Architecture for Retreating Edges
07.30.2012, 8:44 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

In the mid-19th century, Henry David Thoreau walked the Atlantic coastline of Cape Cod, recording his adventures in his narrative Cape Cod. To literally follow in Thoreau’s footsteps today would require scuba gear. Cape Cod’s Outer Beach sees an average erosion rate of close to 4 feet per year.” – Cape Cod National Seashore website

Herring Cove bathhouse

What kind of structure should be built on a stretch of land that will inevitably disappear, whose grounds are in a constant state of drifting elsewhere? What kind of design must be invented for a place where  geologic change doesn’t unfold in centuries, but in days, or mere hours on the occasion of a major storm?

Erosion is the norm on Cape Cod, a sandy arm of glacial till that was dumped after the last ice age and has been swirling into place ever since.  At a wildly popular destination named Herring Cove, the geologic realities of Cape Cod meet the human reality that here, the more than 850,000 visitors a year need a public bathhouse.

After years of deliberation and years of witnessing the beach change in dramatic and irrevocable ways, it appears that architects, engineers, scientists, public officials and the citizens of Provincetown have come up with a design they support and sense can navigate the shifting terrain.

The original Herring Cove bathhouse was developed in the 1950s as a state park headquarters with public bathrooms, dressing rooms, a lifeguard station, a snack bar and a boathouse. Some have described this modernist fortress as a “sand-colored Cold War bunker.” It seems that the architects of this bathhouse were hoping that its bunker-like design would allow it to valiantly outlast the sea it faced. But, 60 years later, the building is in need of  top to bottom repair.

FOP recently spent time on the Cape and learned that the continuing erosion of the shoreline has made the existing three buildings in the area unstable. A storm last winter wreaked havoc on a revetment that was built in 1940. The storm also collapsed a tract of the parking lot. According to the  Provincetown Banner, the result was “dangling asphalt precipices” and a “steep, crumbling drop-off.”

The historic bathhouse will be torn down in early November of this year.  It will be replaced by a more energy-efficient set of structures that have been described as being “light on [their] feet”—agile and responsive to the surrounding environs. The new buildings will take the form of five bungalows surrounding a shaded pavilion, set on pilings and linked to the beach by raised board walks. Each structure will serve a single and specific purpose such as changing room or concessions. The raised pilings and board walks will allow sand and vegetation to move freely beneath the structures and reduce damaging foot traffic through the dunes. And, as the beach continues its predicted erosion, the bungalows can be moved further inland, without requiring a new building to be constructed in their place.

thinning shoreline of Herring Cove on left, image Google 2012

Long-term planning by the National Seashore and the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies includes studying currents near the shoreline and the ongoing, natural movement of sand along the beach. Provincetown Conservation Commission chairman Dennis Minsky has stated that, “The ultimate problem is that you have hard revetment, armored protection of a coastal beach, which is inappropriate for the forces operating out there … long-term, there’s no future for that area … The bathhouse itself is going to be replaced by a modular structure that is movable, one that’s going to be much smaller and simpler, and able to be moved in response to the changing shoreline. Ultimately, all that macadam, nature will remove it.”

When we toured the bathhouse last week, we were struck by the sheer proximity of the ocean to the bathhouse’s blocky cement walls and front steps.  Surprisingly, nested within the seemingly hardened exterior, were open air changing rooms that directly invite wind, sand, and rain into the structure’s interior. These spaces were desolate and crumbling, yet beautiful and quiet. The sound proofing delivered by the concrete and the framed aperture onto the changing Cape sky and light created a chamber that made us think of the work of James Turrell.

The design of Herring Cove’s new bathhouse, like many others being implemented in communities around the world, assists humans as they grapple with how and what to construct in response to rapidly changing landscapes. Instead of steeling itself against the elements, the new bathhouse will be responsive to them, and move (out of the way). A welcome side effect of structures that stay open and responsive to the environments they reside within, is that they enable humans passing through them to more fully experience where they are.

Local Provincetown artists will stage a 10-day (September 28-October 7th, 2012) creative response to the old bathhouse before it is torn down called Ten Days that Shook the World: The Centennial Decade. There is open call for proposals until August 25th. More information can be found at The project will involve the screening of films, live performances and site-responsive works.

*  unless otherwise noted, all images this page, FOP, July 2012

* Images of the new bathhouse design can be found at Bargmann Hendrie + Archetype.

2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Great article and BEAUTIFUL photos. Please give the name(s) for the writing and photo credits.

Comment by Karen Raley

Hi Karen,
Thanks for reading. All photos in the post, as noted at the bottom of the post are FOP 2012. You can learn more about us, the authors, at

Comment by FOP

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