Muessig _Rendering_02

Rendering by Peter Muessig showing a mixed oceanside population of vacationers and residents on the East End Flats of Galveston, land created with dredge material from the ship channel.

Last Resorts: Proposals for Galveston’s East End Flats

Over half of the United States population lives on or near the coast. Almost forty-percent of the world’s population lives within one-hundred kilometers of the water’s edge, and more are arriving at these shores each day. This situates the global littoral—the area closest to the water’s edge—at a critical location where environmental forces meet the tides of globalization making these locations compelling sites to witness the effects of 21st century political ecologies.

The graduate studio, “Last Resorts,” at the Rice School of Architecture taught by myself and Michael Robinson, and in collaboration with John Anderson, Maurice Ewing Professor of Oceanography, has completed a five-year program of design research on the global littoral, or coastline, and its political ecologies.

In 2006, the studio identified Galveston as a site of investigation for globally relevant issues—global climate change, sea level rise, coastal development pressures—from which to project future histories and destinies. In 2007, it investigated the island’s biopolitics, gave forms to invisible processes, and entangled the relationship between nature and culture for the final proposals. In 2008 the studio created proposals to anticipate damage wrought from catastrophic storms while acknowledging the gradual progression of time. In 2009 the studio evaluated previous year’s speculations in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike and generated responses to the storm. This final year continues to project alternative futures for the region and Galveston in particular, focusing on the redevelopment of the seawall and an area known as the East End Flats.

View East End Flats, Galveston in a larger map

Along the coastline, no building or infrastructure can be thought of in isolation because its design is likely to have significant effects on factors such as erosion rates, flooding, wind speeds or debris. This shifting from discrete forms of thinking demands a consideration of design as an intertwining performance between natural, political/economic and architectural/aesthetic ecologies. In this regard, the seawall is quite literally and conceptually an infrastructural line that attempts to delineate natural forces (coastal ecology, storms, erosion) and human representations (tourisms, landscape, branding, historicism). In a broader sense, the seawall can be understood as merely the largest example of infrastructures and processes that alter the steady state of the ecology for human use, such as dredging and land “reclamation” that characterize the gulf coast, especially, Galveston Bay, and which now determine its ecosystem.

The seawall can itself be divided in two. The western part forms the primary tourist beachfront. However, the last of the easily available sand in the area was used to replenish the beach after Ike left the foundations visible in places. This sand will last only a decade or two, less if another storm strikes. At this point, there will be no more beach and the seawall will become structurally compromised. Different uses and qualities for this edge need to be explored if Galveston is to have any future, or if the seawall is to continue.

The eastern part of the seawall now bisects the island due to the accretion of soil in front of the seawall over time. Indeed, the eastern edge of the island has the only accreting beach in the region. High-rise development has occurred on this beach, but in a fragmented fashion. On the northern side of the seawall lay the East End Flats, an area formed largely by dredge dump material that is perhaps the most important open site on the island. There are plans to develop this area, but they are inadequate to serve the future of the city in both terms of vision and pragmatism.

In order to work in locations like these, architects need to leverage our traditional expertise into new contexts in order to renovate and expand our conventional boundaries of practice. Design research shows how structural innovations can produce alternative design strategies for development in coastal regions.

Such a design-based approach calls attention to the inadequacy of current planning and legal determinations. For example, today the edges of development are determined by locating the first blades of wetland grasses and then literally connecting these dots into a border between nature and culture. While such a line is absurd, natural systems do not operate according to such geometries. Once drawn these fictions become legal and economic fact and landowners seek to reinforce it to protect their property often exacerbating collateral problems.

This suggests the need to take into account dynamic systems and how one might live within them rather than against them in the manner of top-down infrastructural planning of the 20th century at both the macro-scales (such as Galveston’s 18 foot high seawall) or micro scales (such as private bulkheads that attempt to arrest wetland encroachment). Indeed, legal geometry cannot be separated from material performativity, or “planning” from design. Architecture can, among other things, provide an image and a figure for alternative “worlds” that may result from re-combining our knowledge and technologies in a synthetic and integrated way. Featured below are outstanding examples of student’s proposals from the last iteration of the course in Spring 2010.

