ArchitectureBoston

Tectonic Shift

Posted in Vol 13 No 3 by bsaab on August 4, 2010

The High Line, Manhattan.

By tackling some of the most daunting problems of the city, landscape architects are rising to new prominence.

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Elizabeth Padjen: The last time ArchitectureBoston devoted an entire issue to landscape architecture was in 2003; our roundtable discussion was titled “Burying Olmsted.” At that time, much of the buzz in the profession was focused on what might be called the artful landscape: landscape cum art installation. But the participants in that roundtable also mentioned Millennium Park in West Roxbury — where soil from the Big Dig was used to cap an old landfill — as an example of cutting-edge thinking about ecological landscapes, and they bemoaned the lack of attention such projects were receiving. It’s astonishing to see how the profession has changed in just seven years — not only in terms of the kinds of projects that are gaining wide recognition, but also in terms of a new focus and a new energy. Terms such as landscape urbanism, ecological urbanism, and agricultural urbanism are now commonplace and are even leaking into the public lexicon. One of our editorial board members recently stated, “Landscape is suddenly the most relevant player.” Let’s start by talking about this new excitement. Where does it come from?

David Gamble: More and more, the public recognizes the fragility of the environment — look at the recent floods in Nashville and the oil spill in the Gulf. Part of the landscape profession’s rise to the top is due to the general recognition by the public that landscapes are living organisms and that we need to think very carefully about how we inhabit our environment. This increase in consciousness has helped landscape architecture play a much larger role in the public’s eye than it might have otherwise.

Laura Solano: Landscape architects are especially skilled in understanding systems, and that’s why we are deeply involved in this search for an ecologically responsible life. It’s easy to say that this focus has suddenly boiled up, but in fact, it’s been a long time coming. Frederick Law Olmsted, in the 19th century, understood systems perfectly; his talents were multivalent: he was a civil engineer, a surveyor, and an author, as well as a landscape architect. In the early to mid-20th century, Jens Jensen and Aldo Leopold were writing about these issues, but there wasn’t an audience. And then Ian McHarg blew the doors open in 1969 by introducing the idea of ecological planning.

Wendi Goldsmith: Olmsted espoused the merit of Central Park long before other people ever imagined today’s development pressures. Yet he rallied people behind a vision and was very clear about doing it for reasons of air quality, exercise, civic interaction, and creating a shared space that would reinforce community. His design of Boston’s Emerald Necklace was intended to solve some very practical stormwater flooding management problems. Both projects place landscape architecture at the foundation of what we now call sustainable community design.

Shauna Gillies-Smith: The public has long understood that landscape architects work with living elements. But a recent and significant shift is that we are starting to realize that cities are also living organisms, so the systematic thinking that has been part of the landscape discipline is now being translated to new strategies for the urban condition as well.

Jill Desimini: And of course, landscape architects bring an understanding of people and the designed experience. That means they are skilled at making spaces that work for their inhabitants that also address the complexities of urban, ecological, and infrastructural systems.

 

Simcoe and Rees WaveDecks, Toronto.

Simcoe and Rees WaveDecks, Toronto, part of a series of three multifunctional public walkways along the waterfront. Designer: West 8 + DTAH. Photos © West 8 urban design & landscape architecture.

Architecture and Landscape Architecture

Elizabeth Padjen: The tectonic plates of the design professions seem to be shifting. I wonder if the rise of landscape architecture means that something has changed in the ligatures that tie the professions together or if it’s evidence of fundamental differences in the ways that the disciplines respond to the challenges of the world today.

David Gamble: It’s partly because of the vacuum created by the departure of the architects. Architects haven’t been thinking about larger-scale connections and about relationships to key topographic and environmental conditions or special places in cities in which the landscape is really what’s most valued. Landscape architects have found a way to take over much of that territory by engaging themselves directly in those issues.

Jill Desimini: We like to think of projects as functioning in many ways — socially, economically, environmentally — apart from how they look. Of course, many architects do, too. But, having been trained in both architecture and landscape architecture, I would say there is a real difference in the complexity of the landscape medium and the ways in which landscape architects think about how various systems might come together. A good example is the project by Stoss for the Lower Don River in Toronto. A traditional urban-design approach might have considered the river as an entity to be squeezed into an urban fabric. Instead, Stoss asked, What does this kind of river need in order to function? The designers weren’t trying to adapt it to the city fabric and then figure out how to deal with the flooding that comes later. The challenge became how to structure the city and the neighborhood around the river. If you give the river the kind of mouth that it needs, if you understand that you’ll have fluctuating water levels, then you start to think in terms of different types of land use and you can start to develop a set of performance criteria both for the river and for the neighborhood and open spaces. Various elements start to work on multiple levels but also together in a unified, sustainable whole.

Laura Solano: The example of designing for fluctuating water levels underscores an important distinction between architecture and landscape architecture, which is that architecture usually doesn’t have to deal with something that is inherent to landscape: change, which is the driver for all natural systems, for better or worse. The arc of time and change are fundamentally different factors in the landscape design process.

The emphasis in landscape urbanism should be on the urbanism. Jill Desimini

Shauna Gillies-Smith: Something that makes landscape architecture particularly resonant right now is its verb-like quality, in comparison with some earlier, more architecture-oriented urban models, like New Urbanism — all very intelligent, but really about organizing a city or town around a more static structure. Contemporary landscape architecture is much more interested in the systems and the forces and the flows, so it is a more active approach toward designing landscapes and urban systems. As we start to re-recognize that we are connected to the larger ecological world, we realize we need a model that can respond to an ever-changing world, not just one in crisis.

Wendi Goldsmith: I think that’s right. The whole green design movement started with a focus on energy systems within the building: insulation and the efficiency of HVAC systems. And then, bit by bit, it grew to include water use, glazing, building positioning, which then evolved into new ideas about things like light and lighting, water conservation and reuse, and integrating graywater management with building plumbing. Fairly quickly, sustainable design started to bleed into the landscape and to encompass infrastructure, including power generation, and people began to understand that it’s not just about the building and what goes on inside it: We need to look at what goes on outside, on site, and what goes on beyond the site. Now we’re thinking about buildings in relation to the grid, to watersheds, and to water supplies. What I am observing is a new relationship, maybe eventually a new field, where science and engineering and landscape design all merge. Our society is just beginning to recognize the value in such an approach.

 

The Connecticut Water Treatment Facility in New Haven, Connecticut.

The Connecticut Water Treatment Facility in New Haven, Connecticut, contributes to a larger ecological and open-space system. Steven Holl Architects. Photo by Paul Warchol.

Urban Design and Landscape Architecture

Shauna Gillies-Smith: Landscape typologies have evolved to a fair degree, and landscape architects today feel that they can take on a much larger territory than was their traditional purview: designs for entire regions or decommissioned airports or large post-industrial sites or whole infrastructure projects. That’s by necessity, because landscape systems don’t end at the property line. I always have a hard time making the distinction between landscape architecture and urban design, probably because I’ve been trained in both fields, but I think that is one area where they are different: It’s very hard to put a circle around what defines a landscape.

Elizabeth Padjen: Is the landscape architect encroaching on the traditional turf of the urban designer? Do you envision the end of urban design as a discipline, perhaps being absorbed by landscape architecture?

Shauna Gillies-Smith: That could be a very politically dangerous idea to agree or disagree with, depending on your perspective. Clearly, both disciplines will continue to evolve. I just finished teaching what turned out to be a very exciting studio. It was called an urban design project, but it addressed landscape, ecology, and environmental dynamics. The project site was on a floodplain with a daily tidal fluctuation of about six feet; we also projected an additional rising water level of six feet over 100 years. So the students had to think simultaneously about accommodating fluctuating water levels and about creating urbanism. Typically, when we think of zoning, we think of it in a horizontal way, or as vertical envelopes of height limits. But the most critical aspect of this project was the first 10 feet of the city. The challenge was to design that sectional relationship intelligently, to foster a vibrant urban life on a ground plain that must accommodate so much natural variation.

Architects haven’t been thinking about larger-scale connections and relationships to topographic and environmental conditions. Landscape architects have found a way to take over much of that territory. David Gamble AIA, AICP

David Gamble: The design professions in general have done themselves a disservice in trying to delineate distinct territories and in believing that a project needs to begin with the urban planner, then go to the urban designer, then the architect, then the landscape architect, and so on. That type of linear thinking is one reason why we haven’t been able to foster strong interdisciplinary collaborations. Major design competitions around the world now tend to be dominated by teams including very diverse disciplines, such as landscape architects, planners, economists, and historic preservation architects, because there is so much interdisciplinary discussion that needs to occur when you look at complex urban areas. I do think that the architecture profession today has much greater respect for a landscape architect’s sense of process than it did a generation ago. The work I’m doing in China now as an architect is entirely in the service of a landscape-architecture firm that is planning large regions of the country. It’s a scenario that stems in part from the client’s intuitive understanding of the nature of their ecosystems and the desire to work with their natural settings, which requires the landscape architect’s understanding of geography and place.

Laura Solano: And that’s not an unusual scenario anymore. Clients are unbelievably sophisticated now, and they do their homework in terms of the composition of the teams they hire. In my office, we are the prime for about 80 percent of our work, big and small. Many of our teams have 12 or 15 consultants, often representing narrow areas of expertise: planners, architects, historians, ecologists, soil scientists, hydrologists, and biologists. Strong collaborations offer tremendous educational opportunities.

 

Teardrop Park at Battery Park City, Manhattan.

Teardrop Park at Battery Park City, Manhattan, incorporates organic soils and uses graywater and stormwater for irrigation. Landscape architect: Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates. Photo by Paul Warchol.

