Water Water Everywhere

Stephen Wilkes

Sink or Swim: Designing For a Sea Change
Annenberg Space For Photography, Los Angeles
Through May 3

Despite the stubborn disregard of a few, most of us are aware of the imminent, and awesome, threats of climate change. But the warnings, charts, and speeches headlining this debate rarely hit home the way that the new exhibition, Sink or Swim: Designing For a Sea Change, at the Annenberg Space for Photography, does.

The show, curated by prominent radio host Frances Anderton, employs the visceral power of photography—including the exceptional, and in some cases, groundbreaking, work of Iwan Baan, Stephen Wilkes, Paula Bronstein, Jonas Bendiksen, George Steinmetz, and Monica Nouwens—to pull our emotions into the conversation, painting a grim, astonishing picture of our water-dominated future while also taking us on a vivid, personal tour of both initial coping strategies and long-term solutions.

 
Stilt houses, Ganvie, Benin (left). In Tacloban, Phillippines, a man rebuilds by hand following the destruction from Typhoon Haiyan that blew in a week earlier (right).
Iwan Baan; Paula Bronstein
 

The most dominant warning—change is coming soon, and rich and poor alike will be greatly impacted whether they believe so or not—is emphasized in the first grouping of photographs, depicting familiar, even peaceful scenes, shockingly transformed by increasingly severe climate phenomena like hurricanes, tsunamis, and rising tides. We see an aerial picture of a New Jersey roller coaster, but it’s floating in the ocean; the Statue of Liberty, as majestic as ever, with a dock outside twisted on its side; the Manhattan skyline, half in light and half in darkness; rickshaws being pulled somewhat casually through waist-high water in Dhaka, Bangladesh; and a sandy beach in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, empty save for a television thrown onto its side.

Life as we know it is about to get very strange, these images suggest. And while the topic is familiar, the images’ ability to compellingly tilt our expectations—expectations that are literally being upended by climate change—gives the show a needed dose of surprise in a time when we regularly gloss over beautifully crafted images of devastation and human suffering due to our visual saturation. Ironically the images of chaotic disaster on the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina or in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan have less impact. They’re stirring, of course, just more familiar.

A sea wall in Japan.
Paula Bronstein
 

The sense of surprise of the first grouping is also prevalent in the show’s architectural photographs, which we usually take for granted as glossy, immaculate shots of polished new buildings. The structures featured in the show are beautiful too, but in the case of disaster constructs and homemade shelters, they’re makeshift and unconventional, and with permanent homes, stocked with engineering to withstand future storms. Their everyday utility, spontaneous ingeniousness, and visual poetry in this harsh new reality augurs a change in how we will all think about construction in the future. Design feels essential in this troubling context, not superfluous.

Baan’s aerial photo of Arata Isozaki and Anish Kapoor’s inflatable concert hall for Matsushima, Japan (an idea that can be transported quickly to other disaster zones) depicts an auburn-colored, radiant structure puckering within the landscape in a gracefully liquid stance: a striking, practical symbol of rebirth. A floating school by Nigerian architect Kunlé Adeyemi in the floating slum of Makoko in Lagos, Nigeria, adopts the energetic, even manic DIY ethos of the area, but elevates it into a modern monument to perseverance. Baan’s aerial views of similar floating villages—conglomerations of huge populations pieced together with simple materials—depict the haphazard but logical formation of a completely new type of city. On another wall images of Toyo Ito’s play center in Tsunami-ravaged Higashimatsushima, Japan, depict simple shapes and materials transformed into a building of levity and joy. Projects by Shigeru Ban, Sou Fujimoto, and others share a similar combination of experimentation, lightness, and humanism.

 
Stephen Wilkes; Iwan Baan
 

Steinmetz’s dynamic images of floating homes in IJburg, the Netherlands, deliver a particular fascination as we unconsciously prepare for what’s next. More familiar are images of Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Homes. But it’s worth pointing out that while often mocked as being non-contextual, the residents here seem happy to just have a home, and if it’s built higher and safer, all the better.

The show introduces another, less familiar subject for sweeping architectural shots: infrastructure. Large levees, seawalls, and dams are especially prevalent in the Netherlands, where water has been a dire issue for hundreds of years. Again Baan uses his aerial expertise in capturing the scale of the coastal barrier of Scheveningen Boulevard near the Hague, which has been made into an attractive, active gathering place, and of the gargantuan, almost monstrous Delta Works, near Rotterdam. Bronstein makes the seawalls going up outside of Sendai, Japan, look like otherworldly sculpture. The power of these images comes not just from their stunning, abstracted compositions—it’s the creeping knowledge that these great constructs could very well be the last gatekeepers against serious threats to our civilization.

If the show has one weakness it’s that there isn’t enough depth, particularly in the investigation of structures, where I would have liked more detail about how the projects are created and used, and in what other ways they are proliferating. But the fact that I wanted more is a success in itself. And I blame some of the limitations on the Annenberg building, which dedicates too much space to a central video room and not enough to photographs, which are moved to the periphery.

But the overall effect is right on the mark. We can pretend that climate change has no impact. But if we stare it in the face, feel it with our emotions, and question what we can do to cope, we can no longer hide from it. Good thing, because it’s already here.

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