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Volume 76, Number 20 | October 4 - 10, 2006



Jean-Louis Bourgeois, left, with Phil Sauers, founder of the World Water Rescue Foundation, in front of 6 Weehawken St., where Bourgeois plans a new water museum. The plastic structure between them is a preliminary scale model by Bourgeois’s mother, the sculptor Louise Bourgeois, of a seven-story, subterranean “World Waterfall.” Sauers has accepted Bourgeois’s invitation to participate in the museum’s development. Bourgeois held a personal water jug from Mali called a sintal. Fittingly, it was raining. Villager photo by Elissa Bogos

by Jean-Louis Bourgeois

     It’s not every day that one gives a commission to a 94-year-old artist to design a seven-story waterfall in one’s landmarked house in the heart of Greenwich Village.

     It’s even rarer when the artist happens to be one’s mother.

     Why a waterfall in the middle of a house?

     Because the house will double as my home and a new museum dedicated to water.

     All this might make more sense if you knew that my father, Robert Goldwater, was the founding director of the Museum of Primitive Art, now merged into the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And that my mother, the sculptor Louise Bourgeois, was the first woman to have a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.

     One day, as I was walking toward the Hudson, I turned north off Christopher St. onto one-block Weehawken St., the shortest street in Manhattan. I saw that No. 6 was for sale. Like a long-lost wanderer in the desert, I had discovered my oasis, a place in the city where I was born, that would nourish my lifelong passion, water.

     I never dreamed that I would be able to establish a base in a world capital from which to work on global issues surrounding water.

     Full disclosure: My mother is making all this possible because she much prefers that I spend more time here in New York than in my two other homes, both adobe — one near Taos, New Mexico, the other in Djenné, Mali, West Africa, upriver from Timbuctoo.

     Living and working in this historic structure will weave together my life’s many threads.

     I am an architectural historian, co-author with my late wife, photographer Carollee Pelos, of “Spectacular Vernacular, The Adobe Tradition.” Carollee would have savored the irony of our book being adopted last year as an undergraduate course book in African culture at Harvard, where it took me 20 years to get my undergraduate degree.

     As a political, environmental, and human-rights activist, I hope that this museum will help return people to an organic relationship to water.

     In Taos, I won an Environmental Service Award for protecting the local watershed from the disastrous effects of a planned airport runway.

     In Mali, West Africa, I helped to stall construction of the large Talo Dam that may still starve more than 20,000 people and destroy a river culture, by bringing the issue to the attention of the U.S. Treasury Department. They initiated a four-year construction moratorium on the African Development Bank’s scandalously designed project.

     The original structure of my new home and museum in New York was built around 1849. It was landmarked last May. It is tiny — two-and-a-half stories high and 30 feet square. It has two facades — one facing Weehawken St., the other the river. It was formerly called an “oyster house.”

     Being a homeowner in Greenwich Village will give me legal standing to work on local preservation issues. To give an example, I intend to challenge the design of the proposed luxury tower of the nearby “Whitehall Site.” If built as planned, the project’s deep, huge “bathtub basement” would divert underground water directly into my basement, as well as many others.

     Richard Meier’s three 17-story glass towers and other residential developments destroy the scale and character of local architecture. In contrast, I envision my museum as an “earthscraper,” excavated down from ground level. All the Earthscraper’s interior walls, doors and floors will be transparent, with privacy provided by curtains and carpets. The centerpiece of this visionary architecture will be my mother’s sky-lit “World Waterfall” plunging down a full seven stories.

     One of the Earthscaper’s first exhibitions will be about the architect Richard Meier. Meier is said to have boasted that his expansion of the Getty Museum in California was the first building in history to cost more than $1 billion. His nearby Greenwich Village glass towers, examples of “technological exhibitionism,” are totally out of scale in our generally low-rise area; they block neighborhood access to the river a couple of streets north of Weehawken St.

     Above and just south of the Earthscraper rise two billboards. I plan to rent them to announce my show about Meier. Motorists driving north along the river will see the billboards just before they drive by the Meier complex. The name of the exhibition will be “Richard Meier Is the Anti-Christ. Amen.”

     In the anti-ostentation spirit of Charles Moore’s underground museum at Dartmouth, the Earthscraper is intended to introduce a new major model for the practice of urban architecture. May its lesson not fall on deaf ears! It is no coincidence that the Earthscraper will resemble nothing so much as a Meier tower inverted.

     The “The World Waterfall” will use and recycle only pure, unpolluted water — increasingly known as “sweet water” — taken from sites around the world. Like the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., the names of those who bring the water, its source and the date of the gift will be inscribed on a large “World Water Wall.”

     The Earthscraper will include a graywater system, whereby bathwater, dishwater and clothes-washing water irrigate the roof’s organic garden and supply the toilets.

     The museum will also have a waterless, composting toilet that in Mali, is called a nyéguin. Only people eating organic food exclusively will be allowed to use this toilet. The nyéguin will compost the waste into organic fertilizer, allowing people to re-enter the food-fertilizer cycle.

     I conceive the spaces of the Earthscraper as a friendly gathering place. It will include a neighborhood organic-food cafe, a meeting room, a reading room and library, a lecture hall and exhibition galleries. All these neighborhood spaces will explore local and global water issues, social, political and environmental policy, river ecology and green architecture. I also envision an educational store displaying and selling ecologically appropriate personal items.

     I will be inviting architects to help me figure out how to organize the Earthscraper’s many spaces and functions. Two kinds of architect will be encouraged to submit proposals: Native (“American Indian”) architects and professors and students at architecture schools in Manhattan and near the Hudson River.

     I have thought hard about what to call my new museum. Related to the word “Ontario,” The Native Nation term “Kandario” means “beautiful water.”

     The museum’s opening festivities will coincide with World Water Day, March 22, 2007.

     Honored guests will include friends I made while helping out after Katrina. They come from the Isle de Jean Charles and Point de Chene Native Nations in Louisiana. Other friends attending will be “ambassadors” from Mali and Senegal in West Africa.

     I look forward to many happy trips, the wind in my hair, on New York Water Taxis — between my mother’s Chelsea home and mine in the Village, between the 23rd St. Frying Pan pier and the Christopher St. Pier, an oyster shell’s throw from my new home and museum.