Friday, July 29, 2011

Waits Awards 2011

Like a rutting goat, or a pig rooting through the detritus on the forest floor of landscape architecture, our correspondents work- tirelessly at times, at other times very much at their leisure- to bring you the strange and forgotten nuggets from the world of landscape.  After another year of “roaming through the earth and going back and forth in it”, it is time to present the second annual Waits Awards [last year’s projects can be seen here].
[the FASLANYC team hard at work on the Waits Awards]

The Waits Awards are named in honor of scoundrel/conjurer Tom Waits.  We here at FASLANYC share his fascination with mythical characters as well as the belief that "all hardware items must be admired for their sonic properties."  A Waits signifies that a project relishes the particular and the bizarre, it values aesthetics without privileging beauty, it is simultaneously primitive and clinical.  These projects are usually highly tactical and lo-fi, simple and sophisticated, ultimately working to demystify the act of intervening in the landscape.

Rather than serving as an accolade for a job well done, the Waits Awards are meant to raise awareness of innovative initiatives and to stimulate dialogue and work.  Awards are not necessarily given out to recent projects, but there is an emphasis on timeliness.  We hope you will offer up your opinions and insights as well as bring our attention to other projects being undertaken that revel in the nuance and idiosyncrasy of innovative interventions.  Without further ado, we present the following projects as recipients of a 2011 Waits Award. 

(For the Waits experience, click on the song title before each award before reading the summary and following whichever links catch your fancy).

Steel Yard- Get Behind the Mule

The Steel Yard in Providence, Rhode Island is an example of landscape architecture enabling the retooling and reindustrialization of an urban work yard.  It is an alternative to the default landscape proposition at this scale:  to parkify such sites as part of the larger traditional development scheme to maximize immediate profits through commoditization of the landscape.  This is accomplished through a shift in scale of operation, repurposing existing constructions including the ground plane, and an emphasis on instrumentality and staging. 
[the Steel Yard (in center); here the weedy lawn is the strange brown shape in the center, surrounded by loading yards and staging grounds; the main gantries are to the north]

[something radical happening at night]

[the Steel Yard, with the gantries and the elevated lawn created from refuse corrugated sheet piling on the right]

 Of course there is a non-cynical reason for developer profiteering- between the contaminants that must be remediated and the obsolete structures that must be dealt with, brownfields are expensive to reconstruct as usable space.  At the Steel Yard the estimated cost for remediation alone was 1.2 million dollars.  Using a $600,000 EPA grant and the social capital accrued by offering classes and supporting local artistic and educational projects on the site since 2001, designers Mark Klopfer and Kaki Martin worked with the clients to scavenge reusable refuse and to organize volunteer labor for planting days and small scale construction projects.  Old sheet pilings were used to define the ground plane and retain earth, weedy grasses were planted, and the gantries were refurbished.  A pervious paving system was installed and rough earthen moats catch any runoff from the contaminated site, a precondition of EPA permitting for the project.

This lo-fi landscape is now a small-scale industrial hub in downtown Providence, serving as an alternative model for redevelopment initiatives in the city.  More interestingly, it is not a park that has idolized the ruins of some long-lost industrial past into a photoshopped landscape full of smiling kids flying kites.  Here, those same kids can learn to rivet sheet metal while a 1976 Mercedes Unimog drops off a load of reject scaffolding poles and the gantry is used to position a new side panel on a ’68 Airstream.
[the unimog, hauling some steel or something]

Mil Plazas- Talca, Chile- “Ice Cream Man

Built by architecture students from the University of Talca School of Architecture,Mil Plazas is a series of studies and prototypes culminating in seven plazas located in residual places in the city of Talca, Chile.  The paper presented at the 2009 International Congress of Architecture in Quito by the professors reads:

The Mil Plazas studio began as an academic practice that takes place outside of the classroom.  The construction of the plazas, their use by the inhabitants, and the resulting social impact has confirms their spatial function and generated new municipal institutions intended to continue the diverse effects begun by these interventions.

With intelligence, enthusiasm, and without money, the students were able to articulate ideas, gain donations, and technical and labor support to construct new plazas in five weeks, plazas that would not exist without their efforts.

