September 9, 2011
levee mies
Mississippi River Flooded, 2011 (source)
Titanic, Stanley Tigerman, 1978 (source)


‘You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.’


—Rahm Emanuel, Former White House Chief of Staff



Floods alter reality and create unimaginable situations, structures, and images by turning roofs into porches, streets into rivers, cities into swamps and yards into swimming pools. Often such a crisis can bring out the best in people, not strictly in the form of heroism or generosity, but also through adrenaline-fueled ingenuity.


While conventional flood mitigation involves sand bags and metal flood barriers, homemade levees were employed to keep the water out of yards and homes when the rivers began to rise near Vicksburg, Mississippi. Using nature against itself, the homeowners appropriated the techniques of Land Art as preservationist-functionalism. Born out of crisis, the levees alter our understanding of the water’s relationship to the land: floating like small barges, these temporary islands appear scaleless against the vast flood, the rescued homes standing fortress-like inside their earthen mounds.


While some of the makeshift dams gave way during the flood, vanishing into murky waters, the surviving mounds will also, in time, dissolve into the landscape. Much like the Earthworks projects of the 1970s, their existence will persist only in photographs – amazing remnants of a terrible disaster.


Matt Shaw


My interest in Stanley Tigerman’s 1978 collage of the sinking of Mies van der Rohe’s Crown Hall has nothing to do with Mies’ architectural reign over Chicago, the complexities of an academic rivalry between IIT and UIC, or postmodernism as an attack on Modernism. It has everything to do with the shadowy foreground of the scene, and its mysterious man in a boat. Who was this man and what were his intentions?


At first glance, the man in the boat appears to be the lone survivor of a tragic accident. An accident which risked endangering, or perhaps even pushing to the verge of extinction, ‘glass box’ architecture. The man’s survival is significant, as it means that the traditions of the glass box might be triumphantly carried on to future generations. This type of happily-ever-after scenario would best be played out on the big screen, to some sort of heroic Hollywood soundtrack; credits rolling, sobs of joy from the audience. The man in the boat was a hero.


Alternatively, is it possible the man in the boat intentionally sank Crown Hall? It would not be that hard, after all. A broken window or two would do the trick. While the first scenario portrays architecture as an innocent victim, the latter labels it as a threat. Glass boxes are not for everyone. I can picture the man’s face now: slowly, confidently paddling away from his kill, never looking back. The man in the boat was not a hero; he was a villain.


But, alas! The name ‘Titanic’ suggests a collision with some sort of iceberg, or physical object! In the case of Crown Hall, a floating object of excess—a pediment, cornice, rogue steel beam, or some other decorative thing—surely could have sunk the glass ship. The man in the boat was neither hero nor villain, but simply a passing bystander.


There was no documented reason or theory behind why the man in the boat was there. He was just there. But, oh! How beautiful it would have been if he had a purpose to be there – if he was provoked by, or enchanted by, a floating glass box! It is at times like these when I am reminded that, in architecture, ideas seem to always transcend reality; fiction is relentlessly destroyed by fact. If fiction is at the core of architecture, buildings represent a very essential and immovable reality. So while floods might destroy our buildings, they cannot destroy our architecture.


John Stoughton


Edited by E. Sean Bailey




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