Processes of becoming: water and wastewater in some Northwest urban landscapes

October 2, 2011 § 5 Comments

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Last week I spent time in a city where rivers and streams are so much a fabric of the culture, they are a character in public life, possibly even approaching equals along with salmon, Microsoft, clearcut forest, and eagles…

Salmon, the beloved icon of the northwest– do not spawn without healthy streams– and this issue is very much part of public conversation. The largest dam removal in U.S. history: that of the Elwha dam– is currently in progress. Restoration of the Elwha River to a ‘natural’ state promises to restore salmon habitat in a really big way.

Even Seattle City Hall has a stream running right through the building. Though it might not be a natural stream, it walks down a long flight of stairs like no other stream, then exits through the other side of the building. It is a very low key stream designed by Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, and it fulfills its civic duties in a matter of fact manner.

I am fascinated by the integration of water issues into many Northwest urban landscapes, and my favorite of these landscapes not only function ecologically and culturally, but also show us something about our role in the water cycle. In Southern California, we have our own pressing issues with the water cycle. Becoming attuned to the local landscape means accepting the seasonal dynamics of Southern California streams. To cultivate a local esthetic helps us reduce the importation of water from elsewhere. Despite the differences between here and there, some examples of Northwest urban landscapes integrating water might still inspire….

Lawrence Halprin’s three iconic fountain landscapes in Portland and Seattle– Lovejoy, Ira Keller, and Freeway– are as 70s as they are celebratory, participatory, and raw. They push physical and social boundaries. They are also stylizations of aspects of the local landscape. Halprin wrote that he wanted “to bring into the heart of downtown activities which related in a very real way to the environment of the Portland area – the Columbia River, the Cascade mountains, the streams, rivers and mountain meadows”. Halprin sent designer Alexandra Danadjieva (of Ira Keller and Freeway Parks) off to tour western canyons for a month of design research!

Pedestrian bridge over entrance to West Point Wastewater Treatment Plant by Danadjieva & Koenig Associates source:

After establishing her own practice, Danadjieva would later design West Point Wastewater Treatment Plant, a landscape that abstracts topography just as Freeway and Ira Keller Parks abstracted canyons and waterfalls. West Point cleverly nestles an entire wastewater treatment plant into complex terrain, making the plant virtually invisible to the users of surrounding trails, who might imagine they are simply enjoying nature. Though elegant in form, the plant is barely visible to the public except at a single revelatory point– a pedestrian bridge over the entrance to the plant.

The Brightwater Wastewater Treatment plant, whose opening was the occasion of my visit, takes the opposite approach. As 4Culture’s Cath Brunner put it, our society can no longer afford to be “out of sight, out of mind” about our infrastructure. The plant’s integrated public artworks and architecture began with the intention to reveal the plant’s functions.

Though Brightwater’s membrane filtration is top-of-the-line in terms of  conventional wastewater treatments, conventional wastewater treatment does not compare to the ecological elegance of compost toilets, which figure in Buster Simpson’s body of work. Buster Simpson is one of the only “land” artists of his generation whose work still stands up to contemporary standards of ecological stewardship. In this realm, he has been way ahead of the curve. Decades ago, when “ecological” was an obscure term which I’d never seen applied to the urban context, Buster’s projects included recycled materials; channelling urban storm runoff to water plants; and compost toilets disguised as port-a-potties but placed with future urban forestry in mind. Simpson’s best artworks speak to us on a cultural level, are instructive, and are functional in terms of urban ecology: they fertilize treewells, or clean and store stormwater. But more than that, they are just plain fun.

Another landscape which works hard to clean water is Lorna Jordan’s Waterworks, which uses a series of ponds to treat stormwater. Jordan’s intention is to “invite people to observe the natural processes of water purification while connecting them to the cycles and mysteries of water.” Located on the grounds of the Renton Wastewater Treatment Plant and funded as a public art project, it appeared on the cover of Landscape Architecture magazine and immediately became, as public artist Anita Margrill told me, “part of the language.”

Modified gutters by Buster Simpson source:

Ravenna Park is a beautiful urban park centered around a stream. Parts of the creek had long been routed with and treated as sewage, the city’s proposal to reroute the creek led to the community organizing to propose daylighting instead. The result of conversation between the community and the city, is a creek that will snake above and below ground on its way to the bay. It is an urban stream whose form reveals the contradictions of circumstance. A beautiful minimal public artwork by  Mark Brest van Kempen calls attention to the presence of the stream where it would otherwise be hidden underground.

Van Kempen’s conceptual drawings show blue lines marking the path of the creek through the city and reveals in sidewalks where one can look down and see the creek flowing under the street. A wonderfully mysterious inlet creating a bit of theatre where the creek drops into an underground pipe, unfortunately was obscured by plant growth when I visited.

Could one day blue lines and reveal windows– like those proposed by Van Kempen– be part of the fabric of urban life in our own city, similarly to our familiar stencils on stormdrains saying “No dumping… drains to ocean”? I loved best that this artwork did not romanticise the stream. The elegantly placed interventions I found were just enough to remind you of the complexity of our urban infrastructure, and the tenuousness of this patchwork of urban ‘nature’.

A reveal, from Ravenna Creek Project by Mark Brest van Kempen source:

A Creek transitions into an underground pipe, from Ravenna Creek Project by Mark Brest van Kempen source:

Laurie Olin’s grandly scaled outdoor glass pavilion in Portland’s Director Park is inspired by his time spent living on Bainbridge Island, where rainy days could be enjoyed from under the roof of a covered deck. I imagine spending time under Director Park’s glass canopy on a rainy day would be pleasant, even luxurious. There is no stream per se in this park. But in spirit one might imagine such a pavilion to be a celebration of the streams that are in the slow process of  becoming. This is rain at its most sophisticatedly Northwest.


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§ 5 Responses to Processes of becoming: water and wastewater in some Northwest urban landscapes

  • Jessica Hall says:

    thanks Jane for this exploration! It would be great to hear more about your project at Brightwater…

  • maxutility says:

    I’m also really struck by Van Kempen’s notions that make one aware of the reality of water flows without resorting to overly sentimental attempts to make the treatment seem like a mini “natural environment”. In the urban context, it seems we often allow ourselves only to hide the natural or attempt to restore the natural. These odd pockets of manufactured ‘natural settings’ I think sometimes distance people more from the natural processes going on around them by making them something like a museum piece.

    Dense urban environments will always alter the natural. But I see real value in structuring that environment in ways that reveals the natural forces still at work without trying to pretend that we are not impacting them.

  • Jane Tsong says:

    Maxutility, thank you for your perceptive observations, so well articulated. I agree! A challenge for us designers. Also, I am really impressed by your blog and will follow it….

    Jessica, there are currently nine artworks at Brightwater, some very interesting and worth a separate post. Though my own is not completely installed yet, it is available on audio tour:

    Press 1 for Public Art
    Then tour stop numbers:
    6- water
    4- air
    2- solids

    will keep you posted. Until then, enjoy…

  • […] of celebrating water, albeit in bigger more institutional ways, check out Jane Tsong’s Creek Freak article on Seattle’s new wastewater facility, also covered at Circle of Blue.) LD_AddCustomAttr("AdOpt", "1"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Origin", […]

  • That Ira Keller Fountain pic is interesting. Must have been taken decades ago – before cities became so fearful of potential litigation!

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