CoA lecture series continues with “Petrochemical America”

Date: Wednesday, October 17, 2012
Time: 5:30 p.m.
Location: Buena Vista Bldg. Assembly Room (BVB 1.338), UTSA Downtown Campus

By Nicole Chavez

(October 12, 2012) -- The UTSA College of Architecture Fall Lecture Series continues with “Petrochemical America” at 5:30 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 17 in the Buena Vista Bldg. Assembly Room (BVB 1.338) on the UTSA Downtown Campus. The lecture is based on a book of the same name and will be presented by author Kate Orff, an assistant professor at Columbia University and the founding principal of SCAPE, a landscape architecture and urban design studio based in Manhattan. In this semester’s lecture series, the College of Architecture focuses on research as it relates to the built environment, looking at the impact of both natural and man-made components on our surroundings. The CoA series is free and open to the public.

Petrochemical America is a richly illustrated collaboration between Orff and photographer Richard Misrach that explores how oil and petrochemicals have transformed the physical form and social dynamics of the American landscape. The book focuses on the industrialized landscape of the Mississippi River Corridor that stretches from Baton Rouge to New Orleans — an area of intense chemical production that was dubbed “Cancer Alley” when unusually high reports of cancer and other diseases were discovered in the region. Misrach’s haunting photographs are combined with Orff’s Ecological Atlas, a series of visual narratives, or “throughlines,” that were developed through intensive research and mapping of data from the region. The result is a revealing study of the ways in which the petrochemical industry, now firmly entrenched in American culture, has permanently shaped our landscape.

“Today, we are starting to understand the consequences, at a local, regional, and global scale, of the age of the present regime of oil and petrochemicals,” said Orff in her essay “Petrochemical America: Toward a New Energy Landscape,” published by the Huffington Post. “What remains to be collectively imagined is what a shift away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy forms would mean in the future in terms of generating a new American landscape aesthetic of promise and productivity.”

Orff is part of Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, where she leads studios and seminars that integrate the earth sciences into the design curriculum. She is also a director of Columbia’s Urban Landscape Lab, an inter-disciplinary applied research group that is dedicated to affecting positive social and ecological change in the joint built-natural environment. Orff belongs to a generation of landscape architects that value research highly, viewing it as an intrinsic component of all architectural design processes. Themes of sustainable development, biodiversity, and community-based change permeate her work, and she is often recognized for her innovate and practical solutions.

In 2010, Orff participated in Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront, an installation displayed by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. MoMA and P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center put together the architects-in-residence program to address one of the most urgent challenges facing the nation’s largest city: sea-level rising resulting from global climate change. Five teams were asked to re-envision the coastlines around New York Harbor and to imagine new ways to occupy the harbor itself with adaptive “soft” infrastructures that are sympathetic to the needs of a sound ecology. Orff led a team from SCAPE in creating “Oyster-Tecture,” a simple, yet visionary idea to seed oysters in the notoriously dirty Gowanus Canal. Because a single oyster is capable of filtering up to 50 gallons of water a day, Orff’s idea was to construct a “living reef” out of fuzzy rope that would support oyster and mussel growth, potentially cleaning millions of gallons of Harbor water. A small pilot project utilizing Orff’s idea is currently in the works.

Among other speaking engagements promoting the launch of Petrochemical America, Orff and Misrach presented a joint lecture and book signing at the Museum of Modern Art last month. Orff is also co-editor of Gateway: Visions for an Urban National Park, and her essays have appeared in The Great Leap Forward, Rising Currents, Waterfront Visions, Volume, and other publications. She has won local and national design awards and was named an ELLE magazine “Planet Fixer,” a Dwell magazine Design Leader, and one of H&G’s 50 For the Future of Design. Her work has received two National ASLA awards and has appeared in the Museum of Modern Art, the HK/Shenzhen Biennale, and other international exhibits.


UTSA College of Architecture Fall 2012 Lecture Series
Oct.  3   —  Elizabeth Heider: “Mapping the Future & Using Data to Accelerate Market Transformation”
Oct. 17  —  Kate Orff: “Petrochemical America”
Nov. 7   —  Eran Ben-Joseph’s lecture, “ReThinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking,” is co-sponsored by the Texas Sustainable Energy Research Institute at UTSA.

The CoA Lecture Series is free and open to the public. For more information, contact Nicole Chavez at or (210) 458-3121.