Sink Or Swim: Designing for a Sea Change

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How are people building in the face of rising seas? That’s the topic of Sink Or Swim: Designing For a Sea Change, an exhibition about “resilient” architecture from adaptation for survival through to visionary plans for the future. It’s a story that’s been told through dramatic imagery by photographers including Iwan Baan, Stephen Wilkes, Jonas Bendiksen, Paula Bronstein and Monica Nouwens, as well as unbuilt plans. The exhibition was curated by DnA’s Frances Anderton, and opens December 13. Read on for more details and images and listen to Frances talk about it with Steve Chiotakis here.

In late October 2012 the photographer Iwan Baan happened to be in New York. While he was there, Hurricane Sandy hit.

Baan, a globetrotting Dutchman who has become known for aerial photographs that convey the social fabric of cities, seems to know a helicopter operator in every town. That night he had cash in hand and connections to a pilot who took him high in the sky when all other flights had been cancelled. From that vantage point Baan took a picture of Manhattan divided into darkness and light, after the power went out, taking a quarter million residents off the grid (and birthing a new neighborhood: “South of Power.”)  The stunning image appeared on the front cover of New York Magazine, amplifying Baan’s growing renown and catapulting him into the story of our century: climate change, and its impact on the built environment.

Stephen Wilkes, November 2012, Seaside Heights, N.J; The Jet Star roller coaster remains submerged after the pier it stood on was swept away by Superstorm Sandy. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Stephen Wilkes, the Connecticut-based fine art and commercial photographer, also commissioned a helicopter, three days after Sandy hit, and flew over the coastline of New Jersey as well as Staten Island and Queens. He captured many scenes of havoc caused by the hurricane – entire neighborhoods, such as Breezy Point, flattened; collapsed highways; and a house picked up and moved through waving grasses in the Rockaways on Long Island. The image that was most haunting, however, was the one that was surreal in its apparent calm: the twisted remains of the Jet Start Roller Coaster in Seaside Heights, New Jersey, sticking up out of a placid, invitingly blue sea – into which it had been blown. This photograph, (above) published in Time magazine, also proved to be one of the defining images of Hurricane Sandy.

House moved at Oakwood Beach
Stephen Wilkes, November 2012 Oakwood Beach; the force of Hurricane Sandy lifted this house off its foundations and dragged it across the marshy land.

While neither of these photographs was up close and personal, what they both captured in the click of a shutter was the shocking vulnerability of the world we have built for ourselves, and how our entertainments and our throbbing cities could be reduced to shells by a violent storm – a natural catastrophe that is likely to be repeated.

Images like these have contributed to the wake-up call for makers of the built environment. With sea change happening climatically, architects, builders, communities and their leaders are awakening to the need for a sea change structurally, from the construction of buildings to the fabric of communities.

Paula Bronstein; May 2014, Sendai, Japan; section of a giant, and contested, seawall along the Kitakama and Ainokama coastline in Sendai. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

This realization has birthed a new philosophy of design and planning, termed “resilience.” Walker Wells, director of the Green Urbanism Program for Global Green, explains that resilience includes “adapting – by protecting, fortifying, modifying, or relocating buildings and infrastructure that are at risk” but goes beyond buildings to “creating flexible and distributed delivery of critical services, combined with strengthening social networks so that neighbors can find and help each other.” The philosophy of resilience says it is not okay to leave people, metaphorically, even literally, to sink. Rather it demands occupants of an alarmingly fragile and interconnected ecosystem to harness efforts to enable themselves and others to resist crisis — to swim.

Makoko school
Iwan Baan; 2013, Lagos, Nigeria; Floating school by Nigerian architect Kunle Adeyemi in Makoko, an impoverished community in Lagos, Nigeria

Above was an excerpt from the catalogue that accompanies Sink Or Swim: Designing for a Sea Change, an exhibition that explores, through photography, the story of resilience, from adaptation for survival in the Philippines and West Africa to ambitious — and sometimes contested — infrastructure planning in the Netherlands and Japan to vernacular and architectural housing solutions in some of the richest and poorest of the world’s coastal communities. It also shows examples of communities that have chosen to yield back to nature in areas where perhaps it was hubristic to have built in the first place.

Wilkes Mayne house for MIR
Stephen Wilkes, May 2014, Lower 9th Ward, New Orleans; Sedgie Conerly on the porch of the energy-efficient FLOAT House, designed by Morphosis Architects for Make It Right .

And it shows examples of future thinking (curated in collaborated with architecture critic Guy Horton), in a display of large-scale plans for several cities in North America, all of which are coalescing around the idea that going forward, we have to change our relationship to rivers and coasts, learning to live with it, utilizing “soft” defenses, not hard defenses that have eroded natural barriers.

I curated the exhibition in collaboration with Pat Lanza, head of talent and content at Annenberg, after being asked a couple years by the Annenberg Space for Photography to help them create a photography show around the theme of “architecture for a cause.”

Jonas Bendiksen, 2010 Pabna, Bangladesh; Children attend classes in a floating school created by architect Mohammed Rezwan and his NGO Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha.

A decade of environmental disasters, from New Orleans to Eastern Japan, had produced an explosion of humanitarian architecture, from individuals and groups like Architecture For Humanity, Make It Right, Global Green, ArchiAid and Home-For-All. Wallis Annenberg was interested in exploring that work, some of which was not only providing shelter but advancing ideas about living more sustainably.

This work had already received a lot of attention in the last decade, but on examination, it was clear there was a connecting theme: much of it had resulted from the aftermath of catastrophic storms and floods in coastal cities. Furthermore, where many designers and architects, and planners and politicians, had been increasingly concerned with resource-wise building, now they were adding this notion of  “resilience.”

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Paula Bronstein, May 2014, Rikuzentakata, Japan; after the March 2011 tsunami this couple lives in a 300 square feet unit of one of 60 “Temporary Wooden Housing for Refugees.”

In addition to the “cause” aspect of architecture, Wallis Annenberg was also adamant that the photography should included people; she was not interested in the standard architecture photography that is sanitized and emptied of its users.

Iwan Baan, 2014, Ganvie, Benin; children play on one of the stilted houses of Ganvie, a 300-year old lake village that is increasingly vulnerable to rising sea levels. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The result is a show that I hope captures the human story of dwelling. Architecture exhibitions are a tough nut to crack in terms of accessibility, so we endeavored to stage emotive photography in a dynamic installation by designers CMg (their arrangement of differentiated spaces painted different colors or papered in room-size blown-up photographs is such a relief from the usual white box). There is also an accompanying film by Arclight that dramatizes the themes of the exhibition.

I hope you’ll visit the show; it’s open through May 3, 2015.

Monica Nouwens, June 2014, Venice, California; A young woman walks her dog in Venice, CA., below a Tsunami Evacuation Zone sign.
Monica Nouwens, June 2014, Venice, California; A young woman walks her dog in Venice, CA., below a Tsunami Evacuation Zone sign.