Way Beyond Bigness: The Need for a Watershed Architecture

May 8, 2022

Essay by Derek Hoeferlin excerpted from his forthcoming book Way Beyond Bigness: The Need for a Watershed Architecture (Applied Research and Design Publishers).


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Mississippi River Basin. © Derek Hoeferlin.

All my daydreams are disasters
She’s the one I think I love
Rivers burn and then run backwards
For her, that’s enough
—Uncle Tupelo, “New Madrid” 19931


Implies a web of umbilical cords to other disciplines whose performance is as critical as the architect’s: like mountain climbers tied together by life-saving ropes, the makers of Bigness are a team.… Beyond signature, Bigness surrenders to technologies; to engineers, contractors, manufacturers; to politics; to others. It promises architecture a kind of post-heroic status—a realignment with neutrality.
—Rem Koolhaas, “Bigness, or the problem of Large,” in S,M,L,XL, 19952


Early in the morning on August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast of the United States. When the storm made landfall, it had a Category 3 rating on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale—it brought sustained winds of 100 to 140 miles per hour—and stretched some 400 miles across. The storm itself did a great deal of damage, but its aftermath was catastrophic. Levee breaches led to massive flooding, and many people charged that the federal government was slow to meet the needs of the people affected by the storm. Hundreds of thousands of people in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama were displaced from their homes, and experts estimate that Katrina caused more than $100 billion in damage.

For context, two moments have led me to question my role as an architect in relation to larger, contemporary issues of the built environment, and by extension why architects, as well as other design disciplines, should be part of such efforts. At first glance, both may seem an odd couple, and a borderline, let alone superficial way to theoretically underpin a design-research project about water-based issues. But in all honesty, both are how I came to this body of work, so it’s kind of personal, and please take it as it is.

  1. The publication of S,M,L,XL in October 1995, featuring Rem Koolhaas’s manifesto “Bigness, or the problem of Large.”
  2. The landfall of Hurricane Katrina just outside of New Orleans in August 2005.

In “Bigness,” Rem Koolhaas specifically targeted architects to surrender to complex modes of technologies, politics, and economics. When the essay was published in 1995, it was set within emerging issues of globalization in the 1990s, that is emerging at least to the architecture discipline. At the time, I was an architecture student at Tulane in New Orleans and fascinated, as were many others at the time, by Koolhaas’s provocation, albeit with naïveté. As he states in the above quote, Koolhaas challenged “the makers of Bigness [to be] a team.” But as time has passed and as I have moved through my academic and professional career, I now wonder if Koolhaas was actually charging architects to work outside of the scale of a building, or just to better work with consultants to design bigger and bigger buildings. And bigger buildings that ultimately could consume the notion of the city, or become the city? All the while, set within a globalized, neoliberal economic context? I argue that we (architects, landscape architects, urban designers) need to go “Way Beyond” what I believe can be regarded in our contemporary context as a myopic definition of “Bigness.”

Rather, specific to the themes I present in my design-research, the contemporary question to ask is: Why should the term architecture, or any design discipline for that matter, be part of river basin–scale decision-making? And ones, particularly in the United States, that are designed both in policy and physicality through engineered forms?

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Fort Peck Spillway, Missouri River, Montana, 2018. © Derek Hoeferlin.

In order to address the complex challenges impacting multiple scales set within river basin contexts, I believe a new synthetic notion of architecture, as well as landscape architecture, urban design, and other design disciplines needs to emerge and work far beyond an envelope of a building, or a definition of a landscape, or a boundary of a city, or a predominantly engineered system.

Designers need to be part of a new type of interdisciplinary, trans-boundary, decision-making design table. This table is a messy one for sure, and one rife with conflict. But designers possess a particularly unique toolset to negotiate possibilities within such a milieu.

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New Orleans, Louisiana, 2005. © Derek Hoeferlin.

