I was about to lean into a landscape studio on tactical urbanism, led by REBAR, which was looking ominously like a furniture design class. As an expert furniture designer and builder, I instinctively knew I wasn't going to get much out of it. Instead, I jumped ship by crashing an architecture studio going to look at climate issues in rural Alaska. The effects of a warming planet are exacerbated and amplified at the poles. And Alaska is truly a land of water: their shorefast ice complex is freezing later and thawing earlier; their glaciers are receding alarmingly; permafrost is thawing; their storms are more frequent and severe, driving waves that land on 7,000 miles of coastline. All of this liquid water manifests as energy in the environment—very much subject to gravity's whims. This abrupt increase in flowing liquid water has thrown the equilibrium of their hydraulic, geomorphic and sediment transport systems way out of whack. Native Alaskan’s are probably the planet’s most resourceful people, and their traditional way of life is incredible. They were, mainly as a function of their latitude, hunter gatherers in the traditional sense, coupled to the rhythms of the seasons and their spaces in a very elegant way. In the 1930s the Bureau of Indian Affairs ‘settled’ towns, and in exchange for goods and resources, demanded they'd basically pick a location and stay put. Additionally, if these Villages wanted to receive building materials, those locations should be near water so that a barge could deliver the goods : to a riverbank or beach—the worst places to build a permanent structure or society.
The act of settling in one place for year-round habitation was a profound change for these Native Villages, and as they locked themselves into locations vulnerable to erosion and exposed to flooding and marine storm surges, their communities became progressively more imperiled by these events—which have become the rule, not the exception. My studio broke in half as we visited two remote sites : Shishmaref, a barrier island, and Shaktoolik, rapidly eroding on a peninsular sandbar. There were no roads to either town, and we arrived in February for a week- long stay to become familiar to the sites and meet their people.
Shaktoolik sits at the mouth of two rivers as they converge and flow into the Norton Sound, just below the arctic circle. The confluence of these rivers and their termination at this point is a problematic condition for the Village of Shaktoolik, which has relocated several times, moving North toward the terminal end of the landform and the rivermouth itself as the peninsula has attenuated. Importantly, the outflow of the Yukon River lies at the southern shore of the embayment that frames the Sound, and these river systems combined-the Yukon, Shaktoolik and Tagoomenik—deliver an awesome volume of driftwood to the shores of Shaktoolik. I had never seen anything like the matrix it created on the beach—clearly evident even under eight feet of snow--a jungle of dead, gnarled, knit-together trees. Crucially, in the large storm events in the Fall can send run-up waves that actually activate this debris and turn it into a soup of dangerous projectiles—easily hurtling 40-foot cedar logs up the shore.
This was a difficult situation, and clearly : we were looking at what, in my environmental planning and suitability analysis training, represented the least sustainable, viable location to maintain a safe community. And the challenge was damning : with no roads, all goods, food and fuel came in via barges and airplanes, and the receiving infrastructure for both was built into the terminal of the peninsula.
Working with a student who had visited Shishmaref, D'Genaro Pulido, I honed in on the driftwood, and designed a series of landform interventions whose stability, and in some cases, very formation was linked to an intentional redeployment of the driftwood itself. In various locations and playing off of different forces—those of wind and waves, the driftwood would be caged in “gabions” that would secure it. Representing a relatively high roughness coefficient, these gabions knock sand and snow out of suspension in water and wind to settle in shoals, bars, dunes and drifts. These interventions were intentionally low-tech and could be easily built with local materials, by local people and with simple tools. “Germinating” the gabions by deploying the town’s bulldozer to load them with sand upon construction was a way to jump-start their efficacy.
To model and represent these interventions, their actions and effects, we constructed a “sand tunnel”, and modeled sand, ash and breadcrumbs blown through different sized scale models of the driftwood matrices. I also tested their efficacy in the school’s Center for the Built Environment wind tunnel using vapor to display their luffing and turbulence effects.
