LOS ANGELES — A visit to Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., Dec. 13 was the culmination of a mentorship between one of the District’s engineers and 14 design students studying the Los Angeles River.
Early this year, Steve Dwyer, chief, Navigation and Coastal Projects Branch, was approached by long-time colleagues from the University of Southern California’s School of Architecture, his alma mater, about participating as an engineering advisor for a graduate-level Landscape Architecture Studio the colleagues were conducting at Harvard University. Dwyer was immediately interested.
Other advisors who agreed to participate in the studio brought planning, ecology, and landscape architecture experience, but Dwyer was the only engineer.
In September, he and other District subject matter experts involved in an ecosystem restoration feasibility study for the Los Angeles River met with the Harvard students in Los Angeles to hear about their project ideas and to provide technical assistance. The Corps’ team helped explain, from an engineering perspective, how the Los Angeles River works, why it works, and why it looks the way it does, as well as the current status of the feasibility study.
The students, most of whom had never been to Los Angeles and represented the United States, China, Spain, Puerto Rico, Korea, and Burma, were each assigned a section of an 11-mile stretch of the River, which coincided with the Corps’ study area, and were asked to identify a problem for their section and to design a solution.
Dwyer’s recent trip to Harvard, at the school’s invitation, gave him the opportunity to be a jury member, along with the other advisors, as visiting critics on a panel organized to review and judge the students’ work. The students depicted their projects in drawings, videos, and models, and the jurors critiqued the work based on their particular areas of expertise.
“I’ve been doing LA River-related studios for a decade, and these were the most imaginative and innovative projects I have ever seen,” Dwyer said.
As an example, one of the students focused on air pollution, and she designed a framework over a section of freeway near her site that contained a large vacuum device that would suck in car exhaust and harmful particulates and pump the polluted air into a bioswale next to the river, so the river water could help filter and cleanse the air.
Dwyer said another student focused on public involvement and designed a “water veil” in the river, which is like a waterfall, to provide beauty and a tourist destination. Yet another was interested in electricity and possible power generation by river water.
“The Harvard Architecture School is built like half of a pyramid and has six floors that are open to each other, and you can stand on the top level and look down,” Dwyer said. “You can interact with people throughout the building. It is like one huge studio. When the students presented their projects, we went into a large classroom with a lot of wall space.”
At the end of the review, one of the Harvard faculty mentioned that the students’ work was “better grounded in reality” than in previous studios he had critiqued, because of the engineering advice given by Dwyer. In fact, Dwyer said he constantly answered emails from the students during the semester.
“It is very rewarding be able to share 46 years of institutional knowledge and help students design better projects,” he said. “This was the best experience I have ever had while serving in an advisory role during my career.”
Dwyer, who was the District’s chief of operations for 25 years and whose responsibilities included maintenance of the Los Angeles River, wrote the Los Angeles County Drainage Area Project’s operation and maintenance manual, which is now the bible for Los Angeles County and the District’s maintenance programs.
The other jurors were Omar Brownson, executive director, LA River Revitalization Corporation; Ana Petrilic, deputy chief, Urban Projects, Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority; Simon Pastucha, planner, City of Los Angeles; and, Charles Waldheim, chair, Harvard School of Design.
“It was obvious to the visiting jurors that Harvard is a melting pot made up of bright, young people from throughout the world,” Dwyer said. “The students in the studio told us that they had no knowledge of the Los Angeles River and its issues before the course, but they really understand the river and its restoration possibilities now.”
Dwyer said the timing of the studio couldn’t be better, because the Corps’ Ecosystem Restoration Feasibility Study for the river has not been finalized, and some of the students’ work could potentially be incorporated in future ecosystem restoration projects.