Redesigning Environmentalism

Redesigning Environmentalism

Landscape architect Ian Quate MLA 11 (center) is using scientifically informed design methods to clean up Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal.

“Science is my muse for design,” says landscape architect Ian Quate MLA 11, recalling the many trips he took to the Sciences Library at neighboring Brown University when he was at RISD. The grad student in Landscape Architecture had prior research experience in botany and pharmacopeia and knew he “wanted to work with living things.” Reading about science – and especially genetics – inspired him to push beyond what landscape architects are expected to accomplish in the world.

Today, as a leading member of an interdisciplinary team that conceived “an alternative form of cleanup” for Brooklyn’s notoriously polluted Gowanus Canal, Quate is using scientifically informed design methods to redefine environmentalism. Currently based in Manhattan, the designer began to develop the idea for the BK BioReactor, a “mobile research library,” when he moved to Brooklyn soon after graduating five years ago. Last fall it won first prize in Gowanus by Design’s international Axis Civitas design competition.

While visiting RISD Professor Peter Yeadon’s studio in Brooklyn, Quate discovered the community biotech lab Genspace just downstairs – which proved to be something of a eureka moment. “I don’t believe in fate,” he says of connecting with Genspace’s citizen scientists, “but now I know why I moved to New York: to discover this place. All the stuff I had been reading about for three years – I can now put my hands on it.”

Quate began conducting independent research at Genspace around the same time the US Environmental Protection Agency declared the nearby Gowanus Canal a “superfund” site and scheduled it for cleanup beginning this year. With the EPA planning to dredge sub-aquatically to cap the canal, he couldn’t help but think about his graduate thesis research on the Berkeley Pit, a contaminated former copper mine in Butte, MT.

Ian Quate MLA 11

While on site in Montana, Quate interviewed the namesake husband-and-wife scientists of the Stierle Lab, who discovered bacteria living in the pit’s crimson water. They recognized that an organism that can survive in such polluted conditions might also yield patentable information for cancer research. Looking at the Gowanus a few years later, Quate imagined that, like the Berkeley Pit, it might be a repository of information with great potential. So he resolved to take samples from the water and analyze them at Genspace.

Quate put the idea on hold when he joined the New York office of Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects (NBW), a firm with a concept-driven approach to landscape design that aligns well with what he learned at RISD. Soon after, however, he pitched it to NBW Principal Thomas Woltz as a pro-bono, community-based research project. The idea was to team with Genspace and the Gowanus Canal Conservancy and use the tools of biotechnology to “map and understand more information from the environment, which is what landscape designers are always after,” Quate explains. “We design in code [that] is then decoded in the constructed landscape. The more information we have, the richer our work is and the better we can understand the ecosystems we are either inadvertently – or hopefully, intentionally – creating.”

Once Woltz agreed to sponsor the research, Quate, his NBW colleague Matthew Seibert (also of Landscape Metrics), research scientist Elizabeth Hénaff and Genspace cofounder Ellen Jorgensen donned Tyvek suits (see photo above) and began mining the Gowanus for samples that Hénaff analyzed at Weill Cornell Medicine. Their research was in progress when Gowanus by Design, a nonprofit dedicated to “community-based design advocacy,” announced the Axis Civitas competition that sought alternative proposals to the EPA’s scheduled 10-year cleanup plan. Since the BK BioReactor beat out a competitive international field of entries, the team has presented their research to local officials and at area schools in their continued efforts to raise awareness of the Gowanus’ potential for biomedical research.

"Landscape architects design in code [that] is then decoded in the constructed landscape. The more information we have, the richer our work is and the better we can understand the ecosystems we are [...] creating."
Ian Quate MLA 11

When Quate visited RISD to speak in early spring, he admitted to students and faculty that design has only now become a more explicit aspect of the Gowanus project. The team recently began a residency at the Visible Futures Lab at the School of Visual Arts to design desktop devices to test the bioreceptivity of common building materials by culturing sediment samples from the canal. But he says the impact of the ongoing project on his design thinking has been profound.

“It’s about leveraging ideas,” Quate says. “For me that’s the promise of landscape architecture – of this way of working that’s not studio art or science.” By extending his reach into fields beyond the traditional realm of landscape architects, he’s hoping to break through unnecessary, arbitrary limitations on what designers do and what kinds of relationships they can harness.

Robert Albanese

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