As the Tide Turns

As the Tide Turns

When The New York Times editorial pages  

Approximately 350 people sat, stood, and squatted, with the likes of City Planning Commission chair Amanda Burden and British architect David Adjaye looking on, as five up-and- coming NYC firms showed the fruits of their two-month, MoMA-sponsored labors in 15-minute presentations. The teams had been tasked with inventing new infrastructure for five designated sites in New York Harbor that would respond to the threat of rising sea levels over the coming decades. An exhibition of their ideas opens at MoMA on March 24.

Barry Bergdoll, MoMA chief curator of architecture and design, kicked off the proceedings with the declaration that his department was rethinking “what an architecture exhibition can be,” and added that Rising Currents was to be the first in a new series of exhibits on “timely topics with an emphasis on the urban dimension.”

Certain tropes of contemporary waterfront design immediately surfaced: walls are bad; wetlands are good. And each project seemed to have a farmer’s market, whether on a barge, repurposed railway terminus, or flupsy (a floating oyster incubator). Pavements, edges, parks, and vacant lots were all to be permeable. Food, bi-valve or vegetal, was to be grown at or on the water’s edge.

ARO and dlandstudio led with the most recognizable site, Lower Manhattan. Their project focuses on preparing the city for inundation by softening the intersection of land and harbor. A semi-circle of wetlands would be planted around the bottom of Manhattan, replacing the hard edge and dampening waves. Certain avenues and side streets would be designated “blue streets,” their roadbeds redone with permeable pavers and layers of dirt and gravel below ground to redirect storm water that could swamp sewers.

LTL Architects worked on a zone that includes Liberty State Park and Ellis and Liberty Islands. They offered one of the most ambitious earthworks, suggesting a rearrangement of Liberty Park’s current fill into four “mega-piers” connected by water transport to existing light rail systems and the NJ Turnpike. Uses along their length might include research parks to study flood- and saline-resistant plants; a concert field with floating stage and Corbusian “aqua-tel” (as in, aquatic hotel); and botanical gardens featuring the invasive species that have already colonized the area. The existing historic structures on their own islands would serve as anchors for and landmarks in the changed landscape.

By contrast, Matthew Baird Architects, on a site incorporating the opposite coasts of Bayonne, NJ and Staten Island, offered almost no architecture. Baird’s site has existing shipping piers, a petroleum refinery, and a residential neighborhood—lots of stuff—so he suggested less building than reprogramming what’s there in order to maximize shipping, add renewable energy opportunities, and (again) soften the shoreline. One set of abandoned warehouses could be turned into a glass recycling plant, with glass made into “jacks” that would be dropped into the harbor as a base for a new reef. Baird had one of these lovely, even artful, objects on display.

The same jack form cropped up in nARCHITECTS’ wildly megastructural proposal for the coast of Brooklyn (Sunset Park and southwards). Y-shaped concrete islands would be deployed between Brooklyn and Staten Island as wave attenuators, with inflatable barriers ready to fight storm surges. These islands would accrete the sediment and eventually become organic. To accommodate the city’s growth, new aqueous zoning ordinances would be written, promoting new top-down development sites: landscaped platforms over the water from which developers could hang apartments. Mobile barges with parks, markets, and other programming would ply their trade along the new residential edge.

The simplest proposal was by Kate Orff of SCAPE: “Oystertecture.” Her Brooklyn-to-Governors Island site was among the smallest, and she latched onto the mollusk as metaphor and natural workman. “I want to harness the biological power of the creatures in the harbor to create a new relationship between New Yorkers and the harbor,” she said. Her plan: to use new colonies of oysters, bred in the Gowanus Canal, to clean the waterways; to line the Gowanus with gardens, joggers, and oyster bars; and to encourage sea life and attenuate waves with a new reef off Bay Ridge. That reef could be knitted of inexpensive fuzzy rope and turned into a water park. It was the hipster preoccupations of Brooklyn as urban solution.

Orff’s ideas got the loudest applause, perhaps because their scale seemed manageable and her enthusiasm was infectious. But after the PowerPoint was over, it was hard to know what all this imagination could mean for the city. Yes, it is great that young architects are being asked for solutions to big problems. But only a select few in the audience, not onstage, have the power to make anything happen.

A version of this article appeared iAN 02_02.03.2010.