The town of Guelmin in Morocco was swamped by more than a year’s rain in just four days. Western Japan saw the heaviest August rain since records began. Parts of the western US endured persistent drought, as did parts of China and Central and South America. Tropical storms, on the other hand, totaled 72, which is less than the average of 89 judged by 1981-2010 figures. The North Atlantic, western North Pacific, and northern Indian Ocean were among regions seeing slightly below-average cyclone activity.”
In an email to The New York Times, climate scientist Michael Mann at Pennsylvania State University, said the warming trends indicate the debate about climate change is over: “It is exceptionally unlikely that we would be witnessing a record year of warmth, during a record-warm decade, during a several decades-long period of warmth that appears to be unrivaled for more than a thousand years, were it not for the rising levels of planet-warming gases produced by the burning of fossil fuels.”
However, others still aren’t fully persuaded that rising temperatures caused by fossil fuels present a danger. John R. Christy, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville said 2014’s record-high temperatures are really still within the margin of error of global temperature measurements. “Since the end of the 20th century, the temperature hasn’t done much. It’s on this kind of warmish plateau.”
Mainstream climate scientists believe there is still time to cut emissions levels enough to avoid reaching dangerous levels of carbon in the atmosphere. The goal is to keep the global temperature increase below 3.6 F (2 C). The focus is now on the UN climate summit later this year in Paris where governments will need to create a binding international agreement.
Chris Reed, ASLA, is founding principal of Stoss, which won the National Design Award for landscape architecture in 2012. Reed is associate professor in practice of landscape architecture at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. His most recent book, co-edited with Nina-Marie Lister, Affiliate ASLA, is Projective Ecologies.
This interview was conducted at the 2014 ASLA Annual Meeting in Denver.
You recently started work on Trinity Riverfront, a nearly 500-acre development in Dallas that will create three new neighborhoods set within a landscape of wetlands and gardens along the river, connected by light rail. You say this project will make Trinity floodplain “the most exciting public space in Texas.” Given what we know about car-centric Dallas, that phrase is a bit shocking. What do you think this project says about Dallas and where it’s going?
Dallas is at this incredibly important turning point. It’s building right now on a very short legacy of rediscovering its downtown, the value of civic urban life and the arts, and the potential for landscape and open space to play a role. Over the last 10-20 years, philanthropic institutions, individuals, and the city government have created the arts district, with what are now very famous cultural attractions, museums, and theaters. All of these have been done by top-level landscape architects and architects from around the world, including Peter Walker, Lorenzo Piano, and others. In doing this, Dallas sent a signal to the world that they’re ready to play, right? Dallas now values urban life. They’re willing to put the money and the commitment behind it to make it happen.
Since then, we’ve seen large-scale initiatives on the Trinity River itself, as well as smaller-scale initiatives in downtown, turning vacant lots and other city-owned properties into new public spaces. The riverfront work I’m involved in is the next generation of this.
Dallas’ city government has found unique ways of doing creating projects: they team philanthropists with private developers, in concert with the city government, all coordinated by the urban design studio run by Brent Brown. The city has created an amazing coalition to help move really good projects forward. It’s all about rediscovering the center, the value of civic life, the value of being able to live and walk downtown to set a of cultural and open space resources.
The riverfront work we’re doing occupies this gap between downtown and the Trinity River, the future Trinity River Park. It’s a messy area. It’s got old stormwater “sumps,” they call them. It’s got rail infrastructure, highway clover leaves. Really, a jumble, a mess. We’re trying to use landscape to frame out some of that infrastructure, to take some of it simply out of play. Within this new context of vibrant forests, water gardens and infrastructure, these will be dense, livable mixed-use neighborhoods, places to live, work, play.
In some ways, Dallas has the opportunity to set a model for what is really the new normal for North American cities. If you think of San Francisco, New York, and Boston as being exceptions, places like Dallas, Atlanta, Houston, Phoenix, Denver, Toronto are 20th century metropolises. This work signals how we might tackle some of the problems faced in many other places.
You’ve also been deeply involved in the Detroit Future City Project, which aims to create a more hopeful, long-term vision for this shrinking formerly-bankrupt city that still has so much potential. What is the vision of the future articulated by this group? What can Detroit be like in 50 years?
Everybody talks about the problems associated with Detroit — the vacancy, the economic woes, the fact that it’s just gone through a bankruptcy. We wanted to see how we could turn some of the challenges into opportunities no other city has. Take vacant land, for instance. No other city have the quantity of land available within the city borders like Detroit has, right? That allows Detroit to do things that other cities absolutely cannot do. The city can treat stormwater on the surface through a set of blue and green infrastructure.
We were just a small part of a very large collaborative team that worked for five years on the project. Our work looked at ways to take liabilities and turn them into assets. Everybody knows Detroit has a very active urban agriculture movement. We want to build on that energy. But we’re also very careful to say, urban agriculture alone cannot save the city. There’s too much land available and some of the problems go far deeper than just food.
