Staring out at the calm waters of the Hudson River this morning, I recalled a short piece I wrote almost twenty years ago. It was titled The Machining of Nature and reflected on technology and architecture following the 1993 flood of the Mississippi River. Among other post-flood tales, I told the story of The Quad Cities (Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa and Rock Island and Moline, Illinois)…it could be the story of Staten Island, Hoboken, Red Hook and Lower Manhattan. The lesson still holds. An excerpt below:
The word “flood” is one of many attached to the natural environment which underscores the ambiguity between the mechanisms of nature and those of culture. Used to describe the river, it pertains less to a natural condition than to a human one – it is not the spread of water, but the spread of humanity which creates the conditions for floods. Where waterscapes and civilizations have converged, people have inevitably found themselves and/or their constructions flooded.
The Quad Cities of Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa and Rock Island and Moline, Illinois cohere a site which, perhaps better than any other, demonstrates the conflicted responses to the Mississippi’s flood waters. Although the communities are united for commercial purpose, their flood policies underscore an uneasy alliance forged more on proximity than mutual interest.
With its historic Main street and quaint water front, Davenport promotes itself as a “river town” and has consistently voted down the installation of a view-obscuring levee system, unlike their counterpart across the way at Rock Island. During the Flood of ’93, citizens of Davenport watched helplessly as the levees of Rock Island shunted water across the river toward their unprotected town.
Like Rock Island, Moline and Bettendorf also survived the flood, but with very different strategies. In a move away from the river, Moline had previously relocated its commercial zones to higher ground, leaving the river edge largely to its own processes. On the other hand, Bettendorf took a more technological approach, investing in a “folding levee” system – a three part wall which hinges into place according to water levels – at low water, the river view is unimpeded; at flood level, the town is fully protected.
Both participant and spectator, Arsenal Island occupies the middle of the channel between the Quad Cities. It was here that one of my architecture students, Char Chiba, proposed a post-flood community facility to be built upon a re-configured land/waterscape. The facility was sited at the one spot on the island where one can see and be seen by all four towns. His design was generated by the urban topography (natural and constructed) of each of the towns and offered a shared terrain, a new surface of land and water that enacted the fractious history of the four town’s relationship to the river and to one another, while forming the locus for a natural and social reconciliation. It was a speculative proposal, modest in its viability but grand in its aspirations. Its lesson was simple:
Ultimately, we know ourselves by the things we make and the spaces we occupy. Our material fabrications are projected from an imagined world, one that humanity has been creatively re-imagining ever since showing up within the biosphere. From this perspective, it seems that architects have always had a responsibility to understand not simply the space of architecture but, more importantly, the space for architecture. After all, it is this latter space – call it, for the moment, what you will, culture or nature – in which they must build.
Either way, it’s always about us, it’s always about ‘Sandy.’
The full article (The Machining of Nature: The Mississippi Studio) can be found at: http://www.pmwarchitects.com/pmw2006/academy.html)