The biggest challenge in the studio was knowing the people who lived in these places : we had some skin in the game merely as a function of having stayed with them as they’d sheltered us from the deadly cold outside—and that experience, for lack of a better term, kept me honest. It made the studio work I did very different from other grad school assignments, and I was honored to return to Alaska the following year to present our research and recommendations to our former hosts, the Cold Climate Housing Research center in Fairbanks, and the Transportation and Planning Departments in Anchorage, who incorporated and implemented several of ARC’s recommendations in an ongoing effort to buffer Shaktoolik.
The elephant in the room was that we were merely buying time for an inevitable retreat and relocation of the Village. But learning how to embrace this idea, that doing something on the site in the present was an investment in the future of another site, was an interesting concept with which to grapple. ARC also proposed a new model of resource stewardship, and we sought to assist the Natives in finding a new way of seeing, using and benefitting from their environment—vey much a throwback to their ancestral way of life, but with an obvious modern technological application. As far as the “driftwood gabions” were concerned, the idea that we could place a material in such a way as to work as an accretion engine—to actually build land and therefor a protective capacity—simply by capitalizing off of the forces of the environment, was a revelation for me.
I design and build spaces. The way people interact with their environments is endlessly interesting. From the painted caves of the Dordogne to a deadly cold Alaskan island, grappling with the meaning of our cultural identities and how we are defined by and linked to the world around us never gets old. Discovering the forces that make a place what it is, and seeing its people and elements as both products and moving pieces in that interplay is the basis of my problem-solving ethos as a landscape architect.
I preach the ecologic aikido : position yourself and things you care about to benefit most (or be damaged least) by the forces that rock and roll our realities.
ARC Arctic Responses to Climate // 2013
Designer // Builder // Artist // Activistst
URBANFRAME is a design-build summer studio based at the School of Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The program's motto is design/build/give, and its core ethos is founded in the belief that young people have deep insight into our collective future. That power is seldom acknowledged, much less explored or leveraged toward seeing, thinking and making in a different way. We seek to empower these young people, and explore, embrace and amplify their potential as change agents and designers and builders of tomorrow. I've had the pleasure to work as a fellow three years in a row, and to work with Katie McKnight, Daniel Hewett, Cynthia Delhavi, Thomas Allen, and, in 2013, Alper Besen and Jake Sippy, among many other positive influences on and in this program, not the least of whom, by any measure, have been the incredible young people I've met therein.
In 2014, we explored a partnership with The Food Project, a not-for-profit endeavor founded in Boston. The food project is designed to provide local youth with leadership opportunities from an approach founded in sustainable agriculture. They embrace young leaders from urban environments whose potential as catalysts for community-building is strong. They aren't looking to save anyone : they are looking for those who want to save their own communities. Sadly, so many of our societies' problems are in some way connected to the dearth of healthy living opportunities. Obviously, nutrition figures greatly into this equation. The food project, on sites in the jarringly affluent Western suburbs of Boston and at several inner-city farms, grows food intended for the community : for sale at farmers markets; donated to soup kitchens; subsidized for urban groceries to reduce the size, prevalence and concentration of food deserts; featured on the fare at local resturants.
One of the primary challenges for the food project, operating in Boston's punishing summer heat and humidity, is the task of keeping greens from wilting after harvest and before sale or donation. In addition to the Suburban farmlands held in Lincoln, the Dudley Street Cooperative in Dorchester is composed of a 1-acre open air farm and a series of enclosed greenhouses, which grow, among other things, the tomatoes for their enterprise wing. These complexes are, maybe predictably, also community hubs in the neighborhood : places for people to interact and exchange, catch up and cross paths in addition to volunteering and working at the farm and greenhouse. The greenhouse "crew", in addition to the stifling temperatures in the greenhouse, emeerge onto a concrete pad that works as a driveway, but which offers no respite from the heat.
We intended to satisfy three principle requirements for the studio : to provide TFP with a vegetable cooling capacity, a place of respite and relaxation for the crew who works on the farm/greenhouse complex, and to provide an enhanced and improved venue and gathering space for the community in their interactions for nutrition classes, distributing vegetables and other farming functions. We used their ubiquitous, stackable plastic totes as a modulor guide in dimensioning and laying out the "cool house". We built the structure on skids, hyper-insulated it, and used a highly efficient cooling unit. It was designed with a brise soleil roof that would protect the unit while allowing tensile members to be strung over the concrete pad, and eventually support vines that could offer valuable shade, possibly fruit, and generally "green up" the seer concrete pad.
