Chris Reed is the founding principal of Stoss, a Boston-based design firm that believes in the productive role of landscape in the making and remaking of cities and social spaces.
While in Australia to present a public lecture on his book Projective Ecologies, coedited with Nina-Marie Lister, Chris Reed spoke with Bridget Keane at RMIT University in Melbourne.
Bridget Keane: The book Projective Ecologies , which you edited with Nina-Marie Lister, articulates the idea of parallel genealogies of ecological thinking. Could you elaborate on why this is so important to the understanding of ecology in landscape architecture?
Chris Reed: Academically [the landscape architecture profession] has been studying ecology for a while; it’s been in the discourse, not just landscape discourse but also architectural discourse. Given this, and given that it’s become so popular, one of the questions [we explored in Projective Ecologies ] was, “How can we reclaim a kind of critical approach to ecology?” The other question was simply, “How did we get here?”
The identification of these parallel genealogies [through the natural sciences, the humanities and design/architecture] starts to address this question of how we find ourselves in this place, where a number of different things start to converge. It’s through that lens that we had started to construct these genealogies. Obviously, understanding the trajectory of the natural sciences and the shifts within that community from stable-state thinking toward dynamic systems was really important. As a nonscientist, learning about how deep those traditions go back was quite surprising.
That ecologists were already, in 1970, linking ecology with questions about the implications for planning and management practices is stunning. I think for many designers, this started to come together through the work of Ian McHarg in the seventies and eighties, but it came to the forefront in design culture, not just planning culture, in the mid nineties, particularly [in relation to] some of the bigger [design] competitions. The Downsview Park competition, for example, was explicit in asking for long-term scenarios and open-endedness, and the teams started to take on new languages. Scientists were doing one thing. The designers caught up two and a half decades later.
The lineage through the humanities was really important because it brought the writings of ecologists to wider audiences, beyond the scientific community. I think that was critical in opening up the discourse so that it wasn’t just a question of science, it started to also be a question of the humanities – about art and the cultural implications of what we’re talking about in science.
It was significant, around 1995, that Stan Allen not only cited Richard Forman while talking about material practices, engineering and ecology, but also did his own set of diagrams and notations. Here you had an architect and urbanist, somebody who was quite advanced in terms of theory discourse, claiming ecology. It wasn’t just a landscape architect saying ecology is part of our discipline because we work with plants or the environment or we’re out to save the earth. This was on a much higher level. It was about ideas and the cultural implications of these ideas for what we would be doing.
BK: Within your projects you seem to produce multiple ecologies, or multiple niches – Trinity Riverfront, for example. How are you considering form in this sense?
CR: It might be through an understanding of my own personal history. I did my bachelor’s degree in urban studies at Harvard University. My entry point for landscape was through studying the city, particularly the nineteenth-century American city; through Frederick Law Olmsted, and others, understanding the importance of these larger-scale landscape projects or landscape systems as city-making initiatives. I then worked with Michael Van Valkenburgh. Michael had done the Radcliffe Ice Walls at Harvard University, where he used very simple chain-link. He’d go out there and spray it with water to understand the environmental effects of what was happening over the course of the day, but also the idea of playing off a very distinct form. You could trace the way that the ice was melting relative to the position of the sun and the position of the scaffolds.
I studied at PennDesign, primarily with Jim Corner, where I thought the work that he was doing on ecological process, social process, was incredibly rich and was opening up territory in terms of where the landscape design arts could go. I then worked for George Hargreaves, whose interests were clearly in large-scale land art. He was also interested in environmental process, which informed earlier stages of his career – Candlestick Point, for instance, where the detritus of the bay could be washed up into the project and become part of the content of the project. Rather than being an enclosed space, it is one that very deliberately opens out to the world.
The idea that the performative is prompted by the physical became important to me and it’s that set of interrelations that you often see in the work we do at Stoss. Sometimes it’s quite deliberate. Sometimes it’s water and plant material and we’re creating shapes that allow for things to play themselves out in certain ways. At other points, as in the Science Center Plaza at Harvard University, we’re beginning to think about what is the minimal level of structure that you can embed in a project that allows for multiple things to happen but doesn’t constrain it. It’s that interaction between the physical, the formal and what plays out across those surfaces that becomes the heart of an approach to form.
BK: You’ve been involved in the Boston Futures discussion series. I’m interested to know how you see the potential of those conversations about the city and its landscape.
CR: When Boston was first nominated to be the bid city for the 2024 Olympic Games, I was interested in taking advantage of that opportunity. It’s a project that would have far-reaching implications for the city and it was a way to start a series of conversations that were much more broad than the conversations Boston had been having.
The conversations have built some incredible momentum. With Boston Futures, the idea wasn’t about how we build better Olympics; it was about what is the set of issues that we want to put on the table for Boston, in the long term, that might help inform the work that the city’s doing but also guide the work that the Olympics [organizers] are doing.
One of the most interesting things in this pro- cess is that we were able to enlist a coalition of hosts and partners that I don’t think have ever been put together before – professional organizations, like the Boston Society of Architects and Boston Society of Landscape Architects, with more research-oriented institutions like ULI Boston, the Harvard Graduate School of Design, the Northeastern University School of Architecture, MIT School of Architecture and Planning, and an outfit called the Venture Cafe. We have a talented design planning innovation community and all of a sudden, their voices are being heard in conversations they haven’t been heard in before.
What is facing us right now is that the whole bid has been pulled. And so the question now is, “What is the future of Boston Futures?”
BK: Could you tell us about a project you’re currently working on?
CR: The West Louisville Food Port in Louisville, Kentucky is a project driven by a non-profit developer called Seed Capital Kentucky, being designed by Stoss with OMA. It’s a twenty-four-acre former industrial site within a historically disadvantaged minority community. It’s a combination of food production, food processing, food distribution, food entrepreneurship, food education, food eating, food interactivity, food training, job training and social activity.
Our thinking is to enlist the help of immediate community members to provide training and job opportunities, by integrating organizations like Louisville Forward, giving the community opportunity to participate in a way that helps them build their own wealth. In a lot of ways, we’re working far beyond the scope of the designer. We’re helping the client begin to think through programs that could be entrepreneurial, could cultivate training opportunities and could generate revenue in certain ways. It’s a hybrid of many different kinds of things, all of which I think are very current and contemporary.