Governors Island is getting to work. For years, it’s been a slightly disheveled retreat in search of a purpose. An assortment of organized activities have taken tenuous hold amid the lolling, picnicking weekenders. Glamping, snacking, steam bathing, artmaking, urban farming, oyster cultivating—all have a role in keeping the grounds funky, and none is robust enough to pay for their upkeep. It’s the democratic equivalent of Downton Abbey, a fabulous but burdensome possession that’s not quite adapted to the rules of real estate.
And so the Trust for Governors Island, which runs the place on the city’s behalf, settled on a solution: Invite educational institutions to erect a new campus devoted to the study of climate change. The island sits out in New York Harbor, where it can be conveniently whipped by winds and swamped by floods. Placing a new center there would be the institutional equivalent of storm-chasing, offering the opportunity to study impending calamity up close.
A consortium led by Stony Brook University won the competition with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s design, a pair of narrow, boomerang-shaped buildings linked by a sinuous canopy of solar panels. To my surprise, the plan gives me several flavors of hope. That the island might survive an inevitable upgrade with its character intact. That concentrated climate study will help New York weather the new weather. That a rigidified city can still be hospitable enough to nurture new varietals of architecture.
Hope, but not confidence — I come to this project with a backlog of skepticism. Does the study of climate change really require a whole new campus? Does it have to be built here? Does anything have to be built here? Governors Island has always appealed to me for its slapdash charms and, more than three decades after the federal government turned it over to the city, the former military zone remains a magical outpost, both in the ways it’s changed and in the ways it hasn’t. Worry that its specialness would be neutralized by New York’s voracious appetite for land and an ingrained tendency toward obviousness led me to ask architects from around the world for some fresh, possibly un–New York–y ideas. But sometimes plans really do materialize, and it looks like the climate center is a go.
The island is really two land masses fused into the shape of a guitar pick. The fat northern end, where Dutch settlers planted their first settlement and then quickly decamped to Manhattan, rises out of the water on a series of low hills. Looking like the slightly neglected campus of a small liberal-arts college, it’s scattered with brick buildings too handsome and historic to knock down and too shabby to use as they are. That section is bounded by Liggett Hall, a long, narrow residential complex that Stony Brook plans to colonize as dorms. (Nearly half of the center’s planned square footage is in existing buildings that need to be spiffed up.) A grand arch at the hall’s center acts as a portal to the southern zone, a long tail of landfill that lies too low for our high-water future. There, the landscape firm West 8 mounded rubble from the demolition of barracks buildings into undulating parkland. And on both flanks, the Trust set aside 33 low-lying acres that still contain the potential to despoil the whole place. Stony Brook, which is using five of those acres just south of Liggett Hall, will likely have to import soil from the mainland to lift the new climate center out of the way of the very thing it’s studying.
One of SOM’s tasks, then, is to set the architectural bar and sensitivity standards for future development. A clunky tower would pave the way for more; a work that celebrates the site’s soft topography will encourage other architects to do the same. Praise be! In the current (not-yet-final) iteration, a wriggling, snakelike canopy of solar panels swoops above both buildings, imitating the park’s curving pathways and artificial hills. The two new structures, one four stories tall, the other eight, roll gently up to their peaks. They also face each other like hands proffering a platter of public space. It’s not a private quad, either: Everyone arriving by ferry at Yankee Pier will flow through that academic gate on their way to the island’s heart.
That engagement is deliberate. Stony Brook could have chosen to place its center on the western edge, across from the Statue of Liberty, with lower Manhattan’s pincushion over in the corner of the panorama. Instead, it chose the opposite side, facing the still vaguely industrial shoreline of Red Hook, with its gantries, low sheds, and wide skies. We’re not here for the views, this placement suggests (though the Financial District skyline will still pop up distractingly in the middle distance); we’re busy studying how to save it.
Putting up a new climate-change center (the Exchange, as Stony Brook is calling it) should avoid doing more violence to the planet, an obvious requirement but also a tricky challenge since construction is one of the main sources of greenhouse gases. That tension often produces the scam known as greenwashing, tricking out a clunker of a building in rhinestones of spurious ecofriendliness — a bike rack here, a balcony planter there — to deflect attention from the carbon spill of concrete at the heart of the whole thing. SOM’s design is more seriously sustainable than that, drawing geothermal energy from below and solar energy from above so that keeping the lights on and rooms comfortable need not involve fossil fuels. Still, even a net-zero building starts life in a carbon hole, like a graduate carrying a burden of student debt. There’s no simple way around this problem. Non-polluting materials like bioconcrete exist but aren’t ready for commercial use. SOM is planning a mass timber structure, but first it will have to get the city to make it legal for big buildings. That could happen: Isolation makes this a good place to pilot the large-scale use of timber in a city that has been leery of embracing wood.
Colin Koop, the SOM partner in charge of the project, points out that the site comes with other counterintuitive advantages. Since it may prove impractical to ferry the usual diesel-powered arsenal of concrete trucks and cranes to the site, contractors and engineers will have to develop leaner, hopefully less fume-spewing, construction techniques. The location creates the opportunity to break open the island’s hard perimeter, install a new stretch of storm-calming wetland, and build boardwalks over water, akin to the arrangement in Weiss/Manfredi’s Hunters Point South Park.
Surprisingly, Koop also sees this whole constellation of opportunities and constraints as a chance to tiptoe away from SOM’s decades-long tradition of heroic modernism. When I asked him whether he thought the Exchange could avoid the shiny oversize-appliance look of other new academic architecture like Columbia’s Manhattanville Campus and Cornell Tech on Roosevelt Island, he nodded. “Yes, but I don’t know how yet,” he said. “We’re looking for ways to give it roughness and warmth.” Here’s hoping he figures out a way to keep Governors Island real.