THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Yo, Beaver!

amphibious architecture in New York

by by Katie Okamoto

September 29, 2009, 10:50:00 PM. I received this SMS text:
Jose hr b4 u ask yes still single.not a single female in NY.haven?t been 2 BRAC 2day will later.xs interested in a cross species adventure?xx wanna see my lodge

A Bronx River beaver, Jose wasn’t my usual style. Still, I thought about saying yes.

His interest in the arts—BRAC is the Bronx River Arts Center—definitely earned him bonus points, and I have to admit I liked the breezy swagger in his message. But I knew his type. Just minutes before, I had gotten a noncommittal text from an alewife (“I am not around, but you should try me again later. You might want to text ‘RiverRiver’ to get a full report”).

Reading, then re-reading Jose’s invitation, I worried that it wasn’t very
personalized. Did he want me to see his lodge, or was he willing to settle for any single lady without the brains to smell some sleaze?

As I feared, Jose’s invitation wasn’t personalized at all. That night, any number of people could have received the same text, had they sent “YoBeaver” to 41411, thanks to the team of architects, artists, and techies responsible for Amphibious Architecture, an installation for the Architectural League’s Sentient City exhibit. As to why anyone would have texted “YoBeaver” to 41411, it’s because Amphibious Architecture suggested it, along with “HolaAlewife” and “DearBronx.”

Let me explain. Amphibious Architecture uses a system called Fwish Interface: two separate grids of interactive buoys placed in New York’s Bronx and East Rivers. These buoys contain sensors, including ones that sense motion. This is how Jose texted me on the night of September 29. When a beaver, fish, or any other aquatic citizen passes under the buoys, motion sensors activate LED lights just above the water; at night, these shimmer like a constellations and mirror the illuminated city. What had been concealed and out of mind is rendered visible and dynamic there—a public space that literally reflects fluvial and human architecture.

Meanwhile, Fwish conveys motion and information from other sensors—water quality, dissolved oxygen content, and noise level—to humanoids in pre-composed, updated messages via the SMS interface. Depending on what one writes, when, and to what location, anyone with a cell phone can enter the feedback loop and be hit on by a beaver. 

I have been texting 41411 with a gusto bordering on obsession, but it’s okay, because constant communication with the subsurface world of New York’s Bronx and East Rivers is what the project team encourages. Over several weeks, I have gone from giddy enthusiasm about 41411 to disenchantment and doubt—when I did RSVP “Yes” to seeing Jose’s lodge, I got the unsexy response: “Usage: Yes. Short: Y Effect: Confirm last pending action.”—to, finally, a healthy appreciation for our relationship.

Before Amphibious Architecture, I haven’t had much rapport with scientific info. Like most of us, I have regarded data with an eye that was distant, clinical, disengaged. We relegate environmental science to the analyses and syntheses of experts, who present us with conclusions and recommendations. Data is “raw,” uncooked, on its way to being crafted into something we can digest.

But what about the joy of simply knowing? Amphibious Architecture reclaims raw data for popular enjoyment. Newly aware, we enter into conversation with the environment and its processes, our spatial understanding of what it means to live in a city—to be a citizen—expanded. Now, what lies underwater is no longer subsurface, subconscious; but fully conscious, named. The installation gifts us with eyes of wonder.

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In the summer of 1963, a group of avant-garde architects opened the Living City exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. The first project by the Archigram group, Living City sought to explore what it meant to inhabit a “vital city.” For the members of Archigram, what mattered more than a city’s buildings was total environment—encompassing all that lived, gusted—and, importantly, how humans responded to it. As Archigram leader Peter Cook wrote for Living Arts Magazine that year, “When it is raining in Oxford Street the architecture is no more important than the rain, in fact the weather has probably more to do with the pulsation of the Living City at that given moment.”

The Archigram group’s answer to traditional, limited understandings of urban life were grandiose, futuristic city-experiences that prevented complacent existence: “We must perpetuate this vitality or the city will die at the hands of the hard planners and architect aesthetes.” The playful Walking City, one of Archigram’s visions for a new urbanism, proposed immense free-roaming metropolitan pods, complete with legs. Concepts like this sought to awaken citizens, to shake them into full encounters with the landscape while combating the easy stupor of urban routine.

It is fitting that Mark Shepard, the curator of Amphibious Architecture, begins his installation’s statement with Cook’s quote as epigraph. Amphibious Architecture (with the rest of Sentient City) applies Archigram’s avant-garde ideas on a simpler scale that is instantly relatable. Texting 41411 catalyzes a new engagement with the total environment of New York. How easy it is to forget that Manhattan is an island surrounded by water! And how easy, now, to text “HeyHerring” and reach below that water and discover:

Sep 23, 2009 12:22:39 AM
Hey there! There are 559 of us and it’s pretty nice down here. I mean, Dissolved Oxygen is higher than last week.

In Providence, sitting in bed with phone in hand, the window open, I smell a wood fire, hear a siren and crickets and the shriek of bad brakes. Three smokestacks blink red over the new Point Street Bridge, I know, although I can’t see them. Out on Narragansett Bay there are mussels that open and close. And beyond, I am sure, whales are breathing.

I imagine texting the bugs in the trees outside my window. I wonder what it would be like to get in touch, right now, with the geese: are they thinking of flying south yet for the winter? Do they even do that still, now that they can get fat on garbage? And it occurs to me (by now, it’s very late, a whiskey sour an hour gone), that I’d have a few things to say to that fly that got in somehow last week and doesn’t understand how to go back out the window.

Amphibious Architecture runs until November 7th. It is part of the Architectural League’s Sentient City exhibition, which includes five newly commissioned projects and installations by teams of architects, artists, and technologists “that imagine alternative trajectories for how various mobile, embedded, networked, and distributed forms of communication systems might inform the architecture of urban space and/or influence our behavior within it.”

Visit amphibiousarchitecture.net or text “Eastriver” or “Bronxriver” to 41411 to get started.

KATIE OKAMOTO B’09.5 felt the earth move under her feet, felt the sky tumbling down, tumbling down.