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The New Yorker

Matthew Baird’s proposal incorporates three categories of action: keep, add, and reuse. Red lines (add) indicate pedestrian and bike solar paths. Areas marked in green (keep) include salt marshes, existing utility buildings, and parkland. In blue (reuse) are shipping piers, warehouses, oil tanks, and discarded glass in landfills.

During Hurricane Sandy, the designer Adam Yarinsky was stuck in Vancouver. When he saw the cell-phone photo that his wife sent him of the floodwaters gathering below their apartment building on Tenth Avenue, he remembered Brigadier General Egbert Ludovicus Viele, a civil engineer and officer in the Union Army. Veile is the author of the Sanitary & Topographical Map of the City and Island of New York Prepared for the Council of Hygiene and Public Health of the Citizens Association. That map, first presented in 1865 and still in use today, remains the definitive documentation of the original coastlines of Manhattan Island, as well as of its streams and marshes—which by Viele’s time were already being channelled and buried under piers, bulkheads, landfills, and foundations below the city’s advancing grid. In the Viele map, that grid appears as a tracery of fine lines over whorling hollows and bluffs. “Viele showed a whole landscape under the city that’s out of sight, out of mind, until the water comes to remind us that the buried topography is still there,” Yarinsky explained, “and Tenth Avenue was historically the water’s edge.”

Yarinsky, a principal of the design firm Architecture Research Office (A.R.O.), encountered the Viele map during a 2007-09 research project in collaboration with the structural engineer Guy Nordenson and the landscape architect Catherine Seavitt, which led to “Rising Currents,” a 2010 exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, organized by the museum’s chief curator of architecture and design, Barry Bergdoll. The show put forward a New York of circa 2080 in which the polar-ice melt and the energized weather of our Anthropocene Age has raised baseline sea levels by at least four feet, and typical storm surges to some eight feet above that.

Some of that scenario arrived early, during the superstorm last October. And for the five architects whose teams proposed visionary projects for zones around New York harbor, the flood and blackout offered both confirmations and corrections of their visions. It also prompted a consensus around what is coming to be called soft infrastructure, in which hard-edged monuments of twentieth-century civil engineering (such as dams and levees and seawalls) are replaced by a constellation of interventions that mimic, or directly deploy, the complex behaviors and forms of natural systems and organisms.

“I hear engineers say, ‘People want to keep the water out,’ ” said Yarinsky. “But water isn’t binary, it isn’t either in or out, wet or dry, it’s always in between.” In “Rising Currents,” A.R.O and the landscape architect Susannah Drake proposed a renovation scheme for Lower Manhattan that thickens and complicates that in-between. They replaced the hard paving of streets and sidewalks, which directs rainfall into easily overflowing sewers, with porous mesh-and-concrete membranes that have the absorbency of unpaved earth. These membranes send runoff water filtering through newly restored marshes and wetlands that extend south in long fingers from Battery Park, and slender ribbons of green, absorbent ground weave northward into the Financial District’s narrow streets. “The idea,” said Yarinsky, “is to use natural processes to manage natural processes, even under extreme conditions.”

While Sandy’s approach and aftermath reminded Yarinsky of the Viele map, the landscape architect Kate Orff, whose “Rising Currents” proposal took on Gowanus and Red Hook, recalled a map she had seen of Jamaica Bay. “It was this huge survey from 1903,” she said, “where they wanted to transform Jamaica Bay into the world’s largest shipping port, which if you know how shallow that bay is, makes no sense at all, other than, ‘Hey, it’s America and it’s 1900, and we can do anything!’ ” Conversely, she said, “Jamaica Bay’s original ecosystem”—as it existed before the channels and landfills of the subsequent century—“is precisely what you’d now design to protect inland settlement: a twenty-thousand-acre salt marsh plus barrier islands.”

Orff looks for incremental and sustainable interventions that, like neighborhoods, reefs, and the habits of humans—accumulate and complicate over time. For “Rising Currents, ” the Chesapeake Bay native proposed what she called Oystertecture, in which low-tech materials like wood piles and rope lattices supported the restoration of New York Harbor’s once-thriving oyster beds. Like saltwater marshes, those beds add a complex texture to the sea floor, which diffuses strong currents. For the exhibit, said Orff, “our insight was that if you look at navigational maps, there’s a little triangle, this perfect beautiful architectural triangle, that’s been left untouched by dredging and channelling, called Bay Ridge Flats,” into whose surface could be woven substrates for oysters or mussels. For a real-world prototype that Orff tested in December, “we had what we called a weaving evening, with like fifty Gowanus-niks, communal artsy types, all knitting ropes.” (A full-scale prototype will launch in the spring.) The point, she said, is “trying to develop concepts that are community driven and behavior driven. Behavior is the ultimate soft infrastructure.” Another aspect of Orff’s work is helping people grasp multiple scales of impact. “People aren’t thinking about scale in the right way,” Orff said. “It’s supposedly either the single twenty-million-dollar seawall or turn off a single lightbulb. But we need to understand that in between there are millions of small things that would add up to more than the sum of their parts.”

