Partner Schools
Print Archive
Peer Review


Partner News
Peer Reviewed
Poetry & Fiction


Cities + Places
Design History
Design Practice
Film + Video
Health + Safety
Politics + Policy
Public + Private

Design Observer

Job Board

Gallery: Luther Thie & Kathrine Worel

Frontiers: On the Edge in Merced and Malibu

Frontiers is a series of photographs that document homes/houses on the forefront of our interaction with the economy and the environment. Taken in 2009, these images depict Merced and Malibu, two distinct communities in California, one reeling from the miscalculations of market speculation, the other struggling with the effects of climate change.

Merced, a town in the San Joaquin Valley, midway between Fresno and Modesto, was once surrounded by farmland; but the creation of a new University of California campus — intended to be the state's next education mecca — and subsequent population growth encouraged developers to invest heavily in residential subdivisions. Thousands of acres were platted for home sites, construction commenced and then … the housing bubble burst. As the promise of profits dematerialized, partially constructed subdivisions were abandoned, leaving half-built ghost towns in their wake — model homes standing next to plywood shells, cement foundations baking in the summer heat. Whether or not these projects will ever be completed is anyone’s guess, but the paving of streets and laying of underground infrastructure virtually guarantees that this land will never be farmed again.

Pristine beaches draw many to California’s coast for rest and recreation. In Malibu, a privileged few make a home at the ocean’s edge. But in recent years the effects of global warming — including hardened watersheds — and of damming rivers have led to sand-starved beaches and increased coastal erosion. Unlike in Merced, money is plentiful in Malibu. Homeowners and government agencies alike fund the protection of “endangered” homes along the narrowing strip of land between the Pacific Coast Highway and the ocean. But as rising sea levels and fiercer storms deplete the protective beaches, multimillion dollar homes are vulnerable to being swept out to sea. In an ironic twist, oceanfront homes that themselves prevent the natural erosion that would replenish beach sand are being surrounded by fortress-like constructions of trucked-in sand, boulders, burlap and plastic — all simulating the sea cliffs that once sheltered this same coast.

Whether scurrying along the empty, heat-blasted streets of unfinished developments in Merced, or strolling along the fragile strip of beach in Malibu, we approached this project as archeologists of our own future, documenting moments on the threshold of change.

Share This Story


Forgetting Guantánamo, Again

What the Nation’s Best-Educated Amateur Planners Learned from Hurricane Isaac. And Gustav. And Rita and Katrina. And Cindy, Ivan, Lili, Isidore, and Georges.

Soundscapes: Burning Man

Living with Mies: The Towers at Lafayette Park

Occupy: What Architecture Can Do

RSSSubscribe to Comment Feed

Comments (3)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT >>

Arrested Development, anyone?
08.05.10 at 05:06

One doesn't need to be a global warming skeptic to doubt that "rising sea levels and [global warming-induced] fiercer storms" are a big part of the problem with costal erosion in Southern California. Flooding and the collapse of costal cliffs started long before anyone built houses there and well before we did much to add to the world's carbon dioxide supply. Damning of rivers that supplied sand (as mentioned), the building of breakwaters that stop sand from flowing south, and in some cases in Malibu, the creation of sea walls that ultimately redirect waves to further undermine cliffs have all had a direct and dramatic effect on the beaches. Building on the beach is in some ways unwise nearly everywhere. Without global warming, sand would be regularly washed away by storms, cliffs would collapse, and houses would be threatened.
Gunnar Swanson
08.11.10 at 10:17

Hey Gunnar -
Thanks for you comments. Yes, you are right, the natural cliff erosion has been going on forever, BUT, having watched the erosion first hand for many years, it is absolutely obvious that it is accelerating, especially in the last 10 years.
Luther Thie
08.12.10 at 01:18

Don't have an account? Create an account. Forgot your password? Click here.



