Art Papers  

more from the March/April 2013 issue:

Greta Magnusson Grossman:
Walking Away

by Arianna Schioldager

Letter From
the Guest Editor:
Susan Morgan

Transformational Intent:
The East River Blueway

Text / Ryan Gravel

New York these days is fertile ground for design innovation on many scales, and Claire Weisz, a founding partner of WXY Architecture + Urban Design, seems particularly well suited to any one of them. WXY's work addresses a broad design spectrum from residential and office interiors to civic buildings, public spaces, and infrastructure. In 2011, WXY introduced its immediately iconic stainless-steel Zipper Bench to Battery Park, and late last year the Drawing Center in SoHo reopened after a stunning interior renovation by Weisz. When WXY was selected as one of only three firms— alongside such well-established design giants as SOM (Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill) and Foster + Partners—by New York City's Municipal Arts Society to completely reimagine the public areas surrounding Grand Central Terminal, it became clear how expertly the firm has tapped into New York's growing recognition of and taste for good design.

WXY Studio, Blueway Design: FDR Downspouts in South Street Waterfront Neighborhood, September 15, 2012, photo rendering (courtesy of WXY Studio)

Cities around the world are, in fact, placing a renewed emphasis on design. Intent on competing in an increasingly global marketplace that allows people more freedom to live where they want, cities are reimagining their futures with new greenways, parks, and public spaces that incentivize the development of vibrant communities. One aspect of design intervention is the adaptive reuse of underutilized infrastructure—abandoned railroads, industrialized riverfronts, gridlocked freeways, and channelized waterways—as renewed conduits of urban life. Ranging in scale from New York's 1.5-mile High Line project to the 52-mile Los Angeles River Revitalization, these projects are changing not only the physical form of cities but also the way we think about the places we live, challenging our cultural assumptions about infrastructure and public space, and empowering political leadership to become champions of these new standards. Design plays a critical role by helping communities envision a new future and setting up a framework through which others can participate. These projects provoke a dialogue that goes beyond what the built environment looks like and asks us what it means.

As Paris begins to dismantle freeways along the Seine in order to reclaim that space for people, New York is challenging the assumption that it can't both keep its existing elevated freeway and expand public access to its waterfront along the East River. Anticipating a revitalization spawned by new parks and bike trails along the Hudson River, the East River Blueway Plan is a community-based waterfront planning initiative to redevelop nearly four miles of Manhattan's East River waterfront and the elevated FDR Drive from the Brooklyn Bridge north to 38th Street. After the devastation caused by the rising waters of Superstorm Sandy, the East River Blueway Plan and its embrace of the FDR is especially timely and uniquely provocative in the growing global portfolio of infrastructure redesign. Now a design team led by WXY Architecture + Urban Design has taken on the challenge. To consider this vital engagement between design practice and art-making, ART PAPERS talked to Claire Weisz by phone from her studio in New York's Little Italy.

WXY Studio, Blueway Design: Proposed Brooklyn Bridge Beach, September 15, 2012, photo rendering (image courtesy of WXY Studio)

AP: What's going on with plans for the East River Blueway?

CW: We've done a conceptual design and hopefully, between a couple of pilot projects and some planning for how to implement it, that will result in a number of commissions at many levels, but it is very much a vision plan and a blueprint. We've looked at engineering issues relative to the design and we've been talking through the various public agencies, so there's a level of seriousness about design, but it's not what it looks like that is the issue—it's what it is, what it does. The plan is looking at the different environmental, social, cultural, and access opportunities that all require really different kinds of design. In the design of infrastructure, for example, one of the big moves is a braided bridge, an overpass from both directions like a big X over the FDR between 13th and 20th streets that allows you to cross over the highway, and all of a sudden the parks are connected again and not cut off. That's a big move. But there are other important smaller moves. There's an idea— not designed yet in this process—that would actually mark the different flood lines in Lower Manhattan and the East Village and all the way up through this site, so that as you get closer to the water you are actually understanding your relationship to the water.

WXY Studio, Blueway Design: Proposed East River Esplanade Bulkhead, September 15, 2012, photo rendering (image courtesy of WXY Studio)

AP: After Superstorm Sandy, I guess that takes on an even greater significance?

CW: Yes. We've mapped where all of these lines go and it means that here I am, 200 feet in from even walking across a bridge to get to the waterfront, and whether it's on pavement or a line of light or a series of small interventions, I will know where the 2012 Storm Sandy water came to, but I'll also know where the 500-foot flood line is. The idea is to make a kind of recording of environmental conditions that allows these layers of knowledge to be accessible to anyone. So the design is really about taking a lot of information and giving all the communities along the waterfront access to that information. That's the role that design should really play here, and in a way it catalyzes other things to happen.

WXY Studio, Blueway Design: Proposed Riverwalk South of Stuyvesant Cove, September 15, 2012, photo rendering (image courtesy of WXY Studio)

AP: What other kinds of things can happen? It strikes me that unlike a lot of other waterfront projects, the Blueway does not undermine the primary utility of the FDR as a roadway, at least not directly.