Landscape Urbanism

Elizabeth Padjen: Landscape urbanism is at least partly responsible for the profession’s new energy. What exactly does it mean?

Laura Solano: Charles Waldheim, who is now the chair of the department of landscape architecture at Harvard, coined the term. He has said: “Landscape urbanism describes a disciplinary realignment currently underway, in which landscape replaces architecture as the basic building block of contemporary urbanism.”

Elizabeth Padjen: That’s a shot across the bow. What are some examples?

Jill Desimini: I’d like to respond first by saying that at the core of landscape urbanism is the idea that looking at, understanding, and designing urban processes will lead to making a new kind of city that is capable both of self-regenerating and of changing the way we experience the place we live. The emphasis in landscape urbanism should be on the urbanism. With that in mind, I would point to Toronto, which has hired a number of landscape architects as leads for very big projects that are changing that city, especially the waterfront. These include West 8’s reconfiguration of the central waterfront, work by Field Operations on Lake Ontario Park, and the design by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates for the Lower Don Lands as a new metropolitan precinct. Landscape architects are also working on large projects in other cities. New York’s Freshkills Park project — the transformation of 2,200 acres of landfill on Staten Island into a new public park and urban habitat by Field Operations — is another example of an innovative approach to revitalizing and repurposing a piece of the urban fabric. The key now is to focus even more on the design of the city itself. Landscape urbanism positions landscape and landscape methods as a driver for urban infrastructural change.

David Gamble: Part of the momentum also comes from the shifting economics of cities. More and more cities over the last generation have been looking to old industrial sites or waterfronts as places to grow; large parks become the catalysts that drive economic redevelopment.

Elizabeth Padjen: But the idea of landscape, particularly in the form of public parks and open spaces, as a catalyst for development isn’t new. You can even find it codified in the 16th-century Spanish Laws of the Indies that was the basis for town planning in the Spanish colonies: put the square in the middle of the town and build out around it. What’s different?

Shauna Gillies-Smith: Landscape urbanism takes another approach — more profound in some ways — and looks at a larger force, a river, for example, as a generator of urban form and urban typology.

Jill Desimini: David is right that many cities are revitalizing industrial sites, and a lot of them are on waterfronts and thus have an ecological component. The difference is that landscape urbanism starts with looking at these sites in terms of the environmental systems that can serve as generators for the project.

Laura Solano: It’s about healing: taking derelict or brownfield sites and making them useful. We take a piece of land that nobody cares about any more, and turn it into something that people can identify as a place that has personal meaning and community value.

Shauna Gillies-Smith: I think it’s important to not conflate landscape and parks. It’s true that the idea of building a public park that is a catalyst for development is an old trick. But only part of landscape is parks. Part of it is plazas. Part of it is open space. And part of it is the system of stormwater management that gets built into our streets, into our yards, into our housing units. What is exciting about landscape urbanism is that it can define new types of space that not only accommodate ecological systems, but also define ways that we as individuals can relate to landscape and to ourselves in different ways.

Wendi Goldsmith: Not long ago, the words “landscape urbanism” would have sounded like an oxymoron. We worked on a project recently with Laura’s firm and with the architect Steve Holl that is a perfect example of this change in thinking. This project involves brownfields restoration, a large public-works facility including a major green-roof project, the preservation of some public open space, and programming that includes a significant public education and events component — all while making very tangible contributions to natural habitats in the south-central Connecticut region. It completely merges architecture and engineering and landscape architecture. I can’t think of any earlier examples in the US with the same level of interdisciplinary entanglement. The hydrology of the site accommodates these major functional components, but reverts the site back to its pre-development “water budget” in terms of its hydrological performance. So there’s this incredible melding of function and beauty and education that also transforms a stigmatized landscape into something that sets the stage for a new pattern of development in the region.

 

The Schools

David Gamble: A number of design schools have been very strategic about raising the profile of landscape architecture within the school, which is reverberating within the field itself. More landscape-architecture programs are opening up, in part because some leaders in the profession are finding ways to excite a new generation of students who want to shape the physical environment. They’re raising the profile of the profession from within the academic community.

Elizabeth Padjen: Conversely, the schools must also be responding to a market interest.

Shauna Gillies-Smith: All of us who are in academia know that it’s the students who are really driving the sustainability agenda. No question about it. And that generation’s interest in the environment is one of the really big pushes behind recognizing, first of all, that our world isn’t static and, second, that we need to find a different way of working with it instead of against it.

Laura Solano: One of my students gave a presentation on a recent project in Korea that turned 600 acres of landfill into a park. The park ended up as a reflection of the trash pile: it was essentially a pyramid with the top cut off. This student’s discussion centered around what might have happened instead if a landscape architect had been involved from the beginning: there would have been a grading plan for placing trash, there would have been systems to promote decomposition, and the nearby wetlands would have been engineered to support a river watershed. These kinds of issues capture the attention of students; they know that there are huge problems to solve, and they know the answers lie in innovation.

 

Rose Kennedy Greenway

Elizabeth Padjen: Let’s say that, instead of having just been completed, the Greenway project is just now in the concept phase and the initial planning has been undertaken by a team of landscape urbanists. What are some of the substantive changes we’d be seeing?

Shauna Gillies-Smith: One obvious answer is that there would be a very clear, probably somewhat artful but potentially also didactic, approach to stormwater, so that one would actually see how water is moved and treated. We would probably also see some form of urban agriculture — not necessarily community gardens, but perhaps some form of urban foraging.

David Gamble: I suspect that the engineering for the tunnels would be done in the service of a much larger vision of connectivity and continuity. Whatever you think about whether or not there should be development along the Greenway, there is still a very painful sense that it is not as robust in its role as it should be.

It is important to recognize the significance of the constructed landscape. Most people think of landscape as the backyard garden or the national parks. Shauna Gillies-Smith ASLA

Jill Desimini: It could perform in so many different ways. It could even have a greater social or economic agenda. Right now, it’s very neutral, and there’s nothing very neutral about a landscape-urbanist vision.

Shauna Gillies-Smith: Thinking of it as a landscape in isolation — what you would do to decorate the top of the tunnel — is fundamentally not a landscape-urbanist approach. Thinking of the whole tunnel and the buildings along each edge in conjunction with the landscape, ecology, and the social program is much more appropriate to a landscape-urbanist approach.

Laura Solano: There have been so many disastrous tries at linking architecture and landscape along the Greenway; it suffers for a lack of integration. But I’m convinced that, over time, it’s going to be redone, because we know it’s not right. The Greenway Conservancy is doing some useful and valuable things, like organic maintenance and developing a tree farm to supply trees for the Greenway, but management can’t fix the things that are inherently wrong with it.

Wendi Goldsmith: This is a case where some of the most important concerns were put last on the list. Lots of people other than landscape architects, let alone landscape urbanists, were calling the shots. And so, many other aspects of the project crystallized before there was actually anything resembling a final program for how the Greenway would operate, or how it would look and function.

David Gamble: The Greenway has served a purpose of sorts. All across the country, cities are facing similar problems of deteriorating highways and infrastructure and are recognizing the value of trying, even at a smaller scale, to take advantage of new opportunities to reconnect their cities. Other cities will learn some lessons from what happened in Boston and try to do it in a more synthetic way.

Elizabeth Padjen: If we were to re-do the Greenway now, I suspect we would keep part of the superstructure of the old Artery and rework it as an artifact or walkway.

Laura Solano: I agree with you. There was something sublime about driving up over the city streets.

Shauna Gillies-Smith: That sublime quality is one of the appeals of New York’s High Line, along with a nostalgia for the big old industrial superstructure as you’re floating through the city. And the elements are beautiful: the furniture is beautiful, the planking is clever and smart, and the planting is rich and a strong contrast to the more controlled environment. There’s no question that the High Line would have influenced thinking about the opportunities for the Greenway.

 

Burying Olmsted, Again

Shauna Gillies-Smith: I want to re-visit the idea of burying Olmsted, because it is important to recognize the significance of the constructed landscape. Part of the interest for me in the High Line isn’t so much the aesthetic of it, although it’s an amazing place, but that it calls into question what landscape is, and it calls into question the naturalization of landscape. When most people think of landscape, they usually think of the backyard garden or the national-park backgrounds in TV ads for SUVs. But by recognizing that what we are creating in both our green spaces and our hard spaces is a constructed landscape, we are held to a different standard. Our roads are landscape: they are designed landscapes. Our sidewalks, our traffic medians, our rooftops are designed landscapes. We learn to ignore them. But there is a lot of economic and design investment in all of those elements. The importance of burying Olmsted is that we need to recognize that our landscape is completely constructed, and that consequently, both our landscape and our work as designers must be held accountable.

Top: The High Line, the transformation of a 1.45-mile-long elevated freight rail line into a public park on Manhattan’s West Side. Designers: Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Photo by M. Altamura.

Groundswell

Posted in Vol 13 No 3 by bsaab on August 4, 2010

Competition proposal for the Lower Don Lands project in Toronto by Stoss.

The rise of landscape urbanism

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Jeff Stein: For centuries, architects have been making buildings and cities — designing what are literally the building blocks of urban environments. Today, as architects talk about greening the cities, their focus is still essentially on those building blocks. But lo, here comes the notion of landscape urbanism, which suggests a completely different approach to the urban environment: the city as a living thing. This sounds like the beginnings of the right solution at the right time.

Charles Waldheim: Landscape urbanism began about 15 years ago as a way of trying to describe what was already going on within urban design and landscape practices. The primary complaint has been that landscape architects are taking market-share away from urban designers and planners, but frankly, the urban design and planning realm has been slow to recognize the increasing importance of environmental factors.

Jeff Stein: Of course, urban design itself is a fairly new discipline, starting in this country after World War II, and using Mediterranean cities of the classical world as precedent — cities that sometimes aren’t the best working models for cold climates like ours.

