Recent Events: The Architecture League 5KL: Water Symposium


Photo by Charles O’Rear, desaturated from original.


February 7th marked the most recent event in the ongoing Five Thousand Pound Life series, The Architecture League of New York’s multi-year initiative of public eventsdigital releases, and design studies that look at the challenges of reimagining the American way of life to address climate change.

This is the third in the series of 5KL symposia, which so far have tackled EnergyLand, and now Water. Both focused and expansive, the Water symposium cast its net across three very different regions, each with its own water worries—Los Angeles, the Great Lakes, and New York. All three regions have rich histories enabled by daring feats of civil engineering. Aqueducts, reservoirs and thousands of miles of canals and pipes have allowed cities and regions to grow, but have also irrevocably altered natural hydrological patterns. Today, each region is struggling to manage these legacy infrastructures and adapt them to the challenges of the coming century.

New York City is well supplied with drinking water because of the visionary and technically pioneering work of local leaders and civil engineers in the 19th century, who gave civic identity to the city’s water infrastructure system. Now we have moved from a century of engineering to a century of management. As Al Appleton, the former director of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection made clear in his talk, intelligently managing the old pipes and dams, the watershed lands, the sewage treatment, and waste disposal operations of this massive system is no easy task, although it is absolutely critical. Helping farmers fence pastures and control their waste flows in the vast Upstate watershed of the aqueduct system helps water quality downstream, saving billions over the new water filtration plants that would otherwise be needed. Reducing water use and runoff reduces wastewater treatment demands, which saves energy and waste disposal costs, freeing up money to staff up wastewater treatment plants so that they run more efficiently. Decision pathways are interconnected, and getting consensus from farmers, administrators, regulators, environmentalists and economists is a management task that lets New York’s historic and heroic public works continue to function. The upcoming challenges will revolve around retrofits for coastal protection and ongoing operation—such as what to do with billion-dollar low-lying wastewater treatment plants, and a sewer system designed with outfalls that will be underwater if this century’s expected sea level rise exceeds their 3.5-foot elevation above mean high tide.

The Great Lakes are grappling with their own challenges of how to manage water quality in an enormous transnational watershed that incorporates 8 states, a province and 40 tribal governments—a region so large that it makes its own weather, but whose stability is threatened by invasive species, urban and industrial effluents, and climate-driven changes to the precipitation patterns beyond the design criteria for current infrastructure. Here too, hydrology has been altered by great feats of civil engineering. The watersheds of the Great Lakes are now connected to the larger Mississippi River thanks to the historic reversal of the Chicago River in 1900; cities like Chicago have spent incredible sums of money on deep tunnels and reservoirs to comply with water quality regulations for the water that enters the Great Lakes and the river. Poorer cities like Detroit with legacy water and wastewater infrastructure that they can’t afford are experimenting with green infrastructure strategies for urban runoff, but are a long way from either compliance or a coherent civic identity for this new soft infrastructure.

5KL-Water Management in L.A.

A visualization of the complex flows of potable water in L.A. County, as developed by the CCSC at UCLA, 2014.


But it was Los Angles that stole the show, with the most dramatic example of the overlaps between the infrastructure of water, energy, food, and urbanization. Whereas heroic acts of civil engineering had historically enabled a metropolis to grow in the middle of a desert, the water supply is not only on the brink of collapse from dramatic decreases in snowpack that feeds the reservoirs, but is constantly stymied by a fragmented jurisdictional and ownership landscape that makes holistic water management next to impossible. Stephanie Pincetl from UCLA’s California Center of Sustainable Communities presented a dizzying visualization of the complex system of water governance in L.A. County, where water rates are set by over 100 water retailers, in 5 municipal water districts, across 4 basins overseen by 7 watermasters. Despite a four-year drought and shrinking snowpack that point to a very dry future for California, Pincetl suggests that L.A. doesn’t have a crisis of water, but rather a crisis of water management. Meanwhile, using an approach that blended political ecology and industrial ecology, Joshua Newell presented a powerful Life Cycle Analysis of the L.A. water system’s energy use, which exposes dramatic differences in energy consumption between the four aqueducts that supply the city. Local groundwater and recycled water don’t come out blameless on the energy use side, and surprisingly it is the LA Aqueduct that stole the water from Owens Valley that comes out on top as least energy-intensive to operate.

