Columbia Landscape Architect Named MacArthur ‘Genius’

Kate Orff. Photo courtesy of John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Kate Orff, an associate professor at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, is among this year’s 24 fellows of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. She joins a distinguished group of talented people—including several other Columbia faculty and alumni—in a variety of fields who received fellowships for creative work that “demonstrates notable originality, dedication and self-direction.”

A landscape architect, Orff is internationally known for her work on the intersection of urban design and climate dynamics. At Columbia, she directs the architecture school’s Urban Design Program and is a member of the Earth Institute. She joined the Columbia faculty in 2007 and remains a partner in SCAPE, a landscape architecture and urban design firm she founded the same year. Orff has worked to revamp the architecture school’s curriculum so students consider all aspects of the urban environment and use design as a problem-solving tool.

“Cities around the world are facing challenges of rising seas, intensifying storms, heat waves, fragile water systems, and social fragmentation,” said Orff. “I’m excited to double down on research on bays, wetlands, and other critical ecological infrastructure systems that contribute to resilient cities and healthy communities.”

The fellowships, known colloquially as “genius grants,” come with a stipend of $625,000 paid quarterly over five years. There are no strings attached or reporting requirements, as the foundation views its awards as “seed money for intellectual, social and artistic endeavors.”

Orff said she looks forward to expanding research partnerships with colleagues at Columbia in law, policy, sociology, climate science, and public health.

“Being part of the faculty here has meant freedom to explore new forms of teaching and research, not feeling bound by traditional disciplinary pathways. Designing for climate change in the future will require a dynamic, creative, forward-looking collaboration among many sectors—we have more work, and more working together to do, but it’s exciting to be part of Columbia at this point in time.”

In recent years, Orff has gained attention for her work responding to climate change. She captured public attention in 2010 with Oyster-tecture, a plan to bring oysters back to New York Harbor; the oysters filter water and form reefs that can buffer against storm surges.

When it’s built, Orff’s artificial oyster reefs, built off of Staten Island’s south shore, will help clean up local waters and act as a buffer against storms.Image: SCAPE Studio

After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the idea known as Living Breakwaters became part of a $60 million federally funded project off Staten Island’s south shore. It is expected to be completed by 2019 and will create bays to host finfish, shellfish and lobsters while reducing erosion and buffering against strong wave action. Orff’s TedTalk on the project has been viewed more than 300,000 times.

“I’m very happy for Kate Orff to receive this well-deserved recognition,” said Amale Andraos, dean of the architecture school. “She is one of the most important voices of her generation, leading the change in how we understand the built environment and actively designing new ways to engage it in our time of uncertainty and climate change. Her leadership and commitment to environmental sustainability and social justice as well as her belief in design’s transformative capabilities are inspiring students and reshaping the fields of architecture, landscape and urban design.”

A version of this post was originally published by Columbia News

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