Luoni Gold Design Studio – Memphis, TN 2004

Steve Luoni, Martin Gold

Project Objective

Littoral Ecologies blur the distinctions between nature and culture characteristic of modern processes that have civilized the Mississippi River. Since the War Department of the Army Corp of Engineers took over the administration of river work in 1824, modern command-and-control infrastructure has been deployed to maximize the river’s navigability.

The river became a logistics project managed through a landscape of levees, revetments, cutoffs, gates, floodways, jetties, and locks serving industrial interests. Entire riparian ecologies, particularly the alluvial meanders south of Memphis, were reconfigured or eliminated to accelerate the movement of water, silt, and ships to the Gulf. Littoral Ecologies proposes a more responsive infrastructure that engages the river’s dynamic ecology while multiplying the waterfront’s economical and ecological productivity. In recognition of Memphis as the delta’s cultural capital, Littoral Ecologies recombine ecological and urbanism processes with an interpretive environment commemorating the delta’s important musical heritage.

Acknowledging the vertical distance between city and water, Littoral Ecologies employs a stacked organization mediating between the differing metabolisms of the river and the city. The scheme’s stacked ecologies recombine urban and environmental systems in three levels that continually calibrate function and performance to changing river levels.

First, Ecological Revetments and a Levee Platform “green” the levee and render it receptive to public occupation. This recalls earlier traditions of planting the levees for service as surrogate pastures and safe havens during high water periods. Second, a Civic Foyer connecting Beale Street to the water consists of a floating grassland and promenade responsive to changing water levels. This urban room’s fixed promenade spirals around a tensegrity roof, forming a
gateway between the river and the city. Third, a Grand Lawn in the tradition of Olmsted hovers above Riverside Drive to provide a large-scale green prospect for viewing the Mississippi River. Riverboat passengers entering Memphis are greeted with scenes of a grand public landscape, reinforcing Walt Whitman’s notion of grass as a medium of democracy.

Nature and the Landscape of Flood

Littoral Ecologies are responsive to the two-way dynamics of river flooding and urban stormwater draining through a layered system of fixed and hinged landscapes. A meshwork of wetland sponges for retaining and treating stormwater runoff is tied to the leeves, akin to concrete revetment technology. Wetland sponges are hinged at Riverside Drive and float with the rise of the river, remaining operative during inundation. Alongside the wetland sponges, habitat islands of submergence and emergent plan communities are fixed to the leeves attracting wildlife to the city. Their dendriform arrangements recall the fuzzy riparian patterns of the delta where the boundary between land and water are indiscernible. These Ecological Revetments enhance urban biodiversity while increasing access to the water.

Grass, both wet and dry, figures prominently as a medium for civic and biological work. In the wetland sponges and habitat islands, savannah species play an important role in the bioremediation of stormwater runoff. A floating/hinged prairie approximating the local riparian plant transect connects water and city as embarking passengers stroll through shifting horizons of water, tall grasses, and streets in the Civic Foyer’s hydraulic landscape. The Grand Lawn, the proposal’s only manicured landscape, continues and elevates the green lawn of adjacent Tommy Lee Park for gathering, playing, and picnicking. These various grass systems are core components in the stacked infrastructures organizing the proposal.

Culture: Waiting, Promenading, and Heritage Landscapes The energy of Beale Street is extended and reconfigured in the Civic Foyer, promenades, and programmatic spaces sandwiched between the Levee Platform and Grand Lawn. The ticket booth, waiting room, cafe, and ancillary program support the Grand Lawn above while establishing an outdoor museum at the level of Riverside Drive. Their exterior surfaces commemorate the relationship between landscape and musical expression, with particular attention to the delta as the progenitor of blues and jazz, and to Memphis’s subsequent role in the institutionalization of country and rock and roll. A narrative curated from fixed and projected images (from LED night lighting) illustrates the symbiosis between the rural and the urban in the production and transmission of cultural forms.

Infrastructure: Recombination and the Logic of Stacking

Resisting a structural monoculture in favor of the ecological, Littoral Ecologies itself becomes a medium of structural composites capable of greater expressive behavior. The primary imperative was to minimize structural contact with the cobblestones while maximizing the programmatic area above the 100-year flood benchmark. Cautious of marginalizing the levee as an underside, Littoral Ecologies proposes a vertically porous architecture that amalgamates river-levee-city-lawn-sky coordinates into a coherent visual system. Rather than conceive architecture as a discrete level in between landscape and sky, each level becomes an ecology harboring all three.

Each ecology projects its own structural logic onto its neighbors where loads are eccentrically transferred from one stratum to the next. Like ecotones, transfer points as seams become uniquely rich sites sponsoring greater ecological and social exchange and programmatic overlap. The logic of stacking suggests a way to recombine the metabolic and the formal dimensions intrinsic to infrastructure. Littoral Ecologies is a public works project that recombines the natural, cultural, and infrastructural for even greater productivity than that accomplished in the singularly directed command-and-control organization.

Stacked Urbanism, Ecological Revetments, and the Levee Platform

Like textiles and basketry, the Ecological Revetments and Levee Platforms are supple solids responsive to the river’s changing depth. A meshwork of wetland sponges for retaining and treating stormwater runoff is tied to the levees, akin to the concrete revetment technology lining the levees. Wetland sponges are hinged at Riverside Drive and float with the rise of the river, remaining operative during inundation. Their root structures are surficial and entangled in the form of filters, uptaking stormwater through capillary action. Alongside the wetland sponges, habitat islands of submergence and emergent plant communities are fixed to the levees and attract wildlife to the city.

The adjacent Levee Platform laterally anchors the ecological revetments and supports programmatic spaces, The Grand Lawn, and an outdoor museum above. The algorithm of its structural modules responds to the levee’s sloping depth while maintaining the same frame member and column cross-section dimension.

The Civic Foyer

A Civic Foyer connecting Beale Street to the water consists of a floating/hinged grassland and promenade responsive to changing water levels. This urban room’s fixed promenade spirals around a tensegrity roof, forming a gateway between the river and the city. The tensegrity roof transfers load-bearing to adjacent structures (The Grand Lawn tray and the fixed promenade), allowing this hydraulic landscape‘s necessary fluctuations. Translucent photovoltaic cells provide roof covering and facilitate the generation of energy without the use of nonrenewable fossil fuels.

The fixed promenade minimizes surface contact with the levee through stacked cantilevered trusses. Their engineering recalls the aesthetics of river bridges, dams, and spillways, while their planning privileges human occupation to include vegetated walkways (in the air), lookout towers, lifts, staircases, and special night lighting.

The Grand Lawn

A Grand Lawn in the tradition of Olmsted hovers above Riverside Drive to provide a large-scale green prospect for viewing the Mississippi River. In addition to prospects, the lawn’s varied topography offers refuge and intimacy for picnicking, playing, and gathering. The Grand Lawn’s surface and porosity are continued in the tensegrity roof, though their structures differ. The weight of The Grand Lawn is transferred to the Levee Platform via scattered programmatic volumes (ticket booth, waiting room, café) and columns below. The latter “thicken” the linearity of the promenade, facilitating meandering movement vertically and horizontally