Rick Olivier

Jori Erdman, AIA, is the director of the Louisiana State University (LSU) School of Architecture and an executive committee member for LSU’s Coastal Sustainability Studio. By 2100, she says, without major infrastructural interventions, coastal Louisiana will be largely underwater. National, state, and local entities—including LSU and dozens of other institutions—are seeking ways to maintain healthy and productive communities in dynamic natural environments. “Different ecological, infrastructural, and settlement pattern languages mean that people see the Delta Region differently,” she says, “and that has huge implications for how we work and live.”

LSU is a big state institution and a lot of our students come from Louisiana. And Louisianans come to the table with a natural understanding of their dynamic landscape. Teaching resilience is to know the nature of change itself, so they have an enormous advantage from day one. There’s greater public awareness among folks who aren’t from the Delta Region, yes—as more frequent and violent weather changes have cast a light on Louisiana’s landscape in recent years. The problem is that we don’t have a lot of models in architecture through which design can address a changing and dynamic landscape.

The Coastal Sustainability Studio helps students engage constituent groups through a group of “fellows” who are post-doctoral students in the sciences and recently licensed architects and landscape architects who have demonstrated expertise in the area of coastal sustainability. Together, they’re able to engage communities to ask hard questions not only about the future of coastal living, but what can be done today in terms of land remediation in a dynamic region.

Restoration and recovery are complicated terms, then, for the Delta Region—they imply that we can return to a fixed moment in time. But, there’s never been a fixed moment in time here. Embracing the change of coastal systems is our goal and our message. Take river diversion, for instance. It means sometimes letting things flood, which seems illogical. But while water and sediment from a diversion will cover everything in mud, and perhaps temporarily displace us, ultimately it restores nutrients and satisfies the system’s need to change.

It’s such a dynamic region, in fact, that there are several ways to talk about it. When scientists talk about the word “design,” for instance, they’re using it to define a series of experiments supported by methods. Engineers speak about “design” in terms of optimization. When our architecture students and faculty gather around the table, they have to address those definitions in order to contribute to the process. The architect’s capacity to visualize a particular outcome makes us productive members in these conversations and capitalizes on our expert knowledge of the constructed environment. —As told to William Richards