September 30, 2023

The ability for cities to survive depends on smart, sustainable architecture

All around New York City, building projects seem to be constantly in the works. But in an era in which climate resiliency and a growing population are key factors that architects must consider, the approach to construction and its related waste may require some more creative thinking. 

A new exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan Architecture Now: New York, New Publics shines a spotlight on ideas at the cutting edge of innovation that aim to reimagine the relationship between the city’s architecture, its people, and the nature around it. Here’s a peek at some of the projects that have been selected for display. 

“All of the projects we highlight are what we see as models for future construction in New York or in the world,” says Martino Stierli, chief curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art. “This exhibition is kind of an archipelago, where each of the projects is an island and you can roam around freely.”

Working with nature 

New York has seen a renewed focus on achieving cleaner energy in the next few decades. That includes decarbonizing buildings and transportation wherever possible. For example, a project at Jones Beach Energy and Nature Center in Long Island is putting this vision into practice. Converted from a former bathhouse, the new facility, which opened in September 2020, is net-zero—meaning that it generates all the energy it needs through renewables—and is designed to have a small footprint. It also has a climate resilient landscape. 

It features solar panels atop the building, geothermal wells that heat its insides, and restored beachscape with local native plants that filter stormwater and help secure sediments against erosion. There is a battery on site that stores extra electricity produced by the solar panels that can supply power through nights and stormy weather. “The building is interesting by itself. But you have to see it as a larger environmental system,” Stierli says. 

On the front of climate resiliency, another project, Hunter’s Point South Waterfront Park, has taken into account how rising seas should influence the design of coastal structures. In one way or another, engineers across New York have been thinking of ways to fight the water, or keep it off. 

“This park is designed so part of it can flood. The coastline becomes much more like what it would’ve been naturally, so the water goes back and forth… As you know, New York before civilization was basically a swamp,” says Stierli. “So instead of building high walls to keep the water out, you have these artificial flood plains, and of course that creates a new, but ancient again, biosphere for plants and animals who have always lived in this presence of saltwater.”

Architects from WEISS/MANFREDI tailored the design to the specific ecological conditions and geography of the land. The second phase of the park opened in 2018 next to the East River, which is tidal, narrow, and prone to wave action. Because of this, they developed a landscaped, walkable fortified edge that protects the emerging wetlands from harsh wave action. In an extreme flooding event, the height of the wall is calibrated to gently let water in, allowing the wetlands to act like sponges to absorb flood water. After a storm, water is then slowly released in a safe and controlled way, Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi, two architects from the firm, explain in an email. This design was tested through computer and analogue models that factored in the specific features of the East River. And the park held its own even against the real and unexpected test of Hurricane Sandy. 

When the team conducted research into the site history, they found that a marsh shoreline existed in the past along a wider and gentler tidal estuary, Tom Balsley, principal designer at SWA, said in an email. To reinstate the marsh in the present day, they worked in collaboration with civil, marine, and marsh ecologist consultants to create a balanced habitat.

Making use of trash 

Waste is another theme that echoes throughout the exhibit, especially when it comes to addressing the building industry’s relationship with trash and its effective use of supplies. “The construction and the architecture industry really has to come in terms with the fact that our resources are finite,” Stireli says. “This idea of reusing, recycling, is probably the most important aspect of contemporary thinking in architecture.” 

The TestBeds research project, for example, imagines how life-size prototypes for future buildings can be given a second life as greenhouses, or other community structures, instead of heading to the landfill. To illustrate how different bits and pieces of buildings and developments move across the city and find new homes, MoMA created an accompanying board game to help visitors understand the rules and processes behind new construction projects. They can scan a QR code to play it.  

“This is the only project I know that actually deals with architectural mockups, because no one ever asks about them. Often, they just get left behind. They get destroyed,” he adds. “And so here we have this idea to say, these are actually valid building components and you can just integrate them into designs. These are five propositions, one of them is actually built, which is this community garden shed here.” 

On the topic of waste, Freshkills Park—formerly the Fresh Kills Landfill—is in the spotlight for its unique ambitions. “This is the site of the largest dump in the US,” Stierli says. “Former field operations who are very important landscape architects based in New York, they have been working with the city for the last 20 years or so to renaturate and to make it a park that is accessible and create a place for leisure and outdoor activities. Of course a lot of it has to do with the management of toxic waste.”

Part of this involved putting the Landfill Gas System in place that “collects and controls gas emission through a network of wells connected by pipes below the surface that convey the gas through a vacuum,” according to the park’s official website. “Once collected, the gas is processed to pipeline quality (recovery for domestic energy use) at an on–site LFG recovery plant.” There is also a leachate management system to remove and treat pollutants that are made when the waste breaks down. And of course, landfill engineers made sure to put many layers, liners, and caps between the waste and the new park soil. 

Some parts of Freshkills Park are now open to visitors. However, Stireli notes that “this is a work in progress.” 

New York, New Publics will be on display at The Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, New York through July 29, 2023. 

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