Q&A with Elliott Maltby: Designing for Resilience

Elliott Maltby

Elliott Maltby

Architect Lee Altman interviews designer Elliott Maltby about her current project with City as Living Laboratory in West Harlem and where her practice sits at the crux of architecture, landscape, community, and environmental design.

LA: Elliott, how would you characterize your work?

EM: I usually tell people I am trained as a landscape architect, which is accurate but also qualifies the work I do as something that can go beyond the typical boundaries of the discipline. My work is fundamentally influenced by my training, but not bound by it.

LA: Tell us how you became a designer?

EM: Growing up I never thought I would end up in a design profession, even though both my parents are in the field. I studied philosophy but realized I wanted to find a way to do something that would have tangible outcomes in the world, in addition to being a platform for thinking about being in the world. I chose to study landscape architecture in grad school knowing that it may not encompass everything I wanted to do, and that I would have to find or negotiate a broader practice. At my current practice, Thread Collective, a lot of our work is architectural but the firm really serves as a platform that allows us to work collectively or individually.

LA: What keeps you engaged and motivated in your practice?

EM: At Thread Collective we talk about the very broad notion of sustainability as a way to work in the world that has an impact and a strong feeling of place, it satisfies a philosophical aspect of the pursuit of place, while contending with questions of social and environmental justice.

LA: Tell us about your connection to CALL. How did you get involved in designing +Space?

EM: After collaborating with artists in grad school and working for architects after graduating, I moved back to New York and started working for Mary Miss - this was exactly what I wanted to do since it combined all the different things I was interested in and allowed me to work for someone I had great respect and appreciation for. When the idea for CALL was being developed [at Mary Miss Studio] I wanted to support it in any way I could, and was excited when the time came to submit project proposals.  

LA: What’s the inspiration behind +Space?

EM: The +Space Harlem/Manhattanville Community Hub builds on work around emergency preparedness we did in Red Hook, but the two strongest drivers and points of inspiration was the Northern Manhattan Climate Action plan that was released at a very fortuitous timing, and the critical collaboration with WE ACT and the community working groups that were fundamental to the development of the project, and will be as important to its success going forward.  
The design creates both inward and outward facing conditions. It is in keeping with resiliency from an ecological standpoint, but... it’s really social resilience that is the most critical for a community facing disaster. The project is meant to be both ecological and social - a connector of people and ideas.

LA: What do you see as the biggest challenge facing this field?

EM: We are unable to recognize the limitations of our own knowledge. When the combined sewer system was introduced it was seen as an engineering triumph, a smart response to a contemporary challenge. What mistakes are we blindly missing at the moment? We need do be humble about our own limitations as we design solutions for the future, but also in our judgement of the past.

LA: Who inspires you? Why?

EM: My friend Jennifer Monson - she is a dancer who founded an organization called iLAND which facilitates collaborations between artists, scientists, and others. I’ve been on the board of the organization for the past 10 years, and I find it particularly inspiring because I’m not a dancer, it is something that makes me deeply uncomfortable but in a very rewarding way. Seeing the variability of Jennifer’s practice, it’s idiosyncrasies, makes me really appreciate the time needed to arrive at that level of internal reflection, that is something I would like to have more of in my practice.  

LA: What is one thing you think cities can do now to prevent ecological disasters from happening?

EM: Make everything absorbent, less paving, more planting everywhere.

LA: What are you reading now?

EM: I usually read several books at a time. I am currently listening to the audio book I contain Multitudes about the microorganisms in our bodies, as well as the Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon.

LA: How has living in NYC and experiencing Hurricane Sandy influenced your practice?

EM: It’s had a significant impact. One of our partners is a Red Hook resident, my brother was in St. Thomas during hurricanes Irma and Maria; the peril and emotional toll that these events can take has become painfully clear. There is an enormous urgency to our current situation, in long term emotional impact as much as the physical destruction.
Another thing that has become more apparent is the economic and racial disparity of recovery, it is so glaringly obvious and shameful. There is a need for us to be not simply prepared for disaster but think of ourselves as part of a collective whole, and ensure that all the parts of that collective are prepared, including and especially the most vulnerable.

LA: You’re also a teacher. How do your teaching and practice inform each other?

EM: I love teaching, and love that I can do it part time… I find it enormously compelling and I learn as much from my students as I hope they do from me. I use teaching as an opportunity to research things I may not have the time for in my practice, and enjoy being involved in the speculative end of thinking about design and planning. In teaching, I am a champion of exploration, of opportunities for students to make bigger mistakes, be expansive, to fail gloriously in interesting and well-researched ways. I hope that by working across a broad spectrum of projects I am able model what it means to be a professional in the design and planning realm.

+Space Harlem/Manhattanville Community Hub has been selected for Councilmember Michael Levine’s 2018 round of Participatory Budgeting. If you live in West Harlem or Hamilton Heights, you can vote for the funding to make Elliott’s design a reality. Click Here for more information.

Elliott Maltby is a founding partner at Thread Collective, a design practice committed to creating buildings and environments that will support a more just, creative, and resilient future. Elliott teaches architecture and urban design at Pratt Institute and at the New School, and is the lead artists for City as Living Laboratory +Space Harlem/Manhattanville Community Hub.

Interview By Lee Altman, AIA, Associate at SCAPE Landscape Architecture; Adjunct Asst. Prof. at Columbia University; Fellow at City as Living Laboratory