For the architect Matthew Baird, those millions of small things are sculptural cast-glass objects called “jacks,” each a few feet across and resembling an icy three-dimensional asterisk, dumped into New York harbor near Bayonne, New Jersey. In Baird’s “Rising Currents” proposal, these jacks catalyze the formation of natural reefs and shoals, supporting the same kind of ecological complexity and current-absorbing underwater topology as Orff’s oyster beds. “New York has a waste stream of some fifty thousand tons of glass per year,” Baird explained, “and another forty-three thousand tons are recycled, which sounds pretty good until you realize it’s shipped all the way to Asia to be turned back into products, which is a crazy thing from a carbon perspective. And glass is this perfect material, it’s inert and ninety-nine per cent sand, much better than oily subway cars” and other artifacts sometimes used for reef regeneration. Baird’s idea is to keep the city’s waste local: “The city has yet to completely harness its waste stream, but there’s the potential for this alchemy where we can protect the city with its own throwaway self.”

Baird’s Bayonne site included oil-refinery infrastructure that was first built by Standard Oil, in the nineteen-twenties. His proposal imagines redeploying those platforms and using them to refine the biofuel and biogas generated by the algae and bacteria that is fed by waste from the overflow of city’s the sewer system. This type of immediate repurposing addresses the way in which rapid environmental disasters compound slow ones. “The worst thing that can happen with contaminated soil,” he observed, “is to run a whole lot of water over it.”

Baird’s vision for Bayonne, with its picturesquely rusty refineries, has the kind of improvisatory Mad Max charm familiar from many postapocalyptic cinematic landscapes. “Our road was paved with this idea of erase and do over, but, at last, materials have become so valuable”—in terms of both their carbon footprint and financial cost—“that we don’t tear everything out and start from scratch,” he said, and added that we can design new structures with their future deconstruction and reconstruction in mind. “Instead of saying something has to be so strong it can withstand any hurricane or earthquake, a structure can be made to be easily evacuated, and its bones can be made to withstand anything, but certain elements can be made intentionally fragile, to be blown off, broken, recovered, repurposed.”

That same subjectivity to change was built into the scheme developed for “Rising Currents” by the firm Lewis Tsurumaki Lewis (L.T.L.), which redesigned the low-lying landfill and shallows around the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. “We had a site that originally didn’t exist,” said the L.T.L. partner Marc Tsurumaki, “which was then brought into existence with nineteenth-century technology, and then looks into a future in which it again wouldn’t exist.” The goal, he said, “wasn’t that it wouldn’t flood but that the idea of its flooding would be built into the design of the site, so it would be flooded in a considered, even meaningful way.” This idea had some counterintuitive consequences, such as introducing a series of intricately repeating narrow peninsulas and inlets that would, said Tsurumaki, “deliberately lengthen the coastline by a factor of ten, from four and half miles to forty-five miles.” While that would seem to increase the vulnerability of land to sea, “the increased surface area of that interface better absorbs and diffuses the energy of weather events and maximizes the intertidal zone, which not only has the richest ecological condition but presents shifting spatial conditions for architecture.” Alter a single variable, said Tsurumaki, “and you see the impact on all the other systems. New York City is a charged field in this way. The density of variables and contingencies mean that one thing can really change everything else.”

The reverse is also true: everything else can really change one thing. Eric Bunge, whose firm, nArchitects, redesigned Sunset Park, Bay Ridge, and Staten Island for “Rising Currents,” kept working through the blackout thanks to an office generator. But, he clarified, “our server crashed because we plugged in a space heater. Everything is linked to some further system. Even if you think you’re not affected, you’re affected.” For the waterfront just north of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, nArchitects conceived a settlement they called New Aqueous City, situated behind a new archipelago of islets connected by expandable storm-surge barriers (ingeniously expanded by the very water that they subsequently deflect). Post-Sandy, conceded Bunge, “we underestimated the force of the water, how much water there would actually suddenly be; it requires an adjusted mindset.”

“We imagine that the city will and should get wet,” said Bunge, “and that designing for a dry city is maybe madness. As a city, we choose not to run for the hills. If you index population growth to sea-level rise in New York, you have something like two hundred thousand more people for every inch of rising water between now and about 2030. The question is, where do you put all these people? It can’t be just the familiar post-industrial approach to the waterfront, with parks and leisure programs.” For their waterfront settlement, nArchitects wrote an intricate zoning code that literally and figuratively inverted aspects of traditional zoning—such as establishing a continuous roof plane (that allows, among other things, airborne evacuation) from which buildings of varying heights would descend, suspended over the flowing water and floating streets below. Bunge evoked the lesson of the Oosterscheldekering, a miles-long seawall and sluice built by the Dutch following catastrophic floods in the nineteen-fifties. “It was built over such a long time that by the time they finished it [in 1986] they finally realized it would have been an ecological disaster if they had completely sealed off the sea,” Bunge said. “So they decided to leave it ten per cent open.”

“There are design solutions,” said Bunge, that “transcend our current obsessive discourse of efficiency and defense.” That transcendent resiliency derives from changeability and permeability, and thus from a kind of dynamic equilibrium between natural and artificial elements. New York’s harbor, “as it exists at the present time,” another engineer and landscape architect has said, embodies “the changes created by man, and by nature in her struggles with his innovations.” That was Viele, writing in 1855 to the New Jersey State Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Encroachments upon the Bay and Harbor of New York. He concluded, “with regard to rivers, nature acts by certain fixed laws, from which she never deviates; in accordance with these laws, their beds are established and their channels excavated. Man cannot change them; all his efforts to do so, have but produced modifications; the evil he attempts to remove, reappears with greater force at another point.”