Charles Waldheim: Urban design, to describe the discipline very simply, proposed that the city was an aggregation of buildings. Architecture was seen as fundamental to the city not only as a kind of spatial construct but also as a social and cultural one: If we could get enough buildings organized in a sympathetic way, then we might aspire to the city as a cultural form.

Jeff Stein: Even though automobile-related media — streets and roads and parking lots — in American cities take up as much as 50 percent of the ground plain.

Charles Waldheim: That’s actually the basis for one of the critiques of current planning practice that has come out of landscape urbanism. If you have a culture that is fundamentally automobile-based, then an urban model that is anti-automobile is counterintuitive at best. There’s a strange precept these days that asserts that people will abandon their cars if we simply build cities that don’t accommodate them.

Jeff Stein: Is it fair, then, to say that landscape urbanism isn’t design-based? Landscape urbanism talks about process, a framework for looking at the city as a living, changeable entity.

Charles Waldheim: I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s not about design, but it is a different medium. Instead of using buildings as the medium of design, we’re using landscapes. That means infrastructure, public space, open space. But part of what you say is true: it’s much more comfortable with open-endedness. It argues for ceding certain forms of control to other kinds of controls. For example, landscape urbanism would argue against controlling the heights of buildings and maintaining the continuity of the street wall, which are tropes that come out of an idea about urbanism that overstates the social and environmental benefits of density. Density is a correlate of economic orders: mass automobility, decentralized industrial networks, and private land ownership rights have driven urban form in North America toward lower density.

Jeff Stein: It’s true that creating density can be difficult when many American cities are shrinking, especially those in the Midwest. Cleveland and St. Louis are both half the size they were 40 years ago, and Detroit — where you did some work early in your career — is the poster child for the shrinking city; it is actually demolishing buildings.

Charles Waldheim: If our model of urbanism depends upon aggregating buildings for its spatial framework, then it is fundamentally problematic that most of us live in the suburbs. Detroit became a very useful venue for my research when I was teaching at the University of Michigan: little serious work had been done on it, and it was a great example of how an industrial economy drives a form of spatiality. Detroit allows us to look at the story of globalization, economic shifts, and the spatialization of economic powers. The majority of metropolitan Detroit’s population of five million lives in the suburbs in a relatively affluent condition; the population of the city itself has shrunk by half or more and is economically struggling. The idea of shaping the city through buildings doesn’t make much sense, so Detroit has become a good case study for thinking about landscape urbanism in terms of urban shrinkage. Shrinking cities have been largely an academic concern in the United States, but they have been taken up by the German federal government post-reunification. In fact, the Germans have done the most work on shrinking cities, from both the ecological and the design side, and have funded serious high-level federal research.

Planning bureaucracies are often fighting the last war, if not two or three wars ago. Charles Waldheim

Jeff Stein: It seems that much of landscape urbanism is focused not on inner cities but on that edge between the densely urbanized center-city and the semi-rural suburb, in which office parks and manufacturing facilities have come and gone, leaving behind brownfields and empty parking lots.

Charles Waldheim: One of the reasons landscape urbanism took hold was that it could be useful as a generalized theory of urbanism in the contexts of both shrinking cities and suburbanization. If automobility is the baseline for your culture; if the majority of the population doesn’t live in cities but in suburbs; if you have a culture in which buildings are increasingly disposable because they are of less and less cultural and material value; then landscape emerges as the spatial medium in which you need to work. It used to be that corporations listed buildings as assets and, of course, they still do on financial statements. But they rarely see them as civic assets any more. In the ’70s and ’80s, signature buildings on the skyline were associated with corporate identity. Then, with the increase in mergers and acquisitions, corporate identities started to change so fast that investments in buildings, especially to promote corporate identity, made less sense. We have the case of the Sears tower, for example, which is no longer about Sears.

Jeff Stein: Or, in Boston, the John Hancock tower.

Charles Waldheim: Right. So now we see corporations pulling their names off buildings and onto stadia because you can buy and sell the naming rights to a stadium irrespective of where your front office is. The flux of capital is happening so much faster than the rate at which buildings change, that it’s very difficult to make buildings the kind of iconic civic signifiers that they used to be.

Jeff Stein: And in fact, many of our civic signifiers — those things that somehow define or enrich or give value to the public realm — don’t seem to work as they once did. For example, landscape urbanism seems to focus on the creation of public space, yet what is meant to go on in that public space? How do we make it viable and meaningful when so many people connect to one another and to events electronically rather than physically? You mentioned the increasing rate of change. How do you design for an indeterminate urban future?

Charles Waldheim: Certainly one of the challenges of landscape urbanism has been this notion that we’ve somehow lost the capacity to project desirable public futures apart from private capital sources. You could say the canonical works of landscape urbanism come from the European welfare state: their high-speed rail systems or the Dutch dike systems — big infrastructure projects in which there’s a landscape or ecological component. But in North America, we’ve generally lost faith in the ability of public institutions to deliver public space. Increasingly, we rely on private development — in the form of both the philanthropic donor culture and private real-estate development — to deliver not only private space but also the public realm. Landscape urbanism tries to grapple with that, but also suggests that we can have new forms of public spaces that derive from actual city-making, with a strong environmental component addressing environmental toxicity, brownfield sites, and the complexity of climate change. They don’t have to look like a 19th-century city, which has been one of the limitations of the discourse around urban design. And in a context where we don’t have strong leverage over landowners, in which municipalities are competing with each other for scarce tax revenue, and in which capital is increasingly mobile, the challenges are real.

Jeff Stein: Beyond its design implications, landscape urbanism relies on some meaningful science, especially in terms of environmental and ecological systems. The Boston Architectural College is working on a green alley project behind our building. Not only will it lessen the heat-island effect in that spot on a sunny day, but it will also help to recharge the groundwater under the Back Bay. We think of it as a little bit of landscape urbanism.

Charles Waldheim: Part of the appeal of landscape urbanism is its comfort with incompletion: small-scale projects such as yours can aggregate and eventually make a difference. Other theories of urbanism or design have tended to need great unifying gestures or continuity. We do have quite a lot of science available. Adapting it to the urban environment — for example, restoring ecological diversity — can be a challenge. That said, I would say that the greater challenge is that we must work within a policy framework and with public-sector planning bureaucracies that are often fighting the last war, if not two or three wars ago. So a part of my goal is to educate professionals who can work across these boundaries.

Jeff Stein: What are the possibilities for this sort of undertaking in the realm of professional practice? Are we doing more than just talking about them? Are there actual projects that reflect this approach?

Charles Waldheim: These are not theories that we invent in the academy and then try to throw into practice. Quite the reverse: a part of landscape urbanism is trying to theorize, after the fact, transformations that have already happened in practice. Over the last 20 years, as architects and urban designers struggled with urban form, complex remediation techniques, ecological challenges, and sustainable building techniques, landscape architects were increasingly recognized for the skill set that they bring to the project team. I realized landscape urbanism was going to take off when I saw that, if you were in the suburbs outside St. Louis or Chicago, and you had 15 professionals in your firm, and if you were doing what urban planners used to do, you were probably a landscape architect. There’s a whole generation of planners who are no longer physical designers, because post-’68, the planning discipline largely abandoned physical planning.

Jeff Stein: It became refereeing.

Charles Waldheim: Yes — it focused on policy and public process and a lot of other important things. But in that tradeoff, planners no longer had the ability or the interest or aptitude, generally speaking, to deal with spatial issues. Urban designers were very committed to a particular model of the 19th-century city, and therefore weren’t comfortable with or weren’t suited to the problems of the places where most of us lived and worked: the suburbs. So landscape architects emerged to take that on, without any kind of fanfare or theory behind them, just on a day-to-day basis.

Jeff Stein: It’s interesting that you yourself are actually an architect. And here you are now, in charge of a landscape program.

Charles Waldheim: My own career path is kind of an exception. But it’s also true that the majority of the proponents of landscape urbanism are doubly trained; I would even say it is a characteristic. They often share a combination of training in ecology or landscape and a training in high architectural culture. Chris Reed [Stoss] would be in that list, as would James Corner [Field Operations] and Adriaan Geuze [West 8].

Jeff Stein: You were an architecture student at the University of Pennsylvania, which was home to Ian McHarg, the landscape architect who is widely credited with making connections among landscape architecture, planning, and the environment. Were you one of his students?

Charles Waldheim: He was a professor emeritus, retired but still in the building, although I never studied with him. It was a very interesting place just then, with a range of people talking about the city from different points of view and different disciplinary frameworks. But Ian’s work is undoubtedly what people have in mind when they pose one of the most important questions about landscape urbanism: Well, isn’t this just what we’ve been trying to do for 50 years? Haven’t we been aspiring to make better planning decisions, better spatial decisions, about environmental forms for the social justice of our cities? And I would say yes, but the great heroic Modernists — Ian McHarg at the University of Pennsylvania, Carl Steinitz at Harvard, and others — tended to spatialize ecological data with the expectation that we would make better planning decisions. Those projects have been wildly successful, but they’ve run into something of a dead end because, broadly speaking, we’ve decided not to plan any longer. Ian’s work on regional ecological planning — the McHarg project, let’s call it — benefited enormously from the idea of the welfare state and the understanding that the public sector would use its ability to take land and to organize space. It’s one of the great ironies — or perhaps one of the great tragedies — of the McHarg project that the moment that his work began to flourish in the late ’60s to early ’70s was precisely the same moment when we began to dismantle the welfare state in North America. We now have more ecological knowledge than we’ve ever had, more scientific knowledge, more ability to apply spatial reasoning, yet we somehow lack the ability as a culture, at least in the US, to make spatial decisions.

