In a space normally devoted to showing masterworks of often long-dead practitioners, Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront brings both contemporary practice and contemporary problems to the Architecture and Design gallery at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Head curator Barry Bergdoll emphasized this unusually quick time frame (the exhibition was announced just six months ago) during what he called the “very serious opening celebration” on Tuesday night.
The project saw five teams of architects and landscape architects contending with five locations around New York Harbor, each proposing a different solution to the imminent problem of massive storm surges, which are predicted to inundate coastal areas of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Liberty State Park in Jersey City. Teams were hosted at an eight-week residency at the MoMA-affiliated P.S.1 Center for Contemporary Art in Queens, during which a number of climate and policy experts visited, offering their knowledge and their criticisms of the projects.
The impetus for the project was On the Water: Palisade Bay, a study and book led by structural engineer and Princeton professor Guy Nordenson that started almost two years ago. Following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Nordenson (along with Princeton colleagues Catherine Seavitt and Adam Yarinsky) looked at the potential effects of storm surges on areas surrounding New York harbor. In short, due to global warming, both a predicted sea level rise and an increase in catastrophic weather events will likely lead to massive urban floods in the area. Large-scale visualizations in the exhibit show swaths of these coastal areas swallowed by tidal surges. The five projects follow from the study, attempting to respond to the impending disasters.
A visualization shows the current condition in green, with potential hurricane surges in yellow and red.
The exhibition gave an area to five different New York architects. 0: ARO and dlandstudio, 1: LTL Architects, 2: Matthew Baird Architects, 3: nArchitects, 4: SCAPE / Landscape Architecture
As Eric Bunge of nArchitects pointed out during Tuesday’s panel discussion, the studio environment at P.S.1 placed the projects somewhere “between an architectural office and a school.” In the final gallery, the projects are posted on the walls with presentation boards and a large model, not unlike, say, a final crit for a studio. At the exhibition, you can even watch videos of each of the architects presenting their project.
And, in a sense, these are all very accomplished studio projects. Each follows the path set out by Nordenson to create a vision for “soft” infrastructure—designs that anticipate and work with catastrophe. The projects from Architecture Research Office (ARO) and dlandstudio for lower Manhattan and by Lewis Tsurumaki Lewis (LTL) both present permeable landscapes, capable of accepting the floods in a reasoned and elegant fashion. LTL’s scheme re-imagines New Jersey’s Liberty State Park as an aqueous landscape, with different programs (an amphitheater, a market) extending out into the harbor on piers. Titled “Water Proving Ground,” it suggests that the park could be designed as a set of experiments for how to deal with the coming floods.
The LTL scheme suggested a series of pier-like extensions into the harbor. Above, the program calls for a series of aquaculture facilities.
ARO and dlandstudio’s plan for lower Manhattan suggests replacing street asphalt with permeable, absorptive surfaces, capable of channeling floodwaters back into the harbor. Their vision extends this green zone out into the harbor, employing planks of greenery that dot the water immediately adjacent to the shoreline, suggesting a physical blurring of boundaries that was employed, in one of form or another, by every team.
The ARO/dlandstudio plan for lower Manhattan.
Soft mitigation is also found in Matthew Baird’s project for Staten Island, which proposes an artificial reef made of recycled glass. Once populated, the reef would temper the severity of incoming tides.
The plan by Matthew Baird Architects proposes a recycled glass reef.
Kate Orff of SCAPE / Landscape Architecture also proposed to generate a natural habitat, using a grid of rope to nurture an oyster colony on Brooklyn’s southern shore. Their project, “Oyster-tecture,” is a bit confusing from the boards, but everyone should watch Orff present the project on the accompanying video. Her enthusiasm for the work turns the seemingly precious idea of an oyster colony into a potentially exciting and very political project—creating a landscape through the participation of the entire community in oyster production.
SCAPE's plan combines a series of tide-mitigating piers with the production of oysters.
Finally, nArchitects, also working in Brooklyn, presents a series of smaller-scaled ideas under the overall banner of “New Aqueous City.” As with the SCAPE proposal, the presentation is hard to grasp unless you spend time with it. The different levels of proposed intervention—from the proposal of new floodplain housing codes, to local farms fertilized by sewage, to larger networks of inflatable dams and public transit ferries—seem to combine all of the others’ strategies into a vast, ambitious program (though its individual goals are somewhat lost in the mix).
Part of the nArchitects plan for Sunset Park, Bay Ridge, and Staten Island.
If there is a common element here, it is that of acceptance. The world is bad. It promises to get much worse. And these designs can make problems less catastrophic, softening the edges of the inevitable encounter between culture (the city) and nature (the harbor). Yet, there is a fundamental contradiction to approaching this problem. Liberty State Park in New Jersey, the site of LTL’s intervention, was once underwater, gradually lifted out of the ocean by layer upon layer of landfill. Marc Tsurumaki pointed out in his team’s presentation that their site held within it this contradiction—a site that was constructed through the local effects of industrialization, only to be undone by the global effects of the same process. While the LTL design proposes an optimistic and forceful set of experiments to deal with the oncoming problems, it doesn’t really begin to approach the disjunction that Tsurumaki points out.
A similar heaviness hangs over all of the projects. These problems are too massive, too incomprehensible to be addressed in a satisfying way. Rising Currents was, again, a studio class with the star pupils of New York architecture in attendance. Their projects are inspiring and entertaining, each providing a reasonable mix of mitigation and intelligent responses to the problems at a local level.
One longs for slightly less sensible answers for these questions, because the questions are beyond sense and reason. All of Lower Manhattan flooded? The streets of south Brooklyn becoming canals? It might happen, but we won’t believe it until it does, and only then will the answers (or lack of them) follow. The proposals at Rising Currents simply suggest trying things, conducting experiments, to begin answering questions that are too large to comprehend. Small, hopeful responses against looming circumstances are all we can seek. Hopefully the best of this thinking will generate responses from policy-makers—the true architects of the city—to begin preparing for our unreasonable future.