In 2005, ten years after the publication of S,M,L,XL, Hurricane Katrina catapulted the fields of design into an unprecedented human-altered “natural disaster,” and as such, challenged designers to prove their relevance. Although still the costliest “natural disaster” in US history, we would soon realize that Hurricane Katrina was not just a one-off, let alone a disaster specific to the Gulf Coast of the United States, or other coastal contexts for that matter. Since Katrina in 2005, and especially since 2008, frequent extreme weather events and water-related catastrophes in the United States—both coastal and inland—have repeated over and over and over again. Couple this with the accelerating realities of the effects of climate change and crises in the US and elsewhere, and we can only assume that more events will continue relentlessly and with intensity.

While Koolhaas does not refer to water in “Bigness,” Hurricane Katrina was almost all about water. But both “Bigness” and Katrina are definitely what I define as “watershed,” or tipping-point events for the design disciplines, and more selfishly for my research interests as an architect. To repeat, although Koolhaas targeted architecture in “Bigness,” I extend this is not limited to the discipline of architecture.

By extension, these calamities have challenged design disciplines’ roles in complicated community, political, and multiscale post-disaster contexts. We are now challenged as designers to step up, and to engage, and to finally get out of our bubbles, both academic and professional ones. But how to do so? Can the academic-professional divide truly remain intact to adequately address such challenges? I contend it cannot. Therefore, this is a dilemma that is “Way Beyond Bigness.”

But maybe there’s a clue. Can water-based design optimistically engage such “impossible problems,” and in doing so, productively offer new possibilities?

Therefore, the following design-research project prioritizes water as a transformative agent for the design disciplines, and at multiple scales—what I define as “Way Beyond Bigness: The Need for a Watershed Architecture.”

As architects, it is our responsibility to appreciate, to speculate, and to collaborate regarding the possibilities of how the engagement with water ultimately impacts, and potentially prioritizes, our design decisions. These global fundamentals must reinstate an understanding of the complicated built environments we and all other species share. These are ones we cannot continue to dominate with hardline and static interventions, but rather ones we should begin to design with adaptive and dynamic negotiations. To do so, architects must become better aware of architecture’s trans-scalar relationships—spatially, temporally, and geopolitically. This is not just for architecture’s sake, but also, and more importantly, for architecture’s multi-scaled integration with landscape architecture, engineering, infrastructure, urbanism, policy, economy, ecology, law, hydrology, public health, etc.; and ultimately, the larger distribution context of watersheds that all designs inhabit. In other words, the inevitable, and hopefully smarter, next step in the dynamic networking of human manipulated built environments.

“Way Beyond Bigness” prioritizes two approaches:

  1. The understanding of the larger-scale effects of “watersheds” for design decisions. More specifically, how can designing with water and infrastructure integrate best with the built environment?
  2. The inevitable, yet resilient, need to adapt to contemporary, tipping-point “watershed” events in time.

“Way Beyond Bigness” proposes a simple, adaptive framework that utilizes an integrative design-research methodology, structured in three parts:

Appreciate + Analyze [A+A]
Speculate + Synthesize [S+S]
Collaborate + Catalyze [C+C]

Woven throughout the three parts, “Way Beyond Bigness” attempts to realign watersheds and architecture across multiple:

Scales (sites to river basins)
Disciplines (ecologists to economists)
Narratives (hyperboles to pragmatics)
Venues (academics to professionals)

This necessary realignment is what I define as “Watershed Architecture [WA].” Given our complex contemporary challenges—specifically in relation to water—current design-research cannot be accomplished by one author, or for that matter, by one architect, landscape architect, or urban designer. Rather, it requires collaborations that oscillate inside and outside typical design disciplines’ definitions, breaking down typical professional and academic dichotomies.

Further, “Watershed Architecture” recasts Oxford Dictionary’s two very different definitions for a “watershed”: 1) “An area or ridge of land that separates waters flowing to different rivers, basins, or seas” and 2) “An event or period marking a turning point in a situation in a course of action or state of affairs” and its two very different definitions for “architecture”: 1) “The art or practice of designing and constructing buildings” and 2) “the complex or carefully designed structure of something.”

