Holocene City

On a recent trip to New York, I visited the the Panorama of the City of New York at the Queens Museum, built for the 1964 World’s Fair.

The model was conceived by Robert Moses, then World’s Fair President, and built by a team of more than 100 people working for three years for architectural model makers Raymond Lester & Associates. In planning the model, Lester apparently referred to aerial photographs, Sanborn fire insurance maps, and a range of other city documents. The model comprised 895,000 buildings and every street, park and some 100 bridges, assembled onto 273 individual sections that make up the 320 square miles of New York City. It was built to 1:1200 scale (1 inch = 100 feet). At this scale, Manhattan measures 70 x 15 feet, the Empire State Building is 15 inches tall, while the Statue of Liberty is only 1+7/8 inches high. It is made of formica panels and urethane foam mounted on wood. The buildings are constructed of wood, plastic and hand painted paper, the bridges of etched brass. Ongoing building additions are made of laser cut/etched acrylic. The design and construction of the entire Panorama cost $672,662.69 in 1964, the equivalent of approximately $5 million today.

As I looked down on this 9,335-square foot architectural model, splayed out in silence in the gloomy, morbid light of the Viñoly designed space it is housed in, it resembled, not something dynamic and living, but the corpse of a city, a relic of a way of seeing and representing it that, quite frankly, no longer really matters.

This is born out by that since 2009, the model has been updated on the basis of an Adopt-a-Buildng program, allowing the purchase of real estate on the model in return for a deed of sale. In this way, Citi Field, Yankee Stadium, Brooklyn Bridge Park, Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, and Battery Park City have been updated, while, surprisingly the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre are still standing.

This was, for me, a fitting tribute to the holocene city, the city as we once knew it. This was the city built before google earth, mobile computing, the war on terror and real time mapping; when climate was stable, when lines could be drawn between land and sea, between inside and outside, between us and them. When urban morphologies were determined by the technocrats of urban planning, when urban geometries were Euclidian and the layers of the city on which urban life depends (technology, infrastructure, supplies of energy, water, food etc.) were so taken for granted, there was no need to represent them at all. The Panorama of the City of New York is an aesthetic of know knowns, controlled certainties and predictable outcomes; in other words a map of a city that only exists in its rapidly out-dating miniature.

But as one is drawn into this aesthetic, it raises more questions than it answers. This vast sprawling encrustation on the marshy wetlands of the eastern seaboard – where did the construction materials to make it come from, what or who were displaced to build it, how were these marshes drained, where does the water, energy and food to sustain it come from? For surely, this city is not a bounded, isolated entity, but part of a network of sites and condiuits without which it would cease to exist? Surely these are part of the city too? Or is all of that just too complicated to show?

These questions begin to be answered in another model in a nearby room – a topographic model of the water supply to the city of New York, made for an earlier World Fair in 1939 and recently restored.

This portrays the the watersheds, reservoirs, aquaducts and pipes that bring water to New York city’s taps. It shows the city, now reduced to a small red rectangle on the surface of a relief map, in relation to its Croton, Catskill and Delaware watersheds, which cover nearly 2,000 square miles and extend as far as 125 miles to its north and west.

19 reservoirs and three lakes dam rivers and streams in these watersheds, which, when constructed, we are told, flooded valley towns and villages and forced residents to move. The reservoirs are connected to New York City on the model by lines representing gravity fed aquaducts – the Old Croton (built in 1837), New Croton, Catskill and Delaware, which deliver water to three tunnels that in turn distribute it throughout the five city boroughs. City Water Tunnel No.1 is the oldest, installed in 1917 and the first to bring Catskill mountain water to the city. Next came City Water Tunnel No. 2, in 1936, with improved services for Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island. City Water Tunnel No. 3 is still being built in stages, starting in 1998. These tunnels are in turn connected to the 6,800 mile-long network of pipes that bring water to New York city’s faucets.

This model, despite its earlier vintage, is more in keeping with an anthropocene view of the world, acknowledging the city to be neither a bounded nor static thing constructed passively on the earth’s surface, but rather a technological-hydrological agent, mobilizing water across vast distances and transforming geology, stratigraphy and human settlement in the process.

In keeping with its contemporary view of the world, this model was surrounded by an exhibition of 12 screen prints by the Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative and Culturestrike, who had worked with artists and environmental justice groups to highlight the effect of climate change on people who are traditionally marginalized, including migrants and communities of colour. These focused on water issues for those impacted by global warming and destructive environmental practices.

My point here is that whereas the euclidian, town-planning model of New York City produced a sense of stasis, disinterest and death, the topographic model of its water supply opened it up to wider questions that resonate with contemporary sensibilities and struggles about the future of the earth and those who live on it.

‘Cities are strange, dynamic skins, echoing the crust of the earth, but with different mechanics, different rhythms and undulations. Love, life, weather and seasons, ripple the second skin. But new techniques of knowing and moving create different ripples, pulses. Speed itself is not new; a city can be destroyed in hours by an invading enemy, in minutes by a volcanic eruption, in seconds by an earthquake. News can travel faster than the wind. Events on a global scale affect many places in the world simultaneously. Mobility by means of communication and transport technologies reduces distances between places, bringing them very close together. The effect is a fluid urbanity hard to express through static models or identities. Increasingly the city’s only definable form, its only clear identity, can be found in the manner in which its changes evolve.’ Raoul Bunschoten, Urban Flotsam, 2011.


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