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For the first time, MacArthur Foundation has given ‘genius’ award to a landscape architect

October 18, 2017 at 12:00 PM

Landscape architect Kate Orff is a 2017 MacArthur Fellow. Orff’s firm, SCAPE, has an impressive portfolio of ecologically driven projects. (John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation/John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

The New York landscape architect Kate Orff, 45, grew up in Crofton, Md., a place she remembers as the type of suburban community built around the automobile and molded on the tenacious idea that the lifeblood of modern settlement is oil.

"We have, intentionally or not, built the American landscape as a massive consumption machine for petrochemicals," she said. She thinks of oceans of lawns, fed by fertilizers and herbicides, of the creep of highway-reliant suburbia and exurbia, and large detached houses that gobble up energy and exhale greenhouse gases.

Orff is representative of a shift in her profession that is shaped primarily by the client's needs and desires to one that confronts pressing environmental issues, particularly in urban and coastal design. Orff's firm, SCAPE, has an impressive portfolio of ecologically driven projects, and its work is getting noticed, including as the lead designer of a $60 million barrier reef and shoreline restoration project in Staten Island called Living Breakwaters.

Related: [ MacArthur grant winners step into the spotlight: ‘Is this really happening?’ ]

Earlier this month, Orff became the first landscape architect to receive a MacArthur Foundation fellowship. (The announcement came as Orff, who also teaches at Columbia University, was in Amman, Jordan, with students looking at water systems). The prestigious prize grants its fellows — 24 this year — a stipend of $625,000 and is sometimes called the MacArthur "genius grant."

If landscape architects cleave into two types, the place maker driven by aesthetics and the environmentalist urban designer, Orff falls squarely into the second camp.

Since her student days — Orff studied at the University of Virginia and Harvard University — the professional focus on ecologically driven design has become mainstream and has always been central to her work. Living Breakwaters is just one of several projects her firm is working on in the New York region responding to the destruction of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. In another major project, in Lexington, Ky., the studio is helping to create a 2.5-mile linear urban park by uncovering a stream now channeled by an underground culvert in what was a classic engineering approach to urban waterways.

On Staten Island's south shore, Living Breakwaters rejects traditional levy and dune building in favor of a series of offshore breakwaters designed to reduce the effects of storm surges. The project incorporates oyster reefs, wetlands and strands — features that once defined the cultural and economic identity of New York's coastal communities. A major part of the project is in creating buildings and programs to connect Staten Islanders to the revived environment. Here is SCAPE's video about the project: Living Breakwaters. Work is due to begin next year.

Historically, urban planning and development has been the province of engineers who, in the past at least, have approached their work as "single-dimension problem solving," she said. "We are trying to look more holistically."

Her inspirational figures have included the iconoclastic Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and the San Francisco-based landscape architect George Hargreaves, whose firm is known globally for large and environmentally complex urban revitalizations.

Orff acknowledges the influence of the father of ecological landscape architecture, Ian McHarg, but says female pioneers deserve better recognition. Orff was particularly inspired by the ideas of nature and urban design of Anne Whiston Spirn, author of "The Granite Garden," published in 1984, and several related books since. She is a professor of landscape architecture and planning at MIT.

"People like Anne Spirn had been talking about these concepts for some time, but it's only in the last five or 10 years that it's been at the forefront of the profession," Orff said.

In 2012 Orff authored "Petrochemical America" with the photographer Richard Misrach, a book about the environmental impact of industries on the Lower Mississippi River and related waterways. Last year, she published "Toward an Urban Ecology," which offers tools and ideas, she said, to regenerate such damaged environments.

Another aspect of her work caught the eye of the MacArthur Foundation — her belief that urban revitalization, in its design and location, should work to bring more social equity and a sense of ownership to poorer citizens.

In announcing the award, the foundation stated "Orff's resourceful design approach calls attention to the most distinctive natural attributes of a given place, while her collaborations and community outreach strategies extend the boundaries of traditional landscape architecture."

Orff once told an interviewer the motivating idea behind starting her firm was that design "isn't a commodity but a sort of public service."

Ecologically driven design, she said, will only become more important as professionals seek to adapt cities to the effects of climate change. She said her selection as the first landscape architect among 989 MacArthur fellows "is so meaningful" to her.

Landscape architects and other design professionals, she said, are changing the way they practice. "This, of course, needs to infiltrate up to more political discourse, but we are all doing what we can," she said.

@adrian_higgins on Twitter

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Adrian Higgins has been writing about gardening, landscape design and related environmental topics since the late 1980s. He joined The Washington Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the "Washington Post Garden Book" and "Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden."

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