At The River’s Edge

The nature of bulkheads is to fail. Will bulkheads of nature work better?

Steel bulkheads along the Cuyahoga, near Irishtown Bend.

Mao liked to tell the story of the Foolish Old Man who wanted to improve the view from his farmhouse by moving two mountains. Shovel by shovel, generation after generation, he got his wish.

Shovel by shovel, generation after generation, the Cuyahoga River was made tame through landfilling that transformed a swamp into real estate. The river was kept in its place through a series of man-made barriers—bulkheads—that attempted to turn a murky, literally fluid shoreline into a hard border: dry land on one side, navigable river on the other. (It could have been worse. At one point, city leaders considered completely straightening our kinky river.) The river is dredged periodically to make the shipping channel deep enough. What unimpeded shoreline remains is subject to the powerful push and turbulence from a ship’s bow thrusters, the navigation aid that allows long ships to maneuver through the twists of the Cuyahoga. As the Gang of Four—the British band, not the Chinese Communist Party officials accused of being counterrevolutionaries—sang, “Natural’s not in it.”

The idea that humans can and should move and sculpt mountains and rivers to our whims is not recent (nor is it, apparently, only a product of capitalism), but lately it comes with enough lamentation that there are forces who would like to see a little less of it. Nobody’s going to let the Cuyahoga run its own wild course—that ship has literally sailed—but there’s a movement to loosen its edges a little.

That’s the idea behind the work of Douglas Paige, professor of industrial design at the Cleveland Institute of Art, and Lukas Kronawitter, a German architect and planner, two designers of different scales who overlap in water. They partnered through the synergy-seeking Creative Fusion program of the Cleveland Foundation, an initiative that connects arts and artists from Cleveland to those around the world. The theme of the 2019 Creative Fusion program has been Waterways to Waterways, to mark the half-century anniversary of the 1969 fire on the Cuyahoga and the environmental movement it helped to spawn.

Paige and Kronawitter, along with Paige’s CIA students, set about finding an alternative to bulkheads as they are currently created—usually walls of steel and concrete. While they can’t hope to return the edge entirely to nature, they have tried to bring aspects of nature to their plans—call it naturish—and it starts with a fundamental principle: “We have to think of land as not something solid, but as fluid,” Paige says. He considers the designs his team has generated as more of a river management system than strictly a new design for bulkheads, because they go beyond what bulkheads do. “One of our philosophies is to make it a zone, not a wall,” he says.

The structures proposed for the zone are person-made but they employ the design concept of biomimicry—that is, learning from termite mounds, sharkskin, leaves, and other structures and patterns in nature to inform the structures of the human-built world. This is not new; DaVinci’s bird-inspired flying machines are an early example of biomimicry. In the case of the river system, Paige and Kronawitter looked at the water-pumping plant xylem; the hard-shelled, hard-working beak of a toucan, which contains a spongy network of bones that self-generate to support the area of greatest stress; and the properties of the sea sponge, in which internal modules organize and move in patterns dictated by water and nutrient flows.

“All those models represent efficiency. Efficiency in material and efficiency in energy. That’s a real big lesson in nature,” Paige told an audience at a Creative Mornings presentation in March, 2019. Another lesson: “Nature is strong by being resilient. So rather than trying to make these immovable walls—which we know eventually move—maybe we should design something that is a little more resilient and adaptive as a zone, that creates an area that manages the land and also provides interface for business.”

Of course, biomimicry isn’t nature—it simply pilfers nature’s genius. The real hope is that bulkheads—by being porous, flexible, adaptable, and deployed further into the river and away from the edge—would restore the ebb-and-flow that determines the river’s relaxed border. Another goal is to restore the plant and animal life that usually make up what’s called the “riparian” edge—the wetland area where water meets land. Paige and Kronawitter created a model showing how modular, 3D printed forms of various materials might absorb the stress of bow thrusters, accommodate the fact that winds on the river can vary its level by a range of four feet, and provide the space for a softer meeting of land and water—and thus habitat. The design could also accommodate a structure on top of them, such as a walkway or other platforms, that could bring people closer to the riverside.

“Rather than develop a bulkhead system that’s good for the ecosystem, we want to develop an ecosystem that accommodates people,” Paige said at the Creative Mornings presentation. At the same event, Kronawitter explained that the framework for their design emphasizes continuous growth, restoration, and regeneration.

That all sounds great, but the biggest force pushing against the project might not be the current of the Cuyahoga, but the inertia inherent when a new idea meets the understandable bureaucracy that governs a natural resource that is also a canal for industrial transportation, a scenic home to commercial enterprises like bars and restaurants, a border to land owned by a wide variety of public and private entities, a recreation asset, a habitat for fish and flora, and, you know, a life force. An image on the proposal’s informational poster shows a circular graphic in which the various stakeholders are clustered, a dizzying knot that calls to mind the Color Wheel of Death, the spinning symbol that indicates a Mac program is hung-up—possibly forever.

But Paige says that meeting with each stakeholder—from the Great Lakes Brewing Company to the Army Corps of Engineers—is part of the design process, whether for a bulkhead or a building. Now, with a model in hand, he is at the stage to return to those conversations. And there is also a possibility that these new concepts for alternative bulkheads will succeed—but maybe not in our river.

Answering a question at the Creative Mornings talk, about whether this kind of work is being done elsewhere, Kronawitter was sheepish. “The reason why I’m hesitating is I’m trying to be modest. I really feel like bulkheads haven’t been explored. And this is why it’s extremely exciting to work with Doug on this project.”

Without much precedent, the two hope their work will inspire others to explore water edge designs that go beyond bulkheads.

“Typically, the bulkhead isn’t the most celebrated design object,” Kronawitter said. “There’s not a lot of famous bulkhead designers out there. Maybe there should be. There are some interesting things happening out there—maybe there will be.”

Replied Paige: “Maybe there will be.”