Some of the largest structures built by humans are invisible or go largely unnoticed. The shorelines around big cities like New York have been almost completely subordinated to the needs and wants of their inhabitants. Dredging plays a large role in the building of artificial boundaries between land and sea. BLDGBLOG, a must-read for anyone interested in architecture, reports on an exhibit by the Dredge Research Collective.
The Dredge Cycle is landscape architecture at a monumental scale, carving the coastlines and waterways of continents according to a mixture of industrial need and unintended consequences. Thus far, dredge has remained the domain of logistics, industry, and engineering, a soft successor to the elevated freeway interchanges and massive dams that captured the infrastructural imagination of the previous century.
For the past year, the Dredge Research Collective have been exploring the choreography of these interconnected sedimentary landscapes, visiting dredged material confinement areas, from Poplar Island in the Chesapeake Bay to Hayden Island in the Columbia River, talking with dredge experts, such as the transnational materials conglomerate TenCate, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Bureau of Land Management, and publishing and lecturing widely on dredge.
Mammoth, another architecture blog that includes two members of the Collective, defines the Dredge Cycle:
[…] dredging is better understood as a component of a wider network of anthropogenic sedimentary processes which generate a fascinating array of interconnected landscapes. Fluid topographies are restrained by bright orange silt fences; dredging barges continuously empty shipping channels which are promptly re-filled with sediment disturbed by upstream farms and new subdivisions; sensate geotextiles monitor the stability of landscapes they are literally embedded in; hulking geo-tubes lay engorged with dredged sediments in streams on Filipino golf courses and along Mexican beaches and on the coastal dunescape of Virginian spaceports. Silts, sands, and clays flow rapidly between these landscapes in liquid suspension, linking them and re-shaping the earth’s surface. Collectively, the choreography of these landscapes embodies a vastly quickened counterpart to conventionally defined geologic cycles — the Dredge Cycle.
One site, still being planned, where the Dredge Cycle will make itself apparent—in the form of several billion dollars of real estate—is the Lo-Lo Ma project, which could connect Governor’s Island to the southern tip of Manhattan. Core77 explains how it will be done:
How do you grow land, you may be asking? […] The first step, apparently, is to take out-of-commission subway cars, drop them into the river and cover them with landfill.
A medium-sized shopping mall contains about 400 to 500 thousand square feet.
If this sounds crazy, you should know that New York regularly dumps outdated subway cars into the Atlantic Ocean, simply because they have nowhere else to dispose of them. But instead of trashing the cars, we might very well be able to use them to our benefit, recycling them into the slow expansion of an 88-100 million square foot land mass, a borough they're tentatively calling Lo-Lo Ma.
On top of this recycled infrastructure, students at Columbia’s architecture school propose that the sludge now dredged out of waterways around the city be piled to create new land. (I like it that they have already named certain features of the new, as yet nonexistent, borough. Even if Lo-Lo Ma is never built, ‘LLM’ will still refer to that piece of land below Battery Park. A nice test for your favorite theory of reference…)
Another example. The “tourist landscape of the beach” in Delaware (and at other spots along the East Coast) is now an artifact sustained, if not created, by dredging.
This means displacing those thousands of cubic yards of sand from the ocean floor and using massive compressing stations to pump tiny rocks through miles of hulking metal tubes. […] The miles of pressurized metal tubing will certainly be removed before the summer’s vacationers have a chance to take them in. Pumping and compressing stations are only small hiccups in the gaping expanse of the ocean horizon, often unnoticed by winter ocean-goers.
The dredge infrastructure’s impermanence in the oceanfront landscape is central to its work of producing the “natural” beach, an object of consumption for the seasonal tourism within the region. This particular operation, according to the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control’s (DNREC) newsletter, is repairing the beach damage incurred from a 2008 Mother’s Day storm that pockmarked the beach with massive craters and distorted the function and image of the beach as a tourist destination. The storm, a geographic and meteorological event that, in part, could be due to anthropogenic changes in global weather patterns, damaged the beach to the point of putting nearby housing in jeopardy of being engulfed by the high tide. In response, the dredging operation is rebuilding the beach as a protective boundary to the adjacent tourist housing (Chris Mizes, “.dredge”, space within lines 5 Feb 2012).
Source: DNREC Division of Soil and Water Conservation, Shoreline and Waterway Management Section, Coastal Connection 3no3 (Summer 2009).
Unlike architects, philosophers, so far as I can tell, have had very little to say about the immensity of human intervention in natural processes except by implication, when they write in a general way about the relation of humanity to the natural world (needless to say, I welcome references). The scale of projects like Lo-Lo Ma or the Delaware beaches seems to defeat traditional æsthetics, oriented as it is toward artworks on a more modest scale. The industrial landscapes photographed by Edward Burtynsky and others challenge the imagination in the manner that Kant takes to be characteristic of the sublime. But rather than offering us, as the starry heavens above do, a natural counterpoint to the moral law within, these landscapes present us within infernal ideas of its absence. What may have been my first experience of the nonnatural sublime occurred thirty years or so before the picture below was taken, when I was walking near the Marina Towers in Chicago and realized I had no idea where the ground was.
Marina Towers, Chicago (2007). Source: Araceli Arroyo at Flickr.