CW: One of the things that we accepted was that people wanted to figure out how to both have the FDR and have access to the waterfront. Right now the FDR is a negative because it floods and the parks flood and the neighborhoods flood, but potentially, between storm-water management, between saltwater marsh improvement, between even a kind of floodwall edge, you could actually start thinking about the opportunity of the FDR as a kind of line of protection. So throughout the design process, we had the idea that the relationship between the FDR and the park just can't be a negative one. Of course we know that when you remove a freeway that everything gets better. At the same time, in dense urban environments like New York, there's a certain advantage of having conduits like the FDR, and so I think the Blueway Plan is a way to look for smart relationships there. A lot of the detailed design potential going forward is in all of those on/off-ramps; all the service streets and buffers— rethinking all of those spaces to actually become usable. What would it take for a street not to be a service road to the FDR, but to become a real street for people to play on, ride bikes, and get to the waterfront? And so a lot of the plan is looking at how to improve the low-hanging fruit. But obviously in the long term, the relationship to the FDR could change with things like congestion pricing, which may change traffic patterns, or as we go to smaller, electric vehicles or even changes to freight mobility where people deliver in a certain way.

WXY Studio, Blueway Design: Proposed Blueway Crossing Looking North, September 15, 2012, photo rendering (image courtesy of WXY Studio)

AP: I've read you suggest that one goal of the Blueway is to bring nature to the city. What does that mean in a place like Manhattan where very little remains in its natural state?

CW: I think nature in this case means better-working natural systems. In places where there are natural coves, like under the Brooklyn Bridge or at Stuyvesant Cove, and between freshwater and saltwater wetlands, it means letting the natural systems of the river reassert themselves. This is less about an untouched or pristine nature and more about using these natural systems in a way that they are able to perpetuate themselves. So we are thoughtful about where to put paths so we're not cutting off wetlands and how we look at beach landings for kayaks. There is so much fastmoving water in the East River because almost all of the city's waterfront is bulkhead. So we're creating rock outcroppings along pier lines and along these coves to slow down the water and lower the energy level, which allows things to grow but it also allows for safer conditions for landing a kayak, for example, if you're not an expert kayaker. The challenge is to make this new infrastructure for the Blueway, but to do it in a way that makes sense, taking full advantage of what is already there and doing better for the aquatic culture and for all the flora and fauna. You have to see that this is part of a larger environmental problem and not just limit the project to green architecture. I think that's why the High Line and Battery Park have created such huge sea changes in our relationship to the environment—you can have a wildness coexist with density and that's a really powerful idea. This is part of an important renewal of the city—how we front the river.

WXY Studio, Blueway Design: Proposed Lido in Stuyvesant Cove, September 15, 2012, photo rendering (image courtesy of WXY Studio)

AP: So with that idea of challenging our relationship with the city and with nature, can infrastructure design take on the more provocative role that public art often plays?

CW: I think the role of design also veers into the role that artists have played in how cities change. Olafur Eliasson changed people's idea of the power of the East River with his waterfalls. I think he also made it more potent to have the Blueway project because the idea that the river itself is a spectacle and that we, living in cities, have the capability for our infrastructure and our nature to be majestic and dynamic and have it possible to interact with is pretty interesting. There's been a huge amount of talk on the Blueway about how larger-scale work by artists can be situated on the Blueway, and how important it is to start making that possible. So any design work by landscape architects or architects should make these connections and create places that don't preclude a whole other layer of interpretation that can make that happen.

WXY Studio, Blueway Design: The Blueway Crossing, September 15, 2012, photo rendering (image courtesy of WXY Studio)

AP: So looking ahead, it sounds like there is a significant role for art on the Blueway?

CW: Oh yes, there's a big one because in a lot of ways, our own predilection as designers is to see most of what we do at an urban design/architectural level—I'll call it the “human scale of infrastructure”—but that's not the final design. For example, we have lighting designer Domingo Gonzalez on our team, and one of the initiatives that they are talking about as a first priority is looking at funding not only for lighting, let's say under the FDR, but actually funding to put electrical boxes up high enough so not everyone can use them but so that you are set up for future art installations—whether it's a Nuit Blanche festival, or commissioned lighting, or digital or interactive projects. We can look at these places as not just a finished design but as kind of an opening or canvas. This approach also includes the marking of flood lines and waterlines. It opens opportunities for other layers of information to come in, and in most cases that work is being done by artists, or by groups or collectives that involve artists. As the designer, our role is to see the potential for making cities more dynamic places and to make sure the design doesn't close down those possibilities.

—Ryan Gravel is an urban planner, designer, and writer at Perkins+Will in Atlanta. His master's thesis was the original vision for the Atlanta BeltLine, a catalyst infrastructure project that is now partly in construction.

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