East End Outposts
by Peter Muessig

Full Wall OUT TO il

The Island of Galveston annually depletes its budget and material resources in order to support a temporal population of weekenders in the western territories while the potential of the Seawall, along its eastern corridor, is squandered. This project proposes an alternative Galveston that leverages the full potential of the Seawall as a barrier, an experience, and a new coastal typology. The project strategically locates remediated dredge material produced each year in order to maintain the shipping channels in the region to both fortify the seawall by raising the area behind it to protect the island from the sea-level rise expected over the next hundred years. Just as important, the design of this new ground produces a new territory along the Seawall, transforming its uninformed line into a continuous circuit of landform-archipelagos. Collectively, these “outposts” provide all the cultural, social, and material amenities needed to support a mixed oceanside population of vacationers and residents. At a local scale, augmented retaining walls compose both the architecture and infrastructure that define specialized activities, giving each outpost identity and purpose as a community and a destination.

Above, the masterplan for the transformation of the seawall edge shows the concentration of program and key points and the construction of new landscapes for leisure along the water’s edge, including protected beaches. Below, a section perspective shows how the existing seawall is subsumed into an earthen rampart that increased its protective capacity, and how Seawall Boulevard is relocated behind this new landform to produce an active commercial street. The sea and the city are connected via the occupation of this public park, with underground parking, and resort hotels whose public lobbied create a sectional connection between the street and the beach.

Muessig _Section Perspective

Reclaimed Cohabitation
by Amy Westermeyer

Reclaimed Cohabitation is a development aimed at achieving a balance between nature and inhabitation, using dredge remediation wetlands as devices from which development emerges and successfully integrates with the local ecology.


Galveston offers a unique design problem in its dynamic coastal ecology and strong magnetism for those who enjoy coastal living. As it stands now, there is an enormous divide between the naturalized edge and the dense urban fabric. There is a lack of cohesion and integration of these polar conditions.

This project aims to reintroduce and reinvigorate Galveston’s natural wetland ecology while simultaneously offering a new coastal residential and commercial development typology. The two can coexist in a network of territories and clusters that provide both immediate access to modern convenience and exposure to natural flora and fauna. This proposal hopes to offer density and an urban lifestyle within an environmentally conscious network of communities and wetland environments. The variation of networks and densities offer a variety of experiences and qualities unique to the specific conditions of the site. It attempts to negotiate the transition from urban to residential to undeveloped, using readily available resources and natural processes to integrate the common thread of native ecology, growth, and renewal into a cohesive urban community.

Click on the image below for a larger image. The diagrams on the left present the reasons for reversing current development trends and encouraging development along the eastern end of the island. The central diagrams show the processes through which a new water edge could be created using remediated dredge while the diagrams on the right show the diversity of landscapes and programs fostered.

WESTERMEYER_CITE_process diagram

by Timmie Chan

This proposal produces an alternative future for the city, focusing on the revitalization of the dredged area on the East end flats by turning it into a resource for land growth on the Gulf side of the island. Five hyper-accumulator plant species native to Galveston Island can remediate different volumes of dredge in different time spans, for example, the shallow rooted Rapeseed plant can remediate one foot of dredge in approximately one year while the deep rooted Black Willow tree can remediate 10 feet of dredge in approximately 10 years. At various stages of remediation and after remediation, the East end flats will be open to tourists for eco- tourism activities like bird-watching, hiking and educational purposes. When the dredge is fully remediated, it will be transported via trucks along new infrastructure to deposit sites on the Gulf side that produce marinas, protected pocket beaches and other diverse kinds of edges that foster program growth.

Click on the image below to see a larger version.

The design derives from the logistics of remediation and land formation. In the East End Flats, the open terrain is subdivided into patches for remediation, each surrounded by earthen berms that also allow access. On the water front, this process is reverses as new land is produced via the accumulations of parametric patches calibrated to program densities and sizes as well as to circulation and edge condition.

Further Reading about the East End Flats

Galveston hopes to own East End Flats by 2046 by Rhiannon Meyers, The Daily News

Let’s start now on East End flats by Heber Taylor, The Daily News

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    1 Comment

    1. 1

      Thank you, Chris Hight and Dr. John Anderson and all your students for your continued in-depth analysis of Galveston now and into the future. The East End of the island has grand potential with the seawall already extended there, the accreting beaches and the new lagoon preserve area. Keep up the good work, share it with us often and let’s hope that your designs will enlighten planners of the future.