Meet Ken Smith, Ken Smith Workshop
On May 18, the 2023 Open City Benefit will bring together hundreds of New Yorkers for a festive evening at Powerhouse Arts—a 117-year-old power plant that has been transformed into a contemporary art center and fabrication space on the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. At the event, we will confer the Open City Award to the design and development team behind Powerhouse Arts led by Herzog & de Meuron, PBDW Architects,Urban Atelier Group, Buro Happold Engineering, Silman, and Ken Smith Workshop.
Ken Smith, Founder of Ken Smith Workshop, shares about his role as Landscape Architect, the process behind increasing resiliency along the waterfront, and the statement Powerhouse Arts makes about New York City’s future.
Tell us what role you played and what it was like to work on this transformative project.
As landscape architect I was working on the overall site but particularly focused on the waterfront edge, and the site’s relationship with the Gowanus Canal. The new landscape includes a completely reconstructed and reshaped waterfront edge with reuse and celebration of common industrial materials. Changes in sea levels and increased incidents of storm surges and flooding on the canal were primary considerations that drove the design, resulting in the site being raised up significantly to protect the building from flooding. To protect the waterfront from storm surge and sea level rise the landscape is layered in pile-driven steel sea wall and large stacked concrete retaining blocks and is woven with a nature-based solution to infiltrate storm water. It is both a defensive measure and a living system that contributes to site resiliency and makes the most of a tight site with a steep slope. Plant material includes coffee trees, red cedar, smooth sumac, and elderberry, with hydroseeding of native grasses and wildflowers.
“I love the grit of the project, the tough pigmented concrete, preserved graffiti, the asphalt, steel sea wall, gravel, big concrete retaining blocks and wild meadow. They all create a singular sense of place that is rooted in history and context, and simultaneously expressive of contemporary culture and environmentalism.”– Ken Smith, Founder, Ken Smith Workshop
Tell us about the team effort required to bring this project to life.
Sitting in on the regular team meetings at PBDW’s office, I had a front row seat with the other team members seeing and participating in the development of the overall project, everything from the organization of building spaces and materials to the civil engineering diagrams for truck access to the loading dock. This understanding of the overall project and its vision and complexities was instrumental to developing a landscape design that is integrated conceptually into the whole. I worked closely with the project architect and [organization’s] team to create a unified site and program that I like to describe as being both tough in materiality and precise in its execution, while providing a platform for environmental renewal, resiliency, and social access.
What is your favorite feature of Powerhouse Arts?
I love the grit of the project, the tough pigmented concrete, preserved graffiti, the asphalt, steel sea wall, gravel, big concrete retaining blocks and wild meadow. They all create a singular sense of place that is rooted in history and context, and simultaneously expressive of contemporary culture and environmentalism.
What statement do you think Powerhouse Arts makes about New York and the city’s future?
New York is always changing and somehow always persistent. It’s what makes the city resilient.
Ken Smith explores the relationship between art, contemporary culture, and the environment and is committed to creating landscapes and public spaces that improve the quality of urban life. He holds professional degrees from Iowa State University and Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, and has served as an adjunct professor at City College of New York and Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. He is widely published in both popular and academic press. He is a board member of the Architectural League of New York and the Landscape Architecture CEO Roundtable and a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects. Ken has received numerous honors for his work including eight national ASLA awards, two Municipal Arts Society MASterworks Awards, the Urban Land Institute Global Award for Excellence, and awards from the American Institute of Architects, American Planning Association, and the National Parks Service. His design firm Ken Smith Workshop, founded in 1992, is based in New York City.