The view from a Supertall has a hidden environmental impact


Be silica, a performance by Andrés Jaque at Performa 2021.
Photo: Walter-Wlodarczyk

Looking north from the Top of the Rock, the Rockefeller Center Observation Deck, the skyline is defined by three tall pencil towers, left to right: Central Park Tower, the tallest building 98-story residential world; 53, 53rd Street West; and 432 avenue du Parc. “It’s ultraclear glass, it’s ultraclear glass, it’s ultraclear glass,” says architect Andrés Jaque, pointing to each of them. It refers to the material that allows this class of super tall towers to sell their stunning views, the environmental cost of which is the subject of its new performance, Be silica, which takes place this Sunday as part of this year’s Biennale Performa. His piece, a mix of documentary-style interviews, experimental soundscapes, colored lights and moving architectural models, will be presented at sunrise, and the view from 30 Rock, 850 feet in the air, will serve as the spectacular backdrop.

Jaque, born in Spain and based in New York, founded his studio, Policy Innovation Office, in 2003. He built a practice based on questioning the investment of architecture in forms of exploitation through performances, films, installations and exhibitions. His installation on silica explores it in two of its forms: the low iron sand essential for the manufacture of ultraclear glass, and the cheap and almost pure quartz sand which is used in the extraction of natural gas, a major energy source for New York City.

As its performance details, without this special glass, Supertalls wouldn’t be able to offer the unobstructed views of the sky they do. It’s made from a special sand, mined in Illinois, which leaves it free from the green tint of regular glass. The architect argues that the invisibility of ultra-clear glass is not just an aesthetic preference; when the glass is so imperceptible and the view so immersive, residents feel more concerned with the landscape below them. And the less detectable the air pollution, the more desirable and salable this sight is. (It should be noted that in 2011 the Bloomberg administration moved many buildings in the city from oil to gas heat, thus improving air quality.)

A model of Vera Scroggin’s house during that of Andrés Jaque Be silica.
Photo: Walter-Wlodarczyk

While condo owners revel in their unspoiled views, the environmental cost of making them possible spills over to others. Jaque includes emotional video testimonials from two Pennsylvania residents, Vera Scroggins and Ray Kemble, who live amid the fracking that supplies America with natural gas, and they talk about the breathing difficulties and water contamination that result. These videos are embedded in roughly three-foot-wide architectural models of their homes, in which Vera is projected as if speaking from her front door and Ray appears in a window. The videos play as the models move sideways on the runways in front of the audience, disrupting their panoramic views.

Ultra-clear glass is nothing new. The first building to use it was Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright ‘s historic modernist house in the woods of Pennsylvania, which has blended architecture and nature in an unprecedented way. As Jaque explains, “transparency is directly linked to a way of controlling nature, and modernity is really the exploitation of nature”. But for many years it was rarely used; ultraclear glass, which is three times more expensive than ordinary glass, did not take off as a commercial product until after the stock market crash of 2008. “It became so difficult to put money in the markets or in other financial products, so the electricity had to be packaged in buildings, ”explains Jaque. “And then because the materiality of these buildings had to be so unique that they could retain long-term value, they took this modern dream of ultra-transparency even further.”

Fracking also dates from the same time – 1947, to be exact – but this industry did not start to flourish until 2008, when low interest rates brought a flood of financing and led many regions economically to collapse. short of turning to gas extraction as a path to renewal. In the years following the crash, Pennsylvania experienced rapid drilling growth. Because New York State banned hydraulic fracturing in 2014, most of its gas comes from elsewhere; Pennsylvania is now the state’s primary source. While many buildings in New York City previously burned high sulfur fuel oil, which pollutes where it is burned, natural gas primarily pollutes where it is extracted.

After presenting testimonies on the harmful effects of hydraulic fracturing, Jaque’s performance subjects the audience to a rumbling and vibrant soundscape that simulates the seismic experience of hydraulic fracturing. “For eight minutes, I wanted to allow our bodies to feel the violence that is inflicted on the rocks,” he said.

The performance is not just pessimistic. Be silica Also includes audio testimonials from Doug CrowGhost and Simone TwoShields of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, who talk about building a commitment to preserving the health of the land and water as a gift for future generations. And the performance finale, titled “Dawn Chorus,” recreates how a dog (especially the companion of one of the Pennsylvanians interviewed earlier) perceives the early morning. As the Manhattan sky changes color, a multi-channel symphony recreating the sounds of waking animals gains in intensity. “This is how things can change,” says Jaque. “If you see the world differently, we are already in a different situation. “

“We are in a time where we realize that architecture has been complicit in forms of abuse in a very direct way, and now we have the job to undo it,” he added. “For me, rather than building, what is important is to be self-reflective, to question those power structures and to offer the opportunity to move on to something different.”

Ray Kemble’s video in Be silica, at Performa 2021.
Photo: Walter-Wlodarczyk

Photo: Walter-Wlodarczyk

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