Construction from Calamity

Marjetica Potrč adapts her site-specific sensibility to the city of New Orleans.

The Slovenian artist and architect Marjetica Potrč has been thinking about site-specific sustainability for far longer than it’s been a buzz word in the design community. During her career—which has, so far, encompassed online projects, building projects, photographs, drawings, objects, and experimental prototypes of useful objects—Potrč has engaged urban and rural conditions, examined how people live differently depending on where they are, and even suggested new designs for fuel cells. Potrč has created installations based on houses by Sam Mockbee’s Rural Studio, and, for something completely different, “tensegrity” structures for the flash-in-the-desert Burning Man Festival in Nevada.

In 2007 the Ljubljana-based artist working in New Orleans for six weeks as part of a fellowship awarded by the Vera List Center for Arts and Politics at the New School. Potrč took her interest in political turmoil and sustainability and explored the ways that water has affected and threatened the city’s stability both pre- and post-Hurricane Katrina. The project is currently on view at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans as part of the show Something from Nothing, and will be presented at the New School this coming spring.

She spoke with about Katrina, sustainability, and what the city of New Orleans needs to learn about their water supply.

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I’m reaching you in New Orleans. What are you doing there?
I was invited here by Dan Cameron of the Contemporary Arts Center – I’m participating in an exhibition called Something from Nothing. His invitation coincided with the fact that I received a fellowship from the Vera List Center to do research.

I’m here to look at culture and to try and see how you can learn from New Orleans after Katrina. I’m focusing on two issues: sustainable architecture after Katrina and the wetlands. What I see in the city now—as it’s still very soon after Katrina–is a city that has a chance and wants to be reinvented. The wetlands and the barrier islands, this is the territory which makes and protects the city. If you look at the city from far away, you have the barrier islands which are the first protection line, then there are the wetlands, then the third protection line is the levees, and behind the levees is this city.

What have you learned about the area?
It’s a shrinking city, and to protect the future it has to be a sustainable city. I’m particularly interested in water-related issues. I’m working with the New Orleans organization Futureproof/ed. They’re trying to reinvent water within the system—harnessing rainwater to turn into drinking water.

The city doesn’t like the language of modernism, the square buildings, white columns, and the typical democracy that is modernism as architecture. The city wants to have another democracy that isn’t associated with twentieth century modernism. It’s interesting—I don’t think they need architects as much as they need ecological engineers. They work with nature, they initiate a process and then the process is taken by nature, which completes the job.

Can you give an example of something started by people and finished by nature?
There was a lot of infrastructure put in the marshes during the late twentieth century. One of them is Mister Go, a canal. It was supposed to be a shortcut for boats to come directly to New Orleans but it was never very successful. The problem was the intrusion of salt water in towards the city. One idea is to push wastewater from the city down the canal, which would avert the intrusion of saline water towards the marsh. This would get rid of the saline intrusion but also revitalize the cypress swamps and the wetlands and so on.

What are some earlier projects you’ve done that helped inform this?
A big body of my work is about on-site projects. These are projects that are always functional, and basically just focus on infrastructure problems. I did one for the Sharjah Biennial in the United Arab Emirates about saline water. There’s water that comes from the salination plant and I wanted to clean the water so that it could become drinking water by using solar energy.

Another one of my most important projects was one I did in 2003 in Caracas, Venezuela, with an architect friend of mine. We made a dry toilet that doesn’t need any water to operate.

Everyone is interested in sustainable architecture now, but you’ve been doing this for a long time.
My work is usually about sustainable architecture, or about new forms of how people want to live together. It’s about infrastructure and how the community thinks what the best way to live together is.

It’s society. I’m not just talking about architecture, building, or ecology, but in larger terms, trying to look at things in terms of society. Some people call me an urban anthropologist.

Recent Projects