UO: How did this project start?
JS: I’m an architect by training, and worked for a while at architecture firms where projects involved plugging into existing mechanical systems that we couldn’t really adjust. The limitations were frustrating – and that’s true for a lot of projects that are renovation-based. I began thinking more about infrastructure, about the interface between architecture and infrastructure, and about how we relate these surface infrastructures that are so hard to visualize and are so important to how we experience and influence the environment – especially in cities.
My first idea was to create an infrastructure atlas for multiple cities. What has always been striking to me is that these systems are so complicated. It’s hard enough to understand them in just one place, but if you can’t observe how other places work, you will never know that there might be another way. I wanted to produce a massive atlas with real information, not a gloss, but simple enough to be understandable – almost like Allan Jacobs’ Great Streets for surface infrastructure.
I realized that such an ambitious project would be extremely difficult, so I decided to pick one area to focus on. I came across Kate Ascher’s book The Works and saw Roosevelt Island’s AVAC system and was immediately intrigued. I started doing more research into this pneumatic trash collection system and felt that it was the perfect opportunity to create the comparisons that interest me. In one city, we can see different ways of collecting garbage and learn from those differences.
As I started spending more time on Roosevelt Island, I learned that it was the 40th anniversary of the Johnson-Burgee master plan for the island. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, when the first phase of the plan was developed, it was an incredibly high-profile event. There was an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art sponsored by the Mayor, it was on the cover of Architectural Record – it was on people’s minds. But interest gradually faded (though the system has its place in history with Delirious New York) and now people tend to see it as architectural history or irrelevant. But to look at it from the perspective of infrastructure, and to see how we’re still trying to tackle many of the same issues, is fascinating and instructive. We’re basically looking at new town developments, which allow or invite an integrated approach to infrastructure and engineering since they start everything from scratch. Even though the ideas behind Roosevelt Island were different than the ideas behind some of the development projects today, there are similar means.
UO: Tell us more about Roosevelt Island’s trash disposal system. What is AVAC, how does it work and how did it come to be?
JS: The AVAC system is the Automated Vacuum Collection System. It was inaugurated in 1975 when the first development on Roosevelt Island opened and today it serves 12,000 inhabitants of the island. Garbage is deposited in a regular building garbage chute, which is gravity-fed, and piles up behind a valve at the bottom. With your average garbage chute, there is a compactor at the bottom that compacts the trash and puts it into bags that are then carried to the curb. Here, there is no compactor – there’s just a plate and a network of tubes that lead to a facility at the end of the island. Engineers at the facility turn the system on several times a day. It could be automatic, but they often run it manually. The valves open, the garbage drops in and is pulled back to the facility with an air speed of 60 miles per hour (the garbage itself, depending on the density, shoots through at 30-60 miles per hour). A cyclone separator then separates the heavy items from the light, after which a dust collector removes the dust from the air, and the all the garbage and dust drops into a compactor and is condensed into one of 10 containers in the facility that are then picked up by the Department of Sanitation. There are two parallel set-ups, one for the east side of the island and one for the west, which run alternately, and which also provide a redundancy that can act as a back-up if one system has a blockage.
There are only eight staff members that run the entire system, and the manufacturer thinks even that is excessive. They claim the AVAC system could be fully automatic with only a couple people needed to supervise. But the machinery is 35 years old, and one engineer we interviewed said it is held together with bailing wire and chewing gum. So for now there are three stationary engineers, two machinists, a stationary high-pressure plant tender and an oiler. They work two or three to a shift, which run from 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. It’s not round-the-clock but it is 365 days a year.
UO: How does this differ from the way that garbage is collected elsewhere in New York?
JS: Typically New York garbage trucks come to every address and pick up garbage from the curb. With high-rise buildings, they have containerized collection where a large container will be emptied by a roll-on/roll-off truck every so often. The main difference is that the pneumatic system removes that element of city streets. Roosevelt Island’s trash, once containerized, is taken to a transfer station where it is loaded onto a long-haul truck that goes to Pennsylvania or wherever the rest of the waste goes.
