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LUNCH 8 Futures for Sites Unknown 09.24.12 SNACK 01 Design and Activism: A Conversation with Kate Orff This pamphlet highlights the work of Kate Orff, founder of SCAPE, through a student-run interview and the 2012 Howland Memorial Lecture at the University of Virginia School of Architecture. Kate is a leading designer whose work presents futures for sites dealing with contamination, sensitive ecologies, consumption, and rising sea levels, among others. Kate not only pursues long term strategies for designing under these conditions, but continually asks, “What can we do right now?�


Safari 7; Oyster-tecture; Petrochemical America

conditions: editors: contributors:

Danielle Alexander; Jack Cochran; Nick Knodt Ghazal Abbasy; Inaki Alday; Molly Baum; Robin Dripps; Paul Golisz; Harriett Jameson; Peter Kempson; Sarah Beth McKay; Heather Medlin; James Moore; Sarah Schramm; Charles Sparkman; Rachel Stevens; Clayton Williams

“Requiem for a Bayou” in Petrochemical America [SCAPE]

The fact is that the waste lives in the landscape, is stored in the landscape, and is part of a new waste ecology. But the waste lives in all of us as well.

Kate Orff

Design Activism and Safari 7 Heather Medlin: How did you begin your work as a professor at Columbia? When did you start doing that in relation to your work with SCAPE? Kate Orff: The funny thing was, I was just doing work out of my studio apartment, which was probably 200 square feet, at my little desk and on my computer that is in some landfill now. That was back in 2002 when I was just trying to build up projects. In graduate school, I happened to read one of Kenneth Frampton’s essays called “Toward an Urban Landscape.” I thought it was terrific; it was a very influential piece of writing on me. And so I just went to meet Ken Frampton. Looking back, I wonder how I could have had the kind of chutzpah to do something like that? But I just got on his calendar and told him what I was doing and that I found his work so interesting. Turns out he has this incredibly generous, intellectual way of speaking. He said, “Well, why don’t you teach here?” And I said, “Wah! Well, I don’t know. I mean, what are you supposed to do?” Ken taught me about developing a seminar and was interested in having me teaching at Columbia because there was kind of a void there. I put together a seminar description for what was called “Landscape Infrastructure Intervention.” It was about looking at case studies for landscape and thinking about ways of intervening in the city because the architecture school at Columbia was, at the time, more built-building centric. It fit into that curriculum and helped fill a big gap. I began teaching that seminar and then I began to fold in studios. As a result, SCAPE and my teaching came about after that point in tandem. The small teaching gig at Columbia allowed me to subsist, I guess you could say, and allowed me to try to build up an office independently.

