Essay and photographs by Virginia Hanusik
Founded on the deltaic plain of the Mississippi River, New Orleans has been described as the impossible, yet inevitable city because of its complex geography that tests the boundaries of human engineering. Hurricanes, floods, and sinking land have forced structural innovation and adaptation in the city and its surrounding coastal communities. As a result, a distinct sense of place has been perpetuated through the built environment.
Louisiana is experiencing a land loss crisis more severe than any environmental disaster in the state’s history. Aerial photographs of the coast and national media coverage of the “first climate refugees” have told a piece of the story of what it means for a physical place to disappear. However, this type of exposure is one small part of a larger picture. A long-term Slidell resident whose home, newly rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina, now floods with every hard rain; a fisherman in Plaquemines Parish whose livelihood is being threatened by river diversions; the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi Chitimacha Choctaw whose ancestral home is dissolving into the marsh: these powerful stories, when paired with in-depth research, serve to educate the public around the relationship between nature and architecture in this vulnerable region.
Particularly given the fraught political moment we all find ourselves in, this project seeks to convey a collective vision of place through architectural portraits that describe the history of building practices in Louisiana. Ultimately, this knowledge can be used to inform future design in the age of climate change. I believe the best way to do this is to combine the accessibility of visual art with academic research in climate adaptation. In doing so, the opportunity to connect Louisiana’s environmental challenges and architectural history to other communities around the world may assist in the fight against climate change.
The time to act has never been more urgent. The Louisiana Office of Community Development is currently outlining the state’s resettlement plan that dictates which communities are able to be saved from encroaching water and which are not. Those who are unable to remain on the land that has been passed down through generations must re-create their lives elsewhere. The built environment, both architecture and infrastructure, are the tangible symbols of this change and deserve to be looked at in depth as a means of understanding the future of human settlement.
With funding from the Graham Foundation, I was able to research throughout South Louisiana by visiting the architectural archives of Tulane University and conduct interviews with residents in coastal communities. The portfolio presented here seeks to capture the complexity and precariousness of the built environment at this moment in time and engage the viewer with daily life on the frontlines of climate change. Rather than photographing scenes of disaster or aerial footage—which allow the audience to dissociate—these images present the everyday landscape.
This project seeks to position itself as a means for connectivity, awareness, and empathy across communities with the aim of thereby strengthening our collective environmental stewardship.
Virginia Hanusik is an artist and architectural researcher whose work explores the relationship between culture and the built environment. Her photographs have been exhibited internationally and featured in publications such as Domus, Places Journal, NPR, Fast Company, Newsweek, and The Atlantic, among others. She received her B.A. from Bard College and is currently working on a project about the architecture of climate change in South Louisiana with support from the Graham Foundation. She is a member of the Climate Working Group at New York University and was ranked as one of Planetizen‘s Most Influential Urbanists in 2017. She lives in New York City.
www.virginiahanusik.com | @virginiahanusik