Pier 27, San Francisco Ferry Terminal and Public Plaza // 2014
Lost and Found Berkeley, CA XTREME LA charrette // 2013
Brew with a View Berkeley, CA Graduate Studio // 2011
gymnasia moderne Clark Kerr Campus, CA Graduate Studio // 2012
The EPA Rainworks Campus Challenge seeks innovative ideas and designs for improving and reimagining how our campuses manage their stormwater.
Frederick Law Olmsted, on visiting Berkeley's campus in the 1860s, noted that the two creeks running through it should, above all other natural features, remain sacrosanct and maintained as the campus would develop. The slow rolling knoll upon which CAL sits was the typical Oak grassland of the east bay--the so-called oak savannah familiar to those who know the region. A dense thicket of riparian vegetation would bound the creeks, and few redwoods had yet been planted in the area at that point. Of course, the University has neglected, denuded, channelized, degraded and badly polluted the two forks of Strawberry Creek over the generations, and, literally in its departure form the campus bounds, dives underneath Oxford Ave at the campus' Western edge, dumped into a concrete box channel devoid of any function other than the once-in-several years flood management. The Bay area, in general, represents a colossal failure in planning and imagining appropriate roles and reverence for many of its natural features--and the campus is no exception.
The scheme hinged on facing the reality that the campus mismanages its stormwater--all too often simply shunting it into Strawberry creek : full of pollutants, moving much too quickly to not scour and erode banks that are supposed to be "set" for the reverence of the buildings which of course encroach right up to its edges. Three sites on campus, in addition to retrofitting extensive green roofs and a network of cisterns, could satisfy several goals:
- Scheme 1 imagined a seldom-used playing field as an opportunity for stormwater storage and a seasonal percolation basin--a function always neglected in urban environments.
- Scheme 2 activated an artificial 'arroyo', which would serve as a rain garden and chained check-dam sculpture, integrating seating and human spaces into the sculpture.
- Scheme 3 would entail a habitat expansion on campus, in the Eucalyptus grove near the campus edge. This floodable wetland would be activated during high flows using a simple weir overflow bypass. This ephemeral wetland, depending on the season and storm system, might last a few hours or several weeks in serving as a place for humans and habitat and performing the very necessary task of increasing infiltration on-campus.
Into The Blue Again EPA Rainworks Competition, Student // 2012
San Francisco was preparing it's only suitable pier to become a cruise ship terminal. The studio prompt assumed that the parking lot would completely dominate the site : creating an opportunity for design and development only on the Embarcadero Blvd, which bounds the site's Southern edge. There are major security and access concerns for a port of any kind, so the programming and circulation would need to manage that well.
I rejected the prompt outright : prioritizing parking and vehicle circulation is not an appropriate approach to a major pedestrian artery, nor structurally--perched on a pier cast on friction piles into bay mud in a seismically active area. Though corporate interests eventually swayed exactly that--a parking lot with a nauseating pedestrian "park" tacked on (with non-native ice plant included), the exercise was valuable for the difficulty in designing plaza spaces, and drawing cues from the existing structures and sight lines to delineate and articulate the geometries defining the place.
A sculptural void in the center of the site is created to showcase both the structure of the pier itself and the often-forgotten rhythm of the Bay at play beneath it. Other smaller voids frame an amphitheater and a terminal elevated platform connected to the deck with a winding helix ramp serves as a destination and prospect. The cutaway material for carving the voids is repurposed into the cheek- and knee-walls, planters and retaining walls on site--and to fill for the substantial grade-raising necessary in the remaking of the parking lot as barrier from the traffic beyond. A subtle grading and sub-surface stormwater system manages the sites substantial non-permeable surface catchment.
