January 26, 2010  |  Rising Currents
Rising Currents: High Stakes

Left: Long cylindrical palisade cells, the primary site of light absorption and photosynthesis, are found just below the upper surface of a leaf. Image courtesy University of Nevada, Las Vegas School of Life Sciences; Right: A merged GIS-based model of the New York-New Jersey Upper Bay, emphasizing the fluid continuity of topography and bathymetry. Deepest areas are indicated in dark blue, highest elevations in green. © Palisade Bay Team: Guy Nordenson and Associates, Catherine Seavitt Studio, and Architecture Research Office

Catherine Seavitt, AIA LEED AP, is the Principal of Catherine Seavitt Studio in New York and co-author, with Guy Nordenson and Adam Yarinsky, of the book On the Water: Palisade Bay.

As one of the authors of the 2007 Latrobe Prize study On the Water: Palisade Bay, the backstory project that led to the development of the MoMA Rising Currents workshop and exhibition, I often get asked the question, “How did you come up with the title Palisade Bay?”  It’s a three-part answer.

The word “palisade” carries three meanings, referring to plant ecology at a cellular level (the palisade cell); a geological formation (the palisade sill); and man-made fortifications (the palisade fence). “Palisade derives from the Latin word palus, meaning “stake,” and by extension, “boundary.” The possibility of creating porous boundaries across both politically staked borders and along the edge of water and land deeply influenced the development of our master plan proposal for the Upper Bay.

The fluid waterfront boundary of our Palisade Bay master plan represents an attempt to develop “soft infrastructure,” which we define as multiple and iterative strategies that alternatively buffer or absorb flooding. Unlike the hard infrastructure of a sea wall or storm surge barrier, soft infrastructure might transform the seawall into a broad expanse of mucky tidal wetland. It might break wave energy through an artificial archipelago or reef, rather than stop a storm surge with an impervious barrier. Yet we are equally focused on the development of urban place and the enrichment of estuarine health. The figure of the water body of the Upper Bay might again be seen as merging with the land, giving us a sense of tidal variation. Water might enter the city, then retreat.

It’s been rewarding to follow the five teams of architects and landscape architects in residence at P.S.1 as they develop their specific visions along five discrete zones of Upper Bay waterfront. Our etymological palisade triad (ecology, geology, and fortification) appears in each proposal to varying degrees, but it is certainly present in each: SCAPE’s use of the shallow bathymetry of the Gowanus Flats and fuzzy rope to re-seed oyster reefs and attenuate wave energy; Matthew Baird Studio’s harnessing of cellular ecology in disused Bayonne oil tanks, creating biofuel from algae fed by wastewater; LTL’s subtle topographic shifts at Liberty State Park resulting in programmatic Petri dishes of protected and productive areas; ARO/dlandstudio’s protective strategy for Lower Manhattan, transforming the underbelly of the hard streets into an absorptive sponge leading to a thickened wetland edge; and nARCHITECTS’ infiltration basins on land and inflatable bathymetric airbags offshore, inverting the notion of a fortified edge.

With impending sea-level rise, the stakes (or should I say, the palisades) have never been higher. The fantastic collaborative solutions of these five teams—incorporating scales from the cellular (the oyster spat) to the sublime (an aggregate glass jack reef)—do much more than just protect our region from flooding. The projects address energy production and use, ecological health, sewage overflows, and global green shipping. Perhaps most importantly, they have captured the imagination of a regional community that celebrates this body of water that Giovanni da Verrazano called “a very agreeable location situated within two prominent hills” upon his first sighting of the Upper Bay in 1524.