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The Colonists

A group of architecture students imagine new ways of inhabiting the coastline as they experiment with an unusual living arrangement.

By William Hanley
August 15, 2013
Photo © Architectural Record
From left to right: Visiting critics Johanna Meyer-Grohbrügge, Niklas Maak, and Sam Chermayeff stand with students Yoonjee Koh and Stefan di Leo, who are living at the Colony at MoMA PS1.

Shortly after MoMA PS1 opened for the day on Sunday, a few of the first visitors to enter the courtyard at the New York City contemporary art space looked surprised when they turned a corner and stumbled on a small encampment. Four metal-sided trailers were parked underneath a spartan scaffolding structure hung with silvery curtains that reflected the bright early-afternoon sun. Another mobile unit was perched on the structure’s second level opposite a crow's nest-like tower. Below, a group of students hunched over laptops at a long wooden table while others finished pinning up a series of drawings on the courtyard’s high concrete walls.

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“Their first question is always, ‘Wait, you guys live here?’” said Catherine Joseph, a second-year M.Arch candidate at Cornell University, explaining a typical interaction with perplexed visitors. And for the moment, the answer is yes.

Along with four other students from Cornell and three from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, Joseph is participating in a two-week residency at the Colony, a temporary communal habitation designed by Argentinian firm a77 and built in the courtyard at MoMA PS1, just around the corner from CODA’s Party Wall installation. Throughout the summer, the cluster of trailers has played host to a series of short residencies, housing filmmakers, Icelandic artists, and now, architecture students.

During their stay, Joseph and her fellow residents have each been asked to develop a plan to protect the Rockaway peninsula, a stretch of coastal New York City neighborhoods and urban beaches that were badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy. “If you look at the response to the flooding so far, it looks almost like a military action, with concrete walls and guard rails,” says journalist and architecture critic Niklas Maak, who with Frank Barkow of the Berlin firm Barkow Leibinger, is leading the exercise. Rather than fighting the water, Maak has encouraged the students to devise softer strategies for protecting neighborhoods and to speculate about new ways of living along the coastline. “We asked them to create a zone of interference between the sea and buildings,” he says, “one that would protect the buildings from being washed away but also create a new kind of communal space.”

The project will culminate with an exhibition that opens at MoMA PS1 on August 16. But on Sunday, the students were gearing up for a mid-residency review. As they finished hanging their work, a group of visiting critics arrived at the camp. Maak and the students were joined by Berlin-based architect Arno Brandlhuber as well as Johanna Meyer-Grohbrügge and Sam Chermayeff, the young principals of the Berlin firm June14 Meyer-Grohbrügge&Chermayeff. After brief introductions, the troupe of visitors moved from presentation to presentation along the concrete wall as the students explained their ideas in succession.

The proposals ranged from canals cut through the peninsula that use a concrete mix activated by floodwater to self-reinforce, to sponge-like formations on the beach designed to soften storm surges, to a series of artificial rock formations modeled on the secret lairs of James Bond villains. Meyer-Grohbrügge and Chermayeff, chain smoking but attentive in their sunglasses, coaxed students to better define their projects, several of which were still largely unformed halfway through the residency. Brandlhuber goaded, encouraging bold moves. “Society, after a disaster, always wants to go back to what was there before,” he said. “This should be an evolution.”

His demand for big ideas fit the concept behind the Colony. The encampment was orchestrated by Museum of Modern Art curator Pedro Gadanho as one part of a larger initiative titled Expo 1: New York, a series of exhibitions and events tackling ecological concerns, politics, and social organization in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. “The Colony is a one-to-one scale model that can be used to try out certain things that in a normal architectural exhibition you would only state as a hope,” says Maak. “The idea was to create a new kind of communal dwelling and ask, which spaces can be shared, how much private space do you need?” By working and cohabitating on public view, he adds, the students are embodying the questions about collective space that they have been asked to address in their designs.

After the crit, the group sat down to a lunch of pasta with sage pesto and a local kale salad. Every day, a live-in chef prepares simple, mostly vegetarian meals in a rustic cantina kitchen for the residents. Along with the cluster of trailers, the camp also includes an aquaponic garden growing in a stand of white pipes, as well as bathrooms and showers enclosed by turquoise-painted plywood. “The showers are not the most private situation,” says Stefan di Leo, a second-year student at the GSD. “You can have a pretty good conversation with someone while you’re in there.” During lunch, the silver curtains were closed and a museum guard kept visitors from interrupting the diners.

“Being on exhibit is definitely an interesting experience,” says Kristen Williams, who is in her second year in Cornell’s B.Arch program. “People come in, they usually look around a little puzzled, and then they take a photo of us,” adds di Leo. For her part, Joseph has enjoyed the experience and welcomes the interruptions during art space’s public hours. “I like the idea of a two-week design charette, challenging myself to work quickly, and not getting bogged down with the details,” she says. “And it’s fun to have visitors come in and talk with you about your work.”

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