We’re not worried about the population. Seven-hundred-thousand people is a very large city already. We’re not worried if that goes up or down. For us, it was more how do we create the right economic opportunities? How do we create employment districts on the ground? How do we create the infrastructure that allow people to get from their home to their job? How do we create the training opportunities that take a largely unskilled labor force, and train it to be able to tackle 20th century and 21st century industries and opportunities? How do we begin to think about land use, neighborhoods, and landscape?
This is where the project, from the land-use perspective, becomes quite interesting. Landscape becomes a significant component of the urban form of the city. Over 50 years, large areas will be given over to innovative and productive landscape uses, whether that’s blue and green infrastructure, food production, energy production, research, art landscapes, successional landscapes. Landscape becomes a robust contributing factor to define what urban life in this city can be in the next 50 years. This is an opportunity other cities don’t have, because they simply don’t have that land available. Landscape is a great starting point and driver for bigger questions.
In Green Bay, Wisconsin, your firm completed CityDeck, a novel riverfront park that features a design filled with “folds,” as you call them. You say these folds create diverse seating types: benches, chaise lounges, angled decks. Your goal is to give people real choice about where to sit. Is this a new thing? Why is seating choice so important?
The folds extended to larger-scale infrastructure that moved out over the water and brought you up to an elevated perch or down to the water. All of this worked together as a system at different scales. At the larger scale, the folds offers different opportunities for how to engage with the river. It was designed to create a very lively civic space that people want to come back to, because they can begin to experience the river in different ways each time they return.
At the level of an individual, the folds are designed to be as comfortable when you’re there alone or just with a friend, as when you’re with a big collective of people, attending events.
Ideas about choice and flexibility are really derived from the idea that we all have different body types, so we all want to sit in different ways. Sometimes that’s just the shape of our body and sometimes it’s mood-based.
It’s important that a civic space give people these opportunities because otherwise people will create their own opportunities anyway, right? They will take a planter and find ways to inhabit it. They’ll take a bunch of rocks and figure out a way to lie down, lie against, put up a laptop.
There’s a great opportunity to start to design that into public space. Some of these ideas go back to the writings and observations of William Whyte, who was really looking at the behavior of people and thinking about how to translate that into making lively public spaces. We take that research seriously.
Some of our research began earlier with a playscape we did for a garden installation in Métis, where we wanted to fold rubber surfaces to allow people to play. We had encountered a certain level of resistance from public authorities, because they had never seen something like this. The installation at Métis in rubber gave us an opportunity to test it out and to document the various ways that people would kind of engage. Of course, kids are really good at it. They’ll make up games, you know? But adults started to get involved, too, and they’d roll up and down the hills and jump and dive.
For The Plaza at Harvard University, you also create lots of seating choice — with movable café tables and chairs but also with these great ergonomic benches that enable interchangeable seating positions. These were made possible with 3-D parametric modeling and fabrication. Why did you want to reinvent the bench? And have people taken to them?
Should we all be sitting on the same kind of bench all the time? The standardization process that marked the evolution of the 20th century made it cheap and easy to manufacture repetitive elements. What we got was the same bench repeated over and over again. Today, technology allow us to do something different.
We can script out forms that use a set of components or techniques, but the overall form can change. We’re taking advantage of a set of technologies that allow us to make different variations, in this case, benches that appeal towards people’s desire to find their own place and what’s comfortable for them. The benches are sculpted in such a way so that people can lean back, sit up, sit with somebody in their lap, lounge back, snuggle. Kids can jump and play on them. People are able to inhabit these benches in any number of ways.
In any one of those benches, if a single rib becomes damaged, it can be replaced because it’s numbered. All we have to do is go back to the fabricator, and they can very easily reproduce using their C&C machines and fit it right back in.
The benches contribute to a public space people want to come back to over and over again. They’re wildly popular. In fact, we were getting phone calls the first day that university officials started to unwrap the benches. Students immediately started to sit on them, lie on them, do all the things that we had imagined. And it surprised the university administrators. They had a certain confidence in what they were telling us, but on the other hand, they weren’t sure if people would really do the things that we were imagining them to do. And they have. And so we’ve seen it on a daily basis and are documenting it. People really love them.
The benches have become iconographic, but they’re also quite inviting. In a space really designed to host a lot of different events, the benches, in combination with the movable tables and chairs, allow for the accommodation of the every day. People feel like they’re invited to take part in this space.
Your landscapes have a unique look. They’re angular, planar, folded, and often feature zigzag shapes. These shapes have a contemporary feel, a technological vibe. We sense these shapes are only made possible through the latest modeling technologies. Is your intent for us to see the technology, process, and the end-result in the design? What attracts you to this aesthetic? Where did it come from?
