The History of Power + The Power of History

The final project for my studio class involved the development of a master plan (also referred to as landscape armature) for the former Northern States Power electricity generation facility and accompanying 11 acres now known as Island Station. Built in 1923 by the Saint Paul Gas and Light Company, the 20,000 square foot coal burning plant is the obvious focal point of the site.  A mixed urban and natural environment, this site offers interesting complexities.  The Mississippi River flows only a few hundred feet from the building and the site is the only green space and permeable surface to accommodate stormwater from the the nearby industrial and residential areas. The surrounding soils suffer from toxic contamination including asbestos, mercury, and arsenic due to its industrial heritage.  The site has been abandoned for decades but has been the temporary home for squatters, transient campers, and a rogue houseboat community.

Following several site visits and literature research, I was ready to make a synthesis map of my findings.  This diagram would direct my design by articulating aspects of the floodplain, vegetation, habitat, toxic contamination, and cultural landscape.  I also indicated wind patterns, storm-water flows, and potential uses of distinct areas.  Finally, the synthesis allowed me to consider the potential users of the site.  For the purposes of this particular project, I designed with the consideration that the National Park Service might relocate their Mississippi National River & Recreation Area (MNRRA) headquarters and interpretive center into the the former NSP coal plant.

From this synthesis diagram, I began to examine various strategies for developing a landscape armature.  Planners might think in terms of a master plan which is a process involving many steps including the identification of key issues to area residents and the collection of data such as local zoning, current traffic patterns, and population projections.  I first heard the term landscape armature during a recent lecture by visiting renowned artist Julie Bargmann who spoke of the importance of seeing each site for its intrinsic value as it relates to the context in which it is located.  This context should consider the inclusion of wildlife, vegetation, and natural history in design.  While the master plan also researches and develops according to context, the landscape armature concept plans for the non-development of some places, the allowance of a wildness among all of our planning.

I worked from three different metaphors while developing my final concept for Island Station.  The first tried to enhance the inevitable tension of this site.  Tension between wild and urban, between nature and contamination, between land and water.  The second exploited the edge of the site and tried to protect some sort of core as natural habitat. The final metaphor was power because of the obvious connection to electricity generation on the site but also the potential we have to clean-up the mess we’ve made there.  Unfortunately, frighteningly, when I showed these concepts to a visiting reviewer he remarked that I had very little.  I tried to explain how much there was but he insisted that I still had a lot of work to do if I wanted my design to be meaningful.

My final design assimilated all three of these metaphors into its concept.  I dubbed it History of Power + Power of History because I wanted to illustrate that the genius loci of the place was as much about its past as it was about plenipotent force.  As a place for the National Park Service to develop its interpretation of historic sites along the Mississippi River and to emphasize the role of the power of the river in human settlement here.  As a place to study the engineering of geology and water in the shaping of a space.  As a place to transform toxic dirt into productive soils, abandoned structures into enlivened centers, and urban decay into modern attractions.

The landscape armature demonstrates that wild places remain for natural processes to occur, that the design is appropriate to its needs while not overwhelming the site, and that ecological principles are used to remediate and improve the place.  Outdoor classrooms help tell the story of Island Station and of the greater natural and cultural history of the Twin Cities.  The industrial past is highlighted as an interactive artifact to help visitors understand its relevance.

Taking inspiration from Choi + Shine’s Land of Giants treatment of high voltage electrical pylons, I attempted to create a visually interesting infrastructure that articulates the history of power on the site.  Drawing a connection to the river dredging that is necessary to keep it navigable for shipping and to provide topographic interest on the peninsula, I designed two mounds that could utilize phytoremediation.  To handle the automobiles associated with visitorship, I placed a barge in the slough to minimize the impact typical of parking lots.  Inspired by Latz + Partners Landscape Park in Duisburg, Germany I sought to promote the industrial heritage of the site by re-appropriating artifacts from the NSP building to the landscape itself.

Lastly, to emphasize the power of history I designed an interpretive plaza for the National Park Service program near the former Northern States Power plant.  This Photoshop rendering required about four hours of work.  I began with an image of the building I made during one of my site visits.

I conceived an idea that placed in the plaza several large interpretive signs that would use photographs and text to relay the story of historic sites in the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area.  To make this a “reality”, I had to remove the existing vegetation, scour the graffiti, repair the broken windows, and expand the scene to encompass the surrounding context and accommodate the plaza itself.

As my first year as a graduate student in landscape architecture comes to a close, this project stands out as one of my personal favorites.  I enjoyed the challenge and the complexity of the site, its industrial heritage, and the potential for designing something especially meaningful.  Perhaps as a student I’m becoming confident of my creative abilities and comfortable with my past as an archaeologist who has studied cultural landscapes such as this one.  Maybe I am achieving my stated goal as I entered the College of Design: To move beyond simply studying places; to learn how to make them better through informed design.  I hope to continue to develop my interest in brownfield remediation and post-industrial enhancement.  This summer I will be working with restoration ecologists from the University of Minnesota and the Department of Natural Resources as a photographic researcher.  I am excited for the opportunity to see real work being done by professionals trained to transform degraded places into restored landscapes.

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About matthewtraucht

Graduate school student at the University of Minnesota's College of Design pursuing a Master's of Landscape Architecture, class of 2013.
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