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Laurel McSherry honored with Excellence in Creative Achievement Award for design competition portfolio

Laurel McSherry

Laurel McSherry’s design placed third last year in the New York City Aquarium and Public Waterfront Competition

The School of Architecture + Design’s Award for Excellence in Creative Achievement this year went to Laurel McSherry, associate professor and director of the Landscape Architecture graduate program in the National Capital Region, for her outstanding body of work in design competitions.

Entering design competitions has been in McSherry’s purview from the start of her academic career, McSherry has won or received recognition 10 out of 17 times since 1981 and nine of 13 times in the last 11 years, noted as a “remarkable achievement” by Paul Kelsch, associate professor of landscape architecture, in nominating her for the Creative Achievement award.

“Furthermore, the work epitomizes and exemplifies the role of design as both a creative and scholarly activity,” Kelsch said. “She reads the landscape and society with a keen mind that cuts through much of the landscape’s surface conditions, and she looks for barely visible relationships and cultural processes that unite people and land. Strengthening these relationships is often at the core of her work. It is this conceptual rigor, grounded in careful thinking and observation about the workings of society and the (often banal) specifics of any given site that raises her work to the level that has been so frequently awarded and recognized.”

Below, Kelsch describes three of McSherry’s competition entries, all of which he believes illustrate this approach.

    Flight 93 Memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania (one of five finalists, 2005)

    Prior to September 11, 2001, the crash site of Flight 93 had been inscribed by generations of inhabitants of the land, most recently and evidently in the paired processes of strip mining and land reclamation. The site was already in a state of healing and repair before the plane crashed into it. Laurel and her teammates saw the downing of Flight 93 and the vernacular memorials along the chain-linked boundary of the site as further inscriptions on the land. Their memorial calls for yet more layers to be inscribed into the memory of the site, each stitching individuals and society to the now-changed location of the crash. Each also is an act of healing and repair.

    The debris field of the actual crash site and the entrance to the open terrain surrounding it are each bounded by the 2362 and 2384 foot contours. In the design, the continuous topographical swath delineated by these contours is seeded and planted to regenerate into a mature hemlock forest; it serves as a datum for the site while enclosing a deciduous glade at the crash site as a sacred precinct. Within this glade, sandstone stele would commemorate each of the victims -- and registering their distance from home when they died. A delicate wire fence gently distinguishes the private zone of the glade from the public landscape open to visitors. Visitors are invited to inscribe small aluminum tags, reminiscent of forester’s tags, and attach them to the fence as an acknowledgement of the collective desire to mark the site individually to commemorate the crash. Seen together, these various gestures cultivate a memorial out of the memories and actions brought to the site, compounded with each additional inscription.

    The Peace Corps Commemorative Competition, Washington, D.C. (one of three finalists, 2015)

    The Peace Corps Commemorative Competition sought to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Peace Corps at a small remnant triangle on the northwest edge of Capitol Hill, at the head of the National Mall in Washington DC. On a site barely large enough for a grand statue, the charge was to represent the founding ideals of the Peace Corps -- Liberty, Diversity, Conscience, Optimism -- rather than the actual service of past volunteers. The combination of small site, monumental setting and ideological program suggested a more abstract and monumental approach than the previous proposals derived from very specific site conditions.

    Laurel proposed a large mobius strip, an infinite loop of stone, simultaneously solid and spatial, heavy, yet touching only lightly on the ground. Made of individual panels of travertine affixed to a welded steel framework, the surface of the mobius would be lightly etched with a continuous map of the world, engraved with lines connecting the homes of Peace Corps volunteers with the locations where they served. The memorial itself sits slightly raised on an accessible plinth and from within its vaulting travertine belt, the dome of the U.S. Capitol is framed by the four ideals inscribed on the edge of the mobius. It is a strikingly graceful proposal.

    New York City Aquarium and Public Waterfront Competition, New York City, (Third Place, 2016)

    The New York City Aquarium Competition sought proposals for a new public aquarium along an underutilized section of the Queens waterfront. The goal was to develop a new cultural institution for the city and transform a small industrial site into a new public waterfront park.

    Laurel and her team radically expanded the competition to compass all of the Hudson River estuary and New York Bay and inverted the concept of an aquarium from capturing, containing and displaying sea creatures to a focus on environmental engagement, ecological restoration and scientific study and monitoring of the bay’s estuarine ecology. Three sets of ‘diving bells’ are dispersed throughout the estuary and bay with each set focused on a different set of experiences and activities. Cadastral Bells are sited at intersections of prominent lines of sight from the land so they extend the city out into the surrounding environment of the river and bay. Each of these bells has a tower for overlooking the bay and a floating swimming pool, so that visitors can swim in clean water, surrounded be the expanse of the bay. Datum Bells become observation and research sites, marking the depths of the water in key locations and monitoring changing conditions of the bay, especially sea level rise. Mobile Bells migrate around the site, providing platforms for ecological restoration, site-specific research, and engagement with the range of conditions that comprise the ecology of the bay. Collectively these three sets of metaphoric diving bells frame the entire mouth of the river and the bay as an aquarium, bringing visitors into physical and immediate contact with the water and its full ecological complexity. As one competition juror commented, “The proposal challenges the old centralized model [of an aquarium] to provide a distributed answer in which the animal does not serve the eye of the public, but where the relationship between man and animal is reciprocal. In which nature and humankind cohabit and do not compete.”

Kelsch added that when McSherry assembles a team of collaborators, each of whom contribute significantly projects, like those above, there is no doubt that it is her “incisive design mind that drives each team and pulls the best work out of all participants.”

McSherry received the Award for Excellence in Creative Achievement during a recent College of Architecture and Urban Studies ceremony in Blacksburg.

Posted June 09, 2017