Recently we had the chance to sit down with Kate Orff of Scape Studio, whose Safari 7 exhibition we reported on here last October. On March 6th she presented the paper “Jamaica Bay as Catalyst” at the MillionTreesNYC Symposium and this Wednesday, March 24th the Rising Currents exhibition at the MoMA will feature their “Oyster-tecture” proposal for negotiating sea level rise in the New York Harbor, along with those of four other teams.
Scape Studio has established itself in recent years as one of the most agile and interesting practices in New York City, one that is particularly concerned with environmental and social justice issues. Part research team, part design office, part professor, they are busily building partnerships among teams of professionals, researchers and policy makers while simultaneously seeking to demystify the professions, encouraging the citizens to take an active part in the rethinking and remaking of their built environments. Realizing that new models of work- research, design, and implementation- are needed alongside the conventional methods for effecting change, they are actively seeking out and testing new ways of doing new things.
We sat down with Kate Orff to discuss their recent work, the trouble with traditional models in the current economy, the value of scale and connection in landscape strategy, and current trends and trajectories of landscape practice.
FASLANYC: It seems like at Scape you are constantly blurring boundaries, both laterally in working with professionals- blurring those differentiations in roles between science and art- as well as vertically where you involve constituents in new ways. All this while aggressively trying to create your own projects by doing research and trying to convince people that “this should happen”.
KO: Yes, that is true, and that’s happening right now. I was just visualizing what you were talking about and it’s true that there is this science-art spectrum and each project falls somewhere along that line. What’s been very important to me is- and I think this has been magnified by the economic crash- that way of working having to do with the capital-intensive mindset of “make a set of drawings, someone bids the drawings” is going to get tired fast in terms of a methodology. It is also very limiting, in terms of your role, because you’re in this box. I’ve started to learn that in a couple of ways; one is this certain methodology and way of working that pertains to an elite institution and an elite client and as soon as you change one of those variables it just doesn’t work.
I’ve been in poor areas in Louisiana and in places like that the idea of making change just has no relationship to that methodology. You have to be smarter than that. You have to figure out new ways. It’s a tremendous challenge in terms of ideas and a tremendous challenge in terms of representation. That’s one of the things I’m trying to work on right now, to push this representation aspect of it. The notion of this opaque high design and drawing doesn’t work, and at the same time neither do diagrams and thought bubbles. So this process that your describing, I’m trying to put that together, to find that sweet spot on the spectrum. It’s something that we did with Oyster-tecture and it’s something that we are trying to do now with a project I’m calling Cancer Alley located in a super toxic zone in Mississippi. But I think your question is right on in terms of what is interesting, what is new in landscape: how do you work and how do you engage? How do you get past just being a respondent to a brief? We have to respond to briefs too- which we do at Scape- but we are trying to find that new sweet spot between science and art and top-down and bottom-up methods.
FASLANYC: The practitioners of landscape and architecture are historically very conservative in terms of models of practice, and there’s a reason for that- it’s largely effective. But I get the sense from you guys you are trying to figure out real models for new ways of practice.
KO: Yes, we are trying. I came out of a tradition of feminist theory and sculpture. I don’t want to say it is radical but it is a philosophical approach, and then I went into landscape. So I don’t come at it from a service point of view but a process point of view, for better or for worse.
FASLANYC: So in that particular model, what is the value added of the designer, where suddenly the boundaries are blurry? If they are undefined it is hard to figure out what each contribution is worth. It seems that must be one reason most firms try to stay away from it- because it is hard to figure out.
KO: Yes, that’s true, and everything is a commodity [in that model]; your design services are a commodity, but our way of working isn’t really a commodity. It is really about trying to change something, which has no value except changing it in a certain better direction. So in terms of the authorship question, it’s also very blurry. I feel like I’m the author of certain processes. But those processes are also the product at the end and it’s not necessarily clear what one does with that.
The value added of design in its ultimate form is synthesis and this notion of integrative thinking. There are lots of different trends in the world- climate change is happening, extreme loss of biodiversity is happening, urbanization is happening- and at some big level there is a failure to connect the dots. When I go into a situation that is what I’m trying to do, and I feel like that process of thinking across things and making connections is the design. Whether or not that is a value in terms of money, I doubt that. But that is the real value. In the Cancer Alley Project one person there is able to connect the dots between the chemicals the companies are dumping, the jobs being created, who lives there, where do they go, what’s happening to the ecosystems, and I feel like that is major value added- that person who connects those dots in design terms. And I think that is why I gravitate towards landscape too, instead of architecture, because in a way landscape is a rubric which allows you to grab everything.
