The Architecture of Water
The Mississippi River is a work of architecture and an architect.
Consider the following.
Architecture can be made of water:
For centuries, Inuits inhabited igloos, and in polar countries like Sweden and Canada, they have entire hotels built of ice, like something out of a story by Hans Christian Andersen. Ice sculptures, too, have a fairy tale quality, situated somewhere between graceful and tacky – but as they melt, even the tackiest reveal some ephemeral beauty. In its liquid form, water adopts the architecture of any vessel it fills: water in a jug takes the form of the jug; water in a flooded house assumes the inverse architecture of that house.
Architecture can be made by water:
Caves are vast halls where stalactites and stalagmites converge to form columns and buttresses. A river is a work of architecture that designs itself, but it also shape the landscapes around it. Some carve canyons into the earth’s surface, leaving stone spires and natural arches, crafting masterpieces like the Grand Canyon. Others fan out into sprawling deltas, like the Mississippi River, which engineered its own course and the deltaic landscape of southern Louisiana.
To appreciate the structure that the river built, one must first understand the scale of the river and how it functions. The Mississippi’s drainage basin is the fourth largest in the world, a web of tributaries that encompasses over 1.2 million square miles — about 40% of the continental United States. Along with its enormous volume of water, the river carries a few hundred million tons of sediment every year, which form deposits that eventually alter the flow of the river. Water naturally wants to flow downhill along the steepest route possible, so over the course of millennia, the route of the Mississippi meandered, finding new outlets to the gulf and leaving in its wake bayous, oxbow lakes, and wetlands. Southern Louisiana is comprised solely of this sediment, coughed up and accreted over centuries; the river’s current outlet, the Balize delta (or Birdfoot delta, after its shape) has only functioned as the active delta for about 250 years. These changing branches of the Mississippi laid the foundations of an alluvial plain populated by inhabitants fitted to its caprices: herons, muskrats, perch, crawfish, alligators, tree frogs, armadillos, water moccasins, and Choctaws, able to adapt to the weaving of the river, to the liminal space between land and water, to the dynamics of an unstable architecture.
More recently, foreign interlopers have disrupted the delicate equilibrium of the river’s design.
Native to the Amazon Basin. Introduced to Louisiana at the 1884 World’s Fair in New Orleans by the Japanese delegation, who had them imported from Venezuela. They proved popular with attendees, who purchased them to pretty up the ponds in their gardens, but the plants soon spread to nearby waterways and propagated relentlessly, choking the wetlands with their fecundity until the catfish gasped under a suffocating bed of violet. Since they can reproduce asexually, a single flower has the potential to produce patches thick enough to clog a canal and stall commercial shipping enterprises.
Attempts at eradication: In an early attempt to slow the infestation, the War Department poured oil over the flowers — an ironic counterpoint to our current aversion toward oil spills. The most memorable effort was orchestrated by an organization called the New Food Society, who proposed importing hippopotami from Africa to serve a double purpose: cutting down the water hyacinth population and relieving a nationwide meat shortage. The hippos would eat the water hyacinths and we would eat the hippos. Louisiana representative Robert Broussard introduced the bill to Congress; however, the bill fell one vote short of passing, so Hippopotamus amphibius does not appear on this list. The most successful solution to date has been the introduction of the weevil Neochetina eichhorniae, which has reduced water hyacinth populations without having an adverse environmental impact.
Coypu (or more commonly in Louisiana, nutria)
Also from South America, nutria were brought to coastal Louisiana to capitalize on the demand for nutria fur. Although he was not the first nutria farmer in the state, their introduction to Louisiana is popularly attributed to Edward Avery McIlhenny — explorer and heir to the Tabasco Empire — who intentionally released them into the wild in 1937 to help mitigate the spread of water hyacinths. Unfortunately, the nutria proved all too adept at this task, devouring not only water hyacinth but every other plant in the wetlands, including those vital to the sugarcane industry and the integrity of the coastline. After they consume the roots of the flora that reinforce the swampy terrain, the soil is more susceptible to scour during storms and floods. Their burrowing damages flood-control levees, collapses roadbeds, and erodes the banks of creeks and lakes.
Attempts at eradication: State and Federal organizations have spearheaded several efforts to manage the nutria population. The Jefferson Parish SWAT team patrols drainage canals at night with a spotlight, taking pot-shots at nutria for target practice. The Coastwide Nutria Control Program began offering a $5.00 bounty for nutria tails in 2002, a method so effective that it has reduced land loss by an estimated 90% since its inception, with the additional benefit of bolstering the local economy. Trappers bring in about half a million tails annually, which begs the question: what happens to the rest of the body? Many trappers sell the furs, but that leaves the problem of half a million skinned nutria carcasses. Some businesses have tried to market the meat, which they allege is similar to squirrel, but a stigma against the rodent has caused most of these businesses to fail. The only business model to succeed at selling nutria meat is Marsh Dog out of Baton Rouge, which turns the meat into dog food.
