Graham Sustainability Institute

Connecting People with Water: Interview with Jen Maigret and María Arquero de Alarcón

Friday, May 24, 2019

Professors Maigret and AqArquero de Alarcón

“Right now, we see a divorce between people and institutions in terms of responsibility for water systems. We believe that design has an important role to play in shaping more just water governance models.”

From the May, 2017 Water Center Newsletter

From designing kayak lockers to stormwater planning in the City of Detroit to visualizing changing Great Lakes water levels, University of Michigan faculty Jen Maigret and María Arquero de Alarcón of the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning have shaped their design studio – MAde Studio – to explore new ways of connecting people with water through design.

Water Is a Starting Point

“Water became our starting point for two reasons. First, the complexity of water systems in the Great Lakes Region necessitates collaboration. In a region where the everyday experience of water is compromised by the legacy of urbanization practices, recovering our relationship with urban rivers and their watersheds is a rich topic for site-driven design. Second, you can study the effects of water from the scale of a building (architectural) – to the scale of a city (urban) – and to the scale of the biosphere (global). In this way, water’s ‘scalelessness’ facilitates relational thinking and is enriched by explorations that bridge artificial divides between disciplines contributing to urbanism, including architecture, urban design, and planning.”

Research, Practice, and Partnerships

“Initially, our creative practice was focused on the interplay between regionally scaled questions and small, speculative design proposals. Recently, we have enjoyed new collaborative opportunities for built projects that test those ideas in the world. When confronted with a new challenge, we do not define goals focusing on fixing pre-defined problems, but are more invested in opening up new questions and redefining what is possible.”

“We ask ourselves: ‘How can our work contribute to current debates shaping society’s collective thinking so that we can participate in urban transformations that are both possible and desirable?’”

We seek partnerships that inspire, inform and challenge our working methods. Successful collaborations require a collective commitment to and investment in a level of mutual respect for the perspectives, methods and opinions that each partner brings to the relationship. When this happens, the quality of the work is catalyzed, and we find tremendous enjoyment in what we learn from strong personal interactions.”

People and the Urban Landscapes

“We feel that the ubiquity of hidden infrastructure systems has produced an unintended consequence of abstraction and detachment for most people. Water is not abstract when you are confronted by the challenges of failing systems or the moments of beauty it presents. We strive to design systems where water is ‘accessible’ in a visual, physical and cultural way. Our work on storm water and green infrastructure enact design methods to establish new visual and physical relationships with rain water and shift conceptual biases from thinking of this as ‘waste’ to a resource to be celebrated and protected.

“Right now, we see a divorce between people and institutions in terms of responsibility for water systems. We believe that design has an important role to play in shaping more just water governance models.”

Our teaching at Taubman College also plays a key role in this commitment to transforming attitudes to create more sustainable futures. With an increasingly diverse student body and a strong international presence, we strive to connect our teaching to our research and practice. Over the past several years, we have traveled with students throughout the Great Lakes region and other postindustrial territories like the German Ruhr region. We have also visited places subject to incredible pressures of growth like Mexico City and São Paulo. Each time, students can witness the important role that design plays in contributing to global efforts to improve water quality and environmental protections.”

Water: from local to global experiences

“Since its inception, MAde Studio’s collaborative platform has evolved to include a variety of partnership models. While we continue to work together on some projects, we also work independently with other collaborators to extend the reach and capacity of our efforts. Currently, the Studio is busy with a range of work including a new collaboration with Akoaki (Assistant Professor Anya Sirota and Jean Louis Farges) to design alternative water delivery systems for the Oakland Avenue Urban Farm in Detroit. This research has special relevance for Detroit and other urban areas where city water rates are too costly to rely on entirely.

This summer also marks the launch of a new kayak rental locker (funded by the Huron River Watershed Council in partnership with the City of Ann Arbor). The first constructed prototype was recently installed in Bandemer Park and will serve as a model for future units to be sited along the Huron River to build the identity for its new designation as a National River Trail Network.

In turn, Maria is collaborating with Associate Professor McLain Clutter in a study of the urbanization of a drained lake in Chimalhuacán, Mexico State, and with Assistant Professor Ana Paula Pimentel Walker, in the conflicts between housing and the environment in informal areas in São Paulo. In both projects, the work tackles water as a central matter in the rapid transformation of the land by informal processes in the Latin American city.” 

“With our work spanning other geographies, we see similar water challenges and the need of infrastructural innovation to reach all citizens. Water stewardship remains key for the future of our cities, globally. It’s not so very different.”