The Falls Guy

Photo: David Harry Stewart

’Oh, wow!” roars Olafur Eliasson, getting slapped in the face with long, ropy splashes of water, as he clings to the railing of a tiny Grady-White fishing boat. Rain clouds hover over Manhattan’s southern tip, and as the boat pitches on four-foot swells, Eliasson makes his first visit from the water to four scaffolding structures rising at the Brooklyn Bridge and Pier 35 (near the Manhattan Bridge), between Piers 4 and 5 (near the Brooklyn Heights Promenade), and near the Governors Island ferry station. The scale of each structure melds so well with the surrounding buildings that, when the first one was completed, Eliasson didn’t even recognize his own work. Today, though, he looks at them and sees waterfalls: the largest installation of his career as an artist, and one of New York’s most surreal dalliances with large-scale public spectacle.

The New York City Waterfalls, whose spigots open at the end of the month and run until October, will remind many New Yorkers of the winter of 2005, when Christo and Jeanne-Claude decorated Central Park. Like The Gates, the waterfalls are a pet project of Michael Bloomberg, who is rumored to have personally paid much of the tab and whose office steered the project through a byzantine permit process. But Eliasson’s spectacle is much more complicated than The Gates, which consisted of thousands of saffron flags planted along 23 miles of paths. Robert Benazzi, the hydraulics designer working with Eliasson, created a system that will suck up the East River, lift it ten stories into the air, and drop it back down, thousands of gallons a minute. He says the only comparably complex job in his 40-year career was designing the sprinkler system for the Sears Tower.

Eliasson, a 41-year-old Danish-Icelandic artist who lives in Copenhagen, works in Berlin, and currently has a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art and P.S. 1, speaks four languages fluently but not flawlessly. For an artist whose work has required astonishing perseverance in the face of mind-numbing bureaucracy, he is a surprisingly gentle guy, with odd edges and catholic tastes. (He loves electronica and bluegrass, and brags he can play three versions of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee.”) Many of his best-known works explore architecture and the mechanics of perception, almost as if the fantastical imaginings of Buckminster Fuller were reinterpreted by a cognitive scientist. Eliasson’s work is most compelling, however, in its visceral embrace of beauty and wonder, prompting the kinds of basic questions that most of us stopped asking when we were 7 years old. “It’s so weird how the helicopters actually can take off,” he says as we hit the confluence of the Hudson and East Rivers, Wall Street choppers buzzing overhead. “It always puzzles me. It’s like an insect.”

The waterfalls, he hopes, will provoke New Yorkers to raise similar questions about something we habitually ignore. “You take the water around Manhattan for granted,” Eliasson says as our boat traces the landscape of the harbor. To help restore our sense of engagement with that landscape, he wants “to make water explicit.” It’s a phrase he often employs. “Falling water, it makes a sound, it engages a whole different range of senses. You see gravity. To make it explicit is to take it, hold it up, and let it fall.”

One day in 1999, while riding in a car in Manhattan, Eliasson looked across Eighth Avenue toward the Hudson and saw a sailboat drifting down the street. The boat (which, after a double-take, he realized was on the river, not the pavement) made an impression. It was one of those odd spectacles that occur in New York, if you are willing to look. It also got him thinking about Manhattan’s relationship to the rivers at its borders.

Around that time, he decided he wanted to turn a skyscraper into a lighthouse. He would erect a massive, circular searchlight whose beam would be seen throughout the city. “Of course we didn’t have the means to do it,” remembers Tanya Bonakdar, whose New York gallery has represented him since those days. “But we did know a very nice collector who had a very tall building, so we put a beacon on there, and if you knew what to look for you would see it.”

The year after the Crédit Lyonnais building temporarily became a makeshift lighthouse, Eliasson began discussions with Tom Eccles at the Public Art Fund, a nonprofit that for the last 30 years has used mostly private money to place works of art in public spaces across New York City. Eliasson had been experimenting with large-scale works involving water in other cities: He dyed rivers in Bremen, Germany; Los Angeles; and Tokyo bright green, and he created a small flood in Johannesburg. He had also started making small waterfall sculptures, such as his Reversed Waterfall, now on view at P.S. 1. Those interests converged in 2002, when Eliasson offered Eccles an idea for New York: Take some of the water surrounding Manhattan and raise it up as a waterfall, at the western end of 14th Street, where for a split second his sailboat had floated.