Conflict, Hybridity, and Audience

But for “Watershed Architecture” to succeed, first we need to focus on the topic of “conflict.” Conflicts are difficult positions for designers to comfortably engage. Primarily, what is the designer’s role is such water-based problems and “conflict resolution?” If the architect, landscape architect, or urban designer does intervene, what are the rules of engagement, the appropriate interventions, the legible processes, and the ultimate impacts? The first answer I mention above: these problems cannot be addressed by a single decision-maker, aka, the authority. This is especially the case when water-based challenges are inherently about conflicts, usually between multiple parties arguing over water resource allocations across geopolitical boundaries. Historically, such conflicts and their resolutions have fallen outside of the design disciplines’ influence, which I contend is not productive, and hopefully will be evidenced by the notion of Watershed Architecture I put forth.

In Transboundary Water Conflict Resolutions: Substitutes or Complements, Ahmed Tayia reviews various theories about the management of transboundary water resources “that are shared across political borders, which is henceforth referred to as transboundary water conflicts.”4 Tayia assesses multiple approaches to water conflict resolutions, specifically focused on the disciplines of engineering, economics, political science, and management—the “facilitation of the process of water management.”5 Although the author acknowledges that each of the disciplinary approaches offers specific mechanisms to water conflicts, including allocations, optimizations, the applications of game theory, and political constraints, they have not “resulted in tangible actual practice of transboundary water conflict resolution.”6 The author ends the essay by arguing for “hybrid mechanisms” to integrate multiple approaches, requiring “more collaboration and openness by practitioners to research and academic community.”7 But to be clear, the author never mentions any design disciplines as part of the components to the equation. However, I believe this “hybrid” space is precisely where the design disciplines can intervene, and where we possess the agency for analyzing, synthesizing, and catalyzing multiple points of views, across multiple scales. With the possibility of Watershed Architecture, designers can contribute their unique capabilities to offer the beginnings of comprehensive, graphically legible templates for multiple user-groups and stakeholders to debate, and to do so precisely in the space of conflict resolution.

New Methods for Engagement

The intended goal of my design-research advocates for design disciplines to possess new tools to engage a wider audience of river basin management projects, by gaining an objective and more technical perspective on issues with which they may not be familiar. I believe architects, landscape architects, urban designers, and practitioners of other design disciplines can contribute important ideas, both in terms of graphic legibility, as well as important ideas that directly impact the built environment at territorial scales beyond their typical disciplinary definitions and scales. But to do so, designers need to embrace a more technical grounding from other fields working in river basin management. And conversely, these other fields have much to gain from various, more generalist-oriented skill sets that design disciplines bring to promoting a healthier and more adaptive built environment.

Since my primary home and workplace is in St. Louis, Missouri, along with prior and continuing work in New Orleans, Louisiana, the bulk of my design-research begins, prioritizes, and ends, in the Mississippi River Basin. But this work is critically understood comparatively with two other major river basins: the Mekong and the Rhine.

The following provides a glimpse into the first part of the methodology, Appreciate + Analyze, which includes field documentations and analytical drawings that highlight issues of living with, or living without, water in the Mississippi, Mekong, and Rhine River Basins. The intention is for these multi-scaled analyses across these three river basins to serve as a platform for a clearer understanding of complex issues within and between the three.

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Atlases of the Mississippi, Mekong, and Rhine. © Derek Hoeferlin.

As part of my work with my research assistants Jess Vanecek, Paul Wu, Chenyu Zhang, and Caroline Amstutz, as well as building upon many architecture, landscape architecture, and urban design studios I have taught at Washington University in St. Louis since 2010, we have created a comparative set of atlases for the Mississippi, Mekong, and Rhine. The structure and content are intentionally simple and prioritize photographic documentations and orthographic two-dimensional mappings, along with other mapping techniques such as flowcharts and globe projections. These combine to legibly narrate very complicated themes and scales across the river basins, particularly in relation to dam infrastructure and methods of control across the three. The hope is for these to be used by people in both design and non-design-based disciplines, either academics or professionals, and to be shared with various communities and user groups for accessibility.

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Section following the path of the Mekong River. © Derek Hoeferlin.

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Mekong River Basin management structure. © Derek Hoeferlin.

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Mekong River Basin. © Derek Hoeferlin.

