Each Autumn, Open House New York sponsors tours of locations around NYC that ordinarily, the public would never get in to see, and in the fall of 2009, filmmaker David W. Leitner took a tour of the Newtown Creek Waste Water Treatment Plant (NCWWTP). “I was stunned by what I call the majesty of the architecture,” says Leitner.” Leitner goes on, “I went up on top and it’s a magnificent view and I said ‘this is incredible!
Flash forward to 2011 when Leitner saw the New York Times piece announcing the Focus Forward series and thought “that’s kind of interesting.” He submitted an idea that had been “kicking around” his head since the tour, and Focus Forward and GE accepted.
"I wanted to showcase an infrastructure project that was done right, with the right spirit…. I think infrastructure should be embraced," says Leitner. "The neighborhood seems to have embraced the project as well, avoiding the ‘not in my backyard’ reaction that many projects like this get. The amount of ‘feel good’ out there is amazing."
Leitner was also impressed at how seriously New York City takes its “Percent for Art” law, which dictates that 1% of the budget for eligible City-funded construction be dedicated to creating public artworks. As a result of the law, the NCWWTP was not just a place where sewage is cleaned up. He was intrigued by how that law was applied in this case. “I wanted to know more [about the origins of the project] and why these world-class architects were involved.
"The lobby of the visitor’s center—how many wastewater treatment plants have a visitor’s center?—was designed by Vito Acconci, and landscape artist George Trakas designed the Waterfront Nature Walk. Then they got probably the greatest lighting designer in the world, Hervé Descottes of L’Observatoire International, to come in and light the things. The eggs themselves have this very special texture called peening and it gives it a silvery texture. When the sun sets, it doesn’t go into your eyes, it looks satin-y. That attention to detail really got to me."
"In other cities they hide plants like this out of sight," says Leitner, "but this is Greenpoint, Brooklyn. You can’t hide these, they’re too darn big. So architect Richard Alcott basically said, ‘We’re going to showcase them. Were going to make them beautiful. Were going make shiny objects that the eye will be attracted to.
While the NCWWTP is a rather remarkable achievement in urban architecture and infrastructure, the entire area has what Leitner refers to as “an overhanging irony” to it. In 2010, due to well over 150 years of industrial pollution and a massive underground oil spill in the 1970s, Newtown Creek was declared a Superfund site by the EPA and is one of America’s most polluted waterways.