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The Falls Guy

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“I had to warn him,” sighs Steiner, who has been greatly responsible for pushing the project forward. “I said, ‘Olafur, this is the Brooklyn Bridge, for God’s sake. I don’t know.’ ” But as it turned out, the Brooklyn end of the Brooklyn Bridge was the only bridge leg in the vicinity that could have worked. It’s the only one that rests on land.

People have been building fountains and waterfalls for thousands of years, often to communicate power, aid relaxation, or inspire contemplation. New York has its share of civic fountains—at Paley Park, at Bethesda Terrace, at the future ground-zero memorial—but most of this city’s most prominent “water features” are more commercial: Trump Tower’s 80-foot marble cascade or the soothing fountains in lobbies of corporate headquarters (like the Hearst building), high-end condo buildings (I.M. Pei’s Centurion), and hotel suites (the Four Seasons’ Ty Warner penthouse). New York’s best-known waterfall was probably the Times Square billboard of Bond Clothes, which circulated 50,000 gallons of water before it stopped running in 1954. And as an advertising medium, waterfalls are experiencing a comeback. For car shows in recent years, Chrysler has been employing a new waterfall technology that creates free-falling shapes of words and pictures. (This is now big in Dubai.)

In a way, The New York City Waterfalls will serve as advertisements for the city itself. Their opening day has been pushed up to June 26 because Bloomberg realized how great they’d look in the Fourth of July fireworks broadcast. They will operate every day until 10 p.m. and, contrary to Eliasson’s original intention, will be lighted at night with LEDs running beneath the top of each fall. “Olafur always said, ‘We’re not lighting it. It’s not natural that you light a waterfall,’ ” remembers Benazzi, the hydraulics designer. “I said, ‘Olafur! This is Manhattan we’re talking about!’ ” The team went ahead and wired the final mock-up. Eliasson was impressed. “Holy mackerel, it’s really incredible,” says Benazzi of the lighting plan they settled on. “It looks like the water is dancing.”

The city’s tourism industry has met the occasion with special tours by Circle Line and New York Water Taxi, and hotel packages like the Ritz-Carlton’s, which starts at $480 a night and includes a telescope through which you can watch the waterfall on Governors Island from your room. It seems inevitable, then, that some will see the waterfalls as little more than amped-up, fountain-style kitsch. But Eliasson takes pains to forestall confusion of the falls with fountains. Fountains can be merely ornaments, he says. “Art investigates society.”

In the boat, as we chug back under the Brooklyn Bridge to our docking slip in Manhattan, I ask Eliasson what he sees when he looks at New York from the water. “When you go around the city on the water, you’re always surprised how big it is,” he says. “Normally when you’re on land, you tend to look across to the land on the other side. The water being a flat plane, you tend to think of it as a kind of nothingness. But when you’re on the water, you suddenly see that you can be inside of that nothing.”

Eliasson’s hair is dripping with nothing. His rimless glasses are speckled, and though we’re on a smooth part of the river and he could dry them off if he wanted to, he doesn’t. “You can be in that. And it has depth,” he continues, ticking off the formerly invisible dimensions that have suddenly become real: “The water moves. The boat moves. The time it takes to go from here to there. I see all these things.”

Two days later, a couple of e-mails show up in my in-box. One is a picture of Skogafoss in Iceland, which is about as wide, and twice as high, as the waterfall he’s built under the Brooklyn Bridge. The other has the subject line “From Olafur.”

The text includes a misspelling that, characteristically for Eliasson, renders explicit a hidden dimension—of a word we tend to think nothing of. He writes, “I forgot to say how wonderfull a waterfall is—and somehow this has not been said enough—waterfalls are just wonderfull and it is as simple as that.”


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