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© Getty Images


In Conversation with LANDING STUDIO

May 9, 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 one of an ongoing conversation between frank and LANDING STUDIO.

landing portrait frank

Let's just jump into it.

MARIE: Our practice started right out of projects we did in graduate school. Margaret Crawford was quite influential. Dan was taking a course with her at the Harvard GSD.

DAN: While you were studying with Krzysztof [Wodiczko] at MIT.

MARIE: At the same time. I think our first work was a little bit of a hybrid of Krzysztof and Margaret, or at least our perception of their work at the time.

DAN: Planning and installation art.

MARIE: Our first intervention in the real world as a practice was a series of light installations on a salt pile in Chelsea, Massachusetts. It was an environment we thought was visually and formally fascinating, and sort of industrial heavy - they were receiving global shipments of road salt. These huge salt mountains were kinetic: rising and falling with all of the shipments and storms. Our first project was to cast light on that, literally, with a series of theater stage lights that we installed along the public roadway, and then projected text and images on them.


Chelsea, MA | 2005 courtesy of LANDING STUDIO

DAN: It was a strange situation, an industrial facility in the city, that had been there for a half century. On one hand everybody knew of it. They even sort of identified their town with it. They would talk about flying into the Boston Airport, and how it was like a monument of their local community. Oftentimes they had family members who had worked there, or not worked there, but then they also talked about it in a negative way. It seemed in some ways like those weren't even necessarily their own thoughts. We've been trained to think of certain things as ugly, and certain things as all right. It seemed like a strange dynamic. We started talking with the owners of that facility, and it became clear that in many ways, what was missing was any form of a designed relationship between the city and the industry. It was maybe a default relationship, or relationship that had come to be, but wasn't something that was consciously choreographed.

LANDING STUDIO salt 'let it snow'

Chelsea, MA | 2005 courtesy of LANDING STUDIO

MARIE: These things were very close to each other. You had single family homes right across the street from a very major industrial operation, and nothing to reconcile those two things in space. The first thought we had was, how do you generate dialogue between those communities?

DAN: And design a relationship.

I think architects focus so much on a singular design, of a single object, at a single moment in time, for even a single client. And what became clear in this may be a reason why industries so often aren't designed, and fall outside of the purview of the typical design realm: that it is much more designing in the life of something, than designing for the life of something. We've been working with this client now for nearly 15 years, just constantly working through the design. In the life of the industry, not of the industry. Which I think is a big difference.

Were neighborhood opinions part of the design process?

MARIE: Yes, it became very apparent to us the first day we went there. We saw the facility, we thought it was very interesting and walked in, and met with the terminal manager the first day. He said they had a lot of challenges communicating with the local community. We said that we were design students, and he was like, well maybe you can help us think —

DAN: They basically hired us that day. We just started designing with them on ways to engage with the community, and actually transform their terminal to be both an industrial resource, and a local recreation resource. What became an absurdity is, you're talking about a type of facility that completely serves the public good. That is it's reason. That's what it does. It provides an infrastructural service to a regional-scale community — but then in the local community, it was seen as a burden. So often what happens in cities like New York and Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, you know, wealthy cities, is that those types of facilities get displaced from the city due to local pressure that then undermines regional resilience.

MARIE: Because goods are going to come from further away, and then go to truck shipping rather than water-based freight, an option with less environmental impact.

DAN: Every time you displace a ship from a city you're bringing in 1,600 trucks. People don't see that because it gets dissipated across the road. On a particulate matter, ecology, road congestion, and cost of goods provided, the environmental and cost impact is enormous. But you don't see it. There isn't a local community that has to receive those 1,600 trucks. There is one community that has to receive the ship. And that's where that battle between local and regional planning comes in.

MARIE: This is a byproduct of a lot of industrial displacement from the center of Boston and Boston Harbor itself. Many of the industries that support that region in Boston have moved up the Boston Harbor and into areas like Everett and Chelsea. These small cities now have to support all of that bulk, and plan in coordination with massive, global-scale systems. They don't have the same kind of advocacy that the city of Boston does to negotiate with industry. So you have these smaller communities that are dealing with the whole burden of industrial imports (like petroleum for home heating, jet fuel for the airport, road salt). The state-designated port area is meant to preserve industrial waterways for those uses. They happened to be in communities like Chelsea. We started to see this as a really important place to design.

We were approached by the Rotel Facility who were looking for ways to expand their operation. We started with the demolition of an asphalt batching terminal. Due to conflicts between local and state-level regulations, this was the only grandfathered allowable use. City zoning says the waterfront can only be used for community-based programs: recreation and open space. But the state zoning says it can only be used for marine industrial functions. There was a total conflict between the two things. Our first project was trying to develop a shared use, or mixed use, of the industrial waterfront so we could satisfy both state and local zoning within the same parcel.

