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The Falls Guy

Renderings: © Olafur Eliasson, 2008/Courtesy of the Public Art Fund  

Eliasson first made art involving waterfalls in 1995, when he hiked around Iceland taking pictures of them. He was fond of one called Skogafoss, where he drove to the foot of the falls and sat in his car soaking in the roar. He took photographs at the base, and then hiked to the other waterfalls that lay upriver. “Suddenly I had developed a relationship with the time it took for the water to come from up there to down here,” he says. That heightened awareness of the physical properties of water is the driving intent behind The New York Waterfalls. “Let’s be very clear,” he says. “This is not about romantic art—the landscape trajectory of longing and sentimentality. It’s really about how tired I got that day, and how that felt.”

When The Gates went up in Central Park, some critics scoffed that it was more kitsch stunt than serious art. But the gargantuan project certainly succeeded on its own populist terms. It became an event, bringing 4 million visitors to the park and three times more tourism dollars than expected—$254 million by the city’s count. So in March 2005, after The Gates came down, Bloomberg was on the lookout for another public art project whose impact, economic and social, could be as big.

There are only a few artists in the world who create spectacular art-events in large urban spaces, and the most promising at the time was Eliasson. The year before The Gates were unfurled, London crowds were gathering at the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, where he had installed an artificial sun (made of electric lightbulbs and a mirror) and atmosphere (generated by a fog machine) called The Weather Project. It was critically praised and hugely popular—museum visitors lay down on the floor and, transfixed, watched Eliasson’s sun for hours—and the artist was apotheosized by the contemporary-art world. The next year, MoMA and P.S. 1 decided to honor Eliasson with the retrospective that opened this spring.

By then, Eliasson was talking with Eccles about various incarnations of the waterfall idea (Eccles had soured on the 14th Street site after another artist, Gregory Colbert, temporarily installed his Nomadic Museum one block south). He toyed with building three waterfalls, each 75 feet high, on the three piers of Governors Island that face Red Hook in Brooklyn. But the piers didn’t seem strong enough to support the scaffolding structure. Eliasson’s next thought was to float a waterfall on a pontoon. At one point, he envisioned as many as ten waterfalls all around the island. In the spring of 2006, soon after Rochelle Steiner replaced Eccles as the director of the Public Art Fund, Eliasson was introduced to Deputy Mayor Patti Harris, who had overseen the The Gates from City Hall. After hearing about the waterfalls, she immediately told Bloomberg, who said, “See if you can make this happen.”

The bureaucracy scurried. The fund-raising began. With much help from MoMA president emerita Agnes Gund, the Public Art Fund raised $13.5 million from private sources and received a $2 million grant from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. Yet even with Bloomberg’s blessing, the waterfalls were shaping up to be an almost sanity-stretching project. In theory, they sounded simple: Build scaffolding on the shore; stick a pipe in the river; and pump water up to the top of the structure, where it would fill a trough, spill over an edge, and crash down to the river. But building anything in New York is complicated, and so a team of waterfall consultants was assembled by Daniel Tishman, chairman and CEO of Tishman Construction Corporation. (See “How the Water Will Fall,” here.)

All of Eliasson’s preferred locations for the waterfalls were fraught with potential problems. Pile-driving at Pier 35 and the Promenade might have destabilized the tunnels of the F, 2, and 3 trains. Each fall would have to be located away from sewer outflows. The team—made up of about 60 experts from twenty different companies—conducted sonar depth soundings to avoid building waterfalls over the river’s underwater tangle of sunken cars, refrigerators, or boats. They considered the ambient noise in each possible location, and commissioned wind studies to determine how to protect traffic on the FDR Drive from water blowing from the falls on windy days.

At one point, all these frustrations drove them to the idea of just building the waterfalls on barges, out in the middle of the river where they wouldn’t bother anybody. But they found they couldn’t even do that: A barge would require a gas-guzzling generator to run the pumps.

In the end, the four sites chosen were among the few places on the river that fit every technical requirement. Agreeably, Eliasson now says the tortured process (which required more than twenty permits, from the Department of Environmental Conservation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Coast Guard, among others) helped to express one of his artistic goals. It made his waterfalls organic responses to the shoreline, rather than foreign impositions upon it. But he was stubborn on one point: installing a waterfall beneath the Brooklyn Bridge.