Sink or Swim focused on the impact of rising sea levels in cities around the world, and documented the myriad responses by designers, planners and architects to make our cities more resilient. Through photographs, text, and video, the exhibit focused on several regions and their responses, ranging from the US (New York City, New Orleans) to Japan, Nigeria, the Netherlands and beyond. With a focus on both high- and low-tech solutions, the distinct works gave a comprehensive overview of the multifaceted localized and regional approaches being used globally to combat rising waters.
Nigeria and the Netherlands – High-Tech/Low-Tech
One featured project was the Makoko Floating School, a project in Lagos by NLÉ Architects. The project was built in the waterfront region of Lagos, a rapidly urbanizing African city of 17 million which is already dealing with rising waters. Built using local materials and methods, the school consists of a series of A-frames built on top of a floating platform utilizing emptied blue barrels. With technological solutions such as rooftop PVs, rain water catchment, as well as passive shading and ventilation, the school is both functional and repeatable, combining low-tech and high-tech aspects in an affordable way. The three levels house space for classrooms and green space in a structure built for fluctuating sea levels.
The curators also looked towards the Netherlands, a nation particularly adept at dealing with water. With 25% of the nation below sea level and another 25% within 1 meter of sea level, the Dutch debate has never been about whether it was important to deal with rising water, but about how it should be done. (Contrast this to the United States, where the denial of anthropogenic climate change remains a political issue). The ingenuity of the Dutch ranges from high-tech systems of dykes, levies, and sea walls, to a more low-tech solution of adapting to let the water in. Urban canals and waterfronts have become activated by zoning which allows waterfront use and growth, and policies which recognize houseboats as primary residences have allowed for floating infrastructure with utilities provided by the city. Through their unique policy and built-environment approaches, the Netherlands has positioned itself for a continued existence despite being a precariously waterlogged nation. As the old saying goes, “God created the earth, the Dutch created Netherlands.”
New Orleans and the Question of Rebuilding
Photographs of New Orleans by Iwan Baan also shed light on the risks inherent in living below sea level. His evocative images showed the rampant destruction Hurricane Katrina laid upon the city, in particular the Lower Ninth ward. In New Orleans, the response was largely infrastructural, with a vast and overwhelmingly expensive sea wall and levee system to replace the aging and ruptured previous structures. Architects and philanthropic programs such as Brad Pitt’s ‘Build It Right’ organization were featured, featuring radical concepts like houses anchored to the ground, which would float if and when) floodwaters return. These contemporary approaches were also contrasted with the distinctly New Orleans “Captain’s Houses,” whose centuries-old designs stilted above a certain point “as if they had drawn an invisible line” where the flood waters would reach, and whose design proved effective as many of these remained standing. However, amidst the promise of future floods, the question was posed whether it was right to rebuild at all.
In New Orleans, the question of rebuilding was driven by feelings of nostalgia and identity. Residents and planners who grew up in affected neighborhoods felt a duty to clean up and rebuild, despite the increasingly severe effects of climate change. Thom Mayne, the head of architecture firm Morphosis, countered this by suggesting the best approach to the Lower Ninth Ward would be to not rebuild at all. (His team then rebuilt anyways, constructing the “floating house” which is anchored to the ground and capable of rising up to 12 feet with storm surges). Another counterpoint to risky rebuilding campaigns was offered by Fox Beach, a neighborhood on Staten Island, NYC, where officials have begun buying out houses to relocate residents. The governmental agency has commenced demolishing the structures in an effort to allow for the return of the natural marshland, which acts as a buffer against storm surges.
Mixed Paper at Annenberg
Mixed Paper’s contribution to the exhibit (Adaptive Urban Habitats) attempted to address many of these particular issues. Drawing on the vitality of waterfront cities in the Netherlands, our approach used both policy and building technology to form a gradual response to rising waters, which would allow a coastal neighborhood to grow intelligently. Combining stilting approaches with more temporal movable pods, we proposed a new form of development for urbanizing coastal areas. Like Staten Island, we also recognized the importance of the natural marshlands, proposing a slower form of growth to allow for its eventual return. Although our project was an exploration of possibilities, it was refreshing to see such approaches being enacted throughout the globe by various designers and planners, as this shows that the paradigm is beginning to shift.
Sink or Swim was powerful in its ability to raise relevant questions about coastal resiliency. We now know sea level rise is unavoidable, buoyed by a daunting series of IPCC reports. The question now becomes one of resilience and response, including the possibility of strategic retreat. The various projects show the breadth of strategies, and suggest that the best solutions are those that integrate both cultural and regional responses. Despite depicting the ferocity of hurricanes, tsunamis and floods, the exhibit’s focus on our inexorable will to respond showcased humanity’s remarkable ability to adapt.
We are proud to have been featured among such progressive architects and planners, and look forward to a future of resilience by design!
Sink or Swim runs through May 3 at the Annenberg Space for Photography, and admission is free to the public. For more info on the exhibit, visit the Sink or Swim page. To see our featured project, visit the Adaptive Urban Habitats page.
[And don’t forget to vote for our entry in Boston’s Living With Water competition, Bridging Culture.]