Selections from the 2018 Student Awards

Exemplary entries are signs of their time.

By Zach Mortice

“Stop Making Sense” resists applying easily explicable narratives to the open question of nuclear waste storage. Image courtesy Andrew Prindle, Student ASLA, and Kasia Keeley, Student Affiliate ASLA.

The winning entries of the 2018 ASLA Student Awards offer solutions for extreme sites and surreal conditions, completely appropriate to the times in which they were crafted. Here is a selection of six award-winning student projects that greet such days with humanity, nuance, and rigor.

Stop Making Sense: Spatializing the Hanford Site’s Nuclear Legacy

General Design: Honor Award

Composed of a pair of inscrutable concrete bunkers that are 1,000 feet long and dug 60 feet into the earth, “Stop Making Sense” by Kasia Keeley, Student Affiliate ASLA, and Andrew Prindle, Student ASLA, pushes aside dominant narratives about how our nation treats and digests nuclear waste.

“We didn’t want to give people answers, and we didn’t want to force a perspective,” Keeley says. “What we wanted to do was raise questions and incite curiosity.”

The Hanford nuclear site in Washington State, home to the largest amount of nuclear waste in the nation by volume, was the site of Manhattan Project research in the run-up to World War II.

Waste from the site is rounded up into Environmental Restoration Disposal Facility bunkers, spread across more than 100 acres.  Keeley and Prindle (2017 graduates of the University of Washington MLA program) call for two more to be built, away from where waste is stored, adjacent to public roads. For the duo, making these building-scaled bunkers accessible as tourist photo ops unearths troubling, but necessary, questions.

At one bunker, a crushed concrete path takes visitors down into the landscape, confronting them with a monolithic concrete wall at the cell’s base. It’s broken by a thin glass column that allows views into the storage chamber as it extends into the earth. At the other bunker, a path guides visitors up a rise on top of a storage cell with a glass floor from which visitors may look into its depths. Inside, it’s an empty tomb. “You’re coming expecting a solution,” says Keeley, “and you’re given emptiness.”

These are vast, eerie, and menacing places. Keeley says they hope to generate a sense of awe “and hopefully overwhelm people.” Given that the containment measures at Hanford and other nuclear sites are mostly a series of iterative stopgaps, the long-term sequestration of nuclear waste is still a problem to be solved.

“What we’re trying to do is dial it back from these narratives that either historicize [it] in a way that makes it seem like it’s a done story, that the narrative has ended, or to look at it as an engineered solution that has everything absolutely under control,” Keeley says.

More than anything, she wants visitors to look at the containment process and the ecological ramifications of nuclear weapons, power, and waste critically. Keeley says the question of what to do with these poisonous artifacts should be as obvious and accessible as a highway billboard, but far more unsettling.

There’s a juxtaposition at the heart of this site that Keeley says influenced the design. The radioactive danger entombed in the land is a force for both degradation and preservation. The site is filled with radioactive waste, and the danger posed means that access and development are strictly curtailed. That has allowed the undisturbed growth of a shrub-steppe ecosystem, and a rare free-flowing section of the Columbia River. Keeley says she imagines the radiation as light sprinklings of confectioners’ sugar across the landscape, invisible but omnipresent.

The design team had few qualms about preserving the sanctity of the site. There was nothing to preclude dropping 1,000-foot-long empty bunkers into the landscape to make a point. “Nobody is going to want to do that in the Hanford Reach National Monument,” Keeley says. But, “Why not? This isn’t unimpacted, this isn’t pristine nature. Why can’t we make an intervention that is of an industrial scale akin to what’s happening within the site?”

Faculty Adviser: Thaïsa Way, ASLA

Derek Lazo and Serena Lousich’s project is intensely narrative and didactic, telling the story of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation. Image courtesy Derek Lazo, Student ASLA, and Serena Lousich, Student ASLA.

