The Dot & the Line: and a case for the squiggle
JOHN KLEINSCHMIDT (M.Arch ’16), ANDREW STERNAD (M.Arch ’16)
The microscopic movements of our daily experience – crossing the street, flushing a toilet, flicking a switch – are transmitted to and from lines so long that we cannot see them as such. We think we live, work, and love within a series of discrete points, conveniently separated and comfortably recognizable. At the right distance, however, points in space become dotted lines. Drains are linked by buried pipes, switches are linked by miles of wire, Main Street becomes the interstate.
In New Orleans, like other delta cities perched precariously between land and water, lines in the landscape are easier to identify. When habitation depends on a secure perimeter, dotted lines are an existential threat too frightening to ignore – we speed up a little bit when driving through flood gates, fragile perforations in the strong line that rings our city. The wacky street grid is derived from archaic French settlement patterns along the meandering river. The dubious safety indicator of “sea level” traces a line that can be read in flood insurance rates. The edges of now-buried ancient islands and not-so-ancient swamps are persistent – on former swamps, houses sink; on islands, they don’t.
Across the globe and throughout history, humans have shaped the environment for their inhabitation. New Orleans, however, has shaped its landscape for uninhabitation. The very lines that keep New Orleanians’ feet dry undermine the city’s prospects for long-term stability. Flying above the delta, any indication of firm coastline disappears into a marshy squiggle. The lines that appear most solid – the levees and floodwalls protecting the perimeter – disguise the subterranean flows of water and soil that sustain and threaten the city’s foundation.
The hard lines that keep your feet dry in New Orleans undermine the city’s prospects for long-term stability. It’s not hard to imagine a future where the ruthlessly straight lines of hard infrastructure are all that remain of the city, like the Nazca lines in Peru. Will they seem desperate, like scratches left behind by a sinking city digging its fingers into ground that was never strong enough to hold it? Or can we soften those lines, take out the dashes and dots, and let them meander a bit? It’s time to bring back the squiggle.