With Virgin Eyes

With Virgin Eyes

A Natural History of New York City

Museum of the City of New York
1220 Fifth Avenue
Through October 12

In the opening pages of Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas states that the physical form of New York City is the product of a self-conscious urge to rewrite the past in order to serve a particular vision of the future. Writing of the pre-European New York, he asks, “What race first peopled the island of Mannahatta?” Quoting the 19th-century historian Peter Belden, he answers, “They were, but are not,” victims of a vast, fictitious plot in which barbarism gives way to refinement.

As recounted in Koolhaas’ delirious reality, European settlers erased all traces of the island’s pre-existing civilization, replacing it with “a city renowned for its commerce, intelligence, and wealth.” According to Koolhaas, the outcome of this Darwinian survival of the fittest, the New York we know, love, and hate, is the product of a “cyclical restatement of a single theme: Creation and destruction irrevocably interlocked, endlessly reenacted.”


Though the exhibition Mannahatta/Manhattan: A Natural History of New York City, on display at the Museum of the City of New York until October, appears at first glance to have nothing in common with Delirious New York, the exhibit self-consciously attempts to influence the city’s future by including the landscape eulogized by Koolhaas. The feat of recreation is accomplished using historic maps and the modeling tools of ecological science. The result is a computer-generated vision of Manhattan as it appears on the sunny September afternoon, four hundred years ago, when Henry Hudson first set eyes on the island. The beautifully rendered images depict a land of abundance covered by pure green forests, washed by clear flowing streams, and ringed by sparkling wetlands: an ideal habitation for both man and beast.

The ecologist responsible for this Arcadian vision, Eric A. Sanderson, is careful to state that the imagery should not be seen as a call to return Manhattan to its primeval state, but rather as a visualization tool that reveals “something new about a place we know so well, whether we live in New York or see it on television, and, through that discovery, to alter our way of life.”

Consequently, the exhibit challenges the viewer to see the contemporary city as “a place shaped by the relationship between nature and people.” In order to function as good stewards of this ecological heritage, we, individually and as a society, must realize that the “principles of diversity, interdependence, and interrelativity operate in a modern mega-city much as they do in nature.” The clear implication is that this newfound understanding will enable the people of New York to re-envision the future as a sustainable ecological reality.

The exhibit begins with an interactive display. One click and an aerial view of the current urban grid transforms into an image of long-ago ecological abundance. A topographic map of Manhattan dominates the center of the space, and functions as a display screen for the cultural, natural, Native American, and ecological history of the island. But the real heart of the exhibit is a Muir web, a set of computer-generated connections between the ecologies that once composed the Manhattan landscape.

Consisting of abstract lines that converge and cross to define dense, multi-dimensional landscape communities, the web emerges from simple relationships such as “squirrels eat nuts.” Even though the relationships lose some of their dynamic power when rendered in two dimensions, the resultant forms clearly illustrate the complexity of the natural environment. A quote from Jane Jacobs is used to relate this natural complexity to healthy urban growth: “Lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration.”

Mannahatta’s modeled reality is a harmonious vision that showcases the best of nature’s resilience and abundance. Here, sylvan ecologies synergistically combine to create a gentle mythology of the island’s natural history. There is no Sisyphean struggle between creation and destruction. As I viewed this algorithmically derived Arcadia, I couldn’t help but wonder how much different the images and the exhibition would be if the true depths of the growth and decay cycles that govern the forms of nature were plumbed, as the artist Robert Smithson did when he pictured himself one million years ago, “alone on the vast glacier covering Central Park.”

In the silence, he wrote, one would not sense the glacier’s “slow, crushing, scrapping, ripping movement as it advanced south, leaving great masses of rock debris in its wake. Under the frozen depths where the carousel now stands, you would not notice the effect on the bedrock as the glacier moved itself along.” Smithson’s vision, carefully documented with historical and Polaroid images of Central Park, oscillates between creation and destruction. Though a less nominally beautiful vision of nature, Smithson’s embrace of destruction as the necessary seedbed for a lively, diverse, and creative growth is perhaps more truthful.