Faculty/Student Collaboration Wins Honorable Mention in 2017 LA+ IMAGINATION

An ingenious prototype system of pre-cast, perforated and self-buoyant concrete vessels to float a forest of trees in Lake Erie, Toledo, to reduce algal blooms.

"The Black Swamp Armada,” a collaborative design by Assistant Professor Jake Boswell and senior landscape architecture student Marty Koelsch, received an honorable mention in the 2017 LA+ IMAGINATION Design Ideas Competition. Sponsored by The University of Pennsylvania’s LA+ (Landscape Architecture Plus) journal, the competition asked landscape architects, architects and artists to design a new island – with any program, form or purpose. The only rule: the island could not be bigger than one square kilometer. The competition attracted 180 entries from 33 countries.

We spoke to the landscape architecture professor and his student collaborator about the competition, their collaboration and the place islands hold in contemporary design culture. Their entry will be published in full in the Spring 2018 issue of LA+ journal.

As a form defined by otherness and isolation, how do islands figure in the landscape architect’s (or your own) imagination?

Boswell: For landscape architects I think islands carry a special delight. They raise the possibility of fantasy or adventure via their remoteness, but maybe more importantly they’re a chance to explore ideas in the absence of adjacent context (or at least with very little adjacent context). In that way an island is a bit like a garden – bounded – and thus having many of the qualities of an object or a microcosm. Islands, particularly imaginary islands, are potential worlds onto themselves – and thus ripe for imagining and reimagining in ways that our normal approach to site design, which stresses contextual sensitivity and extreme site specificity, doesn’t allow.  

Koelsch: I would agree with Jake that because an island does not have to be subjected to any context, an island can be a tabula rasa in the designer’s eyes. One of the things that I like about this project, as well as the collection of recognized projects from this competition, is that most of them reject this idea and have direct contextual relevance. Landscape architects never stop thinking about context, even when given the opportunity.

Did your island plan originate from a personal experience (visit, novel, movie, etc.) or from a previous school project?

Boswell: I’ve always been enamored with Dan Kiley’s Fountain Place in Dallas, Texas, which is a huge grid of bald cypress that seem to float within a plaza sized fountain – essentially an artificial swamp. That project is seductive for me because it’s at once improbable and yet it fully engages its site (even in section) in a highly contextual manner. The possibility of a completely artificial swamp was interesting to us because of its experiential qualities and its potential (if unrealized in Kiley’s work) for ecological performance. Forests plantings have been deployed for the purpose of altering environments for thousands of years. In the Great Lakes – particularly Lake Erie - we have an ecological situation that is the result of deforestation (the historical eradication of the Great Black Swamp). A logical, if unlikely, solution is the reforestation of that landscape. With the Black Swamp Armada, we’re trying to essentially redeploy that massive swamp within the only territory available – the lake itself.

Koelsch: When we first started thinking about fabricating a prototype, there was talk about concrete battleships and their application during World War II because it was cheap and easy to obtain. So we knew floating concrete at a large scale was achievable. I have worked on projects that explored concrete as a medium before, but nothing quite like this one. I am fascinated by concrete because it has so many different applications. It is easy to adjust the recipe so it can take almost any scale or form. It can even float.

The competition guidelines provided loose boundaries for the island design. How did this allowance of a broad interpretation influence your collaborative (creative) process?

Boswell: The boundaries of the brief weren’t very limiting. I had been working on the idea of a floating concrete island for some time, and so this call just happened to be a nice fit for something I was already working on. The majority of the time Marty and I spent on the competition was actually taking the concrete mix I had developed and casting a series of prototypes that we planted and floated over the summer. Making a consistent prototype mold that would allow us to test the island at scale was challenging, and we’ve gone through several iterations. So far, we’ve been able to make three floating concrete islands that support a growing sapling, but we’re also nearing completion on a rubber mold that should allow us to work out some kinks in the concrete mixture. We’re also in the process of working with the Technology Commercialization Office here at OSU to see if we can patent the idea and potentially license it.

Koelsch: Because of the open-ended prompt, we were able to think about how we wanted to represent our ideas and it allowed us to actually start fabricating prototypes. I think this is why this project is so enthralling to me. The project is very theoretical, but the idea of a floating forest is very attainable. I am eager to bring it to life.