Sewage Treatment Plant

Jacqueline Onassis Reservoir

Ward’s Island Park at


Safari 7 line


Historic Wetlands




Mill Rock Park


Astoria Park Po

Sites of interest

t ’s

Gracie Mansion

Queens Art Express  venues



Upper East Side Cove




Central Park



Socrates Sculpture Park



Roosevelt Island Ravenswood

Long Island City



Tompkins Sq Park

East River Park












Center Cinema 5









Thalia Spanish Theater

Whale Cre






on Hu


Newton CreekAv e in t Treatment po en Plant G re


East Village

ara D oosevelt Park





La Guardia Performing Arts Center

Calvary Cemetery Lo




Local Project

PS1 5 Pointz


Ver n


Union Sq



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Gramercy Park



B ro a d w

Madison Sq Park

Sculpture Center


Gantry Plaza State Park

Murray Hill



U Thant Island


Deitch Projects ab le Ba Dean s in Project Dorsky Gallery Art-O-Mat An

The Flux Factory Rai


United Nations

Museum of the Moving Image



Bryant Park

Green Space

Queens Bridge Park

5A v


sS q










Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum Rainey Park



McGolrick a y w Park ss


McCarren Park o Br






s en







Mas pet h Creek

ill s


Con Edison Power Plant

College Luy ste r

Rikers Island Channel eek Cr


Sewage Treatment Plant Bowery Bay

Ditmars/ Steinway

Bohemian Hall B ru c

kn er

Marine Air Terminal

E xp re

ss w a






LaGuardia Airport

y Ju n cti on

B ro n-Q

ri a B lv d

East Elmhurst

Blv d


A st o

St. Michael’s Cemetery


e in

re s Exp


yS t


Jackson Heights



Langston Hughes Library ay

Citi F

Y Gallery No rth ern

Blv d

Louie Armstrong House Museum USTA National Tennis Center


on cti Jun

ns B lvd


d Blv

St 90

St 82

St 74







Hall of Science


Queen Queens Zoo/ Wildlife Center

Junction Blvd



Woodside on the Move


Topaz Arts Woodmuller Park



sP t







69t t. hS

New Calvary Cemetery g Is la



Mt. Zion Cemetery re s




Isla ong



re s




e n stop Q53 eNext sB lvd Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge

Maurice Park Maspeth Yard

Rego Park

Frontera Park W

Safari 7 [Urban Landscape Lab + MTWTF] oo



av Bl vd

Juniper Valley Park


Mount Olivet Cemetery

Forest Hills Stadium

Danielle Alexander: Was that how SCAPE came to be so research-oriented? Has it shared a close relationship with your teaching in that way? Kate Orff: I’m still trying to figure out their relationship. And I think, strangely, as I move forward, I’ve actually been separating them more. That doesn’t sound like what one would want to hear, but I want SCAPE to be successful as an office in getting projects based on whether someone likes us in an interview or because we were the low proposer on a project. But I’ve found that research is important because it allows me to work on what I want to work on, something that may or may not be able to be explored within the space of a project and somebody else’s program. I think there is a lot of overlap, but I try to keep the tracks moving aggressively, and in very different ways. I like writing and editing books, which allows getting into a scale of a project that I could not pursue at SCAPE, with eight people in an office. I like to keep all those different tracks moving forward because they are effective for different scales of work. I can be effective on a site by capturing rainwater or filtering water from the road or making a shaded space where people can gather; that’s very effective at the SCAPE-scale. Or there are bigger projects, such as the Blue Wall Environmental Center, the site for which was a very compacted piece of land within the Appalachian forest that required soil building. But something like the Gateway National Recreation Area Report or Petrochemical America are at the scale of political processes and communities. I figure the idea of a book or an outreach program is a way to be effective at a different scale than what you can do as an office. Of course they are all intertwined in my brain, but I try to use different modes of operating to be effective in different ways. One example of research is connected to the Urban Landscape Lab, which I started at Columbia. We developed a report called the Bird-Safe Building Guidelines, which was something no one was talking about back in the day. I knew I could do a bird-safe

building myself, but it would be so much more catalytically effective if we were able to make a tool for others to use. It was almost a prototypical LEED point for bird-safe design. What’s most exciting is when people say, “We used your guidelines and made a visitor center!” That was the idea of a report – a publication that could serve as a tool. James Moore: I think it’s so interesting how practices can do research and not be able to be paid for it because in other countries, the government funds research or competitions. Or there are offices that can operate as research-heavy firms as a way to pay the bills. Kate Orff: And often funding is specifically for non-profits too. As a for-profit, you wouldn’t be eligible for that. That’s what I mean about keeping these little avenues pushing forward in different ways and why we did the Gateway Report and then a book after that. The most recent thing I did with Urban Landscape Lab was a project called Safari 7, which I worked on with Janette Kim and Glen Cummings. It was more of a guerrilla project. We had literally sat around, trying to figure out what we were going to do. We had no money. At the time, we had just submitted a big proposal for a special intervention in the Jamaica Bay Estuary to help bring in horseshoe crab habitat, which took months and months to do and just resulted in a “No.” Safari 7 literally came of out this frustration of going down the traditional research road. I said, “I’m not doing another binder that takes months to put together.” I asked instead, “What we can do now?” I then had this thought about the 7 line as a transect. Janette started making downloadable podcasts with her undergraduate students and Glen made these maps of the line. We imagined the No. 7 line as an urban ecosafari, which had a big, city-wide scope. We got a little bit of funding to do the exhibit, but it otherwise was a shoestring operation. We partnered with MTA Arts for Transit and they even made MetroCards you could have as your Safari ticket. So in the end it was probably just from sitting around and being really frustrated that things take so long to do. We were just going to do something.

Safari 7 [Urban Landscape Lab + MTWTF]

Oyster-tecture Heather Medlin: Could you talk about sea level rise and the existing protections we have? What is the best way to mitigate the natural rise of the oceans and how do we build our cities to interact with that in a quasi-constructive way, instead of trying to block water entirely? Kate Orff: Rising Currents was a show organized by Barry Bergdoll at the Museum of Modern Art that was asking that very question. It was a chance for SCAPE to experiment with thinking about water and infrastructure in a different way, and resulted in the Oyster-tecture project. Our hope for that project was that rather than building a solid wall against stormwater – of the surge-barrier sort out in the bay – you could now start to use living systems and tools that are regularly available to begin to adapt and mediate some of the issues of storm surge and sea level rise. The germ of Oyster-tecture was this notion of trying to do something that we could start tomorrow that would involve the community versus being a billion dollar infrastructure project that would just land from Mars. In my view of thinking about climate change, you could do a million funded projects, but the problem is very much a behavior change issue. I feel like any project that tries to involve climate issues has to involve people, too, because otherwise you don’t have a window into your own place in that kind of discussion. Oyster-tecture was a community-based idea that proposed developing a living reef that would mitigate storm surges and also grow with sea level rise over time. The idea was to think of a project that was incredibly site specific, and Oyster-tecture is very specific to the Gowanus Canal and to the bathymetry of that area. We also wanted it to be replicable in the sense that other cities could think about some of those issues; it was our own attempt at a global-local issue.

