The Office of Recovery and Reconciliation

An Alternative History of Early American Flood Control Infrastructure

This project was made possible through support from the Independent Projects category of the Architecture + Design Program at the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature. Van Alen Institute served as fiscal sponsor.
“Essayons. In the spirit of this venerable institution’s motto: Let us try. Let us try to face this formidable Mississippi not with the sole interest of security, but rather raise our profession--like those heroes raised their rescue boats over the levee--to a state of excellence in which the spaces a community inters its dead, a farmer works his soil, a father baptises his kin, is as valued as the commerce coursing up and down this watery serpent.”
-Lt. Eugene Davis, 1929

This traveling exhibition uses selections from the archives of the US Army Corps of Engineers as a point of departure to explore the material and cultural consequences of flood management in the Lower Mississippi River Basin.

Starting with the first Swamp Lands Act (legislative precursor to the Flood Control Acts), the American landscape was subjected to a century of geomorphologic subjugation. The Corps gradually and systematically assumed the role of land manager in the Mississippi River Basin, simultaneously speeding up and slowing down the effects of seasonal change across one-third of the United States. In pursuit of environmental stability, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (unwittingly) became the most influential landscape designer in U.S. history. This period of escalation gave rise to some of the country’s most spectacular constructions, configuring spaces and materials at a scale and speed only achievable with federal support for what was essentially an environmental arms race with the Mississippi River. But the details of this story and even its resulting spaces are largely inaccessible to the public. What we know of the Corps’ designed restructuring of the American landscape remains primarily confined to their published history.

The first section of this exhibition delves into exactly this: what we know by way of that which has been written, mapped and experienced in the landscape of the Lower Mississippi River Valley. This section consists of a large-scale topographic model of the 1927 flood and contextual documents. As a collection, these landscape narratives render an image of an extraordinarily dynamic territory confronted by the Corps’ equally extraordinary mission to control it. Raising questions about the role infrastructure plays in our perceptions of place, this section exposes the social, political and ecological climates in which the Army Corps entered this unprecedented era of decision-making.

In the second part of this exhibition, we aim to revisit—and to recover—sparsely documented phases of Army Corps history. Using design to surface speculative scenarios where archival evidence ends or splits, what emerges are temporary or unfulfilled geographies of the lost worlds of the Lower Mississippi Basin. These are represented as mobile, unfolding cases composed of an architectural model and construction drawings.

Positioned at the slippage between documented truths, unfinished business and mythic tales, these materials dissolve obvious markers of past and present, fact and fiction, and expose our quixotic desire for permanence in the face of constant change. The exhibition calls on viewers to suspend disbelief by simulating the spatial possibilities of those inaccessible and fantastic architectures of the Army Corps; to ask new questions of otherwise opaque, unilateral demonstrations of technological dominance by visualizing a di erent reading of landscape, memory and time; to imagine an alternative approach to managing natural systems, one that reconciles stability with the inevitability of change.


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MATTHEW SEIBERT, principal and creative director of Landscape Metrics

KRISTI CHERAMIE, associate professor of landscape architecture, OSU

The following people contributed to the design and production of the exhibition:

Brad Steinmetz, assistant professor of theater
Alexandra Lemke

In addition to contributions to the exhibition at large, the following students from the

LARCH Advanced Media Seminar:
(LARCH 2780/7890)

fabricated the topographic model of the Lower Mississippi River Basin and developed its associated animated motion graphics.

Andrew Barringer
Kate Granlund
Emily Knox
Jonathan Staker
Desiree Angelotta
Alex Arseneau
Oscar Camacho-Cabrera
Sally Doyle
Amanda Knight
Alexandra Lemke
Daniel Lenk
Leah Mancabelli
Emily Weber
Clara Young

Special thanks to:

Sandhya Kochar, lecturer in architecture
Andrew Barringer
Alex Arseneau
Oscar Camacho-Cabrera
Amanda Knight
Madison Krempec
Amanda Pierce
Emily Weber
Heather Wright
Clara Young