The wreckage of Rockaway Boardwalk, after Sandy (Image via

The wreckage of Rockaway Boardwalk after Sandy (Image via


A few months ago I shared Eve Mosher’s piece, High Water Line, a public art project in Manhattan and Brooklyn that brought the topic of climate change directly to the city’s residents.

Mosher’s inventive project showed what might happen if an historic storm ever struck the coast of New York, but Hurricane Sandy made this nightmarish, what-if scenario a reality.

The storm was a wake-up call and raised an important question: what is the role of art in this fragile, post-Sandy ecology? When it comes to inventive solutions for environmental problems, what do artists bring to the table?

This week I was happy to see MoMA PS1 and MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design turning their attention to this very issue. The central question: How can we create a sustainable waterfront in the Rockaways—a waterfront that will meet the needs of the community, but also resist the destructive forces of weather and a rising sea level?


A Rockaway home destroyed in Hurricane Sandy

A Rockaway home destroyed in Hurricane Sandy


Now that a portion of New York has been exposed as the flood plain that it is, where will we go? How will we build? As singer and Rockaway resident Patti Smith says in the below video, we need to “redefine what it means to live in conjunction with nature.”

While scientists can evaluate the state of the environment, it is the role of artists, architects, and designers to imagine potential solutions. Imagination will be just as important as scientific research in the decades ahead, as will collaborations between artists and scientists.

As Joshua David and Robert Hammond learned when they created The High Line park in Manhattan, this early, visionary stage of anything-goes is essential.

We continue to produce the same tired designs and developments not because they are best solutions, but because they are the easiest. Cheap, high-density housing, to use one example, is the “low-hanging fruit” of the real estate world, one that generates money quickly not only for the developer, but also for cities and towns in the form of tax revenue. Designs that rely on common, cheap building materials that can be easily purchased from Home Depot, Lowe’s, and other suppliers only perpetuate the soul-numbing cycle of mediocrity. To make effective use of interesting, locally-sourced materials, architects and builders need a rich knowledge of their community’s resources.


nyc wetlands MoMA

In 2010 MoMA asked five architects to come up with a redesign of lower Manhattan that would prevent damage in the event of major flooding. Architecture Research Office and dlandstudio proposed creating wetlands around the edges of Manhattan. They also suggested replacing asphalt streets with a perforated cast-concrete surface that could absorb rainwater. (Photo courtesy of MoMA and Architizer)


Rising Currents-Click to Purchase


Hurricane Sandy is an unprecedented opportunity: a chance to re-imagine and create new “low-hanging fruit” on the waterfront. This is an opportunity to create a viable model for other oceanfront communities–one that is designed thoughtfully with quality of life and our changing ecology at its core.

What do coastal communities like the Rockaways need most as they rebuild? Public space? Quality food shopping options? Pockets of nature for relaxation and gardening? Small businesses that will fulfill local need and provide jobs? Attractive, energy efficient housing in a range of prices? A safe-haven from future storms?

All of the above, I suspect. But it is up to city planners, designers, developers, and community members to ask the right questions if we’re going to transition from cookie-cutter architecture to a more thoughtful, innovative way of living.



A home in the Rockaways after Sandy


Smart design shouldn’t be a luxury. The terms “green” and “sustainable” have been so overused that they’ve lost any real meaning. “Sustainability” is ultimately a philosophical choice about living with nature instead of continuously fighting it. It is also about thoughtful energy consumption. If we’re going to expend energy in the form of dollars, labor, and resources in coastline communities like the Rockaways, what is the best use of those resources?

There are other critical questions. Can we create innovative designs that express the local character and geography—designs that are still aesthetically pleasing in 50 years and worth preserving? Can we design for the needs of the local community, instead of allowing architects and developers to impose their own vision without input from those who will live and work there? (Heaven knows that the last thing we need is another Robert Moses running roughshod over our neighborhoods.)

But perhaps the most difficult question is should we be re-building on the waterfront at all? Of course we love the ocean, and we want to rebuild in order to show our perseverance. But is this impulse to triumph over nature wise in the long-run? Is it really the best use of resources? And if we do decide to forge ahead, how can we design homes, businesses, and public spaces to withstand future storms as powerful as Sandy?


The devastated boardwalk in Queens (Film Still by Matthew Akers)

The devastated boardwalk in Queens (Film Still by Matthew Akers)


Architects, artists, and designers have until March 15th to submit online proposals in video format for the Rockaways project.

Beyond rebuilding the boardwalk, applicants are invited to present new ideas on alternative housing models, protecting the shoreline, new social spaces and uses of public space, and engaging local communities.

Entries will be reviewed by a jury that includes distinguished curators Barry Bergdoll, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Klaus Biesenbach, Peter Eleey, Pedro Gadanho, and Niklas Maak. Twenty-five selected proposals will be displayed through social media and on-site at the VW Dome 2, MoMA’s temporary community meeting place and cultural center, in Rockaway Beach during April of this year.

For more information, visit the MoMA PS1 website. You can see a short video about the Rockaways and Hurricane Sandy here…


Rockaway from MoMA PS1 on Vimeo.


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