Myth, Memory, and Landscape in the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation

General Design: Honor Award

When University of California, Berkeley graduate students Derek Lazo, Student ASLA, and Serena Lousich, Student ASLA, traveled to the Great Basin region of Nevada to study the landscapes of the Paiute tribe’s desolate lake beds, they told people in nearby Reno where they were going and what they were doing. They mostly got back quizzical looks and the question: “Why?” There is a deep disconnect between Native American histories and ecologies and the denser human settlements, like those in Reno, 60 miles away, that have diverted and consumed the water that once filled these lake beds more than 100 years ago.

“We wanted to take the approach of bridging the two cultures,” Lousich says.

In 1905, the Truckee River was channelized so that it could augment municipal water sources for Reno. It siphoned water from Pyramid Lake and Lake Winemucca, which began a rapid transformation from a fish and waterfowl-filled wetland to desolate scrub. For the people who lived in what would become the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation, this ecological collapse irreparably altered their way of life.

To tell this story, Lazo and Lousich crafted an intensely narrative and didactic landscape composed of five parts. The first stage reveals layers of geologic strata in the lake bed, with a descent into the landscape. Next, clusters of tule reeds remind visitors of the area’s former ecological riches. The path darkens as Cor-Ten steel slabs lean inward and press in on you along the way. Eventually, the trail becomes a narrow, impinged pass, constrained by metaphoric representations of the water’s theft. Finally, the path widens and releases, rejoining the ground plane. It’s a largely wordless narrative, sculpted in earth and shaded in mood. “People would feel they’re going into some sort of history, much like the walls of the Grand Canyon,” Lazo says. “You see all the striations and layers of geologic sedimentary history.”

But despite the site’s geologic scale, it’s far from ancient. A central myth of the Paiute tribe is the story of the Stone Mother, whose tears created Pyramid Lake, and who is represented in a rock formation near the lake. But, Lazo says, in conversations with tribal members, they learned this rock formation only became visible 125 years ago, when water began to be diverted.

Lazo and Lousich formulated a narrative that could contextualize the decline of the lake within the tribe’s ancestral cosmology. Here, greedy coyotes steal the threads of a great quilt (the complex ecology of the region) till the land is barren.

“We are memorializing a landscape itself,” Lousich says. “A lake died, and in turn the fish died, the plants died. This way of life died with it. People were affected, and will be for the rest of their lives. If people can feel the heaviness of that, and look to Pyramid Lake and its beauty to not repeat the same mistakes, then we feel this is a new way of looking to the future of the Paiute Reservation.”

Faculty Adviser: Danika Cooper, Associate ASLA

“In Between Walls” focuses on how to lessen erosion in the Hamoun lakes area of eastern Iran and southwestern Afghanistan. Image courtesy Niloufar Makaremi Esfarjani, Student ASLA.

In Between Walls

General Design: Award of Excellence

For her Award of Excellence-winning design “In Between Walls,” recent University of Toronto graduate Niloufar Makaremi Esfarjani, Student ASLA, wasn’t tracking the flight paths of birds or pollinators, but of sediment and rocks. Her plan for how to lessen erosion for the Hamoun lakes area in the eastern Iran and southwestern Afghanistan border region had her examining the physics of dust storms and wind velocity. She studied the short, bounding hops of gravel, the long arcing flights of silt, and the chaotic ascent and gradual drop of dried clay.

The erosion that allows these devastating dust storms has been caused in part by unsustainable land management practices, such as water diversion and overabundant livestock grazing. These practices have stripped the earth of vegetation needed to anchor the soil, and encouraged rapid evaporation in the lakes’ shrinking wetlands. The erosion and dust storms are exacerbated by Iran and Afghanistan’s “winds of 120 days,” infamous gusts of more than 100 miles per hour that blow from late spring through summer.

To tamp down the dust, Makaremi Esfarjani recommends planting native species that require little water (such as cattails and sedge) in areas where vegetation remains in order to increase the footprint of these wetlands. “If you prevent [erosion], the water’s going to stay longer, and in time we’ll have more water each year, and then the birds are going to come back, because this place used to be a huge bird migration [area],” she says.