SUMMETRIA Living Laboratory Manhattan, NY, 2013
I was grappling with a relatively simple problem : find a way to route a pedestrian infrastructure access path around the UN campus on Manhattan’s lower East Side. I rejected that assignment as a prompt immediately and for several reasons: Our instructor was an AECOM employee, and had a ton of data on the site and relevant to this project. AECOM had essentially already cracked the problem, and was doing nothing more than supplying exactly this : an elevated walkway. Secondly, no one was solving the problem of where this pathway would “land”—we were simply expected to justify its form. This seemed ridiculous given their SLR challenge. Finally, we were a class of 23 students—enormous and totally unwieldy as a studio. I simply could not imagine sitting there watching 23 of the same kinds of approaches to the exact same prompt and site. As it turned out, I did end up watching 22 of these, but decided to apply my efforts to a different site and issue in addition to offering a solution to the studio’s stated challenge.
I chose to focus on a site that was a former Department of Sanitation barge landing and was at the time a fenced-off parcel with the old sanitation building still standing. This was also at 61st Avenue and the Queensborough Bridge—a major intersection of several transportation systems-- and the essential northern boundary of the site described in the prompt. It also delineated laterally the Southern edge and shortest connection to Central Park, which was a huge draw and incredible in that the shore at the site remained in its current state of neglect.
I'd always been interested in the fact that ‘Oystertecture’ hadn’t taken off, and I discovered that (in a foreshadowing of my later efforts in the SF Bay) the regulations governing putting anything in the water of the East River (which is in fact a tidal estuary) are extremely stringent and almost ridiculously ironic. Furthermore, the incredible history of crassostrea virginica and their role in NY’s waterways was fascinating : this area had once been the world epicenter of oysters, the keystone of an incredible, pristine web of waterways, an arcadian dream for the natives that lived there.
The turning point in my seeking inspiration for an approach came in reading a passage by Paul Jacques Grillo, who referred to the platonic view of symmetry --"summetria"--as a balance of energies : energy in potential form in the organs or program of a site, and energy in motion : the circulation. Such a simple pair of terms -- organs and circulation -- immediately brought to mind the oyster as a kind of avatar for the project.
But I had never been there and was having a really tough time getting inspired until I basically invented a client : I called the foremost local marine toxicologist, a shellfish biologist and ecologist. I asked them what they would want, if our objective was to imagine ways to bring the unbelievable ecosystem services of the oyster keystone back to the waters of the East River.
Since I couldn’t bring land or structures into the water, I decided to bring the water into the land. I designed a site that was a pedestrian infrastructure hub and reactivated the old DOS site to serve as a laboratory and venue inside the building, and a roof deck to tie the elevated path into. Summetria would have a central canal that flowed through the building where the dump trucks used to drive, and a series of tide pools attached to this canal, all devoted to fostering habitat for water-filtering oysters. The water features would be “gated” and controlled to manipulate or prevent flows depending on the conditions you might want to research or foster (like protecting in the case of a toxic sewer backup of the combined system.)
The rather unfortunately named XTREME LACharrette was hosted at UC Berkeley to reimagine the East SF Bay's waterfront through the lens of a rising Bay. One of the key sites we examined for the project was the Berkeley Marina, a parcel of land built completely on a landfill--of urbanite and household trash capped by a clay pancake.
One of the interesting things about the charette was the range in scales that we were able to tackle as a group--from a masterplanning to that of the human form. I was excited for the chance to work in a (albeit condensed) studio format on a land art proposal, which is a tricky topic to tackle in a traditional studio setting. I was drawn to the legacy of this site --incredibly controversial, even oxymoronic-- as a place of recreation and public open space composed of the worst and most wasteful practices of our society in dealing with urbanization and environmental degradation.
The concept of daylighting these issues and bringing to public light the very "nature" of the ground upon which visitors walk and play seemed like an appropriate goal, given the further ramifications and challenges presented by a rising bay : issues of pollutant plumes and the problematic issues that will surely arise when this landfill is submerged, and all too soon.
The site sits a few blocks for the main UC Berkeley campus, and at the foot of the Berkeley Hills. Originally built for family housing, the buidings, as a function of their lead paint and asbestos levels, were to be torn down. One of the goals that the City of Berkeley had put forth for the site was of a farm, and this set the basic design prompt for my first graduate studio.
