marsh experiments – mammoth // building nothing out of something

marsh experiments

[A model built by Alan Berger, Harvard graduate student Gena Wirth, MIT professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Heidi Nepf, and CEE graduate student Jeff Rominger, to test for the optimum design of pollutant-removing vegetated channels, as part of Berger and P-REX's Pontine Systemic Design; image via MITnews.]

I love this:

[T]he Pontine Marshes project constitutes an engineering problem with two key challenges. First, the water flowing through the wetlands must move slowly enough so that the plants can absorb the pollutants; second, the pattern of the water flow must give all water molecules equal opportunity to encounter the vegetation.

Berger’s solution is to have the water move through an S-shaped course that slows it down to a speed well under one mile per hour. The Italian engineers of the 1930s built perfectly straight canals, since they were simply concerned with transporting water efficiently. But forcing water to meander through winding channels in a wetlands gives more water molecules the best chance of being purified. ”Inefficiency is how environmental systems work,” says Berger.

[The team] built multiple models from Berger’s plans, featuring variations of S-shapes and alterations in the density and placement of the wetlands vegetation.

To scrutinize the designs, the researchers sent water injected with an fluorescent dye called Rhodamine WT through the models and used a fluorometer to measure the intensity of the light as the water exited, which indicated how broadly the water had spread. Test results indicated that the optimum design was one featuring relatively wide S-shaped channels with lots of vegetation underneath and small “islands” of earth to help the water disperse evenly.

“Heidi’s and Jeff’s work gave us a scientific understanding of how these plans functioned, and allowed us to push the design envelope,” says Berger.

This is an experimental landscape architecture.  Not experimental in the usual sense within architectural disciplines — where it is more or less a synonym for radically avant-garde (though this is by no means a condemnation of such architecture) — but experimental in the scientific sense, rigorously testing the performance of various forms, to design a landscape which incrementally advances away from its predecessors.  If we’re going to move beyond talking about designing post-natural ecologies towards actively constructing them, then developing modes of practice that incorporate experimentation will be essential.  (Next: peer-reviewed landscape architecture.)

[seen via @bldgblog; the Pontine Systemic Design previously on mammoth here and here.  Read the full article at MITnews, which also contains a gallery of images.

: You may also ask: if this is an experimental landscape architecture, what does an experimental architecture look like?  Rather like Sam McElhinney's fascinating "switching labyrinth", which BLDGBLOG has coincidentally posted this same afternoon.]

13 Responses to “marsh experiments”

  1. namhenderson says:

    Don’t architects (mostly) and (some) landscape architects do this with regards to materials (scale mockups etc) already? Testing for performance and durability?

    I agree however, that this sort of quantitative analysis needs to be increased, especially as it relates to performance and the process of designing a program.

    Reminds me of a comment Rem made in a conversation between him, Peter Eisenman and Phyllis Lambert.
    He said, and I paraphrase
    if we don’t introduce the quantitative in architecture than we cannot address issues such as the value of cheapness, prefabrication, the generic

    See here

    Also, i think it is interesting that experimental does within architectural/design circles not refer to experimenting a la scientific method but rather extravagant form asking. It would be interesting to find out when and why this happened. Was there a divergence from the meaning within other professions at some point?

    • rholmes says:

      Don’t architects (mostly) and (some) landscape architects do this with regards to materials (scale mockups etc) already? Testing for performance and durability?

      To some degree, sure, though in the average project the purpose of the mock-ups is to ensure that the materials and workmanship meet a known normative standard of quality, not to advance a body of knowledge (the latter being what scientific experiments do).

      And of course one might consider drawings, models, and the other various tools used to develop designs to be forms of “experimentation”, which they are, but I think that there’s a difference in kind, not just degree, between that sort of experimentation and the sort of scientific testing of new ecologies which Berger’s team is performing.

  2. namhenderson says:

    woops bad editing sorry

  3. BrianR says:

    Very cool … if you like this kind of stuff, check out some of the experimental sedimentary systems research going on at St. Anthony Falls Lab (SAFL) in Minnesota —

  4. [...] 23, 2010 · Leave a Comment Pontine Marsh experiments, found here. (co-founder of blog Mammoth, Stephen Becker, is a former [...]

  5. faslanyc says:

    super interesting!

    also vital there, is the way they are considering how this model would scale; how it goes from a prototypical and effective treatment system to creating a place (relationship of space, experiences, materials, et cetera). In my mind that takes it from a viable engineering solution to a landscape architectural solution. You can see how they are considering it in the second image on the website- it is now a variety of spaces at different scales, which begin to inform other types of circulation and connection.

    in other news regarding “miraculous mini mounds”, some ancient amazonians were doing some sophisticated stuff (via wired), until they all died or moved.

    Berger sums it up well (which you’ve noted before)-“But if you do good research, you can change the type of project that is done.” Now how to work research into all projects…?

    I love that the macabre is coming back!

    • rholmes says:

      I like the connection between the pre-Columbian mound structures and Berger’s project — makes total sense to me, but I hadn’t made it (I’ve had that wired article open in a tab since it ran, but haven’t been able to figure out what to do with it, other than knowing that it fascinates me).

  6. Funny…the Berger quote regarding research stayed with me too.
    I think the interdisciplinary research that is going on here is noteworthy and kudos to MIT. It takes the teaching tool of ‘design build’ in an informative new direction, even if its still a scaled model. From a practice perspective, I think its safe to say we need way more of this type of physical modeling and testing with regard to the cleansing of water, as the guidelines are vague and the hard research to back it up is fairly limited.

  7. [...] in greater ecological fitness. Great images and videos at MIT news page and an interesting post on mammoth. No Comments, Comment or [...]

  8. [...] constructed in an interdependent fashion, lo-fi interventions are relatively independent, even potentially experimental in a scientific sense.  If we accept that, as Fletcher suggests, the removal of the hard-engineered infrastructural [...]

  9. [...] look at examples of empirical architecture, such as the labyrinth project highlighted by BLDGBLOG, Berger’s landscape experiments for his Pontine Marsh project, or One Wilshire Blvd, subject of this week’s chapter. In the [...]

  10. [...] is experimental landscape architecture, testing various infrastructural hacks through the construction and modification of physical [...]