Ferried from Asia to the United States by ships returning from the Pacific after World War II. Dubbed the super-termite for their destructive potential, their colonies thrive in warm, humid climates like Louisiana’s. Their foraging is a pervasive threat to the historic homes of New Orleans; in the fall of 2014, an infestation contributed to the collapse of a structure in the French Quarter. They devour living plants with the same fervor, assailing cypresses, sugarcane crops, and nearly half of the live oaks in New Orleans. Their presence is most evident in late May and early June, when they take wing and swarm in a reproductive frenzy. In 2016, a weather radar picked up a cloud of termites with a diameter of over 80 miles. No matter how well a house is sealed, they will find a way in, leaving local homes littered with thousands of tiny, iridescent wings.
Attempts at eradication: Formosan termites have never been successfully eradicated; they can only be controlled. Permanent bait systems may be installed to protect against incursions, but these systems are prohibitively expensive for most homeowners (they are most common in the French Quarter, where the program is subsidized). Liquid treatment is a more affordable alternative, but it is less effective and runoff from these treatments can contaminate water supplies. Termites cost New Orleans and its residents hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage and treatment expenses each year.
Humans had lived harmoniously in Louisiana for centuries by sticking to tenable land and dwelling in semi-permanent structures, but a new and particularly virulent breed migrated to the area in 1682. The population grew slowly at first but exploded in the early 1800s, driven by an abundance of resources and aided by their prowess for adaptation. Like termites, humans form colonies of tremendous size and complexity, and just as the termites permeate the structures humans have built, so have humans permeated the landscape of Louisiana, dredging canals and laying pipelines that span the wetlands, imposing straight lines and right angles onto its nebulous network of streams, inlets, and estuaries. Lumbering interests have deforested swaths of old growth cypress groves. Furthermore, humans are responsible for the presence of all the other invasive species mentioned herein — though we could regard termites and nutria as unlikely heroes: for all the damage they do to the environment, they also sabotage our intrusive architecture. Human alterations to the ecosystem are the primary cause of the deterioration of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands.
Attempts at eradication: No concerted effort has been made to eliminate this infestation, but studies suggest that its presence is unsustainable. The inadequacy of their infrastructure occasionally exposes them to expulsive natural forces, notably in 2005 with the flooding of their most populous colony, but these purges are short-lived on account of their remarkable aptitude for recovery. They will likely remain entrenched in coastal Louisiana until the land loss they have instigated forces them to flee further inland. In other words, they will inhabit the wetlands until there are no wetlands left to inhabit.
How can you set down roots in water? At best, you’re like a water hyacinth, anchored not by the water or the underlying silt but merely entangled with others of your kind, all adrift upon the surface and bandied about by the wind and the tide and the swimmings of fish. How can something endure without soil to stand on? Either it changes to accommodate its environment, or it changes that environment to accommodate its own habits.
Most people in Louisiana have opted for the latter, only to discover the impossibility of wrestling with water. We have tried to impose our sense of order upon a place prone to flux. Our lives stand in contradiction to the land we occupy because our architecture is at odds with the alluvial architecture of the delta.
Oil and gas companies have buried about 50,000 miles of pipeline throughout the coast, and the digging and deforestation required to install these pipelines weakens the resilience of the surrounding land. Pipelines exposed by eroding soil can cause oil spills or fires that last for days.
Water’s winding routes were not expedient enough for us, so we dredged canals that slice straight to the Gulf. But these are more erosive than pipelines, introducing salinity to freshwater marshes and carrying storm surges inland. The most notorious of these is the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet Canal (aka Mr. Go). Originally 650 feet wide, erosion has more than quadrupled its width in some places, destroying thousands of acres of wetlands and funneling the storm surge from Hurricane Katrina directly into the heart of New Orleans.
We built cities on floodplains and seemed surprised when they flooded, so we developed levees to protect our homes. Yet these levees only exacerbate the problem: they concentrate the flow of water, leading to faster currents, deeper riverbeds, and greater volumes of water. Since they also prevent runoff, the rising river puts more strain on the levees, so levees must be continually raised and reinforced to keep pace with the river’s power. In the 1700s, levees were dirt mounds a few feet high; now they are concrete superstructures over 30 feet tall. This means that floods occur less often, but when they do occur, they are far more devastating. The levee system failed on a massive scale in 1927, flooding 27,000 square miles and displacing over half a million people. It failed in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina made landfall. Water is not content within the confines of our architecture; it seeks to break loose and reclaim the land it created.
