Mimi Zeiger on architecture for disaster relief

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A+D exhibition opinion Mimi Zeiger

"These initiatives represent an opportunistic desire to play with extreme conditions"

Opinion: architects' proposals for pre-empting and adapting to the natural crises brought about by climate change aren't necessarily as superficial and politically correct as they may seem, says Mimi Zeiger.


I couldn't sleep last night. LA was having another heatwave and rather than lay awake I read a back issue of The New Yorker, catching up on a report that said a Cascadian earthquake was overdue and would knock out much of the Pacific Northwest. A resulting tsunami would break across the West Coast devastating all architecture and infrastructure west of Interstate 5. "Toast," noted author Kathryn Schulz.

After falling into a fitful slumber, dreaming of higher, more stable ground, I awoke to another blazing day courtesy of climate change. The sky was singed brown at the edges from wildfires taking out homes somewhere more easterly and the sound of helicopters – the vernacular "ghetto birds" – circled overhead. The reason for police action was neither immediately clear nor personally threatening. I made a note – "get earthquake kit" – then brewed coffee. Pending crisis averted.

Over the last decade, especially with the rise of research-oriented design practices, architecture has tried (and struggled) to address crisis. Specific methodologies vary, but two modes dominate: pre- and post-natural disaster. The second we recognise as social-impact design from the likes of Shigeru Ban and others. MacGyver-like, architectures responsive to aftermath are deployable, agile, and cheap. They may even earn you a Pritzker.

The first often combines scientific findings, demographic and economic data, and expert consultants to lay the groundwork for speculative inquiry. Once an area of suitable design interest is identified within the mappings or digital models, the architectural project can commence. One only has to look to MoMA's 2010 exhibition Rising Currents: Projects for New York's Waterfronts for an example, or the post-Hurricane Sandy Rebuild By Design competition headed by Dutch water superstar Henk Ovink, supported by a consortium of design and governmental organisations, and mostly funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.

The recently launched, well-intentioned Dry Futures competition seeks "future-focused design responses to California's drought". Embracing design fiction as a prompt, the competition sets forth with a dystopian narrative – a fascist, water-scarce state, all cracked earth and brown landscapes. "A dusty glass rattles on the Lucite table and the floorboards shudder. Another earthquake? Beyond the now-transparent walls, you see the prone body of the broken city folding into the hip of the mountains. A shimmer of variegated light hovers somewhere above the intersection of Santa Monica and Highland: just another water-line break." The language is prolix, begging the question: is crisis a prompt or an excuse for linguistic embellishment?

The exhibition Shelter: Rethinking How We Live in Los Angeles, now on view at the A+D Museum, is essentially an exercise in housing typologies by a number of the city's emerging and emerged firms. Yet curators Sam Lubell and Danielle Rago can't help but frame the show's argument around the economic and environmental crises buffeting the city. Today's curatorial modes require news hooks.

According to the press release, the exhibition features "creative new residential solutions that respond to the city's increasing density, decreasing buildable land, new transit offerings, growing diversity, ballooning costs, and intense environmental challenges."

Unfortunately or predictably, many of the commissioned firms took the prompt as a leitmotif for form-making. The gallery is filled with interesting-looking models and drawings that at best dabble in responsive design on a shoestring budget. Lorcan O'Herlihy Architects' WATERshed proposes a series of small-scale infrastructural interventions inserted into a generic domestic landscape that "capture, recycle, purify" ground and storm water. An architectural take on reservoirs and rain barrels, these medium-sized storage tanks read as blue biomorphic gestures against a suburban field.

Jimenez Lai, faced with a potentially extreme condition along the Los Angeles River, produced five houses for Shelter, each a take on normal typologies. His proposals are, by his own description, "almost normal" versions of the dingbat, the pool house, the Queen Anne, etc. While it's refreshing to see Lai move his experimentations from a disciplinary holding tank to a hypothetical urban context, he explores this territory using vintage LA tools: deadpan, pastiche, defamiliarisation, and everyday with a newcomer's naiveté. It's nearly impossible not to fall prey