A Deep Pool of Talent: What Will “Rising Currents” Yield?

Waterfront planner Carter Craft offers a preview of what to expect, and what to look for, when MoMA’s new design show, Rising Currents, opens next week. The exhibition will display the design schemes of five interdisciplinary teams, charged with re-envisioning “the coastlines of New York and New Jersey around New York Harbor and [imagining] new ways to occupy the harbor itself with adaptive ‘soft’ infrastructures that are sympathetic to the needs of a sound ecology.” Learn more about the project at MoMA’s website, and read Carter’s take below.

click image above to visit the Rising Currents website

Click image above to visit the Rising Currents website

The creative upwelling that you will soon be able to see at MoMA is one of those unique points of public focus that come along only every decade or so. With a name like “Rising Currents” it’s easy to ask if anything will actually float up to the top. Or will all the ideas take in water and lie in suspension until its just too late? Already the blogosphere and comment boards such as the one over at New York Magazine‘s website are filling up with decriers: “Don’t people know that global warming has been debunked?” That our “methane is worse than our CO2?

Nevertheless, just think for a moment if somehow we managed to bring back vibrant aquatic life to the shores of our inner harbor. If a resurgence of oysters and shellfish ate up all the bacteria our sewage treatment plants cannot. If New York Harbor waters were actually made to be swimmable again, would that be a bad thing? Let’s not waste the opportunity to ponder these questions. Grab your date book and pencil in “March 24th – October 11th.” It isn’t often the stars in our cultural, design, and media worlds all focus on the same topic, and for this reason alone we should all pay close attention to what’s presented and dare to ask, “So what do we do next?”

The exhibition prompted five New York architecture firms to each come up with architectural solutions for the problem of rising ocean waters around Upper New York Bay. The choice of sites ignores the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge – where rising waters are already being blamed for disappearing marshes – and the Rockaways – where barrier islands are populated heavily by senior citizens as well as low income residents. But we can forget that for a moment and delve into the deep pool of talent applied to this imminent challenge. See the map below for how the Upper Bay was divided up amongst the designers:

For those who haven’t had the time to peruse the MoMA site or attend either of the open houses at PS1 over the last few months, here are a few things to look for when you go.

Matthew Baird Architects, Zone 2
In my mind the most compelling idea comes out of Matthew Baird Architects‘ look at the western part of New York Harbor and the Kill Van Kull.

This area isn’t even on most New Yorkers’ radar screen. Inside this industrial landscape – still home to tank farms, oil terminals, and even a Scottish “Links” style golf course (you look surprised?) – Baird’s firm proposes a new wave of industrial development. Combining the millions of cubic yards of silt and mud that are dredged up out of the harbor each year with the millions of tons of recycled glass collected throughout the region, a Seuss-esque harborside factory could roll out, in Jane Margolies’ words, “jumbo crystalline jacks” which could then be assembled on the bay floor and post a “free parking” sign for algae, shellfish and other aquatic life. At a time when everything in Washington and Albany alike seems to be retreating like a fast-moving glacier, it’s inspiring to see someone tackle two big problems – repurposing industrial waste and providing new habitat for marine life – with one potential solution.


Scape Studio, Zone 4
Across the Harbor, the Gowanus Bay and Buttermilk Channel team – led by Scape studio – starts with a much, much smaller building block: the oyster.

Oysters, that most-celebrated bivalve, are enjoying a resurgence throughout the region, from Soundview in the Bronx to Somerville Basin in Jamaica Bay. A whole network of oyster-lovers, cultivated by New York-New Jersey Baykeeper, is itself now spawning a new initiative that is so big even the US Army Corps of Engineers is getting on board. That Agency’s goal – to restore 500 acres of oyster reefs around the estuary – makes this ecological vision something that could actually happen if we just help nature get started and then move out of the way. Some might say that this team had an easier assignment, given the huge amount of study and consideration the Gowanus Canal has been given for more than a decade. Still, a close look at their proposal beneath the surface of the water reminds us that the health of the Canal is linked to the health of Gowanus Bay and to the adjacent Bay Ridge flats.