Donate to Places: Your Support Makes Our Work Possible


A series of photographs by Luther Thie and Kathrine Worel, documenting places made vulnerable by the economy and the environment.
View Slideshow >>


Luther Thie is an artist, creative director, interaction designer and co-founding partner of Acclair.
More Bio >>

Kathrine Worel is an interdisciplinary artist and curator based in the Bay Area.
More Bio >>


MORE ON California

TEDification versus Edification
On Places, Simon Sadler explores the magical thinking and many contradictions of the TED Talks.

Geographies of Detention
On Places, an exhibition of art and documentary work, by Sandow Birk, Alyse Emdur, Richard Ross and the Guantánamo Public Memory Project, that investigates prison landscapes.

Expect Everything
On Places, a slideshow by photographer Peter Holzhauer, of his recent work on Los Angeles, curated by Aaron Rothman.

Steve Jobs: Architect
On Places, Simon Sadler finds provocative common ground in the extraordinary careers of Steve Jobs and Rem Koolhaas, both driven "to learn about the world through the attempt to change it."

Beautiful and Terrible: Aeriality and the Image of Suburbia
On Places, D.J. Waldie explores the relationship between aerial photography and the postwar suburban boom, a relationship at once materialistic and transcendent, "beautiful and terrible."

20 Years Later: Legacies of the Los Angeles Riots
On Places, California historian Josh Sides assesses the dynamic changes in South Los Angeles in the 20 years since the riots of 1992.

CicLAvia: Reimagining the Streets of Los Angeles
On Places, Aaron Paley and Amanda Berman argue that the semi-annual CicLAvia — which bans cars from parts of L.A. — is inspiring Angelenos to imagine a new urban future.

Drylands: Water and the West
On Places, an essay and slideshow by Peter Arnold and Hadley Arnold of the Arid Lands Institute, on what they call "the largest and least understood environmental challenge of the 21st century."

Banham's America
On Places, Gabrielle Esperdy traces the American journeys of Reyner Banham, and views the British historian in the lively tradition of European travelers who tell us Americans something important about ourselves.

Thirsty City
On Places, Austin Troy assesses the massive infrastructure required to bring water to the arid American West — and the huge amount of energy that makes it possible to take a shower in Los Angeles.

Water in the West
On Places, a slideshow from the collaborative photography project Water in the West, with an introduction by Mark Klett.

Beyond Foreclosure: The Future of Suburban Housing
On Places, Aron Chang argues that the foreclosure crisis highlights the need to transform suburban housing — to make it responsive not to dated demographics and wishful economics but to the actual needs of a diversifying and dynamic population.

Scenes from Surrendered Homes
On Places, urban historian Alex Schafran looks closely at Douglas Smith's photographs of foreclosed homes in California, and sees poignant documentation of the personal toll of the great recession.

No More Play
On Places, Michael Maltzan argues that Los Angeles is on the brink of its latest transformation — and at a point where "the very word city no longer applies."

L.A. Day/L.A. Night
On Places, a portfolio of images by photographer Michael Light, exploring Los Angeles in the day and at night, with an essay by David L. Ulin.

Dreams, Dust and Birds: The Trashing of Owens Lake
On Places, Karen Piper narrates the latest chapter in one California's longest water wars: Los Angeles' efforts to undo the environmental damage done to Owens Lake, decades after its waters were diverted to supply the thirsty metropolis.

Burning Man and the Metropolis
On Places, Nate Berg looks at Burning Man, and how a beach party in San Francisco mushroomed into a week-long temporary city of 50,000 out in the Nevada desert.

Streets: Into the Sunset
On Places, a portfolio by photographer Leigh Merrill of photo-fabrications of the streets of San Francisco — images that are, like home ownership in America, an unsettling mix of fantasy and reality.

Urban Crude
An online gallery extracted from Urban Crude, an exhibition created by the Center for Land Use Interpretation, documenting the metropolitan petroscape of Los Angeles.

The Infrastructural City
Los Angeles depends upon vast infrastructural systems that are breathtakingly powerful, yet vulnerable to disruption, even disaster. Landscape architect Chris Reed reviews The Infrastructural City.