SHIFTING SHORELINES #2: NY  -  Tuesday August 11th, 2009

Under the pavement the beach: mid-70′s, just after the completion of the extension of Manhattan, an era of NY beach parties.

In a fit of delirium, Rem Koolhaas praised the urban democracy of the New York Commissioners’ Plan of 1811. With a fixed number of blocks (2,028) and (at least in theory) no single development surpassing the limits of its block, the equality of each ‘urban island’ was assured. That is, no block could claim to be anything more than a certain percentage of Manhattan. Rem goes on to explain that the power of the rules lay in the rigidity of the limitations they presented.

But the rules were not so fixed. The construction of the World Trade Center produced almost a million cubic metres of excavated fill – and rather than dump it or ship it elsewhere, New York used it to push the shoreline 210m to the west, and 2km to the north. The resulting strip (called Battery Park City) created six new blocks and 92 new acres. The shoreline was augmented, a parcel of land (of incalculable value) had been cut from the island itself.

The north tower was finished in 1970, the south in ’72. For 4 years the Twins fronted the Hudson directly, until the backfilling was complete. But the first building on the new strip didn’t open until 1981, and for several years the strip was the site of art exhibits, anti-nuclear demonstrations and beach parties. The Twins suddenly found themselves at the beach, like Yankies in Miami.

The impact of this enormous expansion on the feeling of Downtown must have been phenomenal – the people revelled in a sudden emptiness that had not been felt in Manhattan for almost two centuries. The landscape artist Agnes Denes celebrated the final days of the space, (new blocks already seen under construction in the distance) by planting an acre of wheat. The abstract world of global finance presented, if only so briefly, with the realities of basic agriculture: the foundation of civilisation brought to the etherial heights of the metropolis.

Coming soon… #3, the thrilling conclusion to the series.

To see the 9 images in Agnes Denes series click here.

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