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Artists find solutions for rising currents

Marketplace Staff Apr 12, 2010

Artists find solutions for rising currents

Marketplace Staff Apr 12, 2010


Kai Ryssdal: The city of New York is thinking long and hard about what global warming means for the Big Apple’s future. A report the city commissioned not too long ago predicts flooding, massive pollution, and completely new shorelines in New York harbor as the polar ice caps melt.

The city’s not the only group, though, taking a look at a new New York. The Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan is considering things as well. In a new exhibit, architects and artists are offering their solutions.

Take, for instance, the problem of the pollution that’ll happen when oil refineries are partially underwater. You could turn those refineries, or what’s left of them, into a glass recycling plant. And then use the recycled glass to build an artificial reef out in the harbor. The project is called “Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront.”

Barry Bergdoll is MoMA’s curator of architecture and design. Barry, welcome to the program.

Barry Bergdoll: Delighted to be here.

Ryssdal: This exhibit assumes a fairly gloomy future for the city of New York, doesn’t it?

Bergdoll: It assumes a future that most scientists think is already happening. But it is a gloomy future if we just ignore it. The thing that I think is so fascinating about the show is that the solutions that the architects propose and offer are actually rather optimistic. If you didn’t know it was about sea level rise, you would think it was an exhibition about restructuring the life of New York City around its harbor and recognizing that as one of the great places to be.

Ryssdal: That’s actually a great point. It’s artists and conceptual people involved in what is essentially an infrastructure project.

Bergdoll: Well, it’s designers, so I think there’s no conflict between infrastructure and design. We tend to think that infrastructure is invisible and therefore it could be a quagmire, or wires, or pipes, but one of the things that they’re really taking on is the notion that if we want to think about infrastructure in a creative way, design has to be at the table. But even more importantly, they’re all dealing with the idea that the pallet of infrastructural solutions could be much broader. We all know the hard ones that are involved with dealing with water. Dams and the sorts of things that have fortified cities against the sea for centuries. They’re proposing what are called soft infrastructural solutions, so wetland restoration, the creation of artificial islands and barrier reefs.

Ryssdal: Yeah, they take that soft infrastructure theme actually almost literally. There is in this exhibit some place soft concrete on the streets, right?

Bergdoll: That’s one of the very interesting hybrid moments between hard and soft. One of the problems with streets in a city like New York that has a combination of sewage and rain runoff is that every time it rains the streets have a tendency to turn into rivers, so they propose streets that are actually made of absorptive concrete in a mesh-like system with a complex sort of sponge-like natural underbelly, so that the street actually doesn’t act as an accelerator of water, but an absorber of water and becomes a completely new kind of mechanism for dealing with the flows of water — whether it’s coming from the sky or it’s coming from higher tide levels.

Ryssdal: When you sat down with the designers for this exhibition, what was your mandate to them?

Bergdoll: I said to them actually, I want you to do two things. I want you to come up with imaginative projects. I want them to be realistic enough that no one can dismiss the exhibition as just an exercise in sort of utopian fantasy, but I want them to be imaginative enough that no one can forget them.

Ryssdal: One of my favorites of all the parts of this exhibit is this idea of growing oysters again in the harbor of New York in the Gowanus Canal, right?

Bergdoll: Yes, that’s the wonderful project by Kate Orff of SCAPE studio that I think many visitors think of as the most futuristic, but in many ways, it’s the most realistic. There are a lot of activists who have been trying to restore the oyster culture that New York was famous for when the Dutch first arrived. So Kate calls her project “Back to the Future,” because it’s an attempt to bring back a long-lost oyster culture. Not so much so we can eat them, but so they can do the work of cleaning the water and that they form reefs, so that they will begin to give some texture again to the sea floor. The sea floor of New York has become like an ice-skating rink, and we need to get it back to be like a small mountain range so it can attenuate waves.

Ryssdal: This exhibit is, it seems to me, in large degree about what a city of the future in a different environment should be. How it ought to adapt itself.

Bergdoll: From the beginning when we launched this project we called it a glocal project, meaning global and local, so we wanted to study something for New York. But we did a rough estimate of the 20 largest cities in the world, 15 of them have very, very similar conditions, so this is not just about New York in the future, it’s really about what can metropolitan life be like.

Ryssdal: Barry Bergdoll is a chief curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The exhibit at hand is called “Rising Currents.” Mr. Bergdoll, thanks so much for your time.

Bergdoll: Thank you.

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