The site is an oddly shaped parcel : 11 acres featuring 200 feet of elevation change, with a relatively gradual 60 feet of climb on the site's low (and more easily accessed) side, hinging in its middle to climb more steeply the rest of the way up. The project was a major hurdle for many in the class who didn't intuitively grasp topography, but the landscape possibilities it opened up were exciting.
I designed a tiered system of farming plots on the steep site and a subtly climbing orchard at the bottom. The pear orchard would provide cider for an on-site cidery and meadery, and apiaries adorn the steep terraces. A meadow flanks the orchard and provides flexible open space for dogs and recreation. An original Julia Morgan home is renovated and relocated, a bistro serving the produce and cider accampanying fare is constructed with a deck overhanging the ephemeral creek on the site's north side, and a reception area and wedding venue is built into the hill itself. The view and potential to overlook the orchard in the spring and fall will provide a rare and sublime site for these events. Climbing the retaining walls are hops, which can be used in brewing beer, or hybrid cider concoctions served at the bistro. A parking area and scenic overlook are constructed at the site's peak, and ADA-accessible ramps
Directly across Hearst Ave from the Farm described above is the student athlete housing for UC Berkeley. This campus features a neglected gymnasium and the prompt initially focused on redesigning the interface of the building with the track and field above. Unfortunately, our instructor botched the studio : We received cryptic feedback, no guidance and were incredibly dissapointed, as a cohort, in his performance. Nevertheless, seeing how a studio should not be taught was a lesson in itself, and I'm proud of the work that emerged in spite of the instructor's shortcomings.
The essential problem to overcome in the siting of the gym and the poorly-thought-out grading of the track and field mound is one of access : the paths that lead to the outdoor recreation area are completely informal and badly damaged, and none are ADA accessible.
My scheme was based on the concept of providing a pedestrain access network that was, in itself, an exercise venue, featuring ramps and stairs and seat walls for stretching while restoring some ecological and hydrologic functionality to the eroding hillside and environs. A build out of the gymnasium building itself which incorporated an elevated track and ground-level swimming pool were expansions of the gyms functions.
Restored Confluence Walnut Creek, CA Graduate Studio // 2012
Walnut Creek (the town) is named for its creek. The creek is born at the confluence of Las Trampas and San Ramon Creeks, and the town literally sits atop of this confluence. Actually, in an even more nauseating twist, a Macy's sits atop it. The mall complex which this Macy's is a part is one of the most profitable in the country. The valley in which Walnut Creek was settled was initially disrupted and degraded ecologically by the rancheros and grazing that was granted to Spanish officers in the decades before California's statehood. Denuding the vegetation in huge swaths kicked off a destructive hydrological effect : in rain events, the water which normally would have infiltrated into the valley runs off the compacted, barren ground and into creek channels that then experience rapid scouring and erosion. The booming urbanization of the the 20th century only exasperated the problem : an expanse of impervious surfaces led to major and catastrophic flooding in town, and the Army Corps of Engineers stepped in to bollocks things up as only they can be relied on to. They decided the smartest course of action was to build a concrete box channel, to shunt the water into the Delta as quickly as possible. Aside from the absolutely laughable ethos of an approach like this, and in a single-use infrastructure of such cost and scale, there have been tragic results for the ecological community, unfortunate souls who fall into the channel in flood conditions, and the taxpayers of the region, whose flood control district stooges were duped into accepting the Corps' continued support and funding for maintaining this disastrous project strictly to its outdated and recently disproven design specs.
The studio was challenging and interesting for the ranges in scale possible to consider ways in which a developed urban space might find different ways to adapt to or embrace its ecological assets and begin seeing them as civic ones. I was drawn to the subterranean confluence immediately, and actually walked its course, a surreal experience replete with dead deer, shopping carts and all manner of trash. I wanted to open this physical feature up and destroy the box channel to coincide with a rebuilding of the outdated mall itself.
By daylighting the creeks and their meeting, and expanding and regrading their banks and bases with selected armoring and a restored vegetative community, a new public space is created, celebrating the namesake of the town and showcasing the hydraulic and ecologic function of the place. Shrunken building footprints and multi-story parking garages, green roofs and rooftop patios and bridges to weave the pedestrian circulation into the site serve as methods to integrate the performance of the Mall (ostensibly indespensable to the region and town) and the ecological performance of the Creeks.