Jeff Stein: We do have more ecological knowledge and understanding, but I would add that it’s not confined to trained professionals. Americans in general have a broader and more sophisticated understanding of these issues today.

Charles Waldheim: And the rising general literacy and interest in environmental and ecological topics have certainly supported this. But I would also stress that landscape urbanism was developed in some ways as a direct critique of New Urbanism.

Jeff Stein: I’ve noticed in the literature put out by the Congress for the New Urbanism that they themselves embrace landscape urbanism. Yet they’re still, it seems to me, mired in the picturesque. Landscape urbanism is more about — I hate to use these terms directly adjacent to each other — design science. There’s a scientific basis for this work that brings a level of complexity to the understanding of the city that we haven’t quite had before.

Charles Waldheim: That’s a fair assessment. We used to consider environmental science as separate from design culture. Among the strange bedfellows of the present day are these hybrids, and landscape urbanism is one of them, where design culture intersects with ecological knowledge, a combination of two things. This is the essential difference from previous similar forms of practice. In the past, there was a desire for the divergence and professionalization of separate realms. It’s certainly true that in the 19th-century understanding of landscape — if you look at the Back Bay Fens or Olmsted’s work in Central Park, for example — you see that landscapes and parks were perceived to be an exception to the city. The pastoral, picturesque landscape tradition in America is characterized by the park as a place apart from the city, both morally and physically. Whereas landscape urbanism argues quite the contrary, that the city is itself a place of natural flows, and human beings are embedded in those flows. Landscape urbanism is much more interested in the synthesis between models of the natural world and the shape of the city, as opposed to a contrast between the city and the natural world.

Jeff Stein: That was the sort of thing that McHarg was doing, though. He made the distinction between city and country.

Charles Waldheim: I think this is actually one of the great limitations of that model, in addition to its vulnerability because of its dependence on the welfare-state public-planning bureaucracy. The McHarg project was very good about deciding where not to build, and then identifying certain places where one could build, but McHarg rarely got to the precise characterization of how to build and in what forms. So he persisted with this idea that there was city and not-city, and of course the moral story was all too simple: the city is bad and the not-city is not bad. We’re fatigued these days with that kind of simple morality tale.

Jeff Stein: Almost every publication about landscape urbanism mentions that you coined the term in the early 1990s. Yet you talk about others, James Corner comes to mind, who were doing work on this before you. There’s a certain continuity that you fit into.

Charles Waldheim: It’s intellectually honest, but also good etiquette, to acknowledge one’s debt to those who went before. There were Europeans who were writing — significantly, in English — about why landscape was important in the American city; there was also a similar interesting discourse in Australia. Mohsen Mostafavi, now the dean at the GSD, and James Corner at Penn were also trying to describe this thing. From my perspective, I’m happily surprised that anybody paid attention to this marginal academic exercise. Now we are seeing an interest in ecological urbanism, which represents both a critique of the failings of landscape urbanism and a continuation of its aims, in perhaps more precise terms.

Jeff Stein: The GSD has been trying intently to develop landscape architecture as a powerful intellectual discipline.

Charles Waldheim: This department is the oldest and most distinguished of its kind in the world — I’m not being boosterish, because that’s objectively true. So my appointment was an enormous honor.

Jeff Stein: You want to move it forward. Which way is forward?

Charles Waldheim: My appointment was one of four made in the past year; Chris Reed, Pierre Belanger, and Anita Berrizbeitia have joined me, and we will make six new appointments this coming year. For a very small department to have 10 new hires in the space of two years, especially in this economic climate, is I think without precedent. So, without making any claims about what we’re going to do next, I would say, stay tuned. Because if you can arrange 10 new hires in a relatively small field, something interesting is likely to happen.

Above: The competition proposal for the Lower Don Lands project in Toronto by Stoss (Chris Reed, principal) incorporates principles of landscape urbanism to revitalize a waterfront district at the mouth of the Don River. Rendering © Stoss.

Political Science

Posted in Vol 13 No 2 by bsaab on April 28, 2010

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Can one river change the world? With the science and political skill behind the Charles River Watershed Association, you wouldn’t bet against it.

Jay Wickersham: As a former headmaster with a degree in Middle English, you have certainly followed an unusual career path. You are now one of the leading authorities on water issues in this region, and your organization, the Charles River Watershed Association, is similarly known today for its leadership in statewide environmental policy. How did that transition occur?

Bob Zimmerman: Curiosity, I guess. That and the fact that there were about six jobs available in the US at the time. I got into water policy after I joined CRWA as executive director in 1990. Looking back, I would say that I was fairly naïve as far as environmental nonprofits were concerned. I thought that everybody knew what was wrong with the environment, that the only question was finding the will and the funding necessary to go out and fix it. I quickly became aware that that’s not the case.

Photo by Christine Fernsebner Eslao

Photo by Christine Fernsebner Eslao

I attended lots of extremely contentious meetings with federal and state agencies, municipalities, and consulting firms about combined sewer overflows [CSOs], a function of stormwater and wastewater using the same pipes and overflowing into the river and harbor when the stormwater volume is too great for the pipes to handle. It became very clear that there was this notion that the Charles River had always been dirty — the “ambient pollution” theory — so it wouldn’t really matter if the CSOs were cleaned up because the river would still not meet any water-quality standards. It occurred to me that perhaps we needed to take a broader look, so we launched the Integrated Monitoring, Modeling, and Management project in late 1994, to figure out how the Charles watershed really works. Where does the water come from? How does it get in the river? Where are the sources of its pollution? How do they all mix? When things go bad, why do they go bad? That’s remained the focus of the organization ever since.

CRWA has become a unique regional watershed organization; I don’t believe there’s another like it in the country. It has its own engineering and science staff and legal capability, and virtually all of the work we do is based on our own science and computer-modeling capabilities. Since 1995, we’ve been monitoring every two miles of the Charles River every month, so we have a fairly deep and broad dataset. It’s pretty easy for us to figure out whether our actions are making the river better or worse, or if things are staying the same.

Jay Wickersham: Can you talk more about this concept of a watershed? People think of themselves as residents of a particular city or town, but most probably don’t even know what watershed they live in. Why have you chosen a watershed as a territory to watch over and defend?

Bob Zimmerman: From an environmental perspective, a watershed is that area of land that can be expected to survive pretty much on its own as long as there is rain. In the case of the Charles, it’s the 308 square miles of land that drains to the Charles River. The nice thing about the Charles is that it’s only 80 miles long. So it’s relatively easy to study and to understand the interactions between humans and nature and the issues that we create. A lot of the work that we do is applicable to virtually any urban river system in the world.

Jay Wickersham: The Charles has long been associated in the public mind with severe pollution. Back in 1995, EPA regional administrator John DeVillars announced a goal that within 10 years, the Charles River would be fishable and swimmable; a year later, then-governor William Weld made his famous dive into the river to underscore the state’s commitment to the goal. We’re now five years past DeVillars’ deadline. How are we doing?

Bob Zimmerman: Currently, the river meets the swimming standard in the 10 miles of the lower basin up to 70 percent of the time, and the boating standard, which is five times lower than the swimming standard, virtually 100 percent of the time. Polluted runoff during wet weather is the remaining big issue.

Early on, assumptions about pollution in the river were driven by the mistaken notion that a tremendous amount of raw sewage from the entire watershed was coming over the Watertown Dam into the lower basin. Our monitoring showed that one outfall, slightly upstream in Watertown, was continuously dumping raw sewage into the river — a number of buildings had illegal cross-connections tying into a storm drain instead of a sanitary sewer. Once that was fixed, it became clear that most of the sources of the problems in the lower basin could be found in the lower basin itself: combined sewer overflows, sanitary sewer overflows, illegal cross-connections, collapsed interceptor pipes — failed infrastructure all. In the first three years of the DeVillars initiative, a million and a half gallons a day of raw waste dumping directly into the river was eliminated — a huge impact on water quality.

Jay Wickersham: Were those problems primarily the result of bad engineering or of inadequate maintenance over the years?

Bob Zimmerman: A combination of the two. Boston started laying large interceptor sewage pipes in 1854. And to save money, it was decided that, rather than put the storm drain and the sanitary sewer in separate pipes, they’d be combined in the same pipe, which is great, as long as it doesn’t rain. As the city grew, the capacity of those pipes was exceeded. A lot of the pipes were made of brick; brick has mortar; mortar fails over time. Nobody was checking the pipes: once you bury a pipe, it’s easy to ignore it. And that led to another significant concern for the region. Once the pipes start to fail, they leak in — they don’t leak out. So groundwater that the pipe passes through actually leaks into the pipe, because the pressure inside the pipe is so much lower than the pressure in the ground. In effect, what we’ve designed is a system that has created tremendous environmental problems for us.

Today, 60 percent of every gallon of water treated at Deer Island is otherwise potable groundwater or rainwater that has leaked into the system. We’re not running out of water; we’re throwing it away.

Now I have to admit that the technology available to us in 1850 and 1900 didn’t really allow us to do much other than create large centralized systems to take the water that we use in our homes and throw it away someplace a long way away from us, to make sure that we protected ourselves against cholera and typhus. It made perfect sense. But it’s not 1900 any more.

Jay Wickersham: You’re critical of the idea of a large centralized wastewater treatment system. Yet the enormous Deer Island treatment facility is considered by most people to be an environmental success story, responsible for the cleanup of Boston Harbor. What’s your concern about that kind of centralized system as a model?

