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SWA leads an option studio at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Fall Semester 2013


“Essayons!” meaning “Let us try” in French, was the motto first used by the United States Army Corps of Engineers in 1775. The motto has since evolved to “Building Strong,” reflecting its mission to “strengthen the nation’s security, energize the economy, and reduce risks from disasters.” The notion of “Building Soft” presents a new paradigm, arguing that the parameters presented by the Corps could be achieved through a more integrated approach, one which takes into consideration the social, economic, and ecological priorities playing an equal part in the conception and reconstruction of our infrastructural systems.


“Building Soft” was the focus of an immersive Harvard Design Studio led by SWA principals Ying-Yu Hung and Gerdo Aquino. Students were challenged to envision the Los Angeles River playing a pivotal role in transforming the City of Los Angeles, where ecological systems are synchronous with development, infrastructure, and popular culture. As an extension of their recently published book, Landscape Infrastructure: case studies by SWA, Hung and Aquino positioned the studio as an ongoing investigation into the potential of existing and new infrastructure as polyfunctional systems supported by ecological, social, and cultural phenomena.  Fourteen disparate sites inextricably linked to the L.A. River infrastructures—flood control channels, power lines, freeways, and rails—were identified by the City of Los Angeles as areas ripe for exploration and research.  Through a series of fieldtrips, workshops, and lectures in Los Angeles, students sought opportunities to redefine new open-space typologies, including river-specific recreation venues, habitats for avian and aquatic species, air pollution filtration machines, development scenarios, and infrastructure as spectacle.


Local public agencies and nonprofit groups were also invited to participate in the studio, providing the students with substantial background data and statistics, community input, and historical points of view. In addition, the preferred “Alternative 20,” outlined in the recent Army Corps’ “Los Angeles River Ecosystem Restoration Integrated Feasibility Report,” suggested projects to be undertaken, which provided the students with further proof that the path towards transforming the LA River is close at hand. Estimated to cost in excess of $800 million, “Alternative 20” will provide the City of Los Angeles with the most comprehensive approach toward habitat restoration and will fulfill the city’s need for open space. 

To further deepen the students understanding of the river’s potential, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority provided the students with lectures and a rare opportunity to kayak the river and experience its more natural section (soft bottom), known as the Glendale Narrows.


As a repository of creative ideas, the studio environment calls for speculation, risk taking, and challenge against conventional thinking. As a result, the river’s potential is revealed through the lens of those who are unencumbered and devoid of pre-conceptions. Considering that none of the 14 students was from the L.A. area, the range of design proposals was incredibly thoughtful and visionary.  Some of the ideas proposed included a migrating bird habitat and a gigantic smog vacuum looming over one of the major highway interchanges—the variety and depth of their explorations complemented the scale and the complexity of the issues at hand for a city of nearly nine million people spanning 500 square miles. The final week culminated with a day-long review of the student work, followed by a mini-symposium where invited guests, faculty, and students shared their collective thoughts on design, ecology, and the latent optimism that surrounds the future of the river and the diverse communities it will undoubtedly serve.








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