Guy Nordenson


Structures that are still filled with possibility:
Bridges with swimming pools
An underground geodesic dome
Abandoned piers
Torqued candlesticks from Italy

Guy Nordenson recommends that New York City embrace climate change and start anticipating its consequences. Earlier this year he presented the American Institute of Architects with findings from a two-year research project that envisions how rising sea levels will impact the city. The problem facing New York is not higher sea levels alone, though these may be more than forty-eight inches higher at century’s end. What concerns Nordenson are the severe storms and hurricanes that will become more frequent and more powerful on elevated, warmer oceans. On the Water/Palisade Bay, the book-length report produced by Nordenson’s team, includes an “Atlas of Edge Conditions” that shows in high resolution how far the surging floods delivered by these storms could reach.

Yet Nordenson is optimistic. In the aftermath of 9/11, he led a volunteer effort to triage four hundred buildings impacted by the World Trade Center’s collapse. It has also been his fortune to work with some of the best minds of two generations. His first job out of MIT was a drafting gig at the Long Island City studio shared by Isamu Noguchi, Buckminster Fuller, and Shoji Sadao. Nordenson has since served as a structural engineer on many of the projects that will define the architecture of this decade: the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art Addition, in Kansas City, Missouri; the New Museum of Contemporary Art, in New York; and the Linked Hybrid Building, in Beijing. He is also a professor of architecture and structural engineering at Princeton University, the coauthor of Tall Buildings, the editor of Seven Structural Engineers: The Felix Candela Lectures, and is credited with the design of the torqued and tapered World Trade Center Tower One that preceded the numerous iterations of the so-called “Freedom Tower” by Daniel Libeskind and David Childs/SOM.

To reinvent New York City in an era of climate change, his Palisade Bay proposal calls for the renewal and expansion of wetlands as well as the introduction of piers, parks, and tidal marshes, ensuring a porous boundary between the city and the sea. Nordenson’s team of architects, engineers, and landscape architects also designed an archipelago of artificial islands and reefs. There are tidal turbines, wind farms, algae farms, and oyster beds. Unique conditions in each part of the city are engaged, Nordenson says, which allows for a genuine sense of place to emerge. Since its debut last May, he and his collaborators have presented the design to several audiences, including a few government agencies, heralding Palisade Bay as the Central Park of the twenty-first century. On the Water/Palisade Bay is the focus of a two-part exhibit this winter at The Museum of Modern Art and PS1 Contemporary Art Center in New York City.

—Scott Geiger


THE BELIEVER: It’s been four hundred years since a ship captained by Henry Hudson, hired by the Dutch East India Company, arrived in these waters. To what extent is the design proposal for Palisade Bay a withdrawal or erasure of human presence?

GUY NORDENSON: We’re trying not to approach this as a restoration. Instead, we’re trying to keep the spirit of Robert Smithson and others who looked at the postindustrial landscape, took it on its own terms, and tried to work from that. We’ve used Shooters Island, an island just west of the Bayonne Bridge, as an example. There was a shipbuilding facility on it. There are shipwrecks and buildings that are now submerged and used by all kinds of animals and wildlife. It’s a refuge, but it’s a refuge that evolved on top of a dump.

One of the discoveries of this whole project was, at the very beginning, the psychological aspect. Instead of considering climate change as only cataclysmic, we were looking to it as an opportunity and trying to find ways in which we could improve the urban environment. Implied in that is a sense that the ecology has to encompass what man has made. So, in a sense, it also means trying to chart terrain that is at some level in the subconscious and repressed. If you examine the bureaucratic structures built around preservation of ecological conditions, you see a lot of suppression of reality as well as protection.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Scott Geiger is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize. His story “A Design History of Icebergs and Their Applications” appears in the spring 2009 issue of Conjunctions.

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