by Sunena V MajuAug 18, 2022
Superstorms, earthquakes, floods—we are living in the age of the climate crisis. It is time we realise that our world is shaped by more than just human forces. It is critical to acknowledge the multiplicities—flora, fauna, and climate to name a few—that shape our built environment, and look beyond the anthropocentric. Architecture and urbanism must adapt to a world in flux.
This year’s OBEL AWARD, centered on the theme of ‘adaptation’, deals with this very issue. The international award which honours exceptional architectural contributions to people and planet, is presented annually by the Henrik Frode Obel Foundation. The 2023 winner is Kate Orff, founder of the New York-based multidisciplinary practice SCAPE, recognised for Living Breakwaters—a green infrastructure project that takes into account and works with non-human entities.
Orff is the fifth honouree to receive the prize for a project 'that helps change our physical, designed environment for the common good'. Previous years' winners have been material science lab Seratech’s carbon-neutral concrete (2022); Professor Carlos Menos' urban design proposal 15-minute city (2021); German architect Anna Heringer’s multi-layered building Anandaloy (2020); and Japanese architect Junya Ishigami’s Water Garden (2019).
According to Orff, human and non-human entities must work together in order to design the natural systems of the future. Nearly 2,400 linear feet of biodiverse breakwaters make up Living Breakwaters, a necklace of structures shaped like small tide pools built from stone and ecologically-enhanced concrete, along the southern shore of Staten Island. These are placed strategically to calm the tides, reduce erosion, and revive the onshore beaches. Moreover, provisions of “reef ridges” and “reef streets” take into account the diverse marine life of the bay. The project, which will be completed next year, was developed by SCAPE for Rebuild by Design—a design competition led by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) after Superstorm Sandy. The design ‘collaborates’ with oysters to form an artificial reef that protects the shore. As the oysters reproduce, the breakwater structures grow denser.
“The design is a collaboration between human hands and the harnessing of natural processes. There are moments where you see the obvious sculpting of a reef street or the synthetic curve of a manufactured tide pool, but over time, these things will blur into a hybrid of constructed and natural forms coming together,” Orff elaborates. “We have to move past this notion that design is a trendy object or a signature building or an Instagram moment. We have to think about design at a holistic, planetary scale, and think about mending the fabric of life on earth.” The notion of adaptation means that instead of trying to control or mitigate the natural world, we must rethink our relationship with it.
While using breakwaters to mitigate tidal damage is an ancient idea, working with non-human entities makes Orff’s proposal unique. “Rather than rushing to erect vertical seawalls and barriers that aim to solve one threat, and create myriad new problems, we advanced a holistic approach of risk reduction, rebuilding ecosystems, and fostering coastal habitat,” she explains. Oysters naturally clean and filter water, helping to restore marine habitats. Hence, they prove to be “critical infrastructure that not only buffers waves, but brings people together with a shared purpose”.
Beyond the breakwaters’ function as climate-adaptive infrastructure, the project has also involved education and engagement-related programming with the aim to advance community stewardship and foster recreational activities along the water’s edge. Through it, over a period of 10 years, educational opportunities were provided for local communities. Open houses, community meetings, site-specific installations, exhibitions, virtual reality (VR) experiences and digital outreach were all part of the educational aspect of the decade-long work along the shore. Once constructed, the structure will raise awareness of coastal risk, resilience and harbour ecosystem health.
On the relevance of the design, the jury highlighted how the project underscores the active role humans must play in the process of climate adaptation. “[Living Breakwaters] tackles the full task of adaptation,” according to the Chair of the OBEL AWARD jury, Martha Schwarthz. “[It] has the capacity to inspire and to positively impact vulnerable shorelines worldwide”, she concludes.
To Orff, adaptation cannot be thought of as a solution but must be thought of as a process. It calls for an architecture that can confront uncertainty. “The project is not a singular gesture; it's part of a process that's unfolding in time and which will put us on a different, more sustainable path,” she says. Architecture must recognise its ecological and social responsibilities, and it is this quality that makes Living Breakwaters so critical to the contemporary design discourse.
Speaking of why winning the award is a significant milestone, Orff adds, “It is a true encouragement for community members, elected officials, landscape architects, ecologists and engineers, to come together and develop coastal adaptation projects wherever they are…Hopefully, this award can emphasise this point: that nature is a matter of design now and that we have to work fast and work together.”
The OBEL AWARD will be presented in a ceremony at the Sydney Opera House on October 21, 2023.