Abandoned neighborhoods. Boarded-up harbor facilities. An oil refinery submerged under several feet of brackish water. The Statue of Liberty slowly sinking into the sea.“Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront,” a new show at the Museum of Modern Art, reflects a level of apocalyptic thinking about this city that we haven’t seen since it was at the edge of financial collapse in the 1970s, a time when muggers roamed freely, and graffiti covered everything.
Organized by Barry Bergdoll, the Modern’s curator of architecture and design, the show is a response to the effects that rising sea levels are expected to have on New York City and parts of New Jersey over the next 70 or so years, according to government studies. The solutions it proposes are impressively imaginative, ranging from spongelike sidewalks to housing projects suspended over water to transforming the Gowanus Canal into an oyster hatchery.
Yet the show is no crackpot fantasy. Based on a two-year research project by the engineer Guy Nordenson, the landscape architect Catherine Seavitt and the architect Adam Yarinsky, it builds on recent municipal efforts to create a greener New York, from bike lanes to the construction of the new Brooklyn Bridge Park. Its vision of “soft infrastructure,” which would replace much of the city’s aging concrete waterfront with a more porous blend of land and sea, is the most coherent model we have for a sustainable city in the current century — as well as one that would radically transform New York’s Manhattan-centric identity by reorienting the city around its harbor.
One of the first things you see in the show is a provocative series of images of Lower Manhattan in 2080. The Freedom Tower has (just?) been completed and dominates the downtown skyline. Many of Battery Park City’s towers, which were built on landfill produced by the construction of the original World Trade Center, are gone. A swath of green extends from the water’s edge halfway up to Wall Street. At first glance, it looks like a sci-fi disaster flick.
The elegance of this design, by Architecture Research Office, is in the way it manages to marry a wholly new landscape to Lower Manhattan’s irregular pattern of streets. A series of bays proposed for the worst flood zones are carved out of the west side, creating a richly crenelated pattern along the island’s coast. Delicate strips of restored wetland extend out into the water to attenuate waves, as if other parts of the city’s grid were dissolving.
More radical, however, is the way the team has completely redesigned a typical Manhattan street. The asphalt has been ripped up and replaced with a perforated “green” cast-concrete surface designed to absorb rainwater. Sewer, water, gas and electric pipes are enclosed in waterproof vaults beneath this new skin, which can be removed for repairs.
A general interest in re-examining parts of the urban fabric that we take for granted, like streets, piers and canals — as opposed to the more familiar desire to create striking visual objects — is one of the main strengths of the exhibition. A team led by Matthew Baird Architects, for example, has focused on a huge oil refinery in Bayonne, N.J., that, if current estimates hold, will be entirely under water before our toddlers have hit retirement age. Rather than taking the predictable and bland route of transforming the industrial site into a park, the team proposes a system of piers that would support bio-fuel and recycling plants, including one that would produce the building blocks for artificial reefs out of recycled glass.
Those large, multipronged objects, which the architects call “jacks,” could be dumped off boats in strategically chosen locations, where their forms would naturally interlock to create artificial reefs once they settled at the bottom of the harbor. The jacks are magical objects, at once tough and delicate, and when you see examples of them from across the room at MoMA, their heavy legs and crushed glass surfaces make them look almost like buildings.
But here again, what’s really commendable about the design is the desire to look deeper into how systems — in this case, global systems, both natural and economic — work. According to Mr. Baird’s research, the melting of the ice cap could one day create a northern shipping passage that would make New York Harbor virtually obsolete. The manufacturing component of the design is meant as part of a broader realignment of the city’s economy that anticipates that shift.
Because the contributors to this show are young and relatively untested (they are mostly in their late 30s and early 40s), there are some slightly hokey elements. A team led by Kate Orff of SCAPE/Landscape Architecture re-imagines the heavily polluted Gowanus Canal as an oyster nursery, in an effort to turn back the clock to a time when New York was an oyster capital of the world.
Oddly, the proposals that are most architectural in their approach often don’t hold up as well as those that focus more on big infrastructure issues. NArchitects proposes a series of artificial islands that extend like fingers out into the harbor near the Verrazano Bridge, supporting suspended housing blocks. Channels are dug between the fingers into Sunset Park, Brooklyn, to obscure further the boundary between land and sea. The design is a nice counterpoint to the most brutal large-scale infrastructure and housing projects of Robert Moses-era New York. But the drama of suspending the structures from above doesn’t read clearly enough in the design, and the effort seems wasted.
Still, the value of the show has more to do with the story it tells as a whole rather than with any of the individual chapters. A healthy museum architecture department explores the kinds of ideas that are rarely addressed in the back and forth between government bureaucrats and bottom-line developers that characterizes most large-scale design projects. This is particularly true in an age that more and more seems to abhor creative risks of any kind.
The MoMA show asks us to rethink what the city could be, and in doing so nudges us away from a parochial mentality that tends to cling to the city’s past greatness rather than embracing — and facing up to — its future. If the show has a flaw, it is that it should push even harder.