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A Landscape of Peril & Seduction

The land may vary more;
But wherever the truth may be —
The water comes ashore,
And the people look at the sea.

They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?
— Robert Frost

I found my first version of the coast as a young child, during summers in the Cape Cod village of Woods Hole. My grandparents’ house there was a late but handsome example of the Shingle Style, designed in 1934 by the New York firm Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, the architects of the Empire State Building. It had the long horizontal lines, capacious shady porches, and commanding coastal views that exemplified the style.

But it was the beach that really introduced me to architecture and city planning. With a few handfuls of sand, I could channel water into estuaries and basins and canals, or transform water into land: quays and islands, towered and walled, and populated by confused hermit crabs. Even at this child-sized scale, the beach taught another lesson, which we should have taken more seriously. At night the tide obliterated our work, sweeping the sand clean for a new cycle of development and construction. Along the coast, we should have learned, architecture’s claims for permanence are always at risk.

Back then the dangers of the coast seemed remote, anomalous, unreal. Each summer in Woods Hole I read and reread a book about the 1938 hurricane. I would ask to hear stories about the storm: how salt crusted the windows, how the neighbors’ front door blew open and it took four men to push it shut. It never really registered that a man and a woman had drowned in the long house with blue shutters that we drove past every day on our way into town. A hurricane seemed a pleasurable, if slightly shivery, natural spectacle.

Another unnerving summer pleasure was the science-fiction novels of the English writer John Wyndham. In The Kraken Wakes (in the US, Out of the Deeps), published in 1953, aliens from Jupiter fly their spaceships down into the deepest trenches of the oceans, from which they emerge with amphibious vehicles and grasping tentacles. When humans start fighting back along the coasts, what do these world-destroyers do? They figure out how to melt the polar ice caps, triggering rising sea levels that drown every coastal city around the world. Wyndham’s vision of London’s flood barriers collapsing, of dark water lapping around Manhattan’s blacked-out skyscrapers, seemed more fiction than science.

Environmental science has transformed our view of the coast and its allure. With the storms and sea-level rise caused by climate change, we now understand that this varied and beautiful landscape is a changeable and often dangerous place to live and build. Instead of architecture’s traditional claims for permanence, can we imagine a coastal architecture that is lightweight, movable, adaptable — as impermanent as the coast itself?

That we are currently in the process of reinventing our understanding and use of the coast — harbor barriers, reconstructed salt marshes, floodable buildings, wind turbines — is in fact not all that new. Just as the coastline itself is constantly being reshaped by the ocean, so too are the ways we think about it and use it. The notion of the coast as pleasure ground (and prime real estate) is a relatively recent phenomenon: In different ways, the Shingle Style, Coney Island, and Miami Beach are some of its great exemplars.

Before that, the coast was a workplace. The emblematic coastal building is the lighthouse; although today its image has romantic connotations of beauty and solitude, it was originally a utilitarian structure. The sea was once a pasture for fish and a highway for trade. Coastal forests were cut down for shipbuilding; sheep cropped the hills to bare sand. New England harbors, like the one in Woods Hole, stank of fish heads and whale oil and guano factories that processed cormorant droppings from the rocks. The coast offered many different resources to exploit: It was an early industrial zone.

Hanging in my office I have a 1964 bird’s-eye map of Manhattan Island, which shows a fleet of ocean liners in the Hudson, sailing upstream or downstream or moored at the piers. Manhattan was still a working port. The cluster of Wall Street skyscrapers at its southern tip looked out to sea, each one as improbable and immense as the great lighthouse of ancient Alexandria. But within a few years the liners had left; the Hudson piers became parking lots and then parks; the Fulton Fish Market moved to the South Bronx, replaced by a shopping mall. In our cities too, the coast as industrial workplace has given way to the coast as developable real estate.

As we accept impermanence in our coastal architecture, we also need to accept the dual nature of the coast, as workplace as well as pleasure ground. The coast is New England’s richest potential source of renewable energy, where we can harvest the wind and the tides. Now that the decade-long political and legal battles over the proposed Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound have ended, the project is moving into construction. Within a year or two the coastal sea will start to be inhabited by benign metallic water-dwelling aliens, blindly turning to sniff out the sea breeze. If the lighthouse was the old characteristic structure of the coast as workplace, its new symbol will likely be the wind turbine.

It’s easy to caricature battles over the future of the coast, like the fight over Cape Wind, as struggles between sound, science-based policy, and the vested interests of money and power. But it’s not that simple. The coast is also a landscape of peril and seduction. As Robert Frost’s lines suggest, the coast is domesticity, at the edge of a turbulent void. Workplace or pleasure ground, wilderness or building lot­ — there are many different versions of the coast, some shared and some deeply personal.

When you walk along Commercial Street in Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod, you’ll notice that many of the older shingled cottages wear a small blue plaque with an iconogram of a house on top of a boat. These structures were originally located at Long Point, an exposed sand spit on the other side of the harbor. Back in the 1840s, when Long Point’s inhabitants got tired of battling storms, they picked up their houses, loaded them on barges, and floated them to higher and safer ground.

Architecture doesn’t have to conform to our expectations about how to make buildings and what to do with them over time. The coast insists that we be creative. History may be dropping hints about our future.