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© Landing Studio


In Conversation with LANDING STUDIO, Part 2

May 12, 2018

This interview with Marie Law Adams and Dan Adams, the founding principals of LANDING STUDIO, was conducted and condensed by frank news. This is part two of an ongoing conversation between frank and LANDING STUDIO.

I heard you guys just won an award at APA. 

MARIE: Yes, that’s our first recognition by a planning group. 

You’re in the planning department at MIT, Dan directs the architecture department at Northeastern, your firm is winning planning awards. What does the tension mean to you? What does it mean to be in the middle of it?

MARIE: It's exactly what has defined our practice. Everything we're working on is at a moment of disconnect between something happening on the ground and something in policy.

The Clean Water Act is everything for working with highway viaducts. Suddenly there is an agenda that we can work with. We can use landscape systems to mitigate the impacts of the highway and address water quality issues that come from it.

We appreciate the pressures of environmental policy on infrastructure to push new ways of thinking about how these sites work. 

I think that failure happens when the policy appears as a hurdle to industries. They hold off on improvements for as long as possible. 

What the moment of departure for you in architecture school? When did you realize that your interest was beyond buildings?

MARIE: We both come from architecture programs that discouraged us from making buildings. It was more of a design-focused education. I think we took that to heart and never really invested in thinking much about buildings. Rather, what are bigger pictures that can be solved or addressed through design in some way.

DAN: I think it was revelatory to start our practice with this Salt Pile. To see a landscape that operates at one scale. But then witness this constant state of kinetics to realize that the landscape is overtly connected to the rest of the world. 

Who is designing those urban relationships? What are the mediums through which to do it? 

DAN: We always run into this scenario. We talk about our work and people reference projects like the High Line that New York. It's a very post-industrial. I think often that's where people see the role of designers: how to literally convert former industrial operations into a domesticated program for the city, for recreation. Rather than thinking about situating their work within the design of industrial operations themselves.

MARIE: A highway or bridge is filled with design constraints. They have different types of opportunities around them. Our design evolved as soon as we talked to the bridge inspectors. We understood how to support what they do but also allow public access to the community.

That starts to happen when you're working with infrastructural or industrial areas. You discover new ways to bring in the public realm.

How do you define the community? 

DAN:  the definition of community is a difficult question on a lot of these sites. I think a lot of times there is some default conception that the community is the people who live within a specific proximity.

MARIE: Which it is…

DAN: It certainly is. But more and more we're coming to understand that these things are part of a broader, regional, and in fact global community, particularly when you're talking at the scale of infrastructure and industrial systems.

When you put it at the scale of the environment, a decision made in Boston must keep in mind the people in perhaps Yemen, where the natural gas is actually produced before it gets here.

Are the decisions in Boston making considerate of those distant communities that are inherently linked?

MARIE: I think that comes into play through policy. The question becomes, how does that process work out on the ground?  The communities that we do have access to are super local. But the policy advocates for the more regional impacts of these spaces. We try to negotiate those interests in the project.

How did the light installation change attention to the area from the community?

MARIE: We wanted the installation to start a conversation, and then see what happens. It led to some strange — 

DAN: Observations…

MARIE: Mainly through newspaper articles. Local newspaper articles would poke fun at the project. And criticize the industry for trying to communicate back to the community. 

DAN: But it also unveiled certain things. They interviewed people in the city. Different people had different responses, they would say things like “Oh I think this is great because I don't care about the lighting in this salt pile, but it brings more light onto the street. The street’s normally creepy and dark and it kind of helps address that issue.”

MARIE: Or “oh can we propose here?”

DAN: That's the weird irony. People used it as a platform to criticize the industry. And yet in the same article someone asked if they could propose on the salt pile. It immediately shows the conflicted nature of these things. Why people feel the way they feel. 

This question of being part of a community, one way to do that is to hold meetings where people come and talk. 

MARIE: And we do that. 

DAN: Another type is to to actually work with people who are changing the light fixtures on the highway. We have spent nights talking with them about their job and what they do, and by getting to know them we learn about issues in the area.

MARIE: That's how we started our work with the MASS DOT [Department of Transportation].  They asked us to do a two week, temporary light installation under the Southeast Expressway in Boston. We ended up doing it for two years. Every two weeks to a month we'd go out there at night for six hours or so, changing the lights. We got to be intimately familiar with the light and the nightlife of the space. We saw it change dramatically in the few years that we were there.

DAN: That's a funny thing in the design world. How removed people are from the things they design. Our approach is to try and be engaged with the communities we're designing for.

MARIE: It’s challenging. It does take a lot of time to do that. The Charlesgate project is the first that was initiated from a community group. It feels like a different context for us because they've already got their own organizational structure around the place. They're doing tours and trying to bring people into the site. In some ways there is less burden on us to stir up activity, as we did in other projects. The more abandoned, industrial or infrastructural ones.

Can you talk about the dinosaurs?

MARIE: The dinosaurs are part of the Underground at Ink Block Project. The highway changes form— 

DAN: We call one side the Fray. Like a fraying rope. All the strands of the highway spread apart. Water and light get down under the highway, and the area has no surface roads. It’s important to point out. People look at a highway and just call it a highway. But there are radically different architectures. The other side is what we call the Bundle, where all of the ramps compress into a really tight strand, about 15 lanes wide. It’s a 200-foot wide viaduct. There is no water or light. It has surface roads, so huge amounts of sound get trapped. Whereas in in the Fray, no sound traps. It emanates into the atmosphere.