Bob Zimmerman: One concern is the approach it promotes to the problems that we face with environmental issues. We tend to look at these problems in isolation. The Conservation Law Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency brought suit in the early 1980s because of the condition of Boston Harbor, which violated the Clean Water Act. The issue was cleaning up Boston Harbor; and the solution was to create this enormous centralized system, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority [MWRA], with this new enormous wastewater treatment plant. So we’ve ended up taking water from the Quabbin and Wachusett Reservoirs to serve communities in the MWRA district, using it, collecting it, and throwing it away, after treatment at Deer Island, nine-and-a-half miles out into the middle of Massachusetts Bay.

On top of that, half of the 43 communities that the MWRA serves actually pump their water locally instead of receiving it from the Quabbin and Wachusett Reservoirs. But that water also gets dumped it into the big pipe and thrown away, nine-and-a-half miles out into the middle of Massachusetts Bay.

Photo by Paul Keleher

Photo by Paul Keleher

And then there is the fact that 60 percent of every gallon of water treated at Deer Island is otherwise potable groundwater or rainwater that has leaked into the system; groundwater alone accounts for 47 percent of every gallon. So we’re de-watering eastern Massachusetts. This has enormous consequences. We’ve all learned over the last decade or so that we’re running out of water and there are going to be water wars. I’ve got to tell you, we’re not running out of water; we’re throwing it away. That 47 percent of the water in those pipes represents, every single year, the same flow as the Charles River. So there’s the equivalent of one Charles River captured and thrown away. Then there’s the stormwater that we collect off impervious surfaces in the 43 towns of the MWRA that gets thrown away. That amounts to a second Charles River. And if you add in the wastewater itself, there’s a third Charles River. So every year, through Deer Island, we throw away three Charles Rivers from those 43 communities.

Jay Wickersham: And that must have huge implications, both for the environment and for our economy.

Bob Zimmerman: Yes. The bottom line is this: you’ve got parts of rivers like the Sudbury and the Ipswich that actually run dry in the summer because whatever groundwater is available is being taken for human demand. In urban rivers like the Neponset and the Charles, the impacts are in abnormally low flows, so what you get in the river is concentrated pollution. And when there’s less water in a river, the temperature goes up, so its carrying capacity for fish and wildlife is reduced. Have we felt it at the tap, in our kitchens? No. Will we? Yes.

Jay Wickersham: So what would you suggest as an alternative to the large centralized systems?

Bob Zimmerman: At CRWA, the first part of our strategy is to buy time. It’s going to take decades to effect broad change. In the meantime, we want to make sure that things get no worse than they are right now.

Virtually all of the water problems that we suffer in urban areas are a direct result of the infrastructure we have built.

Associated with that is the work we’ve done in getting conservation-based water withdrawal permits and registrations, so that we cap the amount of water being taken from the ground, so that the rivers get no worse. With the new conservation-based permits, towns that would have had to seek new sources of water supply beginning this year, 2010, won’t need to seek new sources of water supply until 2030. So we just bought ourselves 20 years.

Jay Wickersham: You mentioned earlier that CRWA takes a science-based approach. But you’ve also got an active and aggressive legal arm. How have you been trying to effect change through the law?

Bob Zimmerman: On the time-buying front, CRWA, representing the Ipswich River Watershed Association, the Essex County Greenbelt, and Mass Audubon, sued the state Department of Environmental Protection in 2003 under the Water Management Act for failure to balance human demand with natural resource need. When one-third of the Ipswich runs dry for more than a month every summer, something is clearly wrong in the way we allow water to be used. That suit was ultimately set aside because DEP agreed with us and started writing conservation-based permits. When those came out in early 2005, 11 of the 15 towns affected immediately appealed, and our general counsel remains in court defending DEP and continuing to make the case for the permits. So far, we’ve won in every venue, and I would expect that we’ll win in the end. In the interim, those permits are in place and they do help.

We are also examining policy and regulation. We build these enormous centralized systems because somebody demands them. We know the environmental damage they create — virtually all of the water problems that we suffer in urban areas are a direct result of the infrastructure we have built. So we’re looking at regulations that take a different approach, which over time mimics nature and eventually restores water bodies. We can restore trout streams, even the Charles River, and provide for human demand pretty much regardless of growth.

Jay Wickersham: What would that mimicry of nature look like? And how would it affect the way we build today?

Bob Zimmerman: First we need to understand how nature works here in New England. Nature wants to hold on to precipitation, so water infiltrates the soils and collects in underground aquifers with tremendous storage capacity. What we typically do instead is to collect the water off impervious areas — parking lots, buildings, roadways, sidewalks, heavily compacted soils — in a storm drain in the side of the road and then throw it away. And of course, in the process of running across all of this pavement, the water also gets pretty heavily polluted — a regular pollution cocktail. If we were to mimic nature, we would not let that water get away. We would use techniques such as swales, rain gardens, and porous paving — techniques associated with Low Impact Development (LID) — to let it run through the soil to clean up the vast majority of those pollutants. In the summer, it would support plant life and trees, which provide cooling and sequester carbon, and in the winter, it would percolate back into the ground to recharge the aquifers, as it would have 300 years ago.

The idea can be applied in other ways as well. When we pump water from town and private wells for use in our homes, we can cycle it back rather than throw it away. We’ve created a computer model at CRWA to locate areas in cities and towns where that water can be cleaned up and then discharged back to the ground, so it goes back to the surface water bodies it would eventually have fed if it had not been pumped. So you get a big recycling process that restores in-stream flow, protects us against drought, and reduces flooding.

Jay Wickersham: But you well know that local treatment can sometimes lead to local opposition.

Bob Zimmerman: No matter what you do in the United States, the “not in my back yard” attitude is going to remain a problem. In the end, however, we need this infrastructure. The nice thing about these wastewater treatment plants is that they’re not the kinds of plants that currently dot the landscape — with the smells and the big surface water separators and tanks. These are, in effect, huge septic systems. Most of the discharge occurs underneath the ground. You could build playing fields over the surface. They’re not huge. The other nice thing about groundwater discharge is that you eliminate the problem of releasing pharmaceuticals and personal care products into waterways. The University of California Berkeley has shown that, within 90 feet of filtration through the ground, that stuff is eliminated.

Jay Wickersham: So the ground serves as a natural filtration and cleaning system?

Bob Zimmerman: Absolutely. It allows you to replicate, technologically, the kinds of systems that nature created before we built Boston.

Jay Wickersham: What kinds of changes should we be asking for, as citizens and consumers, as homeowners or tenants? In the face of large, complex problems like this, people often think there is little they can do as individuals.

Bob Zimmerman: The first thing we need to do is buy time. We need to reduce water demand so that we have the time to test, investigate, and put in place water infrastructure that’s restorative and sustaining.

We can demand that our municipal leaders and the consultants and contractors they hire think about the larger system instead of isolated one-off solutions. We can push for local zoning modifications to allow Low Impact Development. We can ask how we want our towns to function 20 years, 100 years from now. How do we provide for and sustain water resources? How do we provide for growth? Where do we want the growth to happen? Can we create infrastructure that causes smart growth?

One of the things we’re working on now is a process we call “spot sewering.” Many suburban and exurban communities don’t have any wastewater treatment plants. And they want to guide and control growth; they want to create a walkable village center. So let’s sewer that village center, but only the village center, to direct development to the core.

We’re looking at regulations that take a different approach, which over time mimics nature and eventually restores water bodies.

Jay Wickersham: I’ve been working on a project in North Easton, Massachusetts, which is looking at a plan to redevelop a wonderful historic factory complex. And in order to support that, the developer, with funding from the town, would provide an onsite wastewater treatment plant with enough capacity to pick up the rest of the downtown in order to foster exactly that kind of redevel-opment, while discouraging growth along the outer arterial roads.

Photo by Alex Budnitz

Photo by Alex Budnitz

Bob Zimmerman:

And if they use an anaerobic treatment process to capture the methane, they can burn the methane, spin a turbine, and generate energy for that downtown district. Methane, by the way, is 23 times better at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, so burning it is actually a good thing because it removes it from the atmosphere, a form of climate-change mitigation. If they do this right, if they run our computer model and figure out the best spot to discharge that water to the ground, and if they use an anaerobic treatment process to generate energy, they will create a profit center for a town that’s probably struggling with property taxes.

Jay Wickersham: Looking back over 20 years of stewardship of the Charles River watershed, are you optimistic about our ability to make the kinds of broad changes that you’re talking about?

Bob Zimmerman: Sometimes I feel like we’re just not moving fast enough. But then I reflect on what’s actually been accomplished, which is remarkable. I think we’re going to see some changes in the next three to five years in eastern Massachusetts that will show the way for the rest of the country and, in my opinion, the rest of the urban world. The rest of the world, particularly western Europe, is still pursuing perverse solutions, by which I mean human-managed river systems. I just can’t go there. I’m for restoring wild rivers. This is America, you know? We don’t want to go see a Yellowstone that’s in a pipe. I would love to see a Charles River where unnecessary dams are removed in Hopkinton and Milford and Dover and Sherborne, where we can fish for trout again. And that’s within our grasp.

Civil Service

Posted in Vol 12 No 4 by bsaab on November 9, 2009

Salginatobel Bridge by Robert Maillart, Schiers, Switzerland. Photo by Rama, Wikimedia Commons, Cc-by-sa-2.0-fr.

An engineer extols the virtues of efficiency, economy, and, yes, elegance.

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Jeff Stein: A decade ago, Engineering News Record named you one of the top five educators in civil engineering since 1874.

David Billington: I don’t know how they measured that but it was nice to hear it. I hold the world’s record for having taught architecture students more years than any other civil engineering professor. Most civil engineering professors don’t like to do that.

Jeff Stein: And in fact you teach one of the most popular courses at Princeton.