Oyster-tecture [SCAPE]

Oyster-tecture [SCAPE]

I think cities are making great progress in retrofitting their fabrics and I think landscape architects have a huge role to play in that. It wasn’t too long ago that cities were seen as the culprit. We had the belching-smoke-stack feeling of cities, and now cities are the answer. We’ll all be living in cities because we’ll be living closer and with less of a carbon footprint. So the notion of how you begin to make those cities more livable and respond to the attributes that drew everybody to the suburbs in the first place becomes very important. That includes physical improvements, but also improvements in things like schools and safety. They all played a big role, and I think that’s why landscape architecture is so important in so many ways, with sea level rise and everything else. Danielle Alexander: What I thought was really inspiring about that project was how it interprets what soft infrastructure can be: in this case, fuzzy rope with calcium in it for the spats to latch onto. You hear a lot about Oystercastles and hard infrastructural building solutions for oysters to colonize, but this new threaded structure is intriguing. How did that arise? Kate Orff: Before we were selected to do Rising Currents, I wrote a scholarly essay on Jamaica Bay. I had an idea for a project when I started to think about submitting for Rising Currents, and I basically pulled together a group of people who could help with it. I asked the Harbor School, which is this amazing high school now located on Governor’s Island, to be on the project. I also asked Paul Mankiewicz, a really intelligent scientist who had been working with mussel habitat. There was another local named Bart Chezar who had started to do some oyster projects typical of those in New York, which were mostly oysters in cages so that they would be able to measure them. My goal was, “Let’s liberate, liberate!” Through all these workshops, we came up with the fuzzy rope system. We simply needed to make a new hybrid infrastructure in which oysters and red mussels can ake hold. That’s really where it came from. It’s a combination of about three or four different techniques, taking rock piles, seeding them

with spat, and intermingling the web of fuzzy rope, which would attract ribbed mussels and potentially oysters, too. It was just a way of looking at things that were readily available in aquaculture and reconfiguring them into an occupiable landscape. I think that’s why it feels like it hasn’t been seen before, because these things are out there in the world but just haven’t been put together in this way and convinced of as a public space. And that was the other thing. All of a sudden it was a park! A blue park! Jack Cochran: I heard that you’re doing a pilot project with Oyster-tecture, is that true? Kate Orff: We are. We have a small pilot project that’s going in the Gowanus Bay. It’s retrofitting a pier that is connected to the land with some fuzzy rope and there’s a rock pile there. We basically have a project that’s going to test some of the ideas. What’s really exciting is that the site will continue to be an active pier and suggests, “Yes! Industry and nature can coexist.” There’s a silt fence all around the site and it’s already colonized with ribbed mussels, so that’s already an indication that something good is going to happen. We’re calling it an “eco-pier.” We have some test tiles for this “e-concrete,” which is a low-PH concrete and which we’re putting in the water, seeing what is right mix will be for the best biological action. We have a lot of ideas about trying to integrate constructed tidal pools on the edge of the site, so hopefully once we get this completed – we’re going in water on October 13th – we’ll be able to creep forward and see what happens. We also want to monitor it over the long term to see what’s happening. I called it Oyster-tecture very specifically to have somebody who has no experience in anything be able to understand it. But of course we are setting more complex systems in motion, and that’s what this pilot project will help determine.

Oyster-tecture [SCAPE]

Oyster-tecture [SCAPE]

What’s really exciting is that the site will continue to be an active pier and suggests, “Yes! Industry and nature can coexist.”

It was just a way of looking at things that were readily available in aquaculture and reconfiguring them into an occupiable landscape. I think that’s why it feels like it hasn’t been seen before, because these things are out there in the world but just haven’t been put together in this way and convinced of as a public space. And that was the other thing. All of a sudden it was a park! A blue park!

