Helpful Oysters Protect New York From Floods: James S. Russell

"Oyster Reef." The work is part of the “Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront” exhibition running through Oct. 11. Source: MoMA via Bloomberg

Landscape architect Kate Orff is unapologetic about her obsession with oysters.

She envisions the bivalve delicacies as busy builders, ready to erect New York’s defense against flooding induced by global warming.

Orff led one of five teams of architects that reconceived sites around New York Harbor to adapt to climate change. Their architectural brainstorm is on display at the Museum of Modern Art in “Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront,” which runs through Oct. 11.

In a museum currently devoted to Marina Abramovic’s naked doorkeepers and Tim Burton’s cartoon figures, Barry Bergdoll, MoMA’s chief architecture and design curator, is unleashing architectural talent in the service of issues, not just entertainment.

Working from a two-year study of threats to New York’s harbor and coastline, the teams grappled for eight weeks in an architect-in-residence workshop at P.S. 1, the contemporary-art outpost in Queens.

If, over decades of global warming, sea levels rise two feet or more, New York could protect its harbor with an incalculably expensive storm-surge barrier. Or it can help oysters (whose labor is free) build a protective “oysterpalego.” So contends Orff, a principal of the Manhattan landscape architecture firm Scape.

Happy Oysters

Free-swimming juvenile oysters would happily attach themselves to a framework of nubby ropes. Growing and spreading, they would eventually create a reef to dissipate the energy of storm-driven floods.

In the process the oysters will filter the water of pollutants and the reef will capture drifting sediments to form islands, marshes, and shallow bays -- all of which can slow flooding, add recreational appeal and support diverse wildlife.

A project by ARO, the Architecture Research Office, suggests striping some Lower Manhattan streets with lush greenery as a way to absorb storm-water runoff, which is a major source of sewage overflows.

The team also suggests carving three shallow bays that would cleanse water with a sunken marine forest and wildlife-rich marshes. This would inconvenience occupants of much of the World Financial Center, which would need to be bulldozed.

In exercises like these, architects never hesitate to think big.

Network of Inlets

The Manhattan firm Lewis Tsurumaki Lewis proposes to fissure the low-lying, hard-edged topography of New Jersey’s Liberty State Park into a network of inlets that make room for floodwaters while hosting landscapes that evolve from upland hillocks -- desirable for development -- to shellfish-friendly shallows.

The firm proposes biological reserves, research facilities, recreation, what they call an “aqua hotel,” a produce market and amenities to extend the value of nearby Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. It’s conceptual overkill, but it helps us realize how rich urban places can be where land and water intermingle.

Though some of the teams got lost in eco-engineering arcana (you will learn all about combined-sewer overflows), others offer possibilities that are heart-stopping.

A team led by architect Matthew Baird evokes a tragic majesty in the repurposing of rotting fuel tanks and listing shipwrecks that line the industrial waterway Kill van Kull, fronting Bayonne, New Jersey. They would picturesquely rise amid bio-fuel production and restored beaches.

Whatever climate change does to us, the best of this work opens our eyes to the enormous possibilities in scandalously neglected waterfronts.

“Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront” runs through Oct. 11 at the Museum of Modern Art. Information: +1-212-708-9400.

(James S. Russell is Bloomberg’s architecture critic. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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