All architecture must decide its stance on how it will accept or resist preexisting conditions. This site specificity is part of what makes architecture what it is, and in the face of global climate change, architects, designers and planners must determine what kinds of problems need solving: are we to actively undo centuries of environmental damage, hopeful of an eventual return to a bucolic status quo, or must we accept its consequences and take the aftermath as a launching point for a new 'progressive' design?
Architects Tingwei Xu and Xie Zhang from the University of Pennsylvania have fervently opted for the latter challenge, as demonstrated in the porous membrane they have designed to cling around Manhattan’s buildings in anticipation of rising sea levels.
As if Spiderman’s web had spun wildly out of control, Xu and Zhang’s membrane adheres mercilessly to the existing built Manhattan, replacing streets with a multi-layered, continuous hive that meets gradual underwater submergence with its waterproof, latticed landscape.
The design has multiple agendas: not only does it face climate change by retrofitting Manhattan with adaptive infrastructure, but it creates greater surface area for greening the island and also seeks to challenge the stringent vertical hierarchy of Manhattan’s architecture by changing the notion of ‘street level’ and making new heights publicly accessible.
Though such dramatic and large-scale change is unabashedly farfetched, sometimes the power of architecture rests in its ability to engage with the impossible, to dare to imagine something impractical and illogical and, with this vision, negotiate new terms of reality.