Almost exactly one year ago, the Museum of Modern Art and PS1 launched an unprecedented interdisciplinary experiment meant to re-think New York Harbor in light of climate change, sea level rise and storm surge. The project, Rising Currents, elevated the use of design as a tool for addressing these local and global issues whose immediacy and relevancy is (almost) beyond debate. On October 6, MoMA hosted a panel discussion to mark the end of the Rising Currents exhibition and address the potential afterlife of this landmark project and how it reoriented the city towards its water and towards the idea of soft infrastructure that blurs the hard edge between water and land. A panel that included Amanda Burden, Chair of the New York City Planning Commission and Director of the Department of City Planning, and Guy Nordenson, structural engineer, architect and author of the study On the Water: Palisade Bay, analyzed the impact of the project, from policy change to more theoretical re-conceptualizations of waterfronts.
The five projects comprising Rising Currents used as their guide Nordenson’s Latrobe Study, an exploration of the ramifications of severe urban flooding in New York/New Jersey’s Palisade Bay, which was directly influenced by the failure of design in New Orleans during Katrina. The Latrobe Study embraced the watery reality of our near future – by 2080 the waters surrounding New York City are predicted to rise by at least two feet, and potentially devastating storms will inundate the metropolitan area with greater frequency — and provided concrete examples of how to use what seems like an impending disaster as an opportunity for redefining our city.
Amanda Burden served on the jury for the project and has been an interactive observer of its progress, becoming a sort of outsider-insider. She clearly articulated how these five projects have directly informed the City’s new waterfront plan, unveiled just a few days after this panel took place. For example, according to Burden, the plan’s draft recommendations for storm water surge barriers, wave-attenuating features, and proposed changes to building codes and zoning to improve the resilience of new buildings to coastal flooding and storms — protections that can already been seen implemented in the plans for Coney Island — were partially inspired by the hurricane-resistant housing models developed by the nARCHITECTS team. Her description of the “dizzying array of new types of public space … blurring the edge between land and water to near hyperbole” developed by team Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis inspired a series of recommendations for ways to activate underutilized public land on the waterfront. Burden spent some time outlining the City’s new waterfront plan, embracing the notion that New York’s water deserves as much planning attention as the land receives. She went so far as to call the water New York’s “sixth borough.”
“The era of confronting water is past. The idea of water meeting land across an edge drawn more easily on paper than on the ground, is no longer tenable.”One project the City has undertaken already is Kate Orff and SCAPE Studio’s Oyster-Tecture, which recalls New York’s natural history with the wondrous, dynamic oyster which both filters water and forms natural wave-attenuating reefs. The very morning of the panel, the US Army Corps of Engineers, along with the New York Harbor School, was installing an experimental oyster reef in the city, just off Governors Island.
Guy Nordenson emphasized the overarching questions that guided him in the afterlife of Rising Currents: Can designers instigate policy change? What is the role of aesthetics in policy in climate change adaptation, in developing political consensus and breakthroughs? And what role does MoMA as an institution have in this?
Nordenson also spoke of how his study and research evolved in the past year since the initial Rising Currents workshops. Coming full circle, Nordenson used his insights and conclusions from his Palisades Bay study to address the problems of the Mississippi Delta. A project he undertook with architects and engineers at Louisiana State University has led to a proposal to create diversions from the Mississippi to rebuild wetland that has been eroded over time due to the channelization of the Mississippi, which used to feed these areas but no longer does. Through an invitation to showcase his research at the Venice Biennale, Nordenson took his two case studies, Palisades Bay and the Mississippi Delta, to an international audience and, with the aide of pretty plexi-glass renderings of both regions, conveyed the reorientation of the water-inclusive, sustainable world that drives his research and design.
One member of the evening’s architect- and designer-heavy audience spoke critically of the delayed response by policy makers to address these issues. However, as another member of the audience observed, “It’s actually the designers and architects that have been slow to react to the issue. … Not-so-long ago [we] were not-so-interested in these things. I think it is up to us to move more quickly, with the hope that the policy makers will then respond to it.”
Another speaker highlighted MoMA’s role in urging design toward more socially-engaged ends. Andre Singer, a real estate developer, who, along with the Rockefeller Foundation, helped fund this project, spoke of MoMA’s recent programming, which he sees as more socially and politically engaged with current issues in architecture, including both Rising Currents and the current exhibit, Small Scale Big Change. As he pointed out, “Social engagement was one of the main themes running through Modernism and in this way I think MoMA goes back to what it originally was.”
Anuradha Mathur, a designer and landscape architect who along with her partner Dilip da Cunha were invited to speak about their Mumbai-focused exhibit SOAK, captured what seemed to be the prevailing reaction to the project: “Every once in a while there is an exhibition that goes beyond the language by which it is described, challenging the popular imagination and calling for a new one. Rising Currents, to us, is one such exhibition. It calls us to go beyond the language of the waterfront. … The era of confronting water is past. The idea of water meeting land across an edge drawn more easily on paper than on the ground, is no longer tenable.”
Yael Friedman writes about art and culture, and often about sports. She lives in Brooklyn and grew up in Tel Aviv and Rockaway (Bauhaus heaven and unapologetically homely beach town, respectively). You can check out more of her stuff at Ida Post.
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.