Over the past few centuries, the Gowanus has transformed from natural to pastoral to industrial to postindustrial. Its history is tied to the development of Brooklyn. Once a tidal inlet with orchards and mills, it industrialized when the local population exploded in the 19th century. A canal replaced the marshland to service the manufacturing plants and factories settling along its banks. Soon one of the most polluted waterways in the country, it remains so today.
The industrial legacy is one of deep soil contamination and toxicity. Natural events like rain and tidal rise create sewage overflows and flooding of the canal banks, freeing heavy metals and pollutants in new cycles of contamination. Regular flooding is disruptive and dangerous to local communities, as seen during Hurricane Sandy.
Today the canal is still lined with industry, along with warehouses, artists’ spaces, workshops, retail, and, increasingly, housing. The city is proposing to rezone, massively densifying Gowanus with a mixed-use program that includes over eight thousand residential units, a project encountering opposition from the community. Other proposals for the area focus on mitigating the canal’s ecological conundrum.
This project considers the Gowanus watershed as its site. It seeks to bridge the neighborhoods now surrounding the canal by making use of the fragmented urban grid and existing structures. Taking inspiration from Japanese models, it proposes to restore horizontal and vertical continuities by developing city blocks as a series of landscapes where floodable and inhabitable surfaces are layered and woven to accommodate ecologies, architectures, and people.