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Confronting Climate Change

Confronting Climate Change

Students in a cross-disciplinary spring studio dream up designs for a proposed Museum of Climate Change in Manhattan.

Students prepare to present final proposals for a Museum of Climate Change to visiting critic Miranda Massie.

Despite scientific consensus and growing global alarm, a 2014 Pew Research poll shows that 35% of Americans don’t actually believe that the earth’s climate is changing. This spring students in a cross-disciplinary studio were eager to help bridge this baffling gap between perception and reality by working with New York attorney and activist Miranda Massie, who hopes to launch the country’s first Museum of Climate Change.

Massie conceived of the idea in 2012, a few weeks after Hurricane Sandy flooded the streets and subways of lower Manhattan. “Climate change is the preeminent science, development, tech, health, finance and social question for our species,” she said in a recent interview published in The New Yorker.

When Massie discussed the idea for a climate change museum with Architecture Professor Anne Tate—who happens to be her cousin—the two women realized that imaginative design concepts and beautiful renderings by RISD students could both substantiate the need and help raise the millions of dollars required to launch the venture. In spring 2014 Tate and Interior Architecture Professor Peter Yeadon offered RISD’s Climate Museum Launch Studio, with a follow-up studio this past spring taught by Tate and Landscape Architecture Senior Critic Nadine Gerdts.

“As a longtime environmentalist and landscape architect,” says Gerdts, “I’m constantly dealing with questions about the environment and changing water levels. I’d heard great things about last year’s class and was excited about the opportunity to team-teach with Anne.”

This year’s studio focused on a speculative site for the museum on the western edge of SoHo—in lower Manhattan’s Hudson Square. Although the neighborhood was recently zoned for high-rise construction, Gerdts predicts that it will more than likely be underwater during storm surges in the very near future. “Balancing the inevitable site changes that come with a project in lower Manhattan and the challenge of programming a building to meet environmental, social and political objectives makes for a very compelling class,” she notes.

Students in this year’s studio began by creating a popup installation for nearby Pier 26. They then honed in on concepts designed to capture the public’s imagination and draw in the millions of international visitors Massie is hoping to attract. “We asked students to rethink the meaning of the word ‘museum,’” says Tate, “as a place to address ongoing contemporary problems rather than to house artifacts.”

In conducting field research into provocative new ways to engage, inform and educate the public, students studied a wide range of existing approaches, including the Manahatta Project’s historical maps of New York City and Eve Mosher’s online HighWaterLine project, designed to help users visualize climate change and devise strategies for dealing with it at a local level. The resulting proposals range from designs for research labs to community action centers to outdoor event venues.

Brandon Wang BArch 16 envisions a hydroponic, high-rise greenhouse for the Hudson Square site that would provide 15,000 sf of surface area to grow food for local consumption (instead of bringing produce in from outlying farms via carbon-powered, greenhouse gas-emitting trucks). The building would also house a green conference center for seminars on urban farming and space for related exhibitions that would be open to the public. “The project aims to put food and food production into the heart of urbanism and public culture,” Wang explains.

Sarah Hadianti BArch 16 and Tiffany Chang MArch 15 worked together to design a museum that focuses on our relationship with water and “new frameworks for transforming cities into resilient urban environments.” Their building would house an underground flood prevention system and an above-ground rainwater harvesting system as well as exhibitions that highlight the function and importance of these systems.

When Massie visited the studio to observe work in progress, she was inspired by students’ fresh ideas. For instance, Marielle De Peña Mateo MArch 15 proposes a Waterscape Museum featuring a massive rain curtain flowing over the building’s slanted, mirrored exterior high above the city sidewalks. “A big, emotionally compelling design like this,” noted Massie, “elevates the subject matter and draws foot traffic.”

Although it will likely take years to raise funds for a Museum of Climate Change, Gerdts is fired up about the opportunity for RISD students to get in on the ground floor. “Next year we hope to continue working with Miranda on exhibition design and programming,” she says. “The strength of an interdisciplinary studio is that we can come up with all kinds of projects that will attract visitors, drawing from graphic design to furniture design to industrial design.”

text by Simone Solondz / photo by Jo Sittenfeld MFA 08 PH

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