Industry in the Structure of Places

Dan Adams and Marie Law Adams are principles of Landing Studio, based in Boston, Massachusetts, and teach in the Urban Landscape Program of Northeastern University.  This is a synopsis of their talk presented at Cornell University on February 20th as part of the Changing Industrial Landscapes series. 

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[room and pillar salt mine in the UK, 2005, image from Landing Studio]

Thank god for the salt truck.  They rumble out at night to keep the roads clear so everyone gets home.  And if you are up with the sun you will hear them passing by, clearing the roads again so everyone can head to work.  It is a routine activity that you would hardly notice in the northern states unless you happen to be from the south and drive a weak, back-wheel drive Volvo, in which case the nightly snow deposit that occurs with stunning regularity continues to baffle you.  The processes of plowing roads and spraying salt constantly recreate this vernacular landscape across the northern United States.  They are so constant and dependable that they have become naturalized.

The salt truck and its payload, alongside the snowplow, are the instruments that make it possible to use our network of modern roads and semi-modern automobiles to traipse across town to start work every day.  Without them the northern US would be immobile 5 months out of the year.  They enable the total daily reshaping and engagement of the vernacular automobile landscape as a mediated equilibrium maintained through material practices.  And they are the quotidian agents that bring the local urban scene into contact with the scale of a global industry of salt extraction and shipping.  Every day salt from the Atacama Desert, the Sinai Peninsula, or just up the road at the Cayuga Salt Mine is spread across local asphalt surfaces in preparation for the day’s activities.

Dan Adams and Marie Law Adams of Landing Studio gave a talk titled “Industry in the Structure of Places” at Cornell on February 20th as part of the Changing Industrial Landscapes series.  Their work focuses on the juxtaposition and intersection of the global salt industry and its massive scale of operations with traditional, local communities.  Presenting their work on the Chelsea, Massachusetts waterfront as a collaboration between residents and Eastern Minerals salt importing company, Dan and Marie grapple with the question of how designers might restructure interrelationships between the industrial operations of the salt industry and the local community.  The project taking shape at the Eastern Minerals facility does not privilege either recreation or industry in a monolithic way, but rather emphasizes capacity and specificity and creates a sort of choreographed syncopation between the two.  The result suggests a new model, an alternative to the wholesale conversion of industrial waterfront facilities to 19th century-style recreation parks.

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[“VOTE” light projection on the Eastern Minerals Salt Facility in Chelsea, Massachusetts; image from Landing Studio’s November 2004 projection]

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[Landing Studio worked in close collaboration with a salt dock operating company, legal counsel, demolition and abatement contractors, and teams of engineers for the full demolition of a former 13 million gallon asphalt and jet fuel terminal located on the Chelsea MA waterfront- from Landing Studio website]

It is an effort that requires work on multiple fronts at once.  From mapping material geographies on a global scale to grappling with the bureaucratic layering that tends to reduce open industrial landscapes to a lowest common denominator, from exploring the edges of aesthetic experience of place created by industrial-scale activities to understanding the operational logics of piling up rock salt, and balancing the Red Sox schedule with the public school year calendar, the project is approached using a variety of methods to test the limits and engage the social potential of salt industry operations on the waterfront in Chelsea, Massachusetts.  The salt mounds are reimagined as a sort of local monument- a carrier of meaning and a local gathering place of year-round social importance that also engages local and regional labor and enables winter mobility.

The approach for the project was developed from a simple question that drives the work of Landing Studio:  can design recontextualize places?  The Chelsea salt project became an effort to translate the salt mounds and industrial operations into a monument within the local community, rather than a problematic reality to be kept at arm’s length.  In many ways, this is an utterly pragmatic approach.  The Eastern Minerals facility is there, it has a huge presence economically and aesthetically, and it limits community access to the waterfront.  In recent decades there has been much study of the shift in waterfront use from industrial operation to recreation, which Dan and Marie describe as a “decommissioning industrial capacity.”  While having some value, this default response to turn former industrial sites into recreational parks has real consequences on local jobs, land values, and cycles of gentrification, and is proving to be a bit thin as a model to be applied wholesale across the urban industrial landscape.  Rather than attempting to move the facility- an intensification of the exclusion tendency- the intent was to find a way to redraw the borders of the local landscape in a way that might leverage aspects of the salt facility and its operations to produce social space.

The project began with a series of projections onto the salt mounds that were meant to take part in everyday conversations.  While Dan and Marie were initially focused on meaningful and esoteric lines of verse, they wisely listened to the Eastern Minerals guys who advised them to simply project “GO SOX” during the baseball playoffs.  Begun in 2004, this set of projections (“GO SOX”, “VOTE”, “LET IT SNOW”) has grown into the P.O.R.T. project.  The PORT (Publicly Organized Recreational Territory) is a construction of new recreational space in conjunction with an expansion of the salt facility.  The resultant space is produced through an ongoing and elaborate dance between neighborhood festivals and pickup games of basketball, bulk shipments of Chilean salt brought on Panamax vessels and the precise movements of front-end loaders and dump trucks.  This landscape is highly specific and has both a spatial and contingent quality.  A middle zone is designed to be transitional due to the seasonal nature of outdoor recreation (warmer months) and salt storage and distribution (colder months).  Contingency plans are developed for a variety of scenarios based on how much salt might be left at the end of each year; for these the angle of repose of rock salt is carefully studied to speculate on how view corridors might be maintained.

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[Map of Boston’s Inner Harbor and shipping infrastructures; prepared for 2008 “Landing Salt” exhibition]

This type of choreography is in line with the landscape designs of Lawrence Halprin, albeit with a broader focus capable of understanding drainage systems, industrial operations, and social relations (the desires and movements of people) on an equal ontological footing.  The approach of Landing Studio is made possible through a profound respect for the instruments enabling ongoing industrial operations on site and an intimate knowledge of social desires of the neighboring communities.  The result is a waterfront that does not simply offer space for recreation or industry, but rather acts as a complex ecology which is constantly constructing and construing space for both.  This meshing of ongoing material practices and social relations has roots in landscape architecture dating back to at least Olmsted (who was, after all, a maintenance man before he was a landscape designer) and offers a new model for reconstructing industrial waterfronts.

This contemporary approach is in a similar vein to the recent work of Michael Geffel at the University of Virginia, or Sergio Lopez-Pineiro at the University of Buffalo.  It is not imagined by Dan and Marie to be a solution for all of the issues at play in contemporary landscapes, or even all of those found at the Chelsea waterfront, a fact which they clearly stated.  But as an alternative to the default response of turning industrial sites into recreation parks, it is an enrichment of the contemporary conversation and represents a way forward grounded in pragmatism*.

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[Rock Chapel Marine is the re-configuration, upgrade, and expansion of a salt port located in Boston Harbor. The design aims to be a first of its kind integrated landscape of active maritime industrial operations and public waterfront recreation space- from Landing’s web site]

* by pragmatism I am referring to John Dewey and his emphasis on experimental methods and instrumental knowledge.

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