Dinosaurs LANDING Drawing

Via Landing Studio. Boston, MA | 2016

The dinosaurs are an effort to make the experience of passing through that cave more pleasant.  Essentially through lighting and art installation. But it is not a space to encourage people to spend time in. It's not really a pleasant environment.

But it is a route. 

DAN: It's a route that's heavily travelled. The dinosaurs are meant to make passage less threatening. The other parts of the landscape address ecosystem performance and recreation. They encourage people to spend time. The design differences come from physical differences in the infrastructure itself.

Dinosaurs LANDING bike

Via Landing Studio. Boston, MA | 2016

Olmsted was trying to mask these ecosystem operations. Maybe now we’re more open to seeing how things work. How do you deal with people who call it ugly?

MARIE: We've been doing a lot of work with the Emerald Necklace Conservancy. The president, who's a planner, is frustrated by the fact that many Bostonians don't know that the Emerald Necklace is an infrastructural system. It was designed to manage floodwater and urbanization at a time when Boston grew really quickly. It's an entirely constructed landscape but it appears to be natural and pastoral. That English, picturesque imagery. It appears as if it was always there. Whereas other, more infrastructural environments like the highways are so clearly built by humans. 

Emerald One

Image via LANDING STUDIO. Charlesgate. Boston, MA | 2017-Present

I think it became pretty obvious early on working with salt piles. You can't try to compete with that scale, or make things go away, or mitigate their impact. You have to just work with what's there.

A lot of post-industrial projects, like the High Line, mainstreamed the industrial aesthetic. So that starts to make active, industrial landscapes more palatable.

DAN: Over the last 10 years it has become a weird kind of marketing. Typical condominium developments now embrace an edgy, industrial aesthetic. It makes people more apt to accept actual infrastructure and industrial systems in their city. It is challenging. On a lot of our park projects, for example, we want to use habitat-rich, native plants. But people say oh it looks weedy and demand that it gets mowed down, which eliminates the habitat. You realize so much of it is about perception of things. 

MARIE: I find in the communities we work with that the perception of natural-looking landscapes is more controversial than the industrial relics themselves. 

DAN: Joan Iverson Nassauer wrote a great piece called Messy Ecosystems, Orderly Frames. It is about how in cities, we try to hide from ourselves the things we don't like about ourselves.  That operates on so many scales. It means that the oil refinery goes far away. Sewage goes down into pipes where you can't see it. We mow the plants so that they seem controlled and orderly. We sterilize things with toxic chemicals. All so that we don't have to confront the parts of ourselves we don't like. Some of it is probably a strange fiction we've inherited over time, through market and aesthetic regimes that we think are preferable now.

We now know how much of those are premised on really bad environmental concepts, global inequity and injustice. Even toxic chemicals to make things sterilized or to make neon-green lawns. It’s the same way we have to work against 100 years of problematic infrastructure development.

There are 100 years of associated perceptions and mentalities that came out of those infrastructures. That needs to change.

MARIE: I think the communication of intent is really important in a landscape that doesn't appear manicured. 

Use your design education to change the narrative so that people think this is what they want.

DAN: At I-93 for example, we diverted the highway’s train leaders into the landscape. At the end of the train leaders there are rocky deposits that catch all of the cigarette butts, styrofoam, leaves, grit, and everything else nasty that flows off of highways. So you now have to see all of those things when you go there. But it also makes maintenance very easy. You just rake it out and put in a trash bag. It used to just go into the ocean, and that was great, right? Because the tide comes in every six hours and takes that stuff away. You can pretend it no longer exists because it's just gone.

We know that it is not gone, and the ocean is a very small and delicate thing.

MARIE: There does have to be a shift in what you want to see in public, open space in order to do this.

There's clearly a design intention to collecting all this junk in one place. Is it also intentional to have people see it?

MARIE: I don't think that our design team knew that that was going to happen, and we didn't really know either. It was something that we started observing once the project was under construction. All of a sudden we were like, ok this is actually interesting, that it becomes legible in the landscape.

DAN: Planning is flawed with concepts of isolation. This is where planning sort of undermines the value of design. As designers we believe you can design solutions to complicated things.

MARIE: That friction is really important though. 

DAN: Planning aims to separate frictions. Like, oh it's a problem to have a refinery next to a community or an elementary school.

And the truth is, yes, it is. Either you eliminate that friction or redesign it. But the idea that those frictions somehow go away, just by keeping those places physically isolated, is a problematic environmental philosophy.

We should depend on that dance between planning, policy and design innovation to actually make solutions to those frictions. And if the friction can't be solved through design, maybe we shouldn't be doing those things.

MARIE: You're starting this issue with Thomas Campanella’s essay and the fear of big projects. think today we're dealing with the legacy of those big projects, but can only do small projects to react to them.

In Boston, stormwater that comes into the city goes through a whole network of green infrastructure projects. You have to just operate in the margins. 

DAN: There’s no one thing that could fix it all. Which is funny with something like the LA River. It’s a bit of a sick irony that in a city that is deprived of water, the fundamental principle managing water is to get it out of the city. And in that process, contaminate and kill any habitat that could be provided by the water. That's one of the strange philosophies of the last 100 years. 

This is not totally surprisingly in the petroleum era: the idea that nature and cities are antithetical. We became enemies with natural systems and the goal was to flush them from the city, put them in the ocean. Yet for thousands of years natural processes are what fueled cities. This is what I mean by a radically wrong philosophy.

The industrial revolution and the era of petroleum was fundamentally about that. A source of energy more powerful than gravity, more powerful than the wind, that could let us do things no longer contingent on natural processes. And then that became the philosophy of cities. That we don’t have to work with these systems— we could actually work in spite of them. We are seeing the consequences of that now.