The new plazas generated the recuperation and appropriation of new public space by local residents… Equally, the manual labor contributed by local residents catalyzed the creation of new community groups and social circles.  The architecture transcended its material reality to achieve a larger social impact.  This initiative has been key in convincing local companies to invest money in the construction of new, more permanent plazas in the coming year.
 ["cubierta de paraguas/covered with umbrellas", one of the installed plazas of Mil Plazas, using cheap red umbrellas, scaffolding towers, nylon rope, and an ingenious tensioning system; seen here in process, held up by the tension system before being pulled tight, or by 100 invisible people; image from la ciudad viva]

["plaza de pallets"; image from supersudaka]

It seems a bit easy to claim that this type of project is only possible with the free labor of students (and we typically would).  However, this project could also be seen as a pro-bono effort that reinvigorated specific places within a city and led to new capital projects; projects that are now undergirded with a particular ethic and material aesthetic and supported by a reinforced social infrastructure.  It is architecture that transcends its traditional role as the materialization of singularities.  And those are precisely the types of projects that can be instigated and executed by innovative collectives of daring individuals.

Obviously an outgrowth of the Arquitectura Directa manifesto by SuperSudaca [one of the instructors is a member], we love this project for the resourcefulness and sophistication exhibited.  And based on the title and the emphasis on ephemerality, permutation, and affirmative difference, we like to think that the project offers a sly tip of the cap to Deleuze and Guattari’s Thousand Plateaus.

Oyster Reclamation Research Project- No One Knows I’m Gone

The Oyster Restoration Research Project attempts to restore 500 acres of oysters to the New York Harbor by 2015, and 5,000 by 2050, with the aim of using oysters for habitat restoration and water purification in the harbor.  In this sense, the oysters are conceived of as a biological agent within the infra-natural system of the New York Harbor.  The project organizes actors across scales ranging from the US Army Corps of Engineers and the EPA to local ngo’s and secondary schools in active ways; local universities help develop and test methods for growing oysters, the high school kids at the Harbor School grow the spat, and the USACE works with local ngo’s such as the Bay Ridge Flats Oyster Project to build and monitor the oyster reefs.

The project aims to define policies and implement actions that create oyster reefs on a scale that will positively affect the NY Harbor, all while involving local universities, ngo’s and citizens who want to touch an oyster or wade out into the water.  And it is a research project, so monitoring and analysis is fundamental.  Construction and management strategies are adaptive and respond to new information.  Currently, the focus is on six pilot oyster reefs in different locations.  Different reef methods are being tested, and variable environmental conditions [salinity, temperature, pollution] are being monitored.  As the reefs expand and new ones are installed the methods will be refined with the hope of optimizing the latent potential of the harbor to regenerate its once-teeming oyster populations. 
[the reefs are made from a 6" layer of granite rip rap covered with a layer of clam shells and then a top layer of spat-on-shell oysters grown by secondary school students at the Harbor School; image courtesy of the Urban Omnibus]

[the USACE assists with the large scale installation of the reefs; here clam shells are being dumped over the rip rap base; image courtesy of the Urban Omnibus]

Whether the ambitious goal of 5,000 acres of oyster reef by 2050 can be met is unknown.  Any chance of that will rely on the generative capacity of the harbor itself once catalyzed by these operations.  Nonetheless, the coordination of activities and expertise across scales, from that of a 3rd grader in Queens on a summer day, to the NY/NJ Division of the United States Army Corps of Engineers, is exciting and worthwhile.  It is a model for the type of educational environmental project that humans will be endeavor to undertake with increasing frequency in the future.

[the haunting installation "Silent Evolution" by Jason deCaires Taylor; this quality is created by the ever-changing quality of the light combined with the impossibility of staying still while in the ocean]

The Museum of Underwater Modern Art is located just offshore in Cancun, Mexico.  Sure, it’s shameless tourist attraction, as are most museums.  But it’s a good one.  The familiar forms frozen in familiar positions being slowly colonized by mollusks, covered by sand, and inhabited by crustaceans and fish is enough to horrify a spring break reveler while filling them with wonder.  In addition to sculpting the forms, the artist Jason deCaires Taylor formulated the concrete to be textured and pH neutral to promote coral growth.  Most exciting, the ocean is both the medium and the context:  its organisms and currents effect the sculpture, and this effect grows over time, and people and fish are given a hemispherical perspective in their approach, being able to swim up and around at any angle.  The museum is open-ended and ongoing.
[the generative capacity of the ocean is radically transforming the sculpture in loosely anticipated but completely uncontrollable ways] 

Ghost Train Park- “We’re All Mad Here”

Ghost Train Park was created by Peruvian art collective Basurama, in Lima, Peru.  The design appropriates the structures of a never-finished elevated electric train with other, smaller refuse from the city and turns it into a playground.  Begun in the early 80’s, it was to be a monument to neoliberal productivity, orderly progress and convenience.  Now it’s a messy and exciting world of trash for kids.  But it’s a very specific trash well-treated (tires stripped of their inner walls, columns painted exciting colors) and it’s an exhibition of resourceful assembly.  The result are swings and ladders of all shapes and sizes suspended from the shade-providing superstructure of the “ghost train”.

