Down by the Water

Text and Photo Suresh Perera

Stacks of crushed cars, large anonymous industrial buildings, and warnings of untreated sewage being possibly released into the water blight Newtown Creek, one of New York City’s most polluted waterways. It is in such locations, often obscure and hidden from public view, that a significant reorientation of our post-industrial relationship to nature is taking place.

The battle to regain a partnership with our environment may well begin in the architectural and artistic treatment of such desolate urban sites, and with landscape artists like George Trakas, originally from Quebec and who now maintains a studio in New York. Trakas explores our bodily relationship with natural surroundings and most often with bodies of water, such as in a walking path and habitable sculpture that descends towards the sea at the Louisiana Museum in Humlebaek, Denmark and at a fishing platform perched along the edge of the Hudson River in Beacon Point, New York. 

The $4.5-billion 25-year-long renovation of the Newtown Creek Water Treatment Plant by Ennead Architects included a hefty percent-for-art program that allowed for an involved collaboration with Trakas. Rather than create a singular formal gesture or piece of sculpture, Trakas opted to craft a walkway. The quarter-mile ambulation begins at the end of an anonymous industrial street, marked by a large boulder and a series of stone benches that line the sidewalk. An understated bridge spans a small planted scent garden into a large concrete hollow, the curves recalling the hull of a boat, then onto a raised concrete walkway which snakes across a series of industrial areas. The assault of loud noise on one side is mitigated by high concrete walls, and the other side opens to offer glimpses of the mechanized landscape beyond. This sheltered enclosed path spills open as it descends to meet the constricted concrete banks of Newtown Creek and then meanders alongside the water, amongst rocks and plants, ending with views of the elegant aluminum-clad onion domes of the wastewater treatment plant on the opposite bank.

Going beyond a standard waterside walk, Trakas delves deeper into our collective memory, making reference to historic periods, events and people that passed through this site, and to the once native flora and fauna. Plaques identifying indigenous plants, etched native place names and maps enhance the experience for those moving through industrially and nautically inspired shapes and spaces. Taken at face value, these gestures may appear simple in their desire to educate us—but their real significance lies in pointing us to our present moment, in all its messy complexities. The coup de grâce of the piece occurs in a series of concrete steps that descend into the polluted waters, daring us to come face to face with our waste. We do not just walk along the water, we are invited to physically enter into it, to understand that our path is inextricably connected to its own. We cannot help but feel melancholic staring into nature deflowered. With the soft and subtle gestures of Trakas’s installation, one of the oldest reasons for the existence of art emerges: the contemplation of nature and our place within it.

In the hazy distance, across this seemingly forgotten industrial backbone of our existence, the jumbled collection of architectural ambitions that comprise the Manhattan skyline can be seen. Perhaps there is something profound to be learned from Trakas’s disarmingly simple poetic gesture of taking us down by the water.  

Suresh Perera is an architect with a studio in Montreal focusing on small buildings, installations and exhibitions.