In areas entirely devoid of vegetation and moisture, blocking the fierce dust storms and the erosion they cause is the only solution left. And for this, Makaremi Esfarjani designed a series of seven walls, composed of local brick (called Kahgol) made with water, sandy soil, and straw.

The walls’ heights (10, 30, and 49 feet) are varied to block different sediment sizes from blowing across the barriers, and affect the height and distance between each wind-sculpted sand dune. Apertures and breaks in the walls are placed to minimize dust storms’ destructive potential and to frame views of the surrounding landscape, especially views toward Iran’s Mount Khajeh, a holy place for the Zoroastrian, Christian, Buddhist, and Muslim religions.

The dust storms that gather at the foot of Mount Khajeh race across both Afghanistan and Iran. It’s a geopolitically fraught border, and former MLA student Makaremi Esfarjani hopes this plan’s ameliorative effects could reduce political tension between the two nations. Likewise, her plan reaches beyond the strict borders of landscape architecture to help solve political conflicts. It’s Makaremi Esfarjani’s intention to unite and orient people of both nations around this focal point, addressing “how we can connect people back to each other,” she says, so they can “solve our problems together.”

Faculty Adviser: Fadi Masoud

“Korea Remade” knits together the Korean Peninsula with a series of renewable energy fields, agricultural plots, and curated Korean War infrastructure. Image courtesy Xiwei Shen, Student ASLA; Jiawen Chen, Student ASLA, and Siyu Jiang, Student ASLA.

Korea Remade: A Guide to Reuse the DMZ Area Toward Unification

Communications: Award of Excellence

The 2.5-mile-wide, 150-mile-long Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that stretches across the Korean Peninsula is as contested and militarized as a border zone can be, rendering between 1 and 2 percent of the entire peninsula’s landmass inaccessible and unproductive. To allow for productive landscapes as well as cross-cultural understanding between North and South Korea, Xiwei Shen, Student ASLA; Jiawen Chen, Student ASLA; and Siyu Jiang, Student ASLA, of the Harvard University Graduate School of Design came up with a plan to weave together overlapping agriculture, energy generation, and tourist landscapes across the DMZ.

The students prescribe a slow, gradual process of clearing out land mines in favor of solar and wind farms. Food security, especially important in the north, could be enhanced by installing terraced agriculture and fields dug into shallow bowls irrigated by runoff at lower elevations. Most evocatively, relics from the Korean War (watchtowers, crater lakes formed from aerial bombing, tank traps, bunkers) are stabilized and presented as accessible sites of remembrance and trauma.

Shen imagines the plan beginning with the South Korea city of Cheorwon and the North Korea city of Pyongyang (only a few miles away from each other) anchoring an agricultural belt that unites the two countries. “They could potentially be linked together to form a big agricultural zone to provide for the whole peninsula,” he says.

This plan is illustrated in desaturated, photo-realistic hardbound volumes and a website that lends emotional weight to these scarred landscapes. The project responds to a difficult political context by presenting itself as being explicable and feasible. “Not many people can go there, so the important thing is to be realistic,” Shen says.

Faculty Advisers: Niall Kirkwood, FASLA; Yoon-Jin Park, International ASLA; Jungyoon Kim

“Bloom!” considers algae as a beneficial source of energy and beauty instead of a despised pollutant. Image courtesy Xiwei Shen, Student ASLA, and Jiawen Chen, Student ASLA.


Bloom! A Dynamic Landscape Biological System

Analysis and Planning: Honor Award

The uncontrolled and explosive growth of algae pollution has created marine dead zones in some 400 places across the globe, and its ill effects on public health, tourism, and the seafood industry cost $82 million a year. Fed by phosphates or nitrogen deployed as agricultural fertilizer and spewing out toxic hydrogen sulfide once it dies and decomposes, algae is often a scourge in wetlands.

But Xiwei Shen, Student ASLA, a student in the MLA program at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, saw potential for so much more. “Why can’t we reuse algae to make unique landscape architecture?” he asks.