FREESTONE Fish Camp California, 2015
The parcel had been in the client's family for a generation, but a change in the land ownership and management regulations governing an adjacent swath had prevented construction of a road. The client came to an agreement with the local commission by agreeing to mill the trees that would be removed for the road into lumber to be donated for a local grange. Their preliminary plans called for a log-cabin style construction. The trees were felled and milled, the road was graded and the economy promptly tanked, fouling the plans for the grange and leaving the client with a boatload of square-dimension LVL and glulam stock.
I’d advised against building a structure as close to the river as the site development approach was suggesting, but the client was adamant that the “fish camp” be situated essentially on the water. The site rests on a bedrock bluff overlooking a river that periodically floods the point bar opposite the site’s cutbank, and the structure itself is elevated above a 500-year event, and integrates several floodable-building logic features.
Approach + Proposal :
The square-dimension stock actually provided an interesting opportunity for a framing logic, and I developed an approach of basic post and beam that integrated the 8x12, 10x10 and 4x4 pine and fir. A basic, stacking structural node based on simple Japanese temple-building approaches picked up the large span and considerable load of the members while avoiding the necessitation of many shear walls: the structure was intended to be as open as possible. It’s piers cast into bedrock and breakaway stairs provide some degree of flood-protection.
URBANFRAME Summer Studio MIT + Dorchester, MA, 2014
See and read an account of our project in the GROUND UP Journal :
UNBOUND EPA Rainworks Competition, Instructor // 2015
** 2ND PLACE : 2015 EPA Rainworks Competition Runners-Up **
STUDENT TEAM : Junpei Asai, Avery Hardy, Kirsten Jurich, Katie McKnight, Ian McRae,
Jason Prado, Rafael Tiffany, Ying Tan, Yiping Lu, Yue Pan
The EPA Rainworks Campus Challenge seeks innovative ideas and designs for improving and reimagining how our campuses manage their stormwater. The critical and most relevant factor in the creek channels' underperformance in the various, aforementioned criteria is its physical floodplain -- or lack of one. The creek, because of inefficient revetments, deep scouring, invasive plant communities and inadquate hydraulic consideration of the original 'design' of the channel is basically a deep, steep sided furrow and the very small cross-sectional capacity it engenders. Not all of this can or should be blamed on the campus : this reach of the creek is not at the "top" of the watershed, and the urbanized, highly impervious urban design considerations therein have essentially defined a hydrograph that spells disaster for the campus, and the site stands as a monument of the perpetuation of institutional inaction.
The student team identified a reach of the iconic campus' Strawberry Creek that was both badly underperforming as a hydrologic, ecologic and social space. Even very small rain events ( .5" ) trigger major flooding, and more significant storms completely overwhelm the undersized culvert at the site, imperiling infrastructure, further burdening the stormwater system of the surrounding city, and becoming downright dangerous in certain stretches of the swollen creek channel. As a feature of a school, and one located at the nexus of several colleges concerned with the factors in play, this is an unsuitable, unsustinable model for maintaining what should be an invaluable campus asset. By viewing the problem and emergent opportunities through an hollistic lens, the students were able to imagine, research and render a compelling vision for a multiple-benefit space with sweeping functional improvements.
UNBOUND hinges on the expansion of a floodplain for multifunctional ecologic and cultural space-making as strategy toward improving local flood management and campus life. Additionally, the indigenous material-sourcing model the students developed was extremely compelling from an ecologic and economic standpoint : they essentially used the constant development and excavation (production of material) in which the school is perpetually engaged as an engine for the resources that would power the project -- in its wood, earth, stone and cast-in-place features. A rammed-earth wall essentially establishes a terraced system of separating an expanded high, dry meadow from their low, flattened espace de liberte : an expanded floodplain primed for riparian evolutionary processes to capitalize. Seating, access, and a seasonal wetland terrace adjacent to the low-flow channel creates a dynamic, compelling gathering space, while improving campus resources like gas and water to mow and irrigate the current, sodden sod and convert thousands of square feet to a dry oak-savannah ecotone while framing the ephemeral wetland and improved creek channel and flood plain.