So with Oyster-tecture the value added isn’t that we provided a plan that someone can like or dislike. We provided a way of thinking about the harbor, a way of thinking about resetting relationships, of using biology and life as a strategy for changing things and we provided, I don’t know if you would say a vision, but a trajectory that would be useful to more broadly thinking about New York and the harbor and its cultural relationships. So I think that’s value added but it’s actually the opposite of being commoditized. Someone couldn’t hire me to do that in any kind of particular brief. That was exciting about this project. I was able to have conversations with people that were at a different level than “design as organization of elements in space” level, so that was good.
FASLANYC: Yes, well, that makes sense.
KO: I don’t know if that makes sense (laughs).
FASLANYC: We were having a discussion on that topic [at faslanyc] and I was trying to say that our value added was in the role as generalist-craftsmen, though I have a bias towards things that are made. Nonetheless, if you expanded that definition a bit to say that you were crafting a vision or a process or an object then there are some parallels.
KO: Yes, I think that is interesting in terms of things that are made but I also think about it in terms of scalable units. The oyster; in this case, we are just starting with the one animal. It’s kind of kooky, but it scales up from there in the same way that community-based design or ground-up design would. Rather than thinking about things that are made, we are thinking about tools that are provided.
FASLANYC: So it sounds like to me that you’re talking about architecture as enabler- an enabler of processes or social or commercial interactions or transactions? Architecture can take the form of these objects or oyster reefs or spaces but you’re looking at it in terms of processes it enables or catalyzes. Is that fair to say?
KO: I guess so. Landscape architecture is about a both/and situation, at least in my own experience. I’m going to do the cd sets and take the registration exams and have the argument about the detail, which I think is really important in terms of professional authority. But I try to take on the other role too, which has a little to do with that but has to do with making change; making things that make change. That second realm is less about making things and more about this larger trajectory, about scaling up towards some change over the long term, as opposed to implementing the capital-intensive masterplan, for instance.
FASLANYC: Yes, I think we are simpatico in terms of approaches on reconstructing the built environment, especially in terms of what is appropriate at this moment.
KO: I wrote an essay on Jamaica Bay. It talks about Jamaica Bay as a case study of what we’re discussing. Jamaica bay is kind of the butt of America, or at least of New York; all the waste goes there, the sea level is rising, there are huge bridges, waste treatment plants; it’s a poster child for big modern infrastructure from the 1920’s until now. And you realize that there is nothing you can do that is big which can engage it- all the big stuff is done. So then the only way to change anything there is to do a billion small things, dispersed and coordinated within that watershed/sewershed. That was important for me because there was this moment when I realized you can’t answer the question with the same old answer, you have to change the question.
FASLANYC: Like what Einstein said?
KO: Yeah, whatever that dude said.
That was a revelation for me because I feel like Jamaica Bay is this moment where everything comes together in terms of the kind of landscapes we are going to have to deal with- all the salt marshes are gone or going, the water chemistry is radically changed by estrogenic compounds which are turning all the flounder to female- it’s this landscape, this water landscape, which forces you to realize there is no one park project or bridge that would be able to even touch this place.
FASLANYC: It seems that, regarding new ways of conceiving projects and approaching problems, there are parallel trends in other fields such as technology where things are generally becoming more diffuse and dispersed.
KO: Yes, there are definitely some parallel trends, and I think the worry with those trends- and maybe this circles back to our value added question- I think that scenario could go very well or very badly. You would have to curate that process to some degree in order to have a desired outcome. I don’t have any qualms about saying that we need to increase biodiversity, to enhance social justice. I think there would just be some things that you would put on the table as goals.
I have also thought about the Obama campaign in that vein. When I was writing this essay, I was thinking “we need to agree about the value of Jamaica bay as this piece of salt marsh infrastructure for the city.” What is the cultural value of that? We have to get on board that this is of value and not just a sewage pit, and then there can be a lot of micro-actions that build up to changing towards that goal. That’s one thing I’ve thought about in relation to other fields, because that certainly happened as a phenomenon in politics that I thought was very inspiring.
FASLANYC: So these issues could be addressed by top down measures when necessary, but they would be both supplanted and supplemented by smaller, dispersed, bottom up strategies? Because in situations like Jamaica Bay the capital-intensive interventions don’t suffice as the only outlet for affecting change?
KO: Yes. Another big problem is there is a dearth in the ability to create a compelling narrative about the environment. One of the things that drives me completely bonkers is that I passed these tests that show I know how to drain water to catch basins and make ADA guardrails but I’m not asked to engage with things that are really dangerous like “can I dump hazardous waste in this pit and just cover it with clay”? I think that we have to be much more radical, coming at it not as landscape architects but as the cultural custodians of the environment. It drives me to a furious state that there are massive toxins in the environment, but they are at a different scale and we’re not even in the room. It is totally frustrating. I would say the same thing with the pattern of development. That is the trouble with being in the box, with providing design services for the capital project, working within the market economy; we are limited in our ability to address policy and the way that land is organized. We are definitely caught in this constrained, powerless way of operating. I get very agitated, as you can tell.
