Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront, the latest exhibition to open in the architecture and design gallery of the Museum of Modern Art, begins with a grim premise: that global climate change is making sea levels rise and powerful storm surges more frequent. Watch out, we’re gonna get wet. If we don’t take action, we’re in for catastrophe, with floods wiping out parts of Lower Manhattan, Brooklyn and northern New Jersey. To underscore the creek we are up, the exhibition designers have grafted water lines — two, four, six, eight, ten feet — on the dark gray gallery walls. Glub, glub.

But curator Barry Bergdoll is optimistic. He assembled five crack teams of New York-based architects, engineers and landscape designers and had them develop solutions. Rising Currents grew from conversations between Bergdoll and structural engineer and Princeton professor Guy Nordenson, who became a consultant to the exhibition. Nordenson, as head of a multidisciplinary team funded by the Latrobe Prize (awarded by the AIA College of Fellows) had already begun to research design solutions for protecting New York Harbor from the hazards of climate change; the study and proposal have been published in Places and in the book On the Water: Palisade Bay, which sets the historic and intellectual context for the exhibition.

The renderings, drawings, models, videos and explanatory texts on view at MoMA are the product of a three-month design charrette held at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center this past fall. Each team was given a space in the Queens museum and a swath of New York Harbor: Architecture Research Office and dlandstudio got Lower Manhattan; LTL Architects, Liberty State Park; Matthew Baird Architects, Kill Van Kull and Bayonne; nArchitects, Sunset Park, Bay Ridge, and Staten Island; and SCAPE/Landscape Architecture, Gowanus Canal, Red Hook, and Buttermilk Channel. It’s a scenario that recalls equally all-nighters in studio and reality TV. The challenge: Save New York Harbor.

“The innovative proposals developed during the intensive workshop at P.S.1 extend beyond even my optimistic expectations,” says Bergdoll, quoted in the press release. And in his remarks at the opening, about the overall approach of the teams and the resulting projects, the curator again emphasized his optimism. Yet as the term cropped up again and again it took on a somewhat defensive quality — starting to seem a kind of rhetorical lifejacket against not only the threat of rising sea levels but also against a public reaction that might accuse the museum of dabbling in doomsday scenarios as an excuse to engage in architectural folly. Which raises the question: are cultural institutions like museums really equipped to make an adequate response to looming ecological threats beyond their traditional zones of expertise? Bergoll sees Rising Currents as an optimistic first step.

But the word seems a misnomer. Not because Rising Currents is actually pessimistic (it’s not), but rather because the show and its circumstances are ultimately more telling of our own time, and all its rising anxieties, than they are of a dampened future. Perhaps inevitably the show is opportunistic — not only because the topic is torn from the headlines, but also because it exemplifies a major institution working tactically within its satellite venues. The workshops in Queens were part of Free Space, a P.S.1 initiative that puts temporary programming in unused space — or more accurately now, in galleries left empty and uncurated due to budget cuts. It’s the museum equivalent of the pop-up.

Similar to those insta-interventions, both artistic and retail, the point is to quickly generate ideas, attention and discourse. To that end, MoMA and P.S.1 hosted two open houses during the course of the charrette, allowing the public to watch design in action. In addition, influential city and state officials passed through the P.S.1 studios — politicos such as Amanda Burden of the Department of City Planning, Adrian Benepe of the Department of Parks and Recreation and Arturo Garcia-Costas of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, as well as Adam Freed of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Sustainability and Long Term Planning, and members of the New York–New Jersey Port Authority, among others. (Burden was also on the jury that selected the five teams from an invited list of some sixty-five firms.)

This kind of transparency, and for that matter production, are unprecedented for MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design. Museums generally acquire and exhibit finished work. So not knowing what would emerge from the five studios was chancy. And it raised the stakes for the exhibition: the challenge was to translate the accumulation of research, site photos, study models and digital sketches into a cohesive show. For if nothing else, the workshop phase succeeded in putting forward process plus performance as a model of architectural production; while at the same time the success of each individual proposal is less clear, and perhaps ultimately a less interesting quandary. The workshop phase highlighted the complex dynamics within the design teams — which besides architects included artists, engineers, scientists, consultants and gaggles of employees and interns — as well as the relationships of the individual teams to municipal and regional policy makers. Familiar to the design community, but less understood by the public at large, these mechanisms are exactly how real long-term solutions will be developed — yet such cumulative processes and the resulting solutions are more or less non-visual and necessarily had to be streamlined out of the MoMA exhibition. Which might explain why the process blog at MoMA.org, with its short videos of the teams’ presentations and its texts by Bergdoll, Freed and Benepe, is worth a read, and the now-open-to-the-public comments page, easily accessed via computers in the gallery (though somewhat buried in the MoMA.org universe), is by comparison spotty, with only a few viewer reactions.