In this case, the designers function almost as the nitrogen-fixing bacteria on the roots of a catalpa tree, helping the social activities latent in the surrounding area put down roots in previously unoccupiable terrain. The delirious use of colors and refuse at an exhilarating scale are exciting, and the swings and ladders are made from tires and cables and ropes that can be easily replaced.  Comparing this project to the High Line reveals something almost like a faith in the agency and intelligence of others on the part of the designers.

[trapeze-scale children's swings are suspended from the existing train structure

[unique structural moments become areas for special ziplines and tire ladders]

Olmsted’s Blank Snow- The Briar and the Rose

Olmsted’s Blank Snow is a project by architects Sergio Lopez-Piñeiro and Nicole Halstead of the University of Buffalo.  The project aims to take advantage of the snow that blankets Buffalo each winter, and the plows that are tasked with clearing it, to create an architecture that is “liberated from externally imposed roles, meanings, or functions… enabling all sorts of predicted but also unexpected possibilities.”
[Olmsted's Blank Snow in Buffalo, NY]

 [the mounds slowly melting in the springtime]

The site is the terrace of Front Park near the shore of Lake Eerie in Buffalo, New York.  Designed by Olmsted and Vaux in 1870 as part of the Buffalo Park System, “The Front” (the original name, before it was parkified) is a 37 acre park located on a bluff overlooking the Niagara River and Lake Eerie towards Canada.  It was initially conceived as a public connection to the water and unique setting for recreation and civic display.  To this end The Front was integrated into the city’s carriage, bicycle, and pedestrian circulation systems and the large terrace was paved and surrounded by gardens, playing fields, and the Lakeview House.  When it opened in 1875 The Front was Buffalo’s most popular public space.  That all ended in the 1950’s with the paving over of the Eerie Canal and the expansion of the Peace Bridge crossing into Canada.  It is decidedly less interesting now, and is largely forgotten.

Within this context, Olmsted’s Blank Snow seizes on the ephemeral and contingent nature of the winter landscape and proposes to create a series of snow mounds meant to frame views, allow for greater vistas, and encourage appropriation by the few who venture there.  This is achieved not with an illustrative plan and capital expenditure, but by simply modifying the specification for how the paved terrace in the park is to be plowed.  This project, through engagement with the medium and the instrumentality of things via the operating manual, takes advantage of the abandoned landscape as a place of solitude and potentiality. 
[the municipal park and greenway system designed by Olmsted and Vaux; the Front is located on the left midway up, bordering lake Niagara]

[a plowing plan prepared for the snow plow operator]

[multiple plans can be created after each snow fall, owing to the nature of snow; all images from the project website]

The Detroit Unreal Estate Agency- Cemetery Polka

The DUEA is a project that works to find, collect and combine new practices that are generating in the city of Detroit because of the particular circumstance of city that has an abundance of infrastructure, space, and building material but relatively few functioning social or political institutions or capital for a city of its size.  Focusing on efforts that provide an alternative to the conventional cycles of gentrification, the project examines and engages with the many variable forms the act of city-making takes when there is no hegemony.

[a map from the Powerhouse Detroit project, outlining parcels for possible future projects] 

In the initial issue of Scapegoat Journal, Andrew Herscher explained the concept behind the project, unreal estate, “as a waste product of capitalism, is by definition an alternative to that structure’s products.  As such, the urbanism that unreal estate invites, provokes, sustains or endures diverges not only in its authorship from conventional urbanism, but also in its ideological orientations, culture agencies, and political possibilities.  In the same essay, Herscher profiles several “listings” from the “Unreal Estate Guide to Detroit”, which include the Car Wash Café, described as an open-air auto storage facility/party venue/barbeque garden/personal museum.

The Detroit Unreal Estate Agency is an attempt to understand, disseminate and strengthen alternative forms of urbanism being generated by the terrain vague real estate situation the city.  Through mapping, scavenging for old doors, painting houses slated for demolition garish colors, or creating bizarre entrepreneurial combinations liberated from the profit motive as primary driver, the project is an example of urban practice that registers a departure from conventional urbanism without destroying difference.


  1. Wow, I have imagined something like Ghost Train Park for the elevated BART tracks at the Oakland-Berkeley border!

  2. Isn't at least one of the folks behind the Steel Yard a Rockefeller? Not to say that the project isn't an worthwhile example of non-parkification. But maybe slightly, atypical?

    Have you heard of the South Carolina equivalent of the oyster project, SCORE?

    I think they were profiled by the DIRT a while back...