Regional planning, urban design, and landscape architecture don’t often get prominent exposure at the Museum of Modern Art. Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront draws on all these disciplines, often in combination, and puts them front and center in an exhibition that posits a transformative role for design professionals in the face of climate change. In the show, startling statistics abound: In 90 years, sea levels are expected to rise 6 feet, leaving 20 percent of Lower Manhattan submerged; Ellis Island would be underwater, and the Statue of Liberty wading in her robes; contaminated industrial sites could be inundated with floodwater; Category Three storm surges could reach 20 feet. The tone of the exhibition, however, is upbeat, suggesting that designers have the means and vision to mitigate events by altering both our hard-edged tradition of sea walls and sewage pipes, and our physical and psychological relationship to the archipelagos of New York.
Architectural responses to climate change typically focus on reducing carbon emissions through energy-efficient building, increasing density and walkability, and integrating renewable energy technologies on a site. Rising Currents takes higher sea levels as a given, and its focus is on water, in particular on the area that engineer and exhibition consultants (Guy Nordenson, Catherine Seavitt, and Adam Yarinsky whose independent research informed the project overall) named Palisade Bay, the 20-square-mile Upper New York Bay. It includes five proposals for five sites by ARO with dlandstudio, Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis, nArchitects, Matthew Baird Architects, and SCAPE. The teams had an eight-week “residency” at P.S.1, where they could share ideas or work independently, holding two public workshops that drew hundreds. They now are displaying their ideas on walls of the second floor architecture gallery more often dedicated to works from the Modern’s permanent collection.
For all the diversity in the proposals, they are not easily apparent upon viewing. There are fuzzy-edged, greened coastlines; murky water; and gray skylines. The installation is dense and requires time to read and, as it were, absorb the wall texts, scrutinize the often-tiny renderings, charts, and diagrams, and watch brief videos in which team leaders present their projects. The teams have investigated their varied sites in depth, and analysis seems to have trumped aesthetics.
Working on Lower Manhattan, ARO calls for a permeable, planted streetscape from the Battery to Canal Street. The addition of a permeable surface, the architects suggest, would prevent combined sewage overflows, a chronic New York problem (now and even more so in the future), where rainstorms overtax antique infrastructure, causing raw sewage to spill directly into waterways. ARO’s plan is among the most easily understood, and given DOT’s recent reworking of the city’s streetscapes, seems feasible. They also propose a layered salt marsh to form a grassy edge around the island and absorb storm surges.
Matthew Baird Architects were given the oil tanks and piers in Bayonne, N.J., along with Northern Staten Island and the Kill van Kull. The Baird team proposed dredging and capping contaminated soils into raised berms, and turning oil tanks into sewage storage and “biogas” plants. They also suggested reactivating the shipping piers (which, they argue, will be of greater importance once the complete melt of the North Pole opens new navigation routes), and a recycling plant. Using all local glass, the plant would manufacture glass jacks that would be piled into the bay to create artificial, wave-dampening reefs. The artist Matthew Ritchie collaborated on the creation of the prototype jacks, which are stacked around the gallery’s central table.
The Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis (LTL) plan calls for a radical reworking of the New Jersey shoreline near Ellis and Liberty islands. This area, which is mostly 19th-century landfill, will disappear according to estimates, so LTL proposed a “cut and fill” plan, in which large trenches would cut into the land, bring water in, and the fill would raise blocks of usable land. Across these zones, they proposed a patchwork of new uses, including remediation and research centers, aquaculture, farm markets, and leisure. They also proposed a series of buildings-as-landscape along the spits of land, including an amphitheater with a floating stage, a research center, and a lodge.
nArchitects imagined Sunset Park and Southern Brooklyn’s waterfront as a “New Aqueous City.” In fact, they rewrote the zoning for the area to allow for new structures hanging over the water. The city would build the frames, and developers would complete the units, which would have accessible green roofs (handy to helicopters in case of calamitous flooding). A network of floating paths would connect buildings, which would be equipped with wastewater and storm-water filtration swales. “Biogas” systems for digesting sewage solids would power new ferry lines.
The digestive powers of the oyster inspired SCAPE’s proposal for the Gowanus Canal, Governor’s Island, Buttermilk Channel, and Red Hook. Looking to local industries of the past for ideas suited to the future, principal Kate Orff proposed making the Gowanus Canal an oyster hatchery, the seeds from which would be used to populate a series of rope-net reefs in the bay. Orff believes the oysters could clean the canal and the bay, though the recent EPA designation of the canal as a Superfund site casts serious doubt on the efficacy of this plan, in spite of its seeming the most readily doable among the projects.
Historically, MoMA has extolled the universal virtues of modern architecture and, to a lesser extent, planning around the world. Typically, architectural objects have been displayed as works of art, disengaged from any site. With Rising Currents, MoMA has asked these designers to get their hands dirty. Barry Bergdoll, MoMA’s chief curator of architecture and design, argues that the exhibition is an investigation of local solutions to global problems—solutions, in turn, with global implications. The exhibition capitalizes on the thinking of a younger generation of designers who merge architecture with landscape, and infrastructure with public space. Let’s hope some of their ideas make it off the museum’s walls and into the real world