A/D/O by MINI | Interview: Kate Orff

Journal

Architecture

Future Landscapes With Kate Orff

An interview with Kate Orff, the renowned landscape architect, urban ecologist, and winner of a 2017 MacArthur Genius Grant.

I get motivated by fury and frustration.

Kate Orff, the renowned landscape architect, urban ecologist, and winner of a 2017 MacArthur Genius Grant, says from her award-winning landscape architecture firm, SCAPE. Lined with maps of wetlands and waterfronts, colorful overlay sketches, and a slew of eco-architectural publications, SCAPE specializes in designing monumental ecological landscapes that incorporate the realities of changing climates.

“The landscape of America is now essentially in some sort of period of collapse,” Orff says while discussing the motivation behind her book with photographer Richard Misrach, Petrochemical America, an eco-visual analysis of Cancer Alley, a toxic swath of land stretching from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. Her work, and that of SCAPE, is a lot more hopeful than she sounds. The book, which evaluates consumption patterns and landscapes of waste, exemplifies how Orff breaks through professional boundaries to bring attention to and transform landscapes.

Raised in Crofton, Maryland, halfway between Annapolis and D.C., Orff has made a life and career out of synthesizing seemingly disparate areas of inquiry and rupturing the steadfast boundaries that case disciplines and industries. A childhood spent shuttling between her suburban hometown and the Chesapeake Bay — hiking its tidal marshes, coves, and inlets with her father, an engineer and active birdwatcher — provided fertile breeding ground for her appreciation of diverse and thriving ecosystems.

Later on as a UVA undergrad majoring in Social and Political Thought, Orff remembers, she began to think long and hard on a path forward for her diverging academic interests: “I kind of put all the pieces together like, Hey, I'm doing environmental sciences over hereI'm doing fine arts over here; and I'm looking at politics and society over here; and tried to pull those all together around some way of being efficacious in the world.” After grad school, she worked in several landscape architecture firms in San Francisco before moving to New York to start her own office. “I had a studio apartment, I had a Dell computer with a dial-up scanner, and then I had my drawing board under my bed. I’d make my bed and I’d put the drawing board on top of the bed, and then the office was open,” she recalls.   

Orff is as industrious as she is busy, a fact which immediately becomes apparent as she darts from a meeting with her principals, to a quick conference call, to this interview, and then jumps into a 4:30 p.m. check-in with a cohort of designers. Managing an ever-growing portfolio of projects up and down the eastern seaboard and laying the foundations for a new SCAPE outpost in New Orleans leaves little time for dallying. “I’ve got two kids, so when I’m here, I’ve got to get everything done in 10 minutes,” she quips, matter-of-factly.  SCAPE’s work is in high demand.

Orff is, perhaps, most widely known for her project Oyster-tecture, a form of eco-infrastructure that harnesses oysters’ ability to filter polluted water and mitigate the effects of storm surge and sea-level rise through the construction of oyster reefs along the New York City harborline. Almost ten years after its conception, Oyster-tecture is still being widely talked about across multiple disciplines. 

SCAPE’s Living Breakwaters project, which will begin construction this year off the south shore of Staten Island, wields the power of Oyster-tecture in the manufacture of reef-like breakwaters that protect the shore from erosion and wave damage while creating tidal habitats for endangered marine life. In a similar vein, and on the slate as of late 2018, is an initiative to fortify Boston’s waterfront and bolster its resiliency in the face of flooding and extreme, climate-change-induced weather. A sister effort to build out the marsh lowlands surrounding the Gowanus Canal is also currently in development, a landscape retrofit that Orff describes as a model for urban green spaces in the future.     

These kinds of projects require intense periods of research, even before the design process begins, as all landscapes have their own histories. When asked if SCAPE has begun to adopt a decolonial lens with its work — namely, deprioritizing Western settler narratives of American landscapes and incorporating the histories and knowledge systems of indigenous populations of North America — she asserts that it’s becoming more and more of an active part of their research. One that requires “empathy and seriousness and mindfulness in the face of what was essentially a story of genocide. [...] Our relationship to land needs a lot more thought and dialogue.”

At heart, Orff is committed not only to utilizing the tools of design and architecture to achieve future-minded, ecologically-sustainable public goods but also to building a greater sense of eco-citizenship at every level of governance — from the individual and local, state, and federal levels to a global one. Driving less, consuming less plastic, not flushing your toilet when it’s raining to prevent freshwater contamination — all are crucial actions individuals can take to reduce their own ecological impact. 

Yet, Orff is clear that without macro-scale solutions, the kind of transformation needed to stave off climate disaster, will not happen. Such interventions could involve financial incentives to help consumers make sustainable choices and global frameworks for carbon capture, emissions, and carbon taxes. But there’s also a greater narrative shift that needs to occur: “I think there's this sense that, with climate change, there are going to be economic winners and economic losers; and I feel like that is the government's role to ensure that that is not the only path forward.” 

According to Orff, there is a fair amount of political and financial will at the state and local levels in New York, especially in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, to fund sustainable and preventative environmental initiatives, including the Rebuild By Design Competition, of which SCAPE was a winner. However, she’s still increasingly concerned about New York City’s ecological health at large. “Something that keeps me up at night is the vanishing intertidal landscape. We are on the brink of ecological collapse and the extreme loss of biodiversity.” Wetlands, according to Orff, can usually keep up with the pace of change in landscape; however, with sea-level rise projected to speed up over the next few decades, Orff’s predictions for New York’s marshlands are grim. Were she to drop everything — and have an unlimited amount of time and money — this would be the one project she’d work on. 

Working day-in-and-day-out with such realities, how does she mitigate her own climate-change anxiety? 

“I have incredible sadness and just this feeling of loss. So I try to channel that in productive ways.” She pauses and smirks, “Into positive rage.”

Text By Meredith Lawder

Images By Justin Ryan Kim