Architecture’s obstinacy in the face of climate change normalizes the precariousness of coastal living

Running Out of Time

Architecture’s obstinacy in the face of climate change normalizes the precariousness of coastal living

As of 2014, there were 127 million Americans living along the coast in houses built between 1970 and 2010. Though coastal counties are home to 40 percent of the United States’ population, the area itself accounts for less than 10 percent of the nation’s contiguous landmass. For decades, developers, oil magnates, engineers, and architects sought to subdue the natural environment through various means, without a thought to downstream effects. Climate change begets more frequent, more intense hurricanes and flood events, whose capacity for destruction should check coastal development—but hasn’t.

Instead, these same actors respond by building higher or stronger, elevating a mantle of “resiliency” that absolves us from attending to the pressing challenge at hand: dramatically restructuring how we inhabit space in a changing world.

In South Louisiana, the degradation and exploitation of landscapes by the fossil fuel industry have already led to the forced migration of communities to higher ground, calling into question whether the social ties and lived history of a place can be reproduced elsewhere.

As the recent wildfires in California demonstrate the consequences of high-risk development to meet the state’s housing demand, cliff architecture along the Golden Coast represents another type of architectural precariousness.

Black and white photo of a sea level ravaged house
Fox Lane, Oakwood Beach, Staten Island, New York (Virginia Hanusik)

The post–Hurricane Sandy landscape of New York City highlights the inequities of disaster relief and the systems that have pushed those less affluent to the front lines of the climate crisis.

The images presented here explore the engineered habitats we have adopted in order to live on or close to water, the limits of such development, and the emotional ties that keep us connected to these liminal spaces. As we analyze architecture and land use across the coastal areas of the United States, patterns begin to emerge that speak both to the precariousness of living on the edge and the normalization of that precariousness.

Like the mid-19th century paintings of the Hudson River Valley that depicted scenic idyll outside New York City or Carleton Watkins’s early photographs of the West that were used as propaganda for expansion, a visual culture was used to turn the coast into a commodity. In his 2019 book The Geography of Risk, Gilbert M. Gaul describes how developers lured middle-class Americans out to Long Beach Island, New Jersey, through advertisements depicting humble beach bungalows with modern amenities. After World War II and for generations thereafter, the increase in mobility caused waterfront property to become certain Americans’ primary leisure destination, though value did not, and does not, account for the real level of risk.

As sea levels rise and stronger storms threaten the physical fabric of the coasts, how will our mental and emotional connections to these landscapes change? And how can architecture preserve the memory of these disappearing places while promoting solutions to dwelling under climate change that are more harmonious with the natural world?

Virginia Hanusik is a photographer whose work focuses on architecture and climate change. Her project A Receding Coast: The Architecture and Infrastructure of South Louisiana, which explores the visual narrative of the climate crisis, has been exhibited internationally. She is a 2020–21 Photography Fellow at Exhibit Columbus, where she is developing a body of work about flooding and the politics of disaster in the Mississippi River Watershed. She lives in New Orleans.