Visual Methodologies

by Danielle Alexander and Rachel Stevens

In Petrochemical America, Kate Orff develops a sophisticated method of spatial representation and analysis to produce a complex perspective on the petrochemical industry and its effects on southern Louisiana. This artistic and design research project, performed with photographer Richard Misrach, traces the development of the petrochemical industry and the deep marks it has left on the landscape through seven chapters: Oil, Infrastructure, Waste, Displacement, Ecology, Food, and Landscape. In the context of converging crises of energy, climate, settlement, and biodiversity, Orff articulates a project that unites theory and praxis: in a first section, through analytical mapping and graphical representations she discloses the temporal processes and dynamic relationships at work among these systems, and in a second, more discursive section she explores possible modes of intervention that could disrupt these destructive cycles and restore ecological and social vitality to the Louisana landscape. As Orff negotiates these two aspects of her work, she captures the analytical and communicative power of landscape architecture when applied to crises of varying scales while acknowledging the continuing challenge of translating such insights to measurable change in the landscape. In her efforts to map and analyze this landscape through an “Ecological Atlas,” Orff’s work emerges as the most recent instance of a tradition of using mapping as a visual methodology for interpreting landscape. The pages of Petrochemical America bring the complexity and interconnectedness of Louisiana ecology, industry, and society into striking relief through photographs, maps, diagrams, and richly developed sections she

calls “timescapes.” Orff’s method consists of intricate and layered drawings that, while packed with data, communicate robust narratives and retain their informational and spatial legibility. Misrach’s photographs are interwoven with and interpreted by Orff’s drawings, serving as the “site” for Orff to analyze, sequence, and build into a narrative. One series from the Ecology/Economy chapter, “Requiem for a Bayou”, displays the progression in bayou ecology from a layered state of biodiversity to a state in which these ecological loops are truncated. On the left side of the drawing, Orff depicts the “looped and living” bayou ecology, situating its organisms—from humans to crawfish to bald cypress—within nutrient, hydrological, and geological cycles, while to the right she overlays disconnected pathways and hypoxic blight onto Misrach’s 1998 photograph of an expanse of dead cypress due to saltwater intrusion, wetland subsidence, and sediment deprivation. Similar “timescapes” and maps trace the themes of the other chapters, combining a diverse set of information with a detailed reading of spatial contexts to present the condition of the Louisiana landscape in a new and striking way. This approach shares certain aspirations with Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha’s method in SOAK: Mumbai in an Estuary. Their diagram of Aarey Crossing, for instance, can be examined in contrast to “Requiem for a Bayou.” Mathur and da Cunha choreograph a series of notations, sectional profiles, manipulated photographs, and propositional armatures to depict the relationships between the fluctuating Mumbai landscape and its inhabitants. Their work displays many of the same characteristics as Orff’s—narrative, ecological processes, sectional qualities, and passage of time—but here it is communicated through the presentation of the images as a matrix as opposed to a singular composite image. While Mathur and da Cunha’s mappings express a complexity of interconnectedness and sequencing, Orff’s mappings achieve a greater clarity of narrative and causeand-effect. As a result, Orff’s work is more immediately apprehensible and has the

potential for a more widespread impact. This combination of accessibility and technical sophistication distinguishes her work as a single medium for disseminating this information and catalyzing the work towards a solution. The second dimension of Orff’s project, in which she mobilizes interpretation for the purposes of intervention, calls on the reader to relate the information from the “Ecological Atlas” to a considerably less developed set of tools, catalogued in a “Glossary of Terms and Solutions for a Post-Petrochemical America.” Presented as an insert set into the back cover of the book, the glossary lacks the depth of investigation and interest in connections across scales and systems that make the book’s earlier drawings so compelling to a reader eager to engage with the complex themes that Orff has identified. When describing her process for writing the book, Orff spoke of “finding the edges of the table,” or identifying the limits of her project, for both her own sanity and for the clarity of the work when formatted as a book and as an exhibition. In this sense, the “Glossary” feels more like the beginning of a new project than a conclusion to Petrochemical America. In keeping with James Corner’s description from Landscape and Representation of drawing as “an eidetic and generative activity, one where the drawing acts as a producing agent or ideational catalyst,” Orff’s drawings go beyond analysis and identify the opportunities at hand for intervention, and the “Glossary” sparks some ideas in this realm. Though Orff claims she has reached the “edge of the table” with Petrochemical America, her work continues to develop in the viewer’s mind and awake the need for self-reflection as well as action. Petrochemical America presents rich opportunities to consider the communicative power of mapping and analysis when they are utilized across systems and scales and the no less challenging project of applying that power in the process of design to rejuvenate and reimagine those systems.

