Architecture to Infrastructure: Seabrook Floodgate Complex, New Orleans

At last, New Orleans will have new flood walls which aim is to (attempt to) prevent the city from flooding events! As John Schwartz reported on The New York Times, the former flood walls revealed America's haphazard approach to critical infrastructure

When Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, the city's hurricane protection system became a symbol of America's haphazard approach to critical infrastructure. The patchwork of walls and levees built over the course of 40 years was still far from complete when the storm came, and even the Army Corps of Engineers admitted that this was "a system in name only." Flood walls collapsed, and earthen levees built from sandy, dredged soils melted away.

So, this new Seabrook Floodgate Complex is under construction. This complex will consist of a 133-mile chain of levees, flood walls, gates and pumps, John Schwartz reports.
This complex will be consisting of:
> Construction last month on the Seabrook Floodgate Complex in New Orleans. The overall
defense system includes the biggest pumping station on the planet.
Photo: Jennifer Zdon for The New York Times

At the new Seabrook floodgate complex, climb up three steep ladders, open a trap door, and step out into the blazing sunlight atop a 54-foot tower that was not here just two years ago. From there one looks out over a $165 million barrier across the shipping canal that links Lake Pontchartrain, the Mississippi River and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.
These defenses also are made up of:
Two "lift gates," 50 feet across, can be lowered to block the waters of Lake Pontchartrain. A navigation gate 95 feet wide, whose curved sides weigh 220 tons apiece, can be swung gently but mightily into place. When open — which will be most of the time — the gates will allow easy boat traffic.
A real system of defense… This of course seems very reassuring… at first glance. For now it however is impossible to measure the efficiency of this system facing with rush of water but June is the month of hurricanes, dare I say. 
As John Schwartz noted, Katrina made us realize decay of current infrastructure:

When Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, the city's hurricane protection system became a symbol of America's haphazard approach to critical infrastructure. The patchwork of walls and levees built over the course of 40 years was still far from complete when the storm came, and even the Army Corp of Engineers admitted that this was "a system in name only." Flood walls collapsed, and earthen levees built from sandy, dredged soils melted away.
Recent flooding events intensified accordingly the urgent task of reconsidering our modern infrastructure all over the world.

Suggested articles: Javier Garcia-German | Infrastructure and Time: Apropos anticipation and adaptation | Quaderns 262, 2011

There are many strategies of protection. David Garcia has listed some of them in his little publication MAP 004 Floods; these includes land reclamation, rotating-gate barriers, sluice-gate barrier, drain pipe, among many others.

—> Buoyancy Barrier: A series of retracting buoyancy flap gates prevent storm surges into the Venetian Lagoon-Mose Project, Venice 2012 | David Garcia Studio | Protection | MAP 004 ı Floods, 2011. 

But the question to pose is whether these protections are efficient enough to withstand environmental pressures. We confront a remarkable dilemma: maintenance of current infrastructure will have a massive cost so that, with this economic crisis, few societies can afford such a drastic task of repair. It appears that while modern infrastructure proved its efficiency during the 19th and 20th at various scales, in the beginning of the 21st century, it is no longer the case with new external contingencies — economic and environmental crises, population expansion, urban migration. As Javier Garcia-German wrote in Infrastructure and Time: Apropos Anticipation and Adaptation:

This in turn has given rise to closed systems with behaviours that can only respond to certain initial conditions — to a specific flow of material, energy and information — and which fall into obsolescence when they are subjected to new regimes and are unable to adapt.

In 2009 a project Otra/Another 09, organized at Woodbury University School of Architecture, explored the state of current infrastructure considering that urban condition across continents is forcing our infrastructure(s) into critical states of distress.

Back to the Seabrook Floodgate Complex for another focus: resilience which seems to be behind the purpose of this new complex announced to be a 100-year protection. As John Schwartz reports:

The new system was designed and constructed to provide what is informally known as 100-year protection, which means it was built to prevent the kind of flooding that has a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year.

Resilience is a system capable of maintaining its structure and functioning through continual responsiveness and adaptation to external conditions. But resilience supposes a framework capable of optimizing its characteristics. This may not be the case of New Orleans no matter how big efforts are/will be:
Protecting New Orleans. © The New York Times Company, 2012

But New Orleans has seen storms far more damaging than the 100-year standard. Katrina is generally considered to have been a 400-year storm, and rising seas and more numerous hurricanes predicted in many climate-change models suggest harsher conditions to come.

In this respect, questions concerning the efficiency of this protective system raise as rapid as rush of water. Will this system be enough to prevent New Orleans from surges? Should we rather reengineer infrastructure but in different ways? If so which ways?

Suggested article: John May | Infrastructuralism ı The Pathology of negative externalities | Quaderns 262, 2011.

Like many regions now in their weaker state in the face of flooding events, New Orleans is facing with environmental crisis. Let's suppose an explanation: damaged landscape, disappearance of wetlands, high land consumption, poverty. And the list goes on. As John Schwartz pointed out:

Building greater than 100-year protection might not be simply a matter of building walls ever higher. It will also come from restoring the coastal environment that slows and buffers storms and their surge. It means restoring wetlands that have been rapidly disappearing, and perhaps creating barrier islands to act as speed bumps for storms.

This is also true concerning other coastal regions, let's quote but one: Tohoku, Japan which faced in 2011 a massive earthquake of magnitude 9.0 triggering a terrible tsunami. While flood walls were built to block surges, waves of up to 23 meters in height hit the coastal areas, causing over 20,000 casualties, damaging thousands buildings and infrastructure, and submerging more than 50,000 hectares of land. Over the past century, like New Orleans, Tohoku's wetlands have been greatly impoverished due to land conversion into rice paddies and other uses. 

Suggested article: Masayuki Kurechi, Restoring Rice Paddy Wetland Environments and the Local Sustainable Society — Project for Achieving Co-existence of Rice Paddy Agriculture with Waterbirds at Kabukuri-numa, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan, 2007.

Losses of wetlands and qualitative changes in environment have major negative impacts on natural habitats as it may have partly contributed to 3/11 events. 
External events also unveiled limits of protective barriers and infrastructures, as being inert, static, and, unsurprisingly, incapable of prevent coastal cities from environmental constraints. These events also stress the limit of our current idea of resilience. Now that resilience is becoming an environmental as well as economic prescription to a better planning in a society under pressures, it will be more logic to envision new design tools and new ways of planning that integrate ecological principles into the urban and rural environments. 
Indeed, in my view and as aforementioned, it is time to readdress the question of infrastructure. A large number of observers pointed out that modern infrastructure all over the world is in a derelict state.
As Brendan Cormier reported, in 2009, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave the country an overall grade of D for the state of its infrastructure.

The evaluation included infrastructure related to aviation, bridges, dams, drinking water, energy, hazardous waste, inland waterways, levees, public parks, rail, roads, schools, solid waste, transit and wastewater. Not one of these individual categories was able to score higher than C+ for its performance. The potential hazard associated with such poor infrastructure in any of these categories is paramount.

High quality infrastructure but that fits within natural world setting is required. Loads of questions raise and we only choose two among them: How can we reinvent infrastructure? How can we problem-address infrastructure for a soft and mutable system adapted to critical state of environment?

—> Causes of flooding: Heavy rain, storm, monsoon, tropical depression, torrential rain, cyclone, typhoon, hurricane, tsunami, frozen/saturated ground, snow, and ice jam | David Garcia Studio | Floods ı MAP 004.
The 20th has been dominated by decision-makings which outcomes are destroyed landscapes, unsurprisingly, landscape patterns change, and other consequences that affected world's landscapes… rather than being protective and efficient. The bitter observation that we can draw is that this complex may not be protective enough in regard with the increasing complexity of environmental constraints. As the same Brendan Cormier pointed out:

[T]he infrastructure crisis is not just about restoring infrastructure to a pre-existing standard. Concern about environmental impact means infrastructure is expected to operate at a higher performative level than it ever has before. Building more ecologically sensitive systems will no doubt offer cost savings in the long run, but testing out new methods of sustainable design will have higher up-front costs.
The question to ask, I repeat, is how to reinvent infrastructure? A response can be to link architecture with infrastructure. Stan Allen envisions infrastructure as a catalyser to rethinking practice of Architecture, Historian Kazys Varnelis wrote:
[Stan Allen] called for a renewed practice of architecture based on infrastructural ambition, a practice that would allow architecture to turn away from the dead end it had reached as a discursive practice, returning it to its status as a discipline concerned with material. Eschewing both modernism's excesses and postmodernism's obsession with the local and idiosyncratic, infrastructural urbanism instead embraced the basic organizational strategies of network culture of our day: instead of singular, overarching plans, it tuned to emergent, bottom-up schemes, produced by countless actors.
Suggested article: Kazys Varnelis, Infrastructural Fields, Quaderns 261.

So, this Seabrook Floodgate complex must proved durable. It must be scalable, mutable, transforming as it will be facing with natural constraints. It must be capable of problem-addressing New Orleans' specificity and absorbing each threat. Indeed, as coastal flooding being different than other types of flooding, coastal cities, having its own particularities, require adapted and scalable instruments to respond to constraints.
Photo: Jennifer Zdon for The New York Times.
> A streamlined process for obtaining environmental permits helped speed work on the system.
—> Coastal Flooding: Occurs when winds and/or tides cause a rise in the sea level and drive sea water inland | David Garcia Studio | MAP 004 ı Floods | 2011
John Schwartz | Vast Defenses now Shielding New Orleans || New York Times
All the images originally appeared on The New York Times

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