I saw The Waterfalls in New York City on Labor Day, and at first I didn’t like them. For one thing, I had the chance to visit Niagara Falls relatively recently, and it’s hard to get excited about these relatively puny ones. For another, The Waterfalls looked artificial, which of course they are, but almost intentionally so.
But The Waterfalls provoke questions about cities, humankind’s primary assertions over nature. The city is perhaps the most artificial thing in the world, but it is still built on a foundation of nature. And nature comes back into the city in subtle and sometimes spectacular ways. The spectacular ones are well covered by the evening news, so I’d like to focus on the subtle. Go to any tree in the city, and look at the sidewalk around it. Chances are you will be able to see cracks in the sidewalk leading towards the tree, caused by its roots.
But wasn’t the tree planted there by the city’s parks department? Absolutely. It is something natural on top of something artificial on top of something natural. There may well be more layers that I don’t know about. But the tree was artificially placed there, out of context, in an artificial environment. And of course, the tree does not conform – hence the cracks in the sidewalk.
Which brings me to The Waterfalls, which are artificial imitations of a natural phenomenon. Perhaps they look as artificial as they do to remind us what a city is all about – how natural and engineered will always have an uneasy coexistence, and how our attempts to superimpose nature onto an artificial landscape will always have unintended consequences.
It’s impossible to make something connected to the Brooklyn Bridge look natural. So why try?