This article first appeared in Issue 02 of Boston Art Review.
Featured image courtesy of Gabriel Cira and the Emerald Tutu team.
Boston-based architect Gabriel Cira and his team of four scientists never set out to develop something perfect. Responding to the 2018 MIT Climate Changed competition’s prompt to create models addressing climate hazards in the Boston area, Cira, alongside Julia Hopkins, Nicholas Lutsko, Connie Lu, and Helen White, decided to create a solution that both answered its question and reflected their own personal beliefs about what Boston is, could be, and should be. Their oddball entry, the “Emerald Tutu,” won the whole competition, proving that their dreams for the City might be manifested.
The proposed “Tutu” is a network of fibrous floating mats seeded with marsh grass and buoyant pathways that would thread through and around East Boston. By weakening incoming waves and absorbing stormwater, the system would mitigate flooding from the increasingly frequent and severe storms caused by climate change. Its “soft infrastructure” would deploy quickly, cost little, and could expand or shift over time, enabling it to not only protect the Boston shoreline from flooding but also become a new variable outdoor space for residents to enjoy. Furthermore, the loose and inexpensive construction of the Tutu means its hypothetical destruction by a particularly potent storm would not be as life-threatening as, say, the collapse of a bridge or a dam.
Despite Boston’s reputation as an epicenter of academia and innovation, the City’s brightest minds have yet to develop a practical solution to the rising tides threatening its coastline. Even ideas that received major political support in recent years, such as a proposed wall stretching 3.8 miles from Winthrop to Hull, withered under assessment: the University of Massachusetts’ Sustainable Solutions Lab projected costs upward of $11 billion and a building period of roughly thirty years. Boston is already starting to feel the threat of raised water levels, as evidenced by intense flooding in coastal areas this past winter and a recent report by Climate Ready Boston estimating a three-foot rise in the Boston Harbor’s sea levels over the next few decades. Compounded by the danger of increasingly vicious weather brought on by climate change, Boston needs to fortify its coasts — and protect its coastal neighborhoods — before rising tides wash them away.
Cira and his team encouraged viewers to sidestep despair amidst concerns about preservation of the City as is. Instead, the Emerald Tutu team suggests Bostonians take the City’s history less seriously, suggesting a playful approach instead.
“There’s an ongoing fixation with projects that are ‘too-big-to-fail’,” says Cira. “We don’t believe [the Tutu] is a permanent solution because we can’t ‘solve’ rising tides. So we have to be willing to change our idea of the city and our ways of living in it.” This lack of self-seriousness permeates the project’s presentation. Renderings of the Tutu include passersby in snorkels and bunny suits, and a couple doing acrobatics on a paddle board as welcome users of the space. The “Emerald Tutu” moniker parodies Frederick Law Olmsted’s 1870 “Emerald Necklace” park system that extends from the Jamaicaway to the Fens to the Storrow Lagoon. “The Tutu team thought [an Emerald Necklace] was a little bourgeois, a little snooty, a little outdated,” says the voiceover, “so we proposed something softer, cheaper, and weirder.” Even the project’s video proposal rejects the tried template for architecture and engineering proposals by featuring an emerald tutu-toting drag queen spokesperson played by Alex List. List’s narration injects the hard science behind the Tutu with a campy sensibility, detailing analytical models of wave dampening and the relationship between plants and rhizobacteria — yet detours to call Beacon Hill a “fashion disaster” and wave energy changes “genderfluid — get it?”
This irreverence seeks to remedy the idea of Boston as a “city upon a hill,” John Winthrop’s vision of an elite and untouchable holy place that the team believes has colored the City’s self-image. “Boston is so fond of its history that we forget that it is steeped in myth…if we treat history as something untouchable and sanctified, then it seems like the future is bound to that image as well,” says Cira. Cira believes the Emerald Tutu draws a connection between comic relief and disaster relief, between laughter and resilience in a way that destabilizes this otherwise reified mythology. Although there’s quite a task list ahead of the team before the Tutu becomes a reality – including testing technologies, securing funding to bring it to life, and garnering the political support to green-light its development – Cira and his team remain optimistic. After all, if an MIT jury deigned to entertain such a comically presented concept, perhaps it’s all… downhill from here.