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Imagining a More Protected Coney Island of the Future

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Welcome back to Architecture 101, a new Curbed column in which writer Henry Melcher shares architecture students' coolest ideas for New York City. Have a project we should see? Drop us a line.


Six months after Superstorm Sandy came ashore at Coney Island, destroying its famous beaches and boardwalk, graduate students at the Yale School of Architecture presented their proposals to re-imagine the New York City institution and protect it against the rising sea. We visited the school to watch the students present their renderings to a panel that included world-renowned architects and the unofficial mayor of Coney Island, Dick Zigun. The panel wasn't especially kind to the proposals, but to be fair, the assignment bordered on the impossible.

The students were assigned a parcel of land that the city rezoned in 2005 to boost development. Working within the guidelines of this plan?which led to the new Luna Park?students had to add new retail and 5,000 units of housing to the site. Any proposed building had to be able to withstand significantly higher sea levels, which are expected to turn Coney Island into an archipelago by 2080.

The plans ranged from fairly bland to truly whimsical. There was a major mixed-use structure that reminded one panelist of a Club Med and a dramatic structure that was part residential and part amusement park?a tower that takes the shape of Tetris and the style of Tim Burton. One team presented a massive seawall that contained inside of it both a prison and a "racino," or a casino and racetrack folded up into one. And in true grad-school style, there was a largely theoretical project that attached a garbage plant onto a high-end gated community to juxtapose two social extremes. The panelists really liked that one.

Zigun, who has lived in Coney Island since 1979, said he appreciated the students' inventiveness and creativity as part of an educational exercise but wouldn't actually want any of their proposals to be built in the place he calls home. "If this were a city project, we'd be yelling and screaming like during the rezoning process, only more so," he explained.

Even if a student's proposal didn't go over well with the panel, they still had the opportunity to win big in the game of architecture-review "Bingo" the students were quietly playing during the critique. During the first afternoon of the two-day review, students passed around a scorecard with enough architectural-theory keywords to make everyone a winner. At the end of the day, we checked off "binary," "polemic" and "public/private." And if we'd stayed for day two, we probably would have locked down our board with "tabula rasa."
?Henry Melcher