Rising Currents comes at a time when scenario planning and disaster speculation have become part of the architecture and urbanism zeitgeist — an intellectualized way of coping with an onrush of crises. In previous decades, construction downturns were marked by a rise in paper architecture, in unrealized visions. Now, we trade in speculation. Neither science fiction, exactly, nor an architecture of the everyday, a speculative practice carefully chooses which realities to contend with, betting on which futures might come to fruition. The approach isn’t ironic; it’s truly sincere. Yet, as contemporary books, blogs, studios and gallery shows reveal, the desire to do good is complicated by methodologies charged up on risk, as if the energetic discussion of failing cities, displaced populations and wasted landscapes were a kind of extreme design sport — a chance for architecture to free climb to the very limits of the discipline.

The results of Landscapes of Quarantine, for example, a recent multidisciplinary design studio, are now on view at Storefront for Art and Architecture. The show presents the work of artists, architects and designers wrangling with the topic both as concept and as projected future. Unplanned: Research and Experiments at the Urban Scale, exhibited at Superfront’s Los Angeles outpost, offers up nearly two dozen takes — from the artistic to the radical — on emergent urbanisms grappling with global crises. (Incidentally, MoMA’s 1967 exhibition, The New City: Architecture and Urban Renewal, also pushed aside traditional planning techniques in order to contend with a crisis — housing in New York City — to very different results. In a press release for the book that accompanied the show, Sidney J. Frigand, former Deputy Executive Director of the New York City Planning Commission, is cited. “The ‘master plan’ concept is therefore no longer meaningful,” Frigand observes. “Perhaps the key word in the new planning approach is ‘strategy.'”)

Back in the Rising Currents gallery, the inevitable reliance on speculation makes it (again) difficult to evaluate the particular success of each of the projects. Should one ask where they fit on the spectrum between fantasy and reality? The exhibition’s wall text implies that liberties were taken, noting that the designers’ “visions of a resilient and vibrant waterfront do not necessarily comply with current land-use regulations or real-estate interests but are solutions of wide applicability.” ARO and dlandstudio take a sober approach; for Zone 0: A New Urban Ground, the team has constrained its solution to Lower Manhattan’s civic infrastructure. The proposed “green streets” basically re-engineer space that is already public into a rainwater control system layered with soil and salt-tolerant plants. And although nArchitects consulted with Arup for their Zone 3: New Aqueous City, the solution seems prone to flights of fancy. In addition to an inflatable archipelago that acts as an emergency breakwater in the harbor near the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the team proposed a series of piers jutting out into the water around Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, topped with housing suspended from a supporting infrastructure.

Or maybe we should just accept the speculation within the premise put forward by Nordenson and the Latrobe team — that a proposal may be about either potential global solutions based on particular conditions or the inverse, a particular solution based on potential global conditions? In LTL Architects’ project, Zone 1: Water Proving Ground, for example, the industrial landfill and rail lines that now make up Liberty State Park are shown to sink with a four-foot sea-level rise, and as such they stand in for low-lying areas everywhere. In the proposal the remnants of dry ground take the form of a fragmented, four-fingered shoreline (its temporality is captured with a model in which topographic features are overlaid with changing digital projections). Also in the proposal, the serrated harbor edge is designed to buffer storm surges, and its more architectural solutions — an eco-hotel, aqueous agriculture facilities and a farmer’s market — are specific to this site but could just as well be transposed to Venice or the Maldives. By contrast, Mathew Baird’s Zone 2: Working Waterline is an inventive local reaction to global climate change. His team envisions north-latitude shipping routes that are redirected as the Arctic becomes passable, which would change the economic ecology of New York Harbor. In one of the many propositions for their Bayonne site, Baird imagines repurposing existing but unused refinery buildings for glass recycling. The outcome, “jacks” made of discarded glass, would be dropped into the harbor to form breakwaters and reefs. Artist Matthew Ritchie joined Baird’s team to consult on the glass jacks, and although they are prototypes, these ice blue, crystalline forms are compelling objects, especially in a gallery filled with didactic displays.

But the real crowd-pleaser is the stunning, web-like model for Zone 4: Oyster-Tecture, created by the landscape architecture/urban design studio SCAPE. It’s an approximation of the “fuzzy rope” oyster nets that SCAPE proposed for the shallow waters just south of Red Hook, Brooklyn: with these ropes the oysters not only naturally filter contaminated harbor water, but their netting also slows waves and protects the shoreline. The team worked with students and faculty from the New York Harbor School as well as with Katie Mosher-Smith, manager of the New York Oyster Program for New York/New Jersey Baykeeper, to gain hands-on understanding.

When asked about whether the project was speculative, team leader Kate Orff rejected the term outright. “I don’t see [this proposal] as speculating,” she said at the opening, “It’s a chance to get in front of policy makers and a mass audience.” The concept may border on the fantastic, but in the gallery at least its feasibility as infrastructure was convincing (even if Brooklyn foodies have to wait decades for an edible local oyster). Ultimately, Oyster-Tecture it is rooted in the real world and in existing and relatively low-tech solutions. And that is optimistic.