Heading south to the Narrows, the team of nARCHITECTS had probably the most challenging study area.

Southwest Brooklyn’s waterfront, with its acres of landfill and piers and the sliver of Belt Parkway, doesn’t pair simply to the Clifton and Stapleton areas of Staten Island. The urban fabric and scale of uses are very different in each place, and the only unifying element here is the mouth of the Upper Bay at the Narrows. Given the assignment – “to re-envision the [New York Harbor] coastlines … with adaptive ‘soft’ infrastructures that are sympathetic to the needs of a sound ecology” – surge barriers may seem an obvious solution to suggest. However, to bring this effort into its larger context we must not forget the need to create new barriers along the Arthur Kill and Long Island Sound. Just like Times Square, there are many, many ways to get to the Upper Bay. The team succeeds by creating a new vertical reality: a semi-submerged housing typology where blue space downstairs becomes the “front” yard and the roof garden becomes the “back” yard. One can almost imagine the concrete and steel lobbyists now gathering at the Hilton to figure out how to make this modular prototype of residential construction the new Celebration, FL – on FEMA’s dime.


Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis, Zone 1
Moving clockwise along the clock face of the harbor, LTL had a simple and yet very challenging project area in the form of Liberty State Park, Jersey City.

In this study area, the question arises: wipe the slate clean or protect and strengthen the existing uses? LTL’s treatment represents, in my mind, the maturation of public design competitions today. Wiping the slate clean is easy. Ask anyone who has ever done an historic renovation and they will agree. But nowadays one cannot really do that – you end up fending off attacks rather than interpreting your ideas. The “monumental inundation” the team prepares for seems still bound by its historic geometry. As an old railroad yard in the 19th and 20th centuries, the site bears almost all straight line edges and has but a few curves. But here they find in the old railroad terminal (built in 1889, it is the oldest ferry terminal still in the Harbor) an iconic template which they inflate to the whole scale of the Park and study area. The ferry racks – which face the red brick Richardson-Romanesque building – are like the jaws of beetles waiting to grab the vessels arriving from New York and especially from Ellis Island. Today they are largely intact, but wholly and almost strangely unprogrammed. LTL inflates these slips into giant piers, cramming onto each of them some combination of uses which already adorn the giant park. The resulting construct is on a scale that might speak to and even welcome vessels visiting from outer space. Big thinking indeed!


Architecture Research Office and dlandstudio, Zone 0
Ending this Palisade Bay runaround and returning to Lower Manhattan we return to the realities of our existence today: huge amounts of financial capital embedded in schist, just a Frisbee toss from the rising tide.

ARO and dlandstudio hark back to the colony’s founding: the canals that became the first local arteries of commerce. The wetlands, which Mannahata reminded us used to be here, have been mercilessly filled in as we haved marched to progress and prosperity. Bravely, this team seems to insert even a few new buildings in towards the edge, albeit with a program that is much more stratified and cognizant that ground floor space in Manhattan may actually not always command such a premium.

Visit the area today and you’ll see, right outside the Staten Island Ferry Terminal on Whitehall Street in Lower Manhattan, three steps at grade for you to walk up, before you go down a couple dozen to get to the subway. Many years ago, the public agencies that drive capital construction in NYC realized that the impact of large storms and surges was not simply a threat, but a reality. In low lying areas like Tribeca or parts of Chelsea they are building accordingly, raising grates and station entrances to keep the water from pouring in.

Now with Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront about to open at one of the city’s most celebrated cultural institutions, the question is not at all “whose scheme is the best?” Rather, when do we bring the Cost Estimators in? There are dozens of good ideas here. The challenge is, who will build some of them to see how they work?

Image by Cameron Davidson/John Blackford

Image by Cameron Davidson/John Blackford via www.siliconbeat.com | This image is not associated with the MoMA exhibition, but it bears keeping in mind: we ignore the premises of Rising Currents at our peril.

Carter Craft is a waterfront planner and co-founder of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance. He is a licensed Captain working in the private sector and teaches the Waterfront Planning seminar at Pratt Institute. This summer he will co-teach the Sustainable New York City course at Fordham University, Lincoln Center Campus.

The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.

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