That became the basis of our work with them: how you could seasonally share space on an industrial working waterfront. In the summertime, you could have recreational space, and in the wintertime, it becomes more industrial.

DAN: This is where these questions get interesting to us.

How do you balance global maritime industrial operations with a local community?

On one end you're dealing with a very large, global or regional-scale issue. But on the other, the local wants and needs of a place.

It comes down to pretty specific little design things.

I think we've found too often that these facilities are treated very generically. People think of an industrial facility and just call it an industrial facility. But an oil terminal is very different than a fishing pier or a salt pile. In New England, parks aren't used a lot in the winter because it's just cold and crappy. But then in the summer they’re used a lot. But in maritime industry, things like a salt operation only function in the winter.

So it is a perfect seasonal balance. Basketball courts are made of asphalt, that's a type of park. And a saltbox is made of asphalt, that's a type of maritime industry. And if you paint the ground of a salt dock it can become a basketball court.

That's what became the focus area of our firm. Think at a regional scale, but act at a micro-design scale.

DAN: In the last decade or so there's been a pretty big awakening of rethinking of our infrastructure systems. It used to be that you would put water off of a highway into a pipe where it gets contaminated, and discharge contaminated water into a river, that ultimately kills the ocean. Then in recent years we've realized that same sort of infrastructural purpose could be served by giving the water to a tree that filters the water, and produces oxygen and shade. That tree becomes a fundamental piece of a park. What used to be heavy infrastructure can quickly become a reparations space in a city.

If you just think about the systems in a slightly different way, infrastructure and urban life are not antithetical.

MARIE: These are not new ideas at all. They were most obviously present in Frederick Law Olmsted's work.

How have you seen client relationships change as sustainability becomes more important?

DAN: It's a huge opportunity. To be honest, I often find there's a lot of critique of the word sustainability, I don't have any problem with that term. We have to start using some sort of language to describe these greater pursuits. We have to preserve the water quality of the ocean as a communal resource. When you follow that all the way back into the city, you realize that the damage to the ocean is being done at little catch basins on streets. If you want to fix the chemistry of the ocean, you have to act very locally in small ways.

Fundamentally changing the way we build every piece of infrastructure. In some ways, the biggest challenge is how to deal with all the bad fabric that we've built. The things we've built in the last 100 years now stand in the way of doing it the way we know we should. In many ways it's an adaptation project for the next generation.

Are things fixable? Or do they need to be eliminated and rebuilt?

DAN: That's a very good question. We grapple with that a lot.

MARIE: We tend to work on projects where they stay in place, and try to figure out ways to adapt.


That's one of the biggest challenges in planning. Let's say you are fixing something that you know is not an ideal system, are you just reinforcing the thing you're trying to get rid of?

But then what's the other scenario? The other scenario is to let it be so bad that it crashes and burns, and self-extinguishes, which can be very detrimental to a community. It becomes frustrating at times when we collectively see a situation and know that it's wrong. We know that the infrastructure system we're supporting is bad. We know that there's many ways to do it better, and yet it can take so long. Within a lot of our work, we ask how much do we fundamentally question the system versus try and fix the performance of the system as it is. And it doesn't always mean you agree with the system that you're trying to remedy. That raises moral and political questions that are difficult to negotiate with.

To be honest I think one problem with planning today is we often tend to identify things we don't like and push them away, outside of cities, and then pretend they don't exist. It's a form of global environmental justice and inequity. We don't like it in New York, we put it in Yemen, or in the Gulf of Mexico. That’s an unacceptable solution. To accept the convenience of putting your burden onto another community.

How do you design within your own, local environment? And within this self-regulating context of your own urban environment?

There shouldn't be an easy out of dumping it somewhere else in the world, dumping it in the atmosphere, or dumping it in the ocean.

A lot of what you’re saying seems like an obvious fix when you say it, but I would never have thought of them before. How are citizens meant to push for these options if they’re not already immersed in the planning world?

DAN: I think there is a problem in the way architects and planners often work. It is built into the business and enterprise of these industries. You get hired to do discrete projects, for discrete clients, for discrete amounts of time.

MARIE: Some of the fundamental ideas that came from our first project in Chelsea, came from the client.

They know how their operations work and where the sweet spots or loose spaces are. It's about having those conversations with them. Designers aren’t involved in those environments often.

Until recently there haven't been many designers working with transportation agencies. We have some evidence that it was happening in the 1950’s and 60’s. It went away for a long time, and now it's coming back again. But with industry, there is almost no role for a designer.