Imagine floating in a gondola through East Harlem. How about leisurely kayaking by Hell Gate, the East River’s most dangerous bend? What if signage alongside the FDR drive promoted neighborhood engagement in Jenny Holzer–style graphics? These somewhat outré civic solutions represent the first, second, and third place winners of the Reimagining the Waterfront competition, sponsored by Civitas, a citizen’s action group. More than 90 entrants from 25 countries entered the competition to address the crumbling East River Esplanade from 60th to 125th streets.
Last year attention was focused on closing the greenway gap between 38th Street and 60th Street. Meanwhile, just north of that stretch, the 60-year-old esplanade with its crumbly sinkholes and limited access points across the FDR foretold the challenges of maintaining a riverside park in the long term.
The three winners of the ideas competition address crucial aspects of rethinking the waterfront. The first place winner, Syracuse University architecture student Joseph Wood, dreamed up canals leading inland to integrate the Upper East Side and East Harlem. Second place winner Takuma Ono was no less ambitious, but he took a holistic approach that incorporated below-water ecosystems with practical engineering and a web of boardwalks on the water. Third place winner Matteo Rossetti envisioned strategically placed “writing the esplanade” modules, where the community could drop by and write down what they would like to see happen on that site. The modules could later be transformed into participants’ suggestions.
Rob Rogers of Rogers Marvel Architects was joined on the jury by architects Adam Yarinsky, Billie Tsien, Jack Travis, Signe Nielsen, Manhattan borough parks commissioner William Castro, Warren James, and attorney Al Butzel.
Rogers explained the unconventional scheme that took first place. “This was an ideas competition, and as such, part of the notion was to create intrigue and excitement about what the East Side could be,” he said. “It is ambition beyond traditional boundaries, beyond the scheme.” For his part, Wood said he was stunned that the jury selected his design, which was assigned as part of an architecture studio. “I was very surprised because they presented the competition like a basic nuts-and-bolts problem,” said Wood said by phone. “I think they took a step out of themselves to allow such a conceptual idea to win.”
The water flow of Wood’s interlocking canals would be regulated in part by gates and filtration equipment. Tiered plantings would filter storm water before flowing into the river-bound canals. In a telephone interview, Wood didn’t delve too deeply into the technical details, to say nothing of Upper East Side/East Harlem politics. “This is more about the big picture,” he said. “It could be refreshing in a way to envision a new realm of the city without having to worry about the politics. This is more to spark conversation.”
Ono, an inaugural fellow at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, used historical maps as a starting point to study features of the landscape and its geology before accentuating them in tetrapods to create “ecological infrastructures.” “I’m always inspired by projects that look beyond the contemporary landscape and back into the past to see what can emerge from the existing rubble,” he said.
Rossetti’s civic approach rounded out the selection by bringing in neighborhood participation. “It is really difficult for the community to live pleasantly in a space that isn’t the mirror of the community itself,” the Italian architect said in an email.
The winners and five honorable mentions will be presented in an exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York from June 6 through late September.