November 3, 2009  |  Rising Currents
Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront
Aerial view of Palisade Bay. Image courtesy of Palisade Bay Team: Guy Nordenson and Associates, Catherine Seavitt Studio, Architecture Research Office

Aerial view of Palisade Bay. Image courtesy of Palisade Bay Team: Guy Nordenson and Associates, Catherine Seavitt Studio, Architecture Research Office

When I joined the Museum two-and-a-half years ago, I wanted to find innovative ways for the Museum to engage with contemporary practice in architecture, landscape, and design-related engineering, techniques that could complement the reactive mode of an exhibition where we show what has been done already, what we admire and is deserving of contextualization and wider publicity. There seem to be many compelling and timely issues that MoMA should be able to respond to quickly, while they are still relevant topics of dialogue and debate, issues that may require that we take the risk of committing to works and outcomes that remain to be seen.

Now we are launching a research laboratory on immediate, pressing issues. This new project is an invitation to undertake original interdisciplinary design research on “glocal” problems: global in implication but local in application and design. With the joint Rising Currents workshop and exhibition, MoMA serves in an almost unprecedented way as the incubator—rather than the mirror—of new ideas.

The Federal government’s massive investment in infrastructure projects reflects an attempt to kill two birds with one $787 billion stimulus package: to address the crying need for investment in the nation’s infrastructure, and to put unemployed citizens back to work. This is a very noble effort, but clearly it is also one in which the need to begin construction immediately necessarily shortchanges the study of new solutions for vital problems. “Shovel-ready” and “innovative” do not go together easily.

The Issue

The global rise in sea levels—which is predicted to reach levels of transformation that will affect not only the contours of continents and islands, but also billions of people in heavily populated areas—is currently underway. There is hardly a day in which we don’t read about aspects of global warming and its consequences, both in terms of the new topography of the seas and unpredictable weather phenomena—one can’t yet say “patterns”—that seem to be emerging everywhere. The problems are likely to be the most severe in the global south, where the overwhelming majority of the world’s cities with over ten million inhabitants lie, and where an overwhelming percentage of the world’s poor and at-risk populations live. Yet even in the northern part of the world, the opening of year-round channels around the polar cap is changing patterns of trade, opening up potential new geopolitical rivalries, displacing populations, and endangering indigenous species.

A colleague of mine who recently returned from Scandinavia told me about a brilliant children’s display in an Oslo museum, in which visitors don knee-high yellow galoshes and learn about climate change as they negotiate a virtual seven-ton melting iceberg. I am determined that MoMA, in a country where far too many resources are spent trying to deny the climate-change phenomenon rather than addressing it, can also provide a platform for a broad public debate.

Over a year ago Guy Nordenson and I began discussing how the research, hypotheses, and suggestions in his study on the challenges that New York faces in making its harbor one of its most vital assets could be applied to make the city more robust in the face of the twin phenomena of climate change: rising sea levels and more frequent violent storms. Beginning on November 16, four teams of architects will take up residence at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center to formulate proposals based on Nordenson’s study, in which he identifies a series of potential sites in the harbor and on the adjacent coastlines of New Jersey, Staten Island, Brooklyn, and lower Manhattan. Solutions cannot come from architecture alone, but must rather build on the belief—now widely shared—that the disciplinary boundaries and sequential nature of earlier design in architecture, landscape design, and engineering must blur. For this reason, the teams, working at P.S.1 over eight weeks between mid-November and early January, will be interdisciplinary in nature.

One response to threatening natural phenomena is to build a wall of defense—a dyke, a sea wall, a great barrier. This has been done at the mouth of the Thames in recent years, and is infamously proposed for the Lagoon of Venice. In response to Nordenson’s study, however, we are instead interested in exploring numerous types of interventions in the harbor, the kinds of forms and strategies that might make the harbor the centerpiece of a city that has long turned its back on the water, while making the city more resilient to climatic challenges. We hope the teams will deliver provocative but entirely realistic and realizable proposals for combining soft infrastructure, hydraulic maintenance, and other techniques with new forms of occupancy. The goal is not to imagine what is economically viable, but to create proposals so compelling that they cannot be ignored as the future unfolds.

The teams will be led by four New York City based practices; three architects and one landscape architect. I will be introducing the teams in next Tuesday’s post and hope that you, like us at MoMA, will follow the teams’ progress.