“To tell the story of man’s relationship with the oyster is to tell of railways, Dutch seventeenth-century still-life painters, oyster dredgers, oyster police and oyster thieves, gourmets and epicures, beachcombers, oyster acts and oyster bills, and to tell too of the philosophies, meditations, moral homilies and poetry the oyster has inspired since the beginning of human culture.”
—Rebecca Stott, Oyster
“Our task is to make trouble, to stir up potent response to devastating events, as well as to settle troubled waters and rebuild quiet places. In urgent times, many of us are tempted to address trouble in terms of making an imagined future safe, of stopping something from happening that looms in the future, of clearing away the present and the past in order to make futures for coming generations. Staying with the trouble does not require such a relationship to times called the future. In fact, staying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or Edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings.”
—Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble
Consider the oyster. It is ancient, one of the oldest creatures on earth and a living link to the earliest human settlement on the banks of the Long Island Sound. Large mounds or middens dating back centuries make evident the centrality the oyster had in the diet of the indigenous peoples. Settlers from Europe shared their enthusiasm and over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries consumed them on a scale that devastated the once seemingly inexhaustible natural supply. As a food source, they are high in protein and low in fat. They were long considered a food of the common people – it was only when their presence grew more precarious that they became a rarefied delicacy.
The oyster’s role in the ecosystem is even more vital. They clean the water, with a single oyster able to filter 30-50 gallons a day. The clear water they fostered, along with the natural reefs they formed, once enabled the flourishing of diverse sea grasses and fish in the Sound and in the wetlands at its edges. The loss of the oysters, the clearing of wetlands for development, and the industrialization of the waterfront have greatly diminished the Sound as an ecosystem and made it vulnerable to flooding and storms.
Our studio will explore the spatial and programmatic dimensions of striking a new balance and compact for cohabitation with the oysters. A key model for us is the Billion Oyster Project, which is restoring oyster reefs in New York Harbor. Their goal is to reestablish a sustainable oyster presence along with the habitat and protection from storm surges that come with it. The Billion Oyster Project is an outgrowth of an aquaculture program at the Harbor School on Governor’s Island. The Project was founded by two people, Murray Fisher and Pete Malinowski. The Malinowski family has been cultivating oysters on Fishers Island, at the other end of the Sound, for over forty years. Our project will build upon their work, focusing on the oyster’s capacity to provide abundant and healthy food along with opportunities for work and education.
Our site is the eastern end of the Long Island Sound with two anchors, one in New London and the other on Fishers Island. New London, once a wealthy whaling seaport, is now a struggling post-industrial city with an average income of $24,356 per capita. It retains a largely untapped potential as a regional transit hub, where rail and ferry services meet in a downtown still close to the waterfront. Our site here is an empty lot that links a commercial street to the water. A 45-minute ferry ride away, the Fishers Island site is near the ferry terminal and adjacent to an existing K-12 school that serves children from New London and Fishers Island.
The students will refine the particulars of the program after research and initial design exercises, but we imagine the starting point will be the following:
- Workforce housing for staff that meets Desegregate CT’s criteria for transit-oriented affordable housing
- Childcare for staff and volunteers
- Productive garden and greenhouse
- Sales outlet for seasonal produce and oysters
- Waterfront public space with pedestrian access
- New building to house grades 9-12
- Labs and instructional spaces supporting an aquaculture curriculum
- Public space for aquaculture education and discovery
Our task is to make room once again for the oyster. This will require that we see the Sound anew, not just as a surface or backdrop, but as a territory thick with history and potential to be stirred up, filtered and made fertile. We will work towards making a new inhabitable ground that supports a much more robust interface between life on land and in the water.