David Billington: It wasn’t always that way. I was teaching architecture students in the early 1960s. After three years, they came to me and said, “Mr. Billington, you’re a nice guy and you’re a good teacher. But we hate what you’re teaching us. You’re just teaching us stick diagrams and formulas; we would like you to teach structures through something beautiful.” They showed me pictures of bridges designed by Robert Maillart. I’d never heard of Maillart. And I had never heard of teaching structures that way.

Jeff Stein: Because you had been trained as an engineer.

David Billington: Yes. I had designed a lot of things that were built, but I must say, I’m not very proud of them aesthetically. They weren’t bad, but they really weren’t great. I had never designed with the thought of making something elegant. I decided to look into Maillart and found that not only were his works beautiful, but they were also the best engineering I’d ever come in contact with. That sent me on a whole new track, and I began to teach a structures course to architects through beautiful works, slipping in the technical part. I finally decided that the course should be given to the whole university, not just to the architecture students. So I began in 1974 the course called “Structures in the Urban Environment,”and it became popular. After that, the associate dean came to me in 1984 and said, “We need a freshman engineering course.” People are always trying to design freshman courses for engineers, and they all fail because they tend to lack an intellectual basis. Princeton had been offering a course that had just failed miserably — it had reached the list of the five worst courses in the university. It took me about five years to develop a course we called “Engineering in the Modern World.” Between the two of them, we now teach something like a third of all students who go to Princeton.

Jeff Stein: In your courses, you don’t just present the history of beautiful things and the lives of the great engineers, but you also talk about what they built and how — the notion of infrastructure and engineering generally, as well as the formulas that they use.

David Billington: If we didn’t include the technical engineering aspects, I wouldn’t teach it, even though the liberal-arts students groan sometimes. One thing that is interesting about “Engineering in the Modern World” is that it satisfies either the university’s lab-science requirement or the history requirement. In my mind, that is only possible in engineering.

Jeff Stein: You recently wrote a wonderful book with your son, the historian David Billington, Jr. — Power, Speed, and Form — in which you talk about Othmar Ammann, the engineer of the George Washington Bridge. Ammann used a formula that you describe: H=qL2/8d. Take that simple relationship, which refers to weight and size, and you can design a suspension bridge.

David Billington: Of course, many of the formulas he eventually used were quite complicated. But that’s the one he used for conceptual design. And there’s a similarly simple formula in every branch of engineering.

Jeff Stein: In fact, you say that the people who have made the great leaps in engineering all used very simple math.

David P. Billington. Photo courtesy Princeton University, Office of Communication, Denise Applewhite.

David P. Billington. Photo courtesy Princeton University, Office of Communication, Denise Applewhite.

David Billington: That’s right. I’ve found in my research that it’s a characteristic of all the great innovators, because they had to think deeply and they couldn’t get confused with complex mathematics. The people who followed them tended to focus on more refined details, and therefore used more refined mathematics. But the initial breakthroughs were not done that way. It was a surprise to me.

Jeff Stein: In effect, you found that there are two kinds of engineering thinking: normal thinking and radical thinking.

David Billington: Yes. In the courses that we mentioned, I’m interested in the radical thinking. Teaching upper-level or graduate courses in engineering is of course quite different — then I focus on more refined calculations. But first-rate conceptual design work happens on a much simpler level.

Jeff Stein: In the engineer’s imagination.

David Billington: That’s correct, the engineer’s imagination. It’s an interesting subject. Do you know who Jack Kilby was?

Jeff Stein: No, I do not.

David Billington: That’s a little test. Almost nobody knows him. But he was comparable in the late 20th century to Thomas Edison in the late 19th century. He was the inventor of the microchip and the handheld calculator and eventually won the Nobel Prize. He once gave a lecture in which he talked about his early days. He had just been hired at Texas Instruments, and everybody had gone off on vacation. And so, as he said, he was alone with his “thoughts and his imagination.” For a few weeks he worked on his own, and out came the microchip. No teamwork, nothing like that. It was entirely out of his imagination. But he was very well trained, of course. He knew the field. It wasn’t blue-sky. Another great engineer, Robert Noyce, came to the same idea alone a few months later and the two men are recognized as co-inventors.

Jeff Stein: You have said that a number of engineers are like solo musicians who perform a complex work on their own without other instruments or accompaniment or even without a conductor.

David Billington: Teamwork has a value, of course, when you’re doing incremental development of an idea, when you’re trying to be competitive, or when you’re refining a concept. And you certainly need teamwork to build things. But what’s really interesting is what the engineer does best: imagine.

Jeff Stein: You have pointed out that modern engineering falls into four basic kinds of work: structures, machines, networks, processes. I am intrigued by the ways in which one engineering discipline can influence another. For example, you mention that the processing of iron ore brought about a broad rethinking of the whole tradition of building, which eventually led to a whole new aesthetic. Engineers in the 19th century started to talk about the new thinness of structural members in terms of elegance or beauty. The lightness of the material allowed structures to stand in contrast to the rest of the natural world. Did that appreciation of elegance have an enduring effect?

David Billington: In general terms, the ethos of modern engineering is efficiency. Efficiency is a loosely-used word, but I try to make it precise. Efficiency in engineering terms means minimum use of materials consistent with good performance and assured safety. That’s the ethos of the engineer, and all engineers work under that in the modern world. That’s different from the ethic of the engineer, which is essentially “Don’t waste money” — consistent, of course, with good utility and minimum maintenance. Elegance is a personal expression of the designer, in structures anyway. But because something is efficient does not mean it will be elegant. And elegance does not depend upon efficiency.

Jeff Stein: That’s a really important point, because people who aren’t engineers imagine that that would be the case. In fact, architects tend to imagine that the elegance of engineering comes from its efficiency.

The two disciplines of structural engineering are efficiency and economy; the key to successful design is to find beauty within them. David P. Billington

David Billington: That’s wrong. For instance, the typical steel truss is probably the most efficient structure you can imagine for a lot of uses, and it’s almost always ugly. The two disciplines of structural engineering are efficiency and economy; the key to successful design is to find beauty within them. Or as Félix Candela, one of our heroes, said, to avoid the ugliness without wasting materials and money.

Jeff Stein: You wrote, “Some bridge forms have been imagined by architects, but the best are purely the work of engineers.” I’m sure that will make some architects unhappy.

David Billington: The engineer makes forms that control forces, whereas the architect makes forms that control spaces. The architect is essentially lost when trying to design a great bridge. So the architect tries to make up for it, and in the process, loses the disciplines of efficiency and economy. Santiago Calatrava is a good example. He has caused the quality of bridges to drop precipitously in this country, because what he does is immensely expensive. I talk to DOTs [Departments of Transportation] all the time, and they all have the same opinion: “If we want a beautiful bridge, we have to go to Calatrava, and it will cost three times what the others cost. We can’t afford that, so we’re just going to pull out of the drawer the standard bridge.” What they’re saying in effect is that the engineer has no aesthetic at all — or that the aesthetic is the purview of architects and something they can’t afford. And so the DOTs are defaulting to ugly, standard bridges.

Jeff Stein: What about Christian Menn? David Billington: Christian Menn is probably the greatest living bridge designer. He’s a pure engineer.

Jeff Stein: We adore his work here in Boston, where we have the Zakim Bridge [Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge]. It’s meant to signify the new Boston.

David Billington: You’re lucky to have it. Princeton is building a Menn bridge on the campus now that will be the second one in this country. It’s too bad we don’t have 25 bridges of his.

Jeff Stein: Menn is from Switzerland; you’ve written about him as well as several other engineers in The Art of Structural Design: The Swiss Legacy — Wilhelm Ritter, Robert Maillart, Othmar Ammann, Pierre Lardy, Heinz Isler. What in the Swiss culture has led to so many talented engineers producing so many beautiful bridges? Is it the country’s dependence on tourism?

David Billington: No, I would argue with that. It all comes from the Federal Institute of Technology and their first professor of engineering, Karl Culmann. I don’t remember that he ever talked about tourism. His greatest student, Wilhelm Ritter, became a professor in Zurich and wanted his students to design beautiful, elegant, efficient, economical bridges, and that’s what he taught. Maillart and Ammann studied under him. Unfortunately for potential tourists, Maillart’s bridges are very hard to find, because the higher art world wouldn’t allow him to build anything in a city, with the exception of the Vessy Bridge in Geneva. Everything else he did is way out in the wilderness, where they needed somebody who could build on difficult sites and still do it economically. But some of Menn’s bridges are in prominent locations and could be tourist attractions.

Jeff Stein: In fact, two of Menn’s bridges in Switzerland are understood to be among the 10 most beautiful in the world. He says he hopes to create “motionless objects of stunning elegance.”

David Billington: That’s exactly what he does.

Jeff Stein: One of the challenges for great works of civil engineering is that they are expected to last for a very long time, but are exposed to all kinds of weather and conditions. Design and construction is one thing; maintenance is another. Here in Massachusetts, there are 1,100 bridges that have been inspected but not maintained and are in what the inspectors describe as a state of mild failure.

Sunniberg Bridge by Christian Menn, near Klosters, Switzerland. Photo by Christof Sonderegger, CH-9424 Rheineck.

Sunniberg Bridge by Christian Menn, near Klosters, Switzerland. Photo by Christof Sonderegger, CH-9424 Rheineck.

David Billington: They perhaps exaggerated a little bit to get attention, but at the same time it is perfectly true that our infrastructure — and bridges are a most visible part of the infrastructure — is in bad shape. Every once in a while, one falls down and kills people, and then everyone gets excited. And then they forget about it. It’s a very difficult issue to keep on the front page. The problem of maintaining bridges and avoiding those catastrophes is a live problem.

Jeff Stein: You have said that we live in an engineering culture, which has dominated our history at least since the Industrial Revolution, and that it is therefore very important for the general public to know about engineering. Would greater engineering literacy help us solve this issue?