These diverse examples all point to a sense that biophysical, cultural and political landscapes are deeply intertwined. Understanding complex infrastructural systems requires thinking across both distance and disciplines. We need to foster collaboration between researchers from engineering, environmental science, economics, design and management both to model complex system performance, and to visualize the impact of these interventions. Effective communication will build a water-savvy public better informed and empowered to make responsible decisions in daily life that have far-reaching environmental impacts. Water management is a challenge of representation, communication, and imagination, and is as urgent today as in the days of thirst and cholera.


PennDesign Launches New Interdisciplinary Journal

LA+ Logo

Landscape architects often point to the interdisciplinary potential of their work, yet too often talk exclusively to other designers. Now comes a new publication from PennDesign that explicitly takes on the interdisciplinary challenge: LA+, as it will be known, will curate each issue through the multiple lenses of varied disciplines plus landscape architecture, all taking on a common topic.

The inaugural issue, to be published this coming Spring, LA+ WILD, explores the resurgent role of the concept of “wildness”—as wildness moves from a passive romantic ideal to an active process of design, involving “rewilding,” large-scale habitat restoration and species conservation, scientific experiments, the construction of novel ecosystems, and wildness’ effect on aesthetics and the human psyche. The issue includes pieces by ecologists, biologists, artists, bioengineers, landscape architects, climatologists, environmental historians, and philosophers, among others. Having seen the list of contributors, we’re very excited for the WILD issue, published and distributed by ORO Editions.

The bi-annual publication has already queued up a number of subsequent issue topics: LA+ PLEASURE, LA+ TYRANNY, and LA+ IDENTITY. Each one will be seeking submissions from a broad range of disciplines to complement the landscape architecture angle, stimulating cross-pollination and inspiration for designers. As Editor-in-Chief Tatum Hands explains, “We wanted to produce something completely different to the usual landscape design journal—which generally just features designers talking to other designers—and truly embrace the rhetoric that landscape architecture is an interdisciplinary field.”

As Richard Weller, the chair of Landscape Architecture at PennDesign describes it, LA+ was conceived to fill a certain void in landscape architectural publishing. “Whilst we have trade magazines on the one hand and refereed academic journals on the other there isn’t much in between and it’s in that space that the contemporary, thinking professional largely exists. Our sense is that there is a large readership who want information that is neither at the level of superficial promotion nor overly academic. So, LA+ seeks to be a bridge between the academy and practice and, most importantly, to link landscape architecture to other disciplines.”

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Book Review: The Petropolis Of Tomorrow

Petropolis of TomorowThe Petropolis of Tomorrow, edited by Neeraj Bhatia and Mary Casper

Off the coast of Brazil, dozens of floating oil rigs mark the first wave of an enormous boom in offshore oil extraction, with 45,000 workers already deployed offshore and more on the way. 70,000 helicopter trips every month ferry workers to and from the mainland. In the coming years, in order to service the drilling operations, the oil industry is expecting to build up to 50 new deep-water platforms, floating far beyond helicopter range. With this expansion, Brazil’s latent offshore oil industry is poised to shake up the region’s laws, economies and geopolitics, and to once again radically reshape the urban form of South America’s biggest nation and its capital city.

The Petropolis of Tomorrow focuses on the technologies, logics, logistics, and architectural possibilities of the floating mechanical islands that will serve this emerging oil boom. Edited by Neeraj Bhatia and Mary Casper, this ambitious book brings together critical essays by a number of architects and theorists, along with architectural projects, which are the products of design studios that Bhatia, now an Assistant Professor at California College of the Arts (CCA), ran at both Rice University and Cornell. Petropolis takes us on a historical and speculative exploration of oil frontiers, outposts, company towns, port cities, and artificial islands — as well as the lines of infrastructure, logistics, and capital that tie them together.

Bhatia is no stranger to infrastructure: as co-director of the research collective InfraNet Lab, founder of The Open Workshop, and co-editor of Bracket [goes soft], his work has revolved around the larger speculative agenda of territory and infrastructure as it relates to architecture.

Can networks and logistics of extraction engender city making? And what does design offer to such places (and presumably the people who live and work there)?

Petropolis explores three main ideas — first, how the idea of floating cities opens up a way to think about architecture that moves beyond objects and towards networks; second, how the geography and use of vast territories take shape around the infrastructures of extraction and production; and third, how the logistics and technical realities of extraction and transmission imprint themselves on cities and landscapes, shaping land use and subsequent urban development.  While the concepts may be heavy, the book explores them through a lush combination of photography, rich narrative, design provocations and critical theory and history — striving at once to introduce the reader to these striking landscapes, and to treat the critical topics with depth.

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