From MOMAs Rising Currents
  • From MOMA's "Rising Currents"
I'm just back from some days in New York, where I twice stumbled into civic imaginings that made me think the age-old thought: We should do this in Seattle.

Last Tuesday, I ended up in SoHo at the opening of an exhibit put up by the city's Architecture League—a group that sounds like it should wear capes and masks and, disappointingly, doesn't. This exhibit was comprised of hundreds of photos taken by unemployed architects and photographers of Manhattan spaces meant to be improved over the last decade. These present-day photos were placed side by side with the original imaginings of the projects to pose a worthy question: Well, did it work?

But the more striking thing to me about this exhibit was how up front it was about its intentions: To examine "The City We Imagined" vs. "The City We Made," yes, but also to put unemployed photographers and architects to work in a WPA-style project that might actually have a meaningful impact on the overall direction of architecture in New York. Because recessions like this one only come around once in a while and, as much as they suck, they're also huge opportunities to harness the talents of creative people who, in a different economy, would otherwise be doing more banal (and lucrative) work.

In a similar vein, over at MOMA on Friday I wandered into an amazingly detailed look at how to create a New York waterfront that will work as the globe warms and water levels rise. Again, the thought behind the project connected directly to a sense of the opportunity inherent in economic downturns:

As in past economic recessions, construction has slowed dramatically in New York, and much of the city’s remarkable pool of architectural talent is available to focus on innovation.

The result—an imagined lower Manhattan of marshes, diving platforms, water taxis, and oyster beds for filtering out pollutants—was fantastical (and, who knows, maybe doable), the kind of thing you get when talented people are forcibly decoupled from the commercial imperative and told to just do what needs to be done.

And yes, I know this type of question is the oldest thought-cliche in Seattle, and that it grates a bit, but still: Why not here? We have unemployed architects (and urban planners and artists and more). We have huge civic planning problems that could use fresh eyes. We have museums and exhibition halls and rich people (and grant-makers and other deep-pocketed sorts) with money to throw at creative people who don't have any. Maybe I'm missing something and this is already happening. But if I'm not, and it's not, well:

Where's our WPA-style project for re-imagining this city?