David Billington: The tendency in America is to be fixated on what’s new, and that leads to a misunderstanding of how things were built to begin with. People tend to think that brand-new ideas drive change, but that’s not the way things develop. We don’t make radical changes until there is a real crisis. Infrastructure gets lost in this kind of environment. People might talk about new materials, for example, but having a new material isn’t going to help the bridges much: you can’t tear them all down and rebuild them out of some kind of plastic.

Jeff Stein: It’s part of our culture, as you’ve noted — we learned to see engineering as a way to solve many of the problems that arose in this big, uncoordinated, disconnected continent. Your work puts engineering and infrastructure in a context that we don’t often think about by humanizing engineers, describing their connections to particular places, and exploring the sources of their ideas.

David Billington: The way we view engineering has changed, and needs to change more. The average engineer in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century was a farm boy, the result of the Morrill Act that created the great engineering schools of the Midwest. Most of the schools in the East gave up engineering; fortunately, Princeton didn’t. It wasn’t considered an elite or intellectually interesting subject; it was for farm boys. That was great for a while, but it’s not great now. Engineering needs to be shown as a very stern and deep intellectual subject.

Jeff Stein: That’s how it’s always been perceived in Germany and Switzerland.

David Billington: Perhaps more so in Switzerland than Germany. And they have benefitted from it. We can learn a lot about infrastructure from small countries like Switzerland, the Netherlands, Norway, because those countries have confronted and solved some very difficult infrastructure problems. A good example is the Lower Mississippi, which is the most crucial problem for us right now. There is a solution, and it comes from the Netherlands, because they have faced the same problem — a big delta. One of my missions in life is to try to make that connection, because I’ve lived in the Netherlands and can read Dutch, and so I know in some detail what they were able to accomplish. You have probably never heard of Johan van Veen or Cornelius Lely. But they are the heroes of the 20th century, because these two people literally saved a whole country. They had help along the way, of course, but they were the radical innovators that made all the difference. They both combined engineering and political talent with a depth of knowledge that puts them in the same category as any philosopher, historian, or intellectual. Our vast country is made up of regions that are quite different from one another, and we need to understand those differences and find appropriate designs, the best of which are sometimes found abroad and can stimulate us to better designs here.

Jeff Stein: Right. The Lower Mississippi has a very different set of conditions from the West Coast, which in turn has seismic conditions that we don’t have in the Northeast.

David Billington: Now I want to say something about Boston, which you won’t want to hear. I think that the Big Dig was a huge mistake. First of all, it was supposed to cost $3 billion and is now about $22 billion. And that is wasted money. The reason it’s wasted money is that Boston, as you well know, is a landfill city built on muck. And you don’t easily build tunnels in muck.

Jeff Stein: Well, we’ve learned that by building tunnels in muck.

David Billington: It’s the wrong form. I can understand why they wanted to tear down the Central Artery. But they should have built a truly elegant set of overpasses, and they would have had a dramatically beautiful solution that would have cost $3 billion, not $22 billion. Seattle is about to make the same mistake, building a tunnel in landfill so they can have a park on top.

Jeff Stein: They had the same problem — an aging overpass running through the city.

David Billington: The key is to ask the right questions or raise the right objections in the beginning. Going back to the Lower Mississippi, Katrina is, of course, a real national tragedy, and still there’s nothing being done about it. We criticized the previous administration for their handling of it, justifiable criticism for sure. But the real criticism has to go way back to the 1970s, when officials were preparing a plan after Hurricane Betsy. It was torn apart by environmentalists who were worried about the shrimp in Lake Pontchartraine. The environmentalists beat back the Corps of Engineers, and the Corps of Engineers was too flaccid. It gave up. So the city did not receive the protection it needed. It’s not just the environmentalists’ fault — the point is that there was no strong engineering presence such as a Lely or van Veen to argue for the bigger picture and common sense that might have protected the city.

Jeff Stein: And now, of course, there are arguments about whether to go ahead with anything much in New Orleans. Given the warming of the Gulf of Mexico, it’s certain that Hurricane Katrina will not be the last devastating storm — the next ones will be even worse. And so how many times can we afford to rebuild that city?

David Billington: Just once more, I think. If we don’t do it right this time, then we’ll give it up. But I think it would be a terrible mistake to give up now, a terrible thing to do to that city. And Baton Rouge, too, as well as the whole lower Mississippi River corridor.

Jeff Stein: You are in an unusual position as both an engineer and an historian — it allows you to look backward and forward at the same time. The kinds of things we’re talking about present enormous challenges. Can you predict how or where we will find solutions?

David Billington: I do not use history to make predictions. Since the Industrial Revolution, certain patterns have emerged and been constant through the late 20th century. That says, I believe, something very fundamental about our political system and about people in general — which is somewhat different from a prediction.

Jeff Stein: So what do those patterns tell you?

David Billington: What they say, to me anyway, is that real advances take place through the work of people acting individually, not committees and teams. When we have a problem in this country, we create a commission. And the commission creates a report, which is usually anonymously written. There’s no author. But there are always large numbers of people involved. And the results are often not as compelling as they could be. In an engineering society, such as the society we’ve lived in for 200 years, individual people make a huge difference. Once they make a huge difference, you need teams to implement their work. But if you’re going to have real change, it has to be done by individual engineers and they need to be recognized along with presidents and generals.

Caption: Salginatobel Bridge by Robert Maillart, Schiers, Switzerland. Photo by Rama, Wikimedia Commons, Cc-by-sa-2.0-fr.

Catalytic Converter

Posted in Vol 12 No 3 by bsaab on September 17, 2009

With feet planted in the worlds of art and science, Harvard professor David Edwards is promoting new ways of catalyzing creativity and innovation.

Cloud Place (The Cloud Foundation); Boston. Photo by Joel Veak.

Cloud Place (The Cloud Foundation); Boston. Photo by Joel Veak.

Jeff Stein: In his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn notes that great scientific advances are intuitive. It’s only after the initial stroke of intuition — that “Aha!” moment in which scientists are really only guessing at something — that the left hemisphere of the brain kicks in and the experimentation, which is what most people think of as science, takes over. You’ve invented the term “artscience” to describe a kind of creative thinking. Are these concepts related?

David Edwards: Yes, absolutely, although Kuhn’s work focuses on very recognizable “Eureka!” moments in the history of science. Artscience suggests that the process is less linear. Great innovations often come from two kinds of responses to a problem. One is the process of intuition and induction, which requires comfort with uncertainty and is often image-driven. The other frames the problem by simplifying it to a set of conditions that are identifiable and solvable — the scientific process of making a hypothesis, looking at the data, and drawing conclusions, which are often not what we expected and so require a new hypothesis. The artistic method and the scientific method fuse in key moments of innovation. The moments that are most memorable are the ones when we’re standing in front of a blank page saying, “I don’t really know what to do.”

Jeff Stein: Your interests now seem to focus on the problem of that blank page and the idea that it often makes sense to cross the cultural divide between art and science and begin to fill in the blanks from the other perspective.

David Edwards: I increasingly look back at my childhood as a fount of information about everything I’m doing right now. If you look at how we learned as children, you realize that we were constantly moving from one environment, which we would get to know, to another, in which we had no clue. We went from crib to living room to school, constantly entering new environments and needing to throw away a lot of what was familiar in order to discover something new.

The hallmark of creative people is that they try to shock themselves. They try to go back to that state where they’re throwing themselves into an unknown environment. I may be very familiar with the scientific environment, yet I find it very catalytic to my creativity to immerse myself in the artistic environment. Then, once I get adapted, I run back to the scientific environment and shock myself, like jumping into cold water, and suddenly I’m much more sensitive to what it is to be a scientist, to what that lab means, to all these things that I just grow numb to after a while. So I run back and forth. I think creative people often tend to run across this conventional art/science divide.

Jeff Stein: You’ve even placed yourself in that kind of situation in your personal life, dividing your time between Paris and Boston.

David Edwards: That’s absolutely true. It’s easy to point to all of the challenges of our age, but one of the benefits of the world today is the ability to live simultaneously in two very different cultures; that is a kind of art/science divide for me.

Jeff Stein: You’re also crossing divides in your professional life. You were trained as a chemical engineer and have taught at MIT and Penn State as well as Harvard. And now you are also jumping back and forth into the worlds of commerce and nonprofits.

David Edwards: The reality is that, from an early age, I was really never comfortable in an educational environment, even though I ended up being very educated. I was often very frustrated with school. That probably started at age eight when I wrote my first novel. My teacher took it home, and her son dropped an ice-cream cone on it. I constantly had the feeling that what mattered to me didn’t really matter in my school. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, I moved to Israel for four years. I had this idea that I could just live another life, and ended up becoming a very theoretical scientist, really loving my work. And I wrote. I’ve always been interested in writing, but it was a very private kind of passion.

Jeff Stein: You kept a pretty low-profile until the late ’90s when it seems that you had your own “Aha!” moment. What happened at that point?

Manga art by Junko Murata; excerpted from Whiff © 2008 by David Edwards; published by Éditions Le Laboratoire (distributed in the US by Harvard University Press).

Manga art by Junko Murata; excerpted from Whiff © 2008 by David Edwards; published by Éditions Le Laboratoire (distributed in the US by Harvard University Press).

David Edwards: Something very surprising happened to me: I published an article in the Journal of Science about delivering drugs, such as insulin, to the lungs in special kinds of aerosols, after which a venture capitalist approached me. He wanted to bet on my idea. I was at Penn State at the moment; I had left MIT a couple of years before that. I had no experience in industry and was both flattered and then frightened by the prospect that if I wanted to follow that opportunity, I would have to leave the scientific research environment that I had grown accustomed to, my comfort zone. We founded a company, Advanced Inhalation Research, which was sold within a year; the condition of sale was that I had to stay on for two years.

