This 2019 spring semester, twelve students from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture envisioned architectural designs along the Hudson Valley’s Quassaick creek watershed.
The coordinator for the studio course chose the Quassaick creek watershed for a number of reasons, explained adjunct professor Robert Marino. The area offers several different aspects for students to tackle: political, environmental, and cultural issues, as well as historical and religious aspects to name a few. Nearly 90 students under the direction of eight different professors worked on different aspects of the watershed as a part of the University’s Hudson Valley Initiative.
“Quassaick is a huge area…[which] encapsulates the entire City of Newburgh,” explained Marino, one of the eight professors for the program. “The creek is a huge natural resource that is largely ignored because it was used for functional purposes, not recreational.”
Marino decided that for his studio program he wanted a curriculum that worked with the physical features of the creek itself. He consulted with members of the Quassaick Creek Watershed Alliance (QCWA), who recommended that Marino’s students design a weir to reroute the creek around Holden Dam by route 9W, a plan the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration first unveiled in Newburgh in 2014. “Weirs” are architectural elements similar to dams, but instead of holding the water back they slow the stream down, allowing the water to continuously flow over them.
“It’s a beautiful spot,” said Marino. “What [the students] had to do was envision the breach, the new weir around the dam, and simultaneously incorporate that with a new nature center that would serve the Quassaick alliance.”
Bill Fetter, a QCWA member, suggested the potential dam could also be a good place to connect two new nature trails the alliance has proposed for either side of the creek. Altogether, the semester-long program consisted of four objectives: create the dam and envision how the water would be redirected, design a nature center, be able to cross the stream and weir, and connect the two proposed walkways.
“Ideally the two requirements, weir and nature center, will energize each other, and provide a meaningful point at which to contemplate our natural surroundings,” wrote Marino in the introduction to the studio course.
The Columbia University students each took this assignment in various different directions. One student focused her nature center specifically on eel migration up the river, and the barriers they face. The majority of the projects focused on connecting the neighboring communities to the watershed’s greenspace, with walkways and attractions for hikers.
“What stood out to me was the split between Newburgh and New Windsor – how the creek, trees, and topography change act as a physical border between the two…I am trying to create a pedestrian connection between the two boroughs, while creating a natural connection with the creek,” wrote student Alexandros Prince-Wright in a statement about his project.
Although all the student’s work is highly hypothetical (they only checked out the site once in person while creating their architectural designs) and usually completely unsolicited, Marino saw this as a great way to bring awareness of the watershed to the local community.
“Sometimes [the projects] are interesting for communities, offering free research for an idea. They get people thinking about it, and bring awareness to Holden Dam,” said Marino.
Marino is optimistic that Columbia University will continue to host studio courses in upstate New York in the future.