A water-based-catastrophe tour of New York, or how the oysters can save us

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The view. (Mariela Quintana)
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A small crowd of smartly dressed urbanites gathered on the decidedly un-urbane docks of South Street Seaport last night for the Rising Currents Boat Tour, a monthly excursion offered by the American Institute for Architects and the Museum of Modern Art as a supplement to the exhibition by the same name, at MoMA until October 11th.

While the water taxi was still docked in the harbor, attendants milled around, sipping on seltzer and white wine, and chatting about weekend plans. The setting sun cast the whole scene in a late-July glow, providing a weirdly soothing context for the apocalyptic topic of the exhibition—climate change, rising sea levels and flooding of the city’s harbor.

The curators of the exhibit had challenged five teams of local architects to propose ways that New York, a sea-level city, might deal with violent flood waters and storm surges brought on by climate change. Each team designed a solution around a specific site in New York harbor—from the shores of Bayonne New Jersey, to Bay Ridge and the Gowanus Canal—the teams were proposing “soft infrastructure” solutions.

As the water taxi jetted south off the tip of Manhattan to tour each of the five sites, Barry Bergdoll, the Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at MoMA and emcee of the evening, asked guests not to judge the exhibit by its title alone, and said the tour was about refocusing the city’s attention to the harbor and celebrating the waterway that it was about addressing environmental issues. With young couples canoodling in the relative quiet of the bow and others taking pictures and eating popcorn on the upper deck, the crowd seemed content to enjoy the view, and to deal with the sea-level business later.

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This was a project unfettered by considerations of practicality—the plans could be described as darlingly imaginative or just implausible, or both.

The team from SCAPE/Landscape Architecture looked at heavily polluted Gowanus Canal, and suggested oysters as the source of revitalization, part of a return to the era when New York was the oyster capital of the world. The team from Matthew Baird Architects envisioned a current oil refinery on the shores of Bayonne as a green-energy harvesting plant complete with a network of piers that would support artificial reefs made out of recycled glass to protect and promote the natural ecology of the harbor.

Focusing slightly more on the classical principles of design and less on quirky technology, the team from NArchitects proposed a floating city, a series of artificial islands in the harbor near the Verrazano Bridge. This design, which would demand the most drastic overhaul—the demolition of Battery Park and much of downtown Manhattan—has turned out to be a crowd favorite and a focal point of the exhibition. In place of the current snarl of concrete infrastructure, Architecture Research Office and dlandstudio re-imagined the financial district as the epitome of soft infrastructure, with swaths of spongy grass sidewalks and wetlands extending out into the harbor to attenuate the waves caused by climate change.

In a down moment during the tour, Bergdoll lingered by the ice chest in the interior of the water taxi, holding a beer in one hand, and explained explained the impetus behind the boat tours: “The boat trips are necessary just to get people out for a vision of the harbor—that’s not the Circle Line—and get them to actually look at the water and actually think about the water and the scale of it. One aim of the exhibition is to make people aware of New York harbor as a great place.”

He paused, adding as an afterthought, “And then we can work on it and keep it resilient for climate change.”

“It’s impossible to come away from the tour not getting the essential message, even if you don’t get the details,” Bergdoll said. Neatly dressed in all green, with a package of almonds in his breast pocket, he laughed and said, “The details don’t matter.”

Although the teams’ presentations of their designs inundated the audience with abstract theories about sustainable, the tour began to transcend architectural lingo as we came out of the Buttermilk Channel and approached the new Brooklyn Bridge Park, where people were setting up for its Thursday night outdoor film screening. Skirting the shore, the boat earned shout-outs and waving arms from passengers along the deck of the water taxi and moviegoers on the banks of the park.

Could the harbor really be the city’s next great public meeting space?

“Most of us are so Manhattan-centric,” offered Sarah Cloonan, an intern at MoMA and graduate student at Columbia’s School of Architecture. “We don’t think of the city from point of view of the water, let alone see it or experience it this way. Architecture—and architects—could change that if they wanted.”

Pulling back into the channel, the boat caught the wake of a passing ferry, and the bow of the boat rose and fell with force. Stomachs dropped, feet lurched and cocktails tumbled across the deck as passengers scrambled to get a hold of the nearest railing.

“I don’t like the waves very much!” said Cloonan, smiling nervously, but looking thrilled.