First, each basin’s complicated management regimes are introduced—since trans-boundary negotiation structures underpin everything that follows. Second, metrics are organized around themes that include: lengths, areas, populations, urbanizations, densities, territories, tributaries, volumes, and topographies. Third, each river basin is individually understood and analyzed at multiple scales in orthographic plans and sections delineated at the same scales for comparative purposes: world, continent, territory, region, and zone. As one example, the following mappings highlight the Mississippi River Basin at the continent, territory, and region scales.

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Plan of the Mississippi River Basin. © Derek Hoeferlin.

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Plan of the Mississippi River Basin Territory 01: Missouri River Basin. © Derek Hoeferlin.

To truly comprehend the enormous scale of trans-boundary challenges across the Mississippi, Mekong, and Rhine River Basins, particularly in regard to debating the impacts these have had on communities, ecologies, and industries, the atlases bluntly focus on the monumental methods of controlling the systems and how the methods layer on other sets of carefully curated information. To do so, the mappings are intentionally objective and fact-driven; orthographic and linework based; abstracted and stripped of extraneous information; and, delineated in only plan and section. Additionally, indicative photographs of each scale supplement the mappings. Mappings prioritize black-and-white linework, with the exception of two colors: red, indicating forms of power (dams, levees, and transmission lines); and green, indicating large regions of production and growth (agriculture and forested areas). Subtle hatchings and gray tones indicate larger contested territories (indigenous lands, aquifers, urbanized areas, resource extraction landscapes, conservation areas, floodways, and spillways). The mappings intentionally riff on the orthographic tools of architectural and engineering projection methodologies, such as flowcharts and deploying the need for vertical exaggeration in section to abstract vast scales. They cast a critical light on these historically deployed “drawings of control” to be able to set the stage for the real impacts that “infrastructures of control” have had on communities and societal and climate-change challenges.

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Oxbow Lake, New Madrid Floodway, Missouri, 2020. © Derek Hoeferlin.

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Plan of the Mississippi River Basin Region 03: Mississippi, Red and Atchafalaya Rivers. © Derek Hoeferlin.

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Section through the Mississippi, Red and Atchafalaya Rivers. © Derek Hoeferlin.

Ultimately, the themes narrate complicated issues across each river basin that span multiple scales, and as such, act to highlight both similarities and differences between the river basins. But all three arguably emphasize one objective: the relentless control of each river basin’s water resources for exploitive land-uses. And in the Mississippi River Basin’s case, the continued reliance on the twentieth century engineered tools of navigation, flood control, water supply, petrochemicals, power generation including hydro and fossil fuels, when combined, lead to our collective, crippling reliance on big agricultural and industrial economies. And when set against our twenty-first century anthropogenic challenges, these outdated systems will not sustain themselves.

Stay tuned for the release of Way Beyond Bigness: The Need for a Watershed Architecture, which will dive into much more detail for the Mississippi, Mekong, and Rhine River Basins in the Appreciate + Analyze section of the book, including guest contributions from multiple disciplines conducting water-based research across the basins, as well as trans-boundary watershed futures in the Speculate + Synthesize section, and alternative public engagement approaches for trans-boundary possibilities in the Collaborate + Catalyze section.

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Rhine River Basin Speculative Future, codesigned by Derek Hoeferlin, Han Meyer, Jess Vanecek, and Paul Wu. © Derek Hoeferlin.

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Tracing_Our_Mississippi, Columbus, Indiana, 2021. © Hadley Fruits, courtesy of Exhibit Columbus.

1 Farrar-Tweedy, Uncle Tupelo, “New Madrid,” track 6 on Anodyne, Sire Records, 1993, LP.
2 Rem Koolhaas, “Bigness, or the Problem of Large,” in S,M,L,XL: Office of Metropolitan Architecture, ed. Jennifer Sigler (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 1995), 513–514.
3 Editors, “Hurricane Katrina,” HISTORY, accessed November 4, 2020, (A&E Television Networks, original published date 2009, last updated 2019).
4 Ahmed Tayia, “Transboundary Water Conflict Resolution Mechanisms: Substitutes and Complements,” Water 11 (June 2019).
5 Ibid., 2.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid, 33.