IN 2010, THE PRINCIPALS OF Architecture Research Office (ARO) took on the challenge of reimagining New York for the latter part of the 21st century. The three Princetonians — Stephen Cassell ’86, Adam Yarinsky *87, and Kimberly Yao *97 — added an unusual feature to the iconic waterfront of Lower Manhattan: swamps. They sketched tidal estuaries along the Hudson, lined with ferry stops. They drew freshwater marshes, saltwater marshes, and a “sunken forest,” 18 feet below street level, that extended to the steel struts of the Brooklyn Bridge. They frayed the hard edge of Battery Park with islands and suggested the deployment of kayaks.
ARO’s work was part of a project to explore the effect of rising sea levels on New York City, conceived by Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) curator Barry Bergdoll and inspired by a New York City climate-change study led by Princeton professor Guy Nordenson. Bergdell dissected New York City’s waterfront into five puzzle pieces and assigned each to a firm. Emulating a college design studio, the five firms took up residence across two floors of MoMA’s PS1 museum. The work was presented in MoMA’s show “Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront,” which ran from March to October 2010. For its part, ARO got 650 acres of Lower Manhattan and six weeks to reimagine the financial district.
Four hundred years ago, Manhattan was blanketed in forests of hickory, chestnut, and oak. Cassell, Yarinsky, and Yao decided that the best way to preserve the city under the rising sea levels that would come with global warming was to reintroduce the past.
Cassell and Yarinsky — friends from their Princeton days — opened ARO in 1993, with Yao becoming a partner in 2011. “We thought about architecture as a process of inquiry rather than a representation of ideas,” Yarinsky explains. Whether designing a space for the experimental Flea Theater in New York or an addition to Princeton’s own architecture school (completed in 2007), ARO begins with a stroll around the neighborhood. “We research the social, technical, political, and economic issues around each project before we start designing,” Cassell explains. “We understand the world in which the building needs to exist ... then we craft ideas that come out of our understanding of the nature of each project.”
ARO’s plan to reinvent Lower Manhattan took shape in its office on the edge of SoHo, in a space that once housed a printing press. ARO’s ideas are conceived in a large, open room with expansive windows, freestanding desks, and walls covered in pinned-up sketches. “In architecture there is a myth of the architect as a singular genius,” Yarinsky says, “but one of the most exciting things about our work is the collaboration.”
The challenge of creating a sustainable urban design was daunting. ARO collaborated with the landscape firm dlandstudio to create its marsh-filled models. The architects drew on expertise and opinions from NYC planning and emergency-management officials, marine scientists, atmospheric scientists, engineers, sustainability consultants, museum curators, and even curious museum patrons. A re-imagined New York rapidly took form.
ARO’s premise is that in New York’s financial district, rising currents will come in the form of storm surges and flooding. To hold back the water, ARO proposed a roadmap of green streets crisscrossing Wall Street. In addition to reintroducing 80 acres of marshes, the city streets would be made porous. Collecting ponds to store water for dry spells would be embedded below the asphalt, and water conduits would be added as far as Broadway. In essence, ARO proposed layering a natural ecological infrastructure on top of the existing city infrastructure of drainage and electrical systems.
“It’s not about high technology, but more about reframing how you think about infrastructure in the city,” Cassell explains. Yarinsky adds: “We took these really basic, pragmatic aspects of urban design, the curb and the street material, and found in them the real transformative potential of making the city a better place to be.”
Rising Currents was not ARO’s first big sustainable project. In 2009, the firm was one of three winners of a challenge posed by Syracuse University’s School of Architecture: Construct a prototype sustainable house at a price tag of $150,000.
Wrapped in angled aluminum, with slanted roofs and wide south-facing windows, ARO’s R-House is a testament to the possibilities in affordable green housing. The 1,100-square-foot house employs strategies championed by the German Passivhaus movement, which developed in the 1990s with the goal of building homes that could be kept warm without conventional heating systems. Strategies used in ARO’s R-House include an orientation that maximizes solar energy in the harsh winters and super-insulated, 16-inch walls that are sealed to prevent heat loss. Together, the “passive” strategies, ARO states, cut energy costs per square foot by 70 percent, compared to a typical Syracuse home.
Subsidized by state funding, residents moved into the newly constructed R-House in 2010 and say they paid about $90 per month for heat and electricity last winter. With the houses thoroughly insulated, the new inhabitants could heat their new home with the energy required to power a hairdryer, Yao says. (In actuality, the house is warmed through a heat exchanger powered by a water heater.)
For its work across a wide range of sustainable design, ARO received the 2011 Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award. The citation singled out both the Syracuse and Manhattan projects.
What will become of ARO’s vision for a greener Manhattan? According to Howard Slatkin, sustainability director in New York City’s planning department, the city’s waterfront plan for 2020 “enshrines in policy many of the principles” addressed by Rising Currents. “This project wasn’t about designing a new form,” Yarinsky says. “Using methods that we have right now, you can actually have this complete transformation of the city. ... We have all of the tools. That is what’s so exciting.”