FASLANYC: Speaking of toxins and cancer-causing chemicals in the environment, that relates to an article I read recently in Places by Tom Fisher. He was saying that designers- he was speaking of architects- typically practice according to the doctor-patient model where a person comes to you asking for a service and you provide them with that service for a fee. He was pointing out that the medical field has another model- the public health model is what he was calling it- where you set policy and proactively seek to intervene.
KO: Yes, I think that is really good. I wish I had thought of it (laughs). But yes, it seems like there is this call and response thing that is just not really working at a certain level.
FASLANYC: But there is a difference; with public health everyone agrees that we at least put some money toward that, whereas regarding the environment we are still not in agreement. So it seems to me, though you don’t call it the public health model, that Scape is cobbling together the professional model, the ngo model, and the academic model in whatever way provides an avenue? Or maybe it’s very strategic, but I would assume that it’s wherever you can get money? There’s an emphasis on being agile and diverse, it seems.
KO: Yes. I would say that it is strategic in terms of pursuing interests that we have, but I didn’t set out a defined way of doing that.
FASLANYC: But you have the Urban Landscape Lab and teach at GSAPP. How did you end up there and how does that work inform what you are doing at Scape?
KO: I met with Kenneth Frampton. He had written this paper called “Toward an Urban Landscape” which I read in grad school and I thought it was a great paper. I was introduced to him and I told him what I was working on- he’s this very generous, intellectual man- and he was like “why aren’t you teaching here?” I said “I don’t know; many reasons, I suppose”. I had a week and I put together a syllabus and I then I was introduced to Bernard Tschumi who was the dean at the time and he hired me. For me, teaching at the GSAPP is incredibly interesting because I’m not in a department of landscape. That is compelling to me as a way of working because I get to bring to the table an attitude, a knowledge set, skills, and point of view that is particular. It is more of a horizontal model where I get to work in a variety of ways in the school and not just be the person that teaches a certain class.
FASLANYC: And I assume that there is some crossover, that some of your former students now work at Scape?
KO: Yes, several.
FASLANYC: So beyond that how do they inform one another?
KO: I haven’t really thought about it because it’s so much about design, which sounds simplistic. But it’s about design as a way of thinking; I work with students through this design curriculum by leading these studios, and then I work in my office by leading design processes in the real world. I’m sure someone else has a better answer, but for me that is it.
FASLANYC: I actually assumed there was a much more sinister and complex reason behind it.
KO: I wish. But I actually think that is good to separate them out. I’m the same person, just in a different context.
FASLANYC: Well that’s very noble. I’m taken aback.
KO: No, I wouldn’t say noble.
Another thing that I use the studios for is investigating starting points. Many schools start with what is essentially an rfp: “design a park according to this program”. I ran a studio called the New Zoo Studio where I gave each student an endangered animal and that was the starting point for the project and the most amazing work came out of it. That has nothing to do with Scape, but it was a question of how do you open of something that is interesting and have this discussion on a different level.
Columbia has also been important to me in that it allows me to take some risks because I have this teaching job. I feel like I can fail. I think that is also interesting; failure is fine in many ways, important. If the office fails or if teaching fails it’s just another way of moving forward.
The Rising Currents exhibit will be at the MoMA beginning this March 24th until October 11th. MillionTreesNYC will be making many of the materials and research presented at the recent symposium available at this website. Lastly, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) will be placing some of the boards from the Safari 7 exhibition up in place of those ghastly advertisements for face peels and cheap flights to Puerto Rico plastered all over the subway walls. A limited amount of MTA passes will also be printed with the Safari 7 logo. Get it one if you want, but definitely take the 7 train- it’s an interesting ride.
[Note: The Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn was the site of Kate Orff’s Oyster-tecture proposal. A good synopsis is here. The idea of using simple fuzzy ropes to guide the creation of bivalve habitat that will help mitigate rising sea levels and attenuate storm surges is particularly timely and a great example of a “Lo-fi landscape“. While the bivalves work hard filtering 50 gallons of polluted water each day, the new Superfund work on the Canal will be aimed at dredging the sediments. Meanwhile, the “Spongepark” of the Gowanus Canal Conservancy will be working to filter and retain polluted stormwater otherwise pouring into the Canal (which is actually the main current polluter of the Canal). If all three of these initiatives can clear the litigious hurdles and be made to act in concert, there is a real chance that the Gowanus Canal will be a thriving, industrial, constructed ecological social space for the next generation.
Conscientizacao as used by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, the influential theorist of “critical pedagogy”. The term refers to “learning to perceive social, political, and economic contradictions, and to take action against the oppressive elements of reality.
All images courtesy of Scape Studio.]