“Bloom! A Dynamic Landscape Biological System” looks at three adjacent sites in Texas. Shen weaves an intricate web of artificial ecologies that produce aesthetically stunning landscapes, as well as a wide range of sustainably produced resources. First, an abandoned wastewater treatment plant is converted to a high-tech wastewater treatment plan for algae, producing blue green algae, bioluminescent algae, and diatom algae, which can be converted into fertilizer. “Each of the three types [of algae] has a connection to each other,” he says. Algae is used as food for fish in the adjacent aquaculture operation. It’s also collected for its biomass, to be turned into energy, making “Bloom!” an “algae power station,” says Shen, who began this project as an undergrad, and invited Jiawen Chen, Student ASLA, and Chengzhe Zhang, Student ASLA, to participate at Harvard. Next door, ponds in an adjacent park and the nearby Trinity River combine flowing fresh water to carefully manage these algae growth beds. And as cars rush by on Interstate 30, just beyond the river, a series of tubes siphons carbon dioxide from their exhaust pipes to accelerate algae growth. In this way, Shen is testing the carbon sequestration potential for algae.

Shen says this template for the remediative power of algae can be applied at smaller scales, as long as you “have a core of algae production, so they can provide resources.”

But there’s poetry beyond the carbon-cycle prose to “Bloom!” as well. Shen sees algae, especially bioluminescent algae, as an artistic medium. It’s used as a spatial organizer and an aesthetic attraction, with bioluminescent lighting sculptures and 1.7 miles of linear glowing algae troughs, where an eerie blue glimmer makes algae an undeniable attraction.

Faculty Advisers: Craig Douglas, David Watts

“Sediment Thruways” are both recreation trails and channels for debris flows. Image courtesy Sarah Toth, Student ASLA.

Pyro-Diversion: Planning for Fire in the San Gabriel Valley

Analysis and Planning: Honor Award

“There are only [a few] aspects of wildfires that we can control,” says Sarah Toth, Student ASLA, a recent MLA graduate of the City College of New York. “Climate, we cannot control. Weather, we cannot control. However, we can control the amount of fuel that’s available.”

Toth’s plan for the San Gabriel Valley of Southern California seeks to modulate the availability and pattern of vegetative wildfire fuel, with full recognition that past efforts to do so have fallen flat and even at times increased the odds of raging blazes spinning out of control. Current fire management techniques, she says, clear out vegetation to reduce combustible biomass, but in time these areas often become overrun by invasive grasses that can burn very quickly. “Pyro-Diversion” instead takes a more nuanced and multipronged tack, meant to impede, but not entirely suppress, wildfires.

This toolbox type of plan for the northern reaches of Los Angeles that border the foothills of the Angeles National Forest offers a range of landforms and plantings that work as buffers between combustible hillsides and human settlement. These include excavating thin bands of soil (sometimes only three feet deep) to expose nonflammable bedrock that can delay fire’s advance, and planting tall trees that can act as windbreaks, slowing the airborne spread of fire. Debris flows are common on these hills, as burning chaparral shrubland generates a waxy residue that coats the ground, preventing infiltration and absorption of rainwater, which can then flow rapidly downhill, sweeping up everything in its path. To capture these flows, debris basins are dug near the base of hillsides. Once the fire dies down, these basins can be mined for stone aggregate to be piled into firebreaks and soil, which can be placed into berms that create a buffer zone between houses and the hillside. (The plan also urges buyouts and relocations for critically at-risk properties.)

Throughout, Toth advocates for “fire-adapted” native plant species, some of which need fire to germinate. These include Mediterranean cypress, tecate cypress, and mountain mahogany. Plants like coastal live oak and Angelina stonecrop help reduce erosion.

“Sediment thruways” identified in Toth’s plan work as paths for sediment flows that channel these destructive waves of mud and debris away from people during a disaster. But they also double as recreational hiking trails snaking up the hillside. Organized according to maps of previous sediment flows, these trails invite visitors to become more aware of a process that otherwise seems chaotic and mysterious, so that they might better understand it and accept living within its limits.

Faculty Advisers: Catherine Seavitt Nordenson, ASLA; Matthew Seibert, ASLA

 Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist who focuses on landscape architecture and architecture. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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