art installation with different colored buoys indicating flood levels

These D.C. Art Installations Point to More Than High Water Marks

Depicting a 500-year flood line nine feet in the air, the latest sculpture in this creative series educates on rising waters in one of the area’s lowest lying spots.

Washington, D.C.’s considerable flood history hasn’t stopped developers from building in low-lying areas, nor has it significantly altered residents’ behavior when the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers (and their tributaries) overflow.

A 2006 flood was troubling enough to revive a stalled update of the capital’s levee-and-flood-wall system, though not memorable enough to deter people last year from carrying on business as usual at the Municipal Fish Market in the middle of a flash flood.

How to make people take floods more seriously?

In 2018, D.C.’s Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) solicited proposals from artists to see whether a creative approach could help. Designer Curry J. Hackett and artist Patrick McDonough responded with a system of wayfinding sculptures titled High Water Mark that use sight lines and color to visually communicate flood history and highlight how much worse future events might be.

The latest, installed at The Wharf, is a stabile of colorful buoys suspended at various heights from steel arches and imprinted with the years and high-water lines of past and future inundations. 

To mount the sculpture securely where it would have the most dramatic effect, they had to fabricate a frame of steel arches to suspend the markers above a stormwater manhole and fasten that with bolts to four corners of an existing concrete curb. 

“We needed that location because it’s one of the lowest lying [spots] with the tallest data point,” says McDonough, describing the impact of having to look up to read the information. “The 500-year flood line is nine feet in the air!” he exclaims.

The designers’ enthusiastic approach reflects a shared passion for water management: McDonough was previously on the DOEE’s radar for proposing a collaboration with a microbrewery to use stormwater to make an experimental rainwater beer. Hackett, who earned his B.Arch from Howard University, landed his first job as a subconsultant for the D.C. Water Authority making CAD drawings and believes this gap in public information might be design professionals’ problem to fix. 

black and white portrait of Curry Hackett
black and white portrait of Patrick McDonough

For their first two installations, Curry J. Hackett (top) and Patrick McDonough (bottom) conducted research to determine which Washington, D.C., neighborhoods most needed their bold, friendly reminders, selecting Marvin Gaye Park and Kingman Island, serving predominantly Black neighborhoods along tributaries to the Anacostia River.

“Architects are always talking about climate change, but those conversations get mired in credentials, performance, or LEED certifications—like the conversation is being had on behalf of the public, without the public. What we’re trying to do is engage them directly and offer an incentive to make choices,” Hackett says. Freedom to select the sites (the first two totems are in Marvin Gaye Park and Kingman Island, predominantly Black neighborhoods) got McDonough and Hackett envisioning a gradual expansion of the program throughout the city’s entire 100-year floodplain. “That,” Hackett says, “is a different kind of agency.” 

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