Drake reimagines urban landscape for MoMA

MIDDLEBURY — Norwich native Susannah Drake returned to Vermont last month to talk to students, faculty and community members at Middlebury College on various landscape architecture projects that she has worked on in New York City and the African nation of Malawi since leaving the Green Mountain State.
With funding from the Cameron Visiting Architect Fund and the Vermont State Chapter of Landscape Architects, John McCleod of the Architectural Studies program at Middlebury was able to bring Drake to Vermont to work with students in the studio and to critique the work of the college’s Solar Decathlon team.
Drake, who attended Dartmouth College as an undergraduate and went on to the Harvard School of Design, was recently featured in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) exhibition “Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront.” The exhibition was the result of an initiative sponsored by the P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center and MoMA to research possible ways of combating the impact of climate change on the New York waterfront.
Drake and her multidisciplinary design firm, dlandstudio, worked off their basic tenet of combining urban infrastructure with ecologically sensitive materials as they re-imagined the Manhattan waterfront. The team produced beautiful digital renderings of a new waterfront and lower Manhattan that would absorb and redirect incoming water through a series of permeable roadways and underground, storm-water aqueducts.
As Drake shared these images with those who had filled a Middlebury College art history classroom almost to capacity on Oct. 10, she explained what her firm had tried to accomplish in its hypothetical design.
“Over time, the edges of the city have moved out and the edges have hardened,” Drake said. “The issue we were looking at in this project is that there’s a potential for ice-cap melt, there’s potential for a six-foot sea-level rise — so, basically, Battery Park City could go away.”
According to Drake, 61 percent of Manhattan could be covered by water in a category-two storm surge.
Although the city will not be adopting dlandstudio’s waterfront design anytime soon, elements of the plan have influenced conversations between city officials in various agencies.
“It’s really kind of generating this impact,” Drake said. “They all reference this, and it’s really amazing. It’s a theoretical project, and it’s pretty out there in some ways. But it’s helping to bring federal, city, state and Port Authority people together around a central conversation.”
Drake has worked on several other projects dealing with New York’s urban landscape including a redesign of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway trench running through the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn and also of the commercial area surrounding the Gowanus Canal.
More recently, though, Drake has begun to focus on campus landscapes. Her firm was hired to refigure the campus of an all-girls private school in Malawi that was founded by American pop star Madonna.
Drake’s background in both architecture and landscape architecture allows her to move between the harsh, urban settings of New York and wild, rural Malawi.
“I find that as a landscape architect I have a lot of knowledge about sort of larger geographic and ecological systems,” Drake said. “And as an architect I know a lot about structural system and material systems on a finer scale. There are very different tolerances between the two professions. I try to understand what those tolerances are and push them.”
The work of Susannah Drake and dlandstudio is currently on display in the lobby of the Johnson Memorial Building at Middlebury College. The third Cameron Visiting Architect lecture, featuring architect Turner Brooks, will be held on Dec.2 at 7 p.m. in Johnson 304.
Tamara Hilmes is at [email protected]

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