Looking back at MoMA’s ‘Rising Currents.’


A dredging operation in New York Harbor in August of 2010. The regular dredging of the harbor — to allow commercial vessels to navigate the rivers — make the city more susceptible to violent storm surges. (Photos by C-M.)

The more I look at images of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy, the more I think about a startlingly prescient exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art during the summer of 2010. Organized by architecture and design chief curator Barry Bergdoll, Rising Currents examined New York City’s vulnerability to rising sea levels and storm surges. For the exhibit, Bergdoll gathered teams of architects and designers to study the city’s infrastructure and propose changes.

The boat tour was done in conjunction with the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Above right, MoMA exhibition curator Barry Bergdoll.

In August of that year, I joined a group of architects and designers on an evening boat tour to study some of the at-risk sites in question, including Red Hook and the banks of the Gowanus Canal (areas which have since been devastated by Sandy). Many of the proposals that day emphasized “soft” infrastructure, such as the restoration of wetlands and seeding of oyster beds in the harbor, that could filter water and serve as wave attenuators in the event of large storms. (The Harbor was once filled with oyster beds — but overfishing and dredging have destroyed these.) As we discussed the eventual possibility of catastrophic storms and rising sea levels, the air was warm and the water in New York Harbor resembled glass. It was difficult to believe that any of this could happen any time soon. Yet, it did.

As New York rebuilds, it would be wise to go back and examine the findings from this exhibit. According to the New York City Panel on Climate Change, sea levels will rise approximately two feet in the next fifty years. By the end of the century, those numbers could be as high as four to six feet. This could place some areas of the city permanently underwater. And there’s no telling what would happen in the event of a storm.

As Bergdoll says in the short bits of audio I’ve embedded in this post, New York, like Venice, is a city that is in the water. Yet the city, so often, seems to be divorced from this reality. (Something that was made all too clear when I paddled around the city’s waterways with artist Marie Lorenz.) There is water all around, yet access to it is limited. Wetlands struggle to survive at the fringes. Vast tracts of condos were once patches of swamp. In all its fantastic urban artifice, sometimes it can be easy to forget that New York is really just an island — one that is more vulnerable than anyone would like to think.

Find photos from the boat trip after the jump.


On the Red Hook waterfront in 2010: examining industrial waters.


Gena Wirth of SCAPE talks about Oyster-tecture — a proposal that called for seeding the low-lying areas around New York Harbor and New Jersey with oyster reefs that could serve as natural protective barriers.


A series of architects and designers examine the Brooklyn waterfront as part of Rising Currents.


My WNYC colleague Jenn Hsu hard at work during the boat trip.


The New York Harbor at dusk.

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