Our most ambitious folly is the Old River Control Structure, which presumes to regulate the flow of the Mississippi. For decades, the Mississippi River has wanted to divert its flow from its present course to the steeper gradient of the Atchafalaya Basin, which drains out of south central Louisiana. Finished in 1963, the Old River Control Structure controls water distribution: 30% goes into the Atchafalaya, 70% continues along the Mississippi. If the structure were to fail, the Mississippi River would change course, submerging dozens of communities along the Atchafalaya, permanently altering the infrastructure of Louisiana and surrounding states, and rendering the ports of Baton Rouge and New Orleans impotent — an ecological and economic cataclysm unprecedented in US history. The structure nearly failed once already, during a flood in 1973. The Army Corps reinforced it in the 80s and added an auxiliary structure, but many suspect it’s only a matter of time until the Mississippi wrenches free of this tenuous leash to resume its own designs.
Yet people have thrived in Louisiana in spite of these missteps. Some of the country’s most idiosyncratic and diverse cultures have sprouted along this coast, a cross-pollination of converging influences. The people are known for their celebrations, their joie de vivre, their charming peculiarities. New Orleans has fostered a world-renowned musical culture, and the region’s culinary heritage is the richest in the nation. Like the free-floating water hyacinths, we have flourished in the generosity of the landscape. In spite of the watery terrain and our incompatible architecture, Louisianians are a deeply rooted people: about 78% of the people living in Louisiana were born here, the highest rate of any state in the country.
While politicians and corporations insist on anti-alluvial architecture, the actual inhabitants of Louisiana are more flexible and resourceful. We are willing to concede to water’s whims. Rather than building floodwalls to restrain the water, many build houses on stilts so that water flows underneath them. Others live in houseboats that float atop the water’s surface. More extensive than the highway system is the natural infrastructure of streams and bayous. Cajuns navigated its changing waterways for generations, trapping and fishing in pirogues, subsisting on the fertility of the swamp.
It’s counter-intuitive for us to think about water in architectural terms because traditionally architecture is static. Our buildings and homes are made of brick and concrete and wood, and we think of them as immutable. Architecture that loses its original form has failed as architecture. If we want Louisiana to survive, if we want to keep living here, we need to broaden our understanding of architecture. We have to make it more fluid, more receptive to changes in its environment.
This means adopting the folk methods of accommodation on a grand scale. To some extent, we are already moving in this direction. In addition to levees, the state’s flood protection has included more spillways and outlets, releasing excess water into diversion channels and offering the river some of the freedom it needs. We have forsaken failures like the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet canal, which closed in 2009. The state has also organized a wetlands restoration program involving river diversions that will replenish wetlands through sediment deposits — allowing the river to rebuild its own land. The program has introduced a new alien species to the wetlands: Christmas trees. After the holidays, donated Christmas trees are dropped into the wetlands to trap sediment and rebuild marshes.
Perhaps more radical accommodations will follow. Many propose incorporating more open water into New Orleans to buoy up the sinking city and using water-permeable pavers to promote runoff. Others recommend raising homes and offering incentives to residents who want to relocate from flood-prone neighborhoods, which could make way for more green space. In early 2020, local nuns announced an initiative to turn a Katrina-damaged convent into the Mirabeau Water Garden, an urban wetland with the potential to absorb nearly 10 million gallons of water run-off. To dwell in water, we must become more like water. Imagine a city that would thrive in the flood waters of Katrina.
But that’s a Utopian prospect. In reality, our efforts to repair what we’ve broken have been meager. We closed the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, but the Army Corps has yet to fill the canal or restore the land it destroyed. We have developed a wetlands restoration program, but its efficacy is hotly contested and no one knows who will pay its $50 billion price tag. We lose sixteen square miles of wetlands each year, which breaks down to one football field every 100 minutes. Within fifty years, we will lose a mass of land roughly the size of Rhode Island. Unless we take radical action, this land loss will continue unabated, but radical action means evacuating communities and displacing inhabitants, who are naturally opposed to leaving. Water is taking its patient revenge – not out of spite, but because our architecture has engineered its own destruction.
We staked out an unlikely and untenable position for ourselves. New Orleans is an inverted island, surrounded on almost all sides by water that rises higher than the city. Southern Louisiana is the youngest land in the country, newborn soil still muddy with its own afterbirth, but it is facing a premature death. Canals and pipelines have so thoroughly lacerated the wetlands that our coast looks like lace embroidery, and it is no less fragile. As hurricanes assail it, as sea levels rise, this land will gradually give way to the Gulf. Southern Louisiana will dissolve like silt in our palms, and New Orleans will join Atlantis on the seafloor.
Maybe we shouldn’t think of Louisiana as a place. Place implies permanence. Like a moment in time, Louisiana will come and go, as transient as an ice sculpture. Unlike the ancient architecture of Rome or Athens, it will leave no vestige, no ruins – only open water. It will pass the way that water passes, bearing downstream a violet blossom that never took root in this strange soil.
Further Reading: Rising Tide by John M. Barry, Unfathomable City by Rebecca Solnit & Rebecca Snedeker
Matthew M. Morris is a storyteller from New Orleans. He tells his stories in prose, on stage, on screen, and in person, as a tour guide.
More info on the Featured Image.