2023 Obel Award celebrates Kate Orff’s ecosystem-driven designs

Scape and its founder Kate Orff have scooped the 2023 Obel Award, which celebrates the landscape studio’s Living Breakwaters project

2023 Obel Award winning Living Breakwaters project by SCAPE from above
(Image credit: SCAPE)

The 2023 Obel Award has been revealed, going to American landscape studio Scape and its founder Kate Orff (member of our Wallpaper* USA 300) for the Living Breakwaters project – an inspiring ecosystems-driven piece of green infrastructure design off the shore of Staten Island in New York. Championing sustainable architecture through pioneering, research-based solutions with an eco soul, Scape's work and the particular project are in perfect alignment with the award's mission – to focus on the ecological and social responsibilities of architecture. 

Chair of the Obel award jury Martha Schwartz said: 'Breakwaters are an ancient idea for how to protect shorelines – and the people who live close to them – by building underwater seawalls to defend a harbour or a beach from the force of waves. Kate has designed an extraordinary, modern-day interpretation, the Living Breakwaters, which will not only protect humans and revitalise the coastline of New York City, but also restore lost marine biodiversity. This is a visionary project that tackles the full task of adaptation, and which has the capacity to inspire and to positively impact vulnerable shorelines worldwide.'

portrait of architect Kate Orff

Kate Orff

(Image credit: SCAPE)

2023 Obel Award winner: Scape and founder Kate Orff

'Winning an architecture prize is really important for a project like this, which involved so many different people working together with a shared purpose. It is a true encouragement for community members, elected officials, landscape architects, ecologists and engineers, to come together and develop coastal adaptation projects wherever they are. It’s also an acknowledgement of the importance of thinking about design at a holistic, planetary scale. Our protective natural systems are in various stages of decline globally, and in order to repair them, we have to think and design systemically to tie the pieces back together. And that is an incredibly bold, creative act. Hopefully, this award can emphasise this point: that nature is a matter of design now and that we have to work fast and work together,' said Orff. 

2023 Obel Award winning Living Breakwaters project by SCAPE shot underwater

(Image credit: SCAPE)

Living Breakwaters is a complex project (led by Scape, but created by a multidisciplinary team) that required the reimagining of its Staten Island site following 2012's Superstorm Sandy. It comprises a mix of stones and ecologically designed concrete elements, which have been strategically placed to support fin fish, and other marine species, such as oysters in the natural, gradual restoration of the shoreline – the latter species in fact playing a key role as ‘co-designers’ by helping shape and develop the artificial reef formation. 

2023 Obel Award winning Living Breakwaters project by SCAPE showing here the oysters on site

(Image credit: SCAPE)

Orff, who recently also celebrated the opening of Tom Lee Park in Memphis, which she created together with Jeanne Gang's Studio Gang, was a critical player here too, in the quest to restore nature across the site. The design hopes to bring back ‘wonder and wildness’ to this part of Memphis, she told us at the time of our interview on the park. This part of Staten Island hopes to reap the rewards of her visionary design thinking too. 

2023 Obel Award winning Living Breakwaters project by SCAPE shoreline formation

(Image credit: SCAPE)



Ellie Stathaki is the Architecture & Environment Director at Wallpaper*. She trained as an architect at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece and studied architectural history at the Bartlett in London. Now an established journalist, she has been a member of the Wallpaper* team since 2006, visiting buildings across the globe and interviewing leading architects such as Tadao Ando and Rem Koolhaas. Ellie has also taken part in judging panels, moderated events, curated shows and contributed in books, such as The Contemporary House (Thames & Hudson, 2018), Glenn Sestig Architecture Diary (2020) and House London (2022).