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.

“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.”

Illustration by Jason Lee

How the Water Will Fall

Because waterfalls in nature come in different sizes, Eliasson wanted The New York City Waterfalls to be different sizes, too. The waterfall under the Brooklyn Bridge will be a full 80 feet wide, but to fit under the bridge it could only rise 90 feet. The remainder of the falls were scaled to pair well with the surrounding buildings. The Governors Island waterfall will be the same volume as the one at the Brooklyn Bridge, but stretched to 120 feet tall and 60 feet wide. The Brooklyn Heights Promenade waterfall will also be 120 feet tall, and the Pier 35 waterfall ten feet shorter. Both will be 30 feet wide.

Each waterfall is made of aluminum structural scaffolding of a kind often used in hoist towers for construction elevators. Each scaffolding structure sits in a concrete base, which is placed on a three-inch layer of sand and stone dust (trucked in from a quarry in Elmont) sandwiched between blankets of sheet plastic. This layer is called a “bond-breaker,” because it protects the land below from being marred by the concrete foundation. When the waterfalls finish running, in October, the site will be left untouched.


Black PVC intake pipes, eighteen inches in diameter, will draw up to 7,000 gallons of water per minute to each pump, which sit on land. From there, the water will shoot to the top of the falls through a ten-inch riser pipe. According to hydraulics designer Robert Benazzi, sewage pumps would not be powerful enough, so the team chose Thompson pumps, which are usually used for draining construction sites. When the waterfalls are turned on each morning, it will take fifteen seconds for the pumps to rev up to 300 horsepower, their maximum capacity, which is roughly the strength of a 2005 Land Rover. They will run all day. To reduce its carbon footprint, the Public Art Fund has purchased renewable-energy credits.

Benazzi says that the first renderings he saw depicted water falling in a smooth, glassy curtain. But when he met Eliasson, the artist said he actually wanted something that looked more natural and frothy. To aerate the water at the top of the fall, Benazzi started to design a weir, or platform, of sheet metal studded with small teethlike barriers. “The more pieces of metal the water hits as it pours down,” he explains, “the more it churns, the more of a natural waterfall effect you get.” The final design incorporates two weirs: one that creates an articulated stream, and another that creates ruffles on top. After water rises in the trough at the top of the falls, some of it will be directed into the three-inch-wide channels of a laminar-flow weir. The rest of the water in the trough will keep rising to crest over the upper, turbulent-flow weir. This water will make its choppy, agitated way past dozens of miniature studs, tumbling and churning until it reunites with the water from the laminar-flow weir, and all of it, finally, goes flying off the edge.

Eliasson’s waterfalls were designed to avoid disrupting the East River ecosystem as much as possible for a 100-foot stream of pounding water. (The weight of the water falling at the Brooklyn Bridge waterfall will be about ten tons per second, spread over 80 feet.) To break the water’s fall, the team designed solid-bottomed submersible intake filter pools, twelve feet deep. According to Michael Tumulty, one of the waterfalls’ environmental consultants, the pools will be surrounded by a mesh whose openings are less than the size of the head of a pin, so as to avoid sucking in fish, or even fish larvae. Equipped with bumpers that rise about a foot above water level, they will also help secure the plunge area from daredevil swimmers or kayakers.

Previous Spectacles

Photo: Koinegg/Courtesy Of The Artist, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery New York; Neugerriemschneider, Berlin

Although The New York City Waterfalls will be the largest public art piece of Eliasson’s career, he has a few urban installations under his belt. When in Johannesburg for the 1997 Biennale, he rented a diesel pump and spewed water from a city reservoir out onto the street. He temporarily dyed Berlin’s Spree River green during the 1998 Berlin Biennial, and later dyed rivers in Los Angeles and Stockholm without any advance notice. Most famously, he installed a giant artificial sun in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in London. It attracted more than 2 million viewers.

The Waterfall Obsession

Photo: from left, Koinegg/Courtesy Of The Artist, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery New York And Neugerriemschneider, Berlin; Anders Norrsel/Courtesy Of The Artist And Tanya Bonakdar Gallery New York.

Eliasson has been tinkering with water and gravity for at least ten years. His Reversed Waterfall, installed in Sweden in 2000, uses four sets of pumps to propel water to a level above. Like the waterfall he installed in the Neue Galerie in Graz, it makes no attempt to disguise its unnaturalness.

The Falls Guy