Magazine article The New Yorker

Cleanup Crew

Magazine article The New Yorker

Cleanup Crew

Article excerpt


--Ian Parker

Annabelle Selldorf is a New York architect largely known for refined art-gallery interiors, and for a terra-cotta-clad apartment building on Eleventh Avenue whose residents, including Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban, can, if their sense of shame allows, take their cars, by elevator, to parking spaces right outside their front doors. On a recent Saturday, Selldorf was in a seventy-five-foot-high shed in Sunset Park, in South Brooklyn, finding beauty in a mound of the city's glass, plastic, and metal recyclables. She noted that the pile of refuse--"Not really live garbage, but you can smell garbage"--was topped by a jauntily upright toddler's toy car, made of yellow and pink plastic. Behind, the building's pale-gray steel walls were backlit by sunshine. Selldorf, accompanied by a small dog named Jussi, and wearing a long tweed jacket, with a tan scarf wrapped many times around her neck, explained that the corrugated steel had "old-fashioned curves, because it breaks the light in a very nice way." Modern corrugation, she said, is "angular, the shape of a hat."

The Sims Municipal Recycling Facility, which recently opened on a pier near the mouth of the Gowanus Canal--replacing a parking lot filled with bullet-sprayed vehicles involved in crimes under investigation by the N.Y.P.D.--was hosting forty or so members of Open House New York, an architectural-appreciation nonprofit, including one who described a recent trip to the sewage plant in Greenpoint as "unbelievable." The visitors gave their attention, in turn, to Tom Outerbridge, the Sims general manager in New York, a man with a resemblance to Klaus Kinski, who can explain the workings of a plastic-bag-tearing machine that he called the Liberator, and to Selldorf, whose firm designed the quietly modernist facility. Someone asked Outerbridge if New Yorkers need to remove water-bottle caps before recycling. (They do not.) Someone else asked if the plant's workers had been energized by Selldorf's design.

"Time will tell," Outerbridge said.

Selldorf looked at him. "The unequivocal answer is yes," she said.

The city pays Sims, by the ton, to receive all its glass, plastic, and metal recyclables. City trucks deliver the material to Sims, and Sims sorts it, in a process that is largely automated, and then sells it in the commodities marketplace: compressed plastic is mostly shipped south; bales of aluminum go to Indiana and Ohio; clear glass is bought by smelters in New Jersey. When, a few years ago, Sims began to plan a new waterside facility (funded, in part, by the city), it decided that an investment in architectural panache could bring benefits, including enhanced opportunities to propagandize to third graders. …

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