We want to take advantage of all the best technologies available and use them to craft landscapes. But it’s not just about form-making, it’s about how these shapes can perform from a social and ecological standpoint. While we’re generating strong forms, they are influenced by how things need to work to create rich environments.
Design should reflect the cultural ambitions and technologies available to us at that moment. This means the tools we use change, the applications we use change, and the shapes that emerge from those tools and applications also change. They signal a particular time, place, and cultural ambition.
With landscape, somethings are age-old: how trees grow, how seeds move, how water filters through a landscape. For me, it’s about taking these new technologies in the forms and shapes they afford and allowing them to set up conditions where water, seeds, and plants, and even the movement of people begin to change. The tools set up interrelationships where it’s never just about the form but about what the form affords from a social, ecological, and economic point of view.
Eerie Street Plaza is a great small riverfront park, a stop-off spot along a three-mile pedestrian and bicycle route in Milwaukee. It’s a designed landscape that’s also integrated with the ecological functions of the river. How does this project represent the new thinking on ecological systems outlined in your book with Nina-Marie Lister, Projective Ecologies?
I think two things are at work. One is how we used underutilized resources available. In this case, stormwater, even river water, was redirected so we didn’t have to install a new set of water systems to first drain all the water that’s there away, and then second, introduce a new set of water outlets and run water to the site. We’re much more interested in being resourceful and redirecting something already at work.
The second piece is an inherent flexibility and adaptability built into the project, which goes back to the design competition proposal that really appealed to the jury. The site was surrounded by not a whole lot of anything. The question was: what kind of public space should this be? There wasn’t really a local constituency to engage.
So we developed a system through interspersed paving and planting that could actually be reconfigurable over time. It could change the combinations of hard and soft surfaces that were in the plaza, depending on future uses, desires, and activities. Some of the plants we embedded into the space could begin to inaugurate vegetal change. The plaza was set up with zones: low and wet, high and dry. Different plant materials occupied different parts of the site. As the site changes over time, there is this kind of inherent adaptability that’s designed into the project that’s really quite unique to a public space.
These elements hint at the Projective Ecologies project, which looks at the opportunities involved in using complex, adaptive ecological systems and applying them to the design of public space.
Can you get specific about the rise of more creative approaches to ecological research and design, as you and Nina-Marie outline in Projective Ecologies? What ideas are you most excited about?
The book project is an opportunity to take stock of ecology and its relationship to design, as it has evolved over the last 20 years. But, also importantly, we want to look at how to reformulate the relationship between ecology and design moving forward.
Ecology has become such a part of commonplace term that we think it’s important to step back, think critically about the terms we’re using, and then use that critical reflection to think about other pathways that might emerge. Visualization tools are one pathway. New tools and technologies are another. The technologies are often borrowed from other disciplines, like engineering or hydrology. We can take the modeling tools engineers use in a very analytical way and inject into them not just an understanding of how things work, but what we want them to do, right? We can begin to think creatively about manipulating water flow that could create new types of public spaces. Functions could perform ecologically, but create entirely new experiences within the city.
The work Bradley Cantrell has been doing is really important. I’ve been experimenting in design studios at the Harvard Graduate School of Design where we use the program real flow aqua to model a set of water flows and then start to translate those into gardens and public spaces simply designed for the experience of those water phenomenon in an abstract way. They don’t necessarily have to simply perform in a functional way. They can perform in an experiential way. Bradley Cantrell’s work looks at multiple systems simultaneously and how the realms of design, ecology, and engineering can be modeled and mapped together. So, on the one hand, this becomes a common tool for people to work through some problems. But importantly, it also becomes a creative tool for designers to begin to think in different ways.
Whether we are talking about new visualization methodologies, new tools and technologies, design labs and collaborative situations, or anthropology and social relations, these are all just different starting points for broader investigation that can inform design in the coming decades.
We’re trying to find ways to push what is possible in contemporary practice. For landscape architecture to be relevant as a discipline, it needs to do more than just check the sustainability boxes. It needs to set out a broader set of cultural, social, and environmental ambitions that allow the discipline to evolve with an evolving world. Design can enable us to address some of the bigger challenges acted out on the world stage. It’s an incredibly ripe opportunity for landscape architects to be leaders. But to take leadership, we need to be more expansive and creative about the way we think and practice.
5 Ideas: How the Obama Library Could Enhance Chicago’s Historic Parks– The Chicago Tribune, 1/9/15
“The University of Chicago’s proposal to locate the Obama presidential library in or adjacent to Jackson or Washington parks on the South Side is an opportunity to improve and revitalize these historic parks and their surrounding communities and institutions.”
Boston Children’s Should Keep Prouty Garden– The Boston Globe, 1/12/15
“The Boston Children’s Hospital leadership announced plans for a multistory, $600 million new building to include a state-of-the-art neonatal intensive care unit and more private rooms. The plan calls for the new building to be built on the site of the Prouty Garden.”