When Roosevelt Island was designed in 1968-9 and this system was first being explored, there was a huge garbage strike in New York City. There were nine days with no pick-up in the city. Many things that we take for granted now were in transition at that time – quantities of garbage produced were increasing, returnable bottles had ended and the 17,000 building incinerators that had processed trash for years were being removed from use due to environmental concerns, among other reasons, so suddenly all of that trash had to go out on the streets. There were riots in neighborhoods where there wasn’t sufficient trash pick-up. So when Roosevelt Island was being developed and the planners were exploring different options, they looked at the growth of garbage and the changes in how it was being processed and pneumatic collection made a lot of sense.
UO: What do you think this has to teach us about our attitudes towards infrastructure, in terms of both the system itself and also investments in large-scale systems, something we’re finding politically difficult at the moment.
JS: One goal I have with this exhibition is to give people a way of conceiving this system. Garbage collection is invisible. You see the trucks but you don’t see the logistics network and infrastructure. It’s very difficult to get a grasp on it, whereas with a park, a tram, a new building or a school, it’s very concrete – this is what it is and this is what we need to get there. Hopefully by showing how engineers, administrators, developers and planners worked with this, we encourage people to take and use some of those same tools or ask for more information. In the show we look briefly at what’s happening in other cities now – places like Stockholm, Barcelona and Macau. We’re planting the idea that this is something people can take on and creating a platform on which people can start discussions. Trash removal is such an essential service and we take it for granted.
UO: In your opinion, how does the AVAC system reflect the planning philosophy that led to Roosevelt Island as we see it today?
JS: The Urban Development Corporation worked very quickly on the entire enormous project. They worked outside of zoning codes, outside of building codes, they were able to issue bonds, they worked with tools not accessible to most developers. If you read the engineering reports, you can see that they were casting a very wide net in exploring all sorts of alternatives. It was very socially engineered. There was an idea to disperse schools through the bottoms of all the buildings, allowing the kids to go freely from one building to another. They looked at alternative forms of transportation, including personal rapid transit, in which people could travel using individual monorail cars that they could move themselves. Of course they didn’t go that route – they decided to use shuttle buses – but they were really exploring. They started from zero and asked, “how do we achieve the goal of creating a better urban environment?” That approach is really refreshing.
Outside of Roosevelt Island, I discovered that there are two other pneumatic systems in the New York area. One is in Jersey City in a project that was part of “Operation Breakthrough,” a Nixon administration initiative by HUD to promote innovation and boost quality and economies in multi-family housing by bringing in industry and pre-fabrication. They picked about ten projects around the country, and one was a 500-unit apartment building in the Journal Square area of Jersey City. The pneumatic garbage collection system there was actually installed and operational before Roosevelt Island. I’m still trying to find out exactly what happened to that building, if it’s running now.
UO: So it doesn’t require a huge economy of scale.
JS: No. It needs a certain density and there are situations in which it makes more sense than in others. The fact that the radius for a pneumatic system is very small (two miles or less) and the transfer stations process the waste from their own area gives both the responsibility and the control to the community. The Pratt Community Council has voiced interest in this topic. A student at Pratt has suggested a project on the Broadway Triangle in which they use pneumatic collection to direct waste for reprocessing within the community as a light industrial activity, as part of a larger project to empower the community. Some environmental justice groups in the city have expressed interest as well. Whether or not it actually makes sense to install a pneumatic system there, I don’t know. But it offers a way to look at how we move garbage around the city, what’s equitable and who’s responsible.
Juliette Spertus is an architect, writer and curator. Her work focuses on the relationship between architecture and infrastructure and the possibilities for public space. Fast Trash is her first infrastructure exhibition. She previously worked as a project architect for Michielli Wyetzner Architects in New York and as a designer at Utile, Inc. in Boston. She completed a BA in art history at Williams College and received her professional architecture degree from l’Ecole d’Architecture des Villes et des Térritoires à Marne-la-vallée near Paris, France.