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In Sandy's Wake, Revisiting MoMA's Prescient “Rising Currents” Exhibition

By Wendy Moonan and Aileen Cho

This article originally appeared in "http://archrecord.construction.com/" Architectural Record

November 05, 2012
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Image courtesy Hatje Cantz/The Museum of Modern Art
Research for the book On the Water: Palisade Bay by Guy Nordenson, Catherine Seavitt, and Adam Yarinsky inspired MoMAs 2010 exhibition Rising Currents: Projects for New Yorks Waterfront

The exhibition Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront, which ran at the Museum of Modern Art in New York two years ago, provided a look into the future—and this past week, that future arrived, in the form of the catastrophic storm surge from Hurricane Sandy. In the prescient show, MoMA addressed rising sea levels resulting from global climate change. The curators chose five teams, each comprised of architects, landscape architects, and engineers to re-envision the coastlines of New York Harbor in New York and New Jersey. Each team was asked to present solutions for a specific coastal area: Lower Manhattan and Upper New York Bay, Northwest Palisade Bay and the Hudson River area in New Jersey, Southwest Palisade Bay in New Jersey and Staten Island, South Palisade Bay and the Verrazano Narrows in Staten Island and Brooklyn, and Northeast Palisade Bay and the area around the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn.

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In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, we asked several of the MoMA show’s participants what the Federal government and New York City should do next.

Which solutions from Rising Currents could be most easily implemented to help mitigate the impact of storms like Sandy? Do we need dams and seawalls?

“There’s no one magic bullet; we need the full gambit of solutions,” says Barry Bergdoll, MoMA’s chief architecture and design curator. “We cannot make the city storm-proof. We need to make the city more resilient, to better handle these events. We need to rethink how streets can absorb water coming from two directions, the sky and the sea. We need to put electrical cables underground in vaults. We need high tech stuff like the Thames Barrier south of London, which has been used many more times than ever envisioned—more than 100 to date. We could make the New York Harbor an experimental site; We could do wetland restoration, put in oyster beds, create artificial reefs made out of old subway cars.”

Guy Nordenson, an engineer and participant in Rising Currents has been thinking about solutions to rising sea levels for years. “Zoning along the water needs to be rethought,” he says. “In the 1980s and 1990s, after earthquakes in San Francisco and L.A., there was a strong, well-organized effort to completely redevelop the seismic codes for the country. The result? The National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program (NEHRP), which has had an enormous impact on building design. No such thing has emerged for climate change since Katrina. This is a national problem. The Federal government has to commit itself to this, and the states have to cooperate. Every local politician has a solution. Mayor Bloomberg has done a lot, but there are a lot of things he cannot do: things controlled by the MTA or the Port Authority. Nor can Governor Cuomo; he has to rely on Governor Christie. It’s got to be Federal solution, with all these groups working together.”

How can building codes be changed to help make the city less vulnerable?

“Why not change the city codes?” Bergdoll asks rhetorically. “The city already has maps of floodable zones. For generations, builders have had to give a percentage of a building’s cost for art or public land (like pocket parks). Why not add wetland restoration to that list?”

What is the first step the city and feds should undertake to preventing the devastating impact of another Hurricane Sandy?

“The first step is to break down the mentality that has to do with installing one big sea wall,” says Adam Yarinsky, a partner at Architecture Research Office (ARO) in New York whose ideas led to the “Rising Currents” exhibition. “We do not need one storm surge barrier—it won’t protect the whole city anyway. I hope Sandy is a wake-up call. It is prefiguring what is to come. We need to be planning long-term. What’s good about architects is we are generalists. We gather information, analyze it, and use it to generate solutions. We are good at helping to visualize things. We can help bridge between specialists, scientists, and engineers. We need to know what the options are, to whet the appetite for political leadership. We have to be part of a bigger social contract. That’s what Rising Currents was about.”

Are there ways to make the city less vulnerable to storms like Sandy?

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