Drake ’87 designs sustainable works

by Marley Marius | 5/5/14 2:30pm

Since founding the award-winning interdisciplinary design firm dlandstudio in 2005, Susannah Drake ’87 has dedicated herself to creating “ecologically intelligent” projects. Recent credits include the Green Roof of the State University New York at Purchase. The American Institute of Architects honored Drake with the 2013 Young Architects Award Drake teaches at the Cooper Union Institute for Sustainable Design.


What sparked your interest in architecture and landscape design?

SD: My father was a professor at Dartmouth. He was a geophysicist, so I’ve always been interested in the built and natural environment. Architecture and landscape architecture seemed like an ideal way to actually start to form the environment around us, that which we have control over as people, as humans. As an ecologist, you can understand the processes, but as a landscape architect you can start to shape how some of those processes develop over time.


Were you involved with the arts or with design while at Dartmouth?

SD: I ended up doing a curatorial internship at the Hood Museum with a wonderful curator named Hilliard Goldfarb. We ended up cataloging this amazing collection of prints by [Albrecht] Dürer, Rembrandt and [James Abbott McNeill] Whistler that were potentially being donated by an alum. It was incredible exposure to that art, and also to the world of museums, but that was when I realized that while I loved going to museums, I didn’t want to be a curator. What I wanted to be doing was making the work, rather than taking care of it or exhibiting it. And I took a wonderful joint class with the art department and the engineering school about product design.


What aspects of a space are you most interested in engaging?

SD: My mission through my practice is to make cities more ecologically, economically and culturally productive. What I’ve used as my muse for this exploration is the conduits of infrastructure that run through cities that occupy space in a singular way. We all know that we’ve driven through cities on a highway, and the highway is taking up very valuable space, but meanwhile we might have a space next to that highway that is worth so much money. We’re not maximizing the value of our infrastructure. We’re only relying on it to get us from point A to point B. What we should be doing is thinking about its potential to make cities better for people. There’s potential economic gain from developing these infrastructure conduits more fully, and also potential environmental gain.


Did the eco-conscious side of your practice develop over time, or was maximizing resource efficiency and minimizing your footprint always paramount?

SD: I was 8 years old when I started to get these kinds of lessons in taking care of the environment. When I wrote my college essay for Dartmouth, the question was about the most significant problems facing society, and I said the loss of our natural land. I had no idea that I was going to become a landscape architect, and I had no idea that I would have what has become kind of a global voice. At Dartmouth it was always important, but it wasn’t central to what I studied.


Which of your past projects have brought you the greatest pride?

SD: I’m known, I think, for creating a project called the Sponge Park, an open-space system around the Gowanus Canal which helps to soak up surface soil runoff to reduce combined sewer overflows into the harbor. I’m also very proud of my Brooklyn-Queens Expressway research. I’ve been working for years to try to get support for putting a bridge over three segments of the BQE over in south-side Williamsburg, a fairly underprivileged Latino neighborhood, to put in ball fields. It would cost about $100 million, which in the realm of infrastructure really isn’t very much, but it could benefit 160,000 people who live in that neighborhood, and in that place there’s a really high incidence of childhood obesity and asthma.

We were also part of a 2010 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art called “Rising Currents,” [where] we outlined what New York City should do to prepare for a giant hurricane. We said here’s where the water is going to go, and here’s how you should manage it. Basically our predictions were right on, and our strategies of management are now being suggested by the Dutch engineers who are working on it. That exhibition actually helped precipitate a kind of shift in the mindset of the Dutch engineers to start thinking about allowing the water to come in, and now they’re doing these projects where they’re actually allowing water to come into their cities.


What would you like to see change in your field?

SD: Landscape architects leading projects. I think it’s going to be absolutely essential to have landscape architecture as the forefront in the development of cities. Otherwise, we are just so close to going over a tipping point in our relationship with the environment, that — and I don’t want to sound fatalistic — I just wonder how we’re going to survive or how this world is going to be able to support my grandchildren.

This interview has been edited and condensed.