“Requiem for a Bayou”, Detail, in Petrochemical America [SCAPE]

Petrochemical America Heather Medlin: How did you manage the getting by side of things to get Petrochemical America off the ground? Kate Orff: Ask my husband, who will say, “It’s not working, Hun!” The back-story for that is that I had started to work on a book about mega-regions. I was going to talk about one landscape that was a window into the issues of that region; in this case, it was about the United States. I asked, “What has happened in the American landscape in the last 100 years and how profoundly has it changed?” I began trying to actually think back through one person’s life and how things have changed in 100 years. In my grandmother’s town in Iowa, for example, her family was the first family in that whole area to have a car. I decided to do a snapshot of what’s happened in 100 years in these regions and pick a case study to show the change. Then I met Richard Misrach, the photographer, who had these photos of Cancer Alley in Louisiana. Then I knew: we have to do something with this. That presented a great dilemma for me, though, because I knew this would be a ten-year project. I didn’t know how I was going to do it. I applied to the Soros Fund: rejected. I applied to a lot of places and got rejected because before you see the book, you don’t get it. You don’t get how photography and landscape and mapping are going to come together. That project became an unfunded mandate. For me it was differed compensation; I didn’t take salary for a year. I lived off my teaching salary and put a team together and just tried to work. I learned a lot of lessons when I was by myself back in the day, in my little apartment. You can really understand what you can tolerate in terms of risk and survivalship as

a person. I have a very high tolerance for risk and a high tolerance for baseline survival. Of course now things are coming in; people are interested in it. In some ways I operated more as an artist where, frankly, you follow what it is you want to do. You just do it and you know it’s the right thing. You know it will develop its own audience. So at the beginning of Petrochemical there was no “there” there. Just by pulling it together, and by almost self-funding it, it came out the ashes. It rose up out of the ashes and that was it. Danielle Alexander: How did your collaboration with Robert Misrach guide the project? Kate Orff: When Richard was there in ‘98, he snuck into a lot of places under the cover of fog and cover of night. That’s his M.O. After I met him, I had piles of contact prints in my office and was looking through and sorting them. I came up with this idea of drawing what I call “through-lines.” Each chapter is a through-line, which is a thesis that links several different photographs together through the drawing and through narrative text. I started sequencing the through-lines, not necessarily picking the best photographs, but photographs that spoke about the bigger issues. As I started to work on the book it became very clear that I was looking at the small, regional history and the very local and very significant dynamics between small communities and these big, industrial plants that are right next door. But then you very quickly scale out to a huge regional issue. This is about American consumption patterns, our dependence on oil, and proliferation of petrochemicals in every thing from medicine to cups to pens to houses to building materials. That’s where I think it became very interesting working with Richard because I started to do what I call the Ecological Atlas. When we would go back together, it influenced his eyes and what he started to shoot. In 2010, the photographs are incredibly differ-

ent in character and content because they talk more about the part. We changed the title of the book from Cancer Alley to Petrochemical America because all of a sudden, through this analysis, we made a different project. It was more about Industry vs. People Living. It became focused on a much greater scale of issues. I had done graphs on American consumerism and American consumption and was frankly trying to grapple with how to end the book. I really wanted to end the book with the landscape that we had made, the landscape that had been enabled by Cancer Alley. Not the landscape of Cancer Alley, but what it created. I wanted to look at the forty-foot wide asphalt roads and giant houses that are bigger and bigger and more far apart and filled with more petrochemical stuff. I wanted to look at the cult of the outlet mall and the consumption that has been rising for the interim. We didn’t have that photographed, so I asked Richard to go and look up on the corridor, not only to the airline highway, but the other super highways that connect Baton Rouge and these other areas. It resulted in this diagram in the book which showed how the very specific regional dynamics of the Mississippi and the plants along the Mississippi have contributed to the proliferation of an American, generic landscape, which is not only here, but everywhere. For me, the set of photographs that he took at the end was really eye opening. There was one that he took which was called “Cow Levy.” It could be anywhere. It could almost be on the moon and it’s so different from a landscape that you would see. It has this giant scale of infrastructure and above there’s a helicopter that was going out to the gulf, headed to Deepwater Horizon. He was there when Deepwater Horizon blew. So this second wave of photographs to me is really illustrative of the dynamic of the collaboration because it tells more of this bigger story.

Kate Orff presents to the UVA School of Architecture

We’re clearly living in bigger and bigger houses, farther and farther apart, filled with more stuff. It creates a condition of the American landscape as a petrochemical machine. We’ve made this territory, we’ve organized this settlement pattern, and now we need to go further and further to feed the beast.

S01 Design and Activism: A Conversation with Kate Orff  

A Conversation with Kate Orff

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