After that three-year period, I came back to Harvard to teach. I had left the university thinking I knew everything that I needed to know, and was coming back feeling as if I’d discovered everything that really mattered while I was away. I thought hard about how I could bring that experience to my students, this different way of learning.

One important element was that somebody had made a bet on an idea that I had, that someone believed in it enough to do that. And it pushed me, really pushed me to an edge, to take risks I never would have taken, just to prove my idea. So I started to teach a course where I encouraged kids to dream — I kind of bet on them.

This was during the Larry Summers years at Harvard — he was encouraging a lot of interdisciplinary dialogue on campus. I had started to write a novel more seriously, and my wife and I had started the Cloud Foundation to bring arts programs to urban kids. As I became more and more involved in the arts, I noticed that most of the university interdisciplinary dialogues were among the scientific disciplines; the humanities in general were not included. So I started a dialogue with a group of people, about 11 of us, from a music theorist to a composer to an architect to a medical doctor; people who, like me, rather than being driven away from this art/science divide at Harvard, were attracted to it for different reasons. All of us were very different, but we had similar experiences in that we were all celebrated by our institutions, but none of us had really been nourished by them. And we had all fled our institutions at key moments in our creative process. I suddenly understood why I had been doing so many different, weird things in my life, and what the writing had actually represented for me. The outcome of this reflection was a book, Artscience, and the idea of Le Laboratoire, an experimental center promoting artscience collaborations.

Jeff Stein: So you became homo faber, he who makes, not just he who thinks. And as a result, your title is not professor of biomedical engineering, but rather professor of the practice of biomedical engineering.

David Edwards: It’s ironic, because, 15 years ago, I was a very theoretical scientist. I have since learned that discovery is an active process. It’s an active confrontation with a mysterious, evolving, unimaginable world.

Jeff Stein: There has been a lot of talk lately about the sorts of people and the kinds of activities that make up the Creative Economy — which at some basic level is about this process of discovery and the translation of ideas to some useful purpose: products, jobs, positive change.

David Edwards: We’re seeing an incredible rediscovery of the power of human creativity, and the possibility to transform our world in potentially beneficial ways. The challenge is how to integrate that into institutions, particularly into educational institutions. How do we teach that? The Creative Economy is a huge reality here in Boston, one that doesn’t exist in such a dynamic way in many other places in the world. Our challenge, right now, is how to grow that.

Jeff Stein: As you’ve thought about the creative process, have you found any commonalities that suggest that there is a teachable formula? Is there, for example, an identifiable moment when you switch brain hemispheres or when the artistic trumps the scientific?

David Edwards: I’m really skeptical of the “how to” approach to being creative; all the really creative people I know have never followed that sort of path and probably would not even want to analyze their creativity. But here’s one observation: I think that creative people are very sensitive to their dependence on environment, both the human, or architectural, environment and the intellectual, or creative, environment. So they tend to put themselves in stimulating environments. Creativity seems to fall into phases: a starter or conception mode, a translation mode, where we’re developing an idea, and a realization mode. We gravitate toward the environments that support those phases.

Jeff Stein: In other words, we are possessed of brain, voice, and hands, and we’re working with one of them at a time, but all three of them together get us where we want to be.

David Edwards: Yes — that’s an interesting way to put it. One problem in our understanding of creativity is that our social and cultural institutions are mostly designed to measure and encourage manifestations of ideas, which often substitute for creativity itself. When a book is published, or a product is manufactured, or a symphony is performed, the key moments of the creative process are invisible. In the course of a creative endeavor, you’re going to make lots of mistakes. But creators don’t see them as such — they’re producing prototypes, so of course there are mistakes; you learn through multiple iterations. That may go on for days, weeks, months, even longer. But that’s when everything’s happening; those are the key moments. So I think for the creative process to be really alive and active, as it is in a healthy childhood, we need to be frequently thrown into that mode where everything is evolving, where we don’t know where to go next.

Jeff Stein: And that mode is often found in an artistic environment. So, the creative mind can be developed through exposure to the arts, and yet the arts aren’t as valued politically here as in France, where you spend the other half of your life. Can we change that?

David Edwards: There is a need today to demonstrate the value of the arts in America, beyond the ability to sell a work of art to a major museum. The arts are hugely relevant to culture, to humanitarian engagement, and to industry, and there’s a need to integrate the arts into all that we do. The Cloud Foundation is an effort to advance that idea by working with the Boston public schools. My wife and I did not grow up with money. Selling the company was very exciting, of course, but it was also disorienting — not in a negative way, but just in trying to understand it. We made a decision right away that we wanted to give away at least half of what we made, and we wanted not to just write checks but to be actively challenged by the process. So we created the Cloud Foundation, which has since worked with thousands of kids through its headquarters at Cloud Place on Boylston Street in Boston.

The Foundation has recently entered into an exciting new phase with the recent launch of our first ArtScience Innovation Prize competition for Boston public high school students. Its purpose is to help them develop the tools for cross-disciplinary learning and creative thinking. We provide them with up to 100 breakthrough ideas, very “blue sky” art and design ideas at the cutting edge of science. They then work with mentors — scientists, artists, and entrepreneurs — and participate in workshops at Cloud Place and the Idea Translation Lab at Harvard to help them think about how to translate these ideas into project concepts, which could be new products, for-profit companies, museum exhibitions, nonprofit organizations, anything. Teams will present their ideas to a panel of judges this fall, and the winning team will receive $100,000 and a trip to Paris to continue its work at Le Laboratoire. The goal here is to bet on kids, to get them to learn early on that their passionate commitment to ideas that cross boundaries can be transformative.

Jeff Stein: Besides the Innovation Prize, what goes on at the Cloud Foundation on a daily basis?

David Edwards: We talk to 10,000 kids a year but work principally with the hundreds of kids who come in for after-school art workshops and programs. We sponsor exhibitions and events and work in partnerships with other organizations in the city. In general, Cloud Place is a kid place where kids are the curators. Working with kids means dealing with problems of kids, so there are lots of sit-down conversations and moments with kids from struggling neighborhoods in Mattapan and Lynn in which you sometimes hear things that are very powerful and sometimes difficult or hurtful. The Cloud is a window into the life of our young generation.

Jeff Stein: You have a sister organization, Le Laboratoire, in Paris, which is more for adults and sponsors projects between artists and scientists.

Le Laboratoire; Paris. Photo by Bruno Cogez.

Le Laboratoire; Paris. Photo by Bruno Cogez.

David Edwards: The Lab, as I call it, is a cultural institution in the center of Paris that is closely partnered with Cloud, Harvard University and, increasingly, Trinity College in Dublin. It includes exhibition space and a design prototype store, where you can buy things that you can’t buy elsewhere. As prototypes, they may not work perfectly. There’s also a food lab, a wild place where we’re producing food innovations with the renowned chef Thierry Marx, who we think of as a kind of culinary artist. Our challenge is to invite the public into art as process, as opposed to art as outcome, which is the fundamental distinction of a cultural lab versus a cultural museum. We do a few experiments each year with major artists and scientists. The idea is to create a new kind of translational lab, in this case a cultural lab, which is creating value that we can measure. We’re doing an experiment at the Louvre right now. I’m hopeful that the Lab will invite major investment from both government and venture capitalists.

Jeff Stein: Your new novel Whiff is a fictional account of an actual process that led to a new product from the Lab just last spring.

David Edwards: Yes. The product is Le Whif, an aerosol inhaler that delivers the taste of chocolate, without actually eating the chocolate. Zero calories. The novel was written with the idea of engaging the public in the drama of the creative process, which is hard to convey in an exhibition space. The food lab led to thinking about art and food and science, which led to the idea that maybe you could inhale food — I do know a lot about aerosols. I gave the idea to some students and they inhaled substances like mint and pepper — although the pepper was a disaster. At the end of the semester they said, “This is really cool, but we can’t stop coughing.” So we figured out how to get around that, and then included a Nespresso Whiff Bar in a culinary art exhibition at the Lab. It made a lot of news — people were enchanted by the idea even though many coughed. So we improved the design and now finally have a commercial product. We planned to sell it in our LaboShop and at Colette, a high-end store in Paris, and on the Internet. But then a young, former student, who is a brilliant entrepreneur, decided to start a viral campaign. That was a Friday in early April. By Saturday, our Internet traffic had doubled. Two weeks later, we were being asked for interviews on Oprah and Good Morning America and weeks later we’d received inquiries from distributors in 40 countries around the world.

Jeff Stein: You’re describing creativity as a constant state of metamorphosis.

David Edwards: Or to turn that thought around, it is at the frontier of knowledge where we all become artists. Metamorphosis is confusing, chaotic; a scientist at a frontier of knowledge is not sure of anything. Take Judah Folkman, a man I really admired, a pioneer in the field of angiogenesis in cancer research, which focuses on blood supply to tumors. For years and years, he stood at a frontier with no proof that this frontier was really what he thought it was.

Jeff Stein: With your novels and products and teaching and the Cloud Foundation and the Lab in Paris, you’re really kind of a bridge builder. The Japanese have a term for this: hashi. It means the end of one thing and the beginning of another. And that can be a bridge. It could be chopsticks, which is the end of food on the plate and the beginning of food in your mouth.

David Edwards: I love that concept; it’s another way of thinking about metamorphosis. Our civilization is undergoing a metamorphosis right now, and at the same time I think that we all feel pulled toward this frontier of knowledge. It’s a very chaotic, confusing era. But this is precisely the time in which the arts have a major role to play in every sector of society. The arts can teach us how to embrace the chaos and turn it into a moment of enormous creativity.