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Kristi Cheramie

Ohio State University

Deconstructing the Imperialist’s Approach to Geomorphology

Understanding the U.S. Army Corps as Landscape Designer

The Situation

Starting in 1849 with the first Swamp Lands Act (the legislative precursor to the Flood Control Acts), a period of sweeping legislative mobilization gave focus to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a branch of the War Department struggling to find political footing in the absence of new work orders for domestic forts and defensive outposts. With American expansion efforts increasingly threatened by seasonal floods, the Army Corps turned its attention to managing the drainage basin of the Mississippi River. A century of geomorphologic imperialism followed, with spillways, levees and control structures emerging as a national imperative. In pursuit of a flood-free environment and flanked by the powers of expropriation and engineering, the Corps restructured the American landscape and assumed the role of land manager in the Mississippi River Basin, simultaneously speeding up and slowing down the effects of seasonal change across a third of the United States. What proceeded was a lengthy environmental arms race in which the Corps unwittingly became the most influential landscape designer in U.S. history.

The details of this history live in the back catalogs of the USACE archives, scattered around the country and largely inaccessible to the very public the Corps has pledged to protect. What we know of the Corps’ designed restructuring of the American landscape remains confined to the abbreviated and highly curated narratives circulated by Corps public relations (see Builders And Fighters: U.S. Army Engineers in World War II). And perhaps this is understandable. In aiming to minimize the tangible threats posed by flooding, the Corps also guaranteed the losses of time, material and space by altering natural systems and segmenting and relocating communities. Its archives are loaded with internal debate, controversy and concern about how to reconcile management with loss, infrastructure and safety with fragmentation and dislocation.

The Provocation

The archives of Olmstead and Vaux, or more recently those of Eckbo, Halprin, and Kiley, are regularly trotted out to feed audiences anxiously awaiting access to their design process. Landscape architects long for the occasional opportunity to augment the experience of a landscape by communing with the complexities of its developmental state. Detritus from the design process (sketches, change orders, construction drawings) has come to play a significant role in shaping the way we practice. While admittedly, the Corps has no responsibility to the practice of landscape architecture, or any other discipline that might in some way benefit from access to their internal process, I do wonder what impact access to these internal exchanges might have on the making of landscape.

Consider, for example, the controversy surrounding the negotiation and eventual purchase of lands for the Morganza Floodway. Buried in the USACE Vicksburg archive are letters to landowners, site analysis, reports from ecologists and hydrologists, letters of concern from branch engineers to district supervisors, requests for information from engineers in other districts thought to be encountering similar challenges, drawings, construction photographs, private misgivings. These documents would illuminate a design process in a state of flux, a landscape-becoming. In the absence of such historical texture, we are left with the singular, monolithic public presence of the Corps and its largely inaccessible landscapes. Should that preclude us from exploring the Corps as architects of the American landscape?  Or can we look to the array of environmental and ideological frameworks scaffolded around the Corps throughout the 20th century?  Can we use our contemporary vantage point to reconstruct a speculative climate within which Corps engineers operated? Can we begin with something as simple as the Corps’ motto: “Essayons,” or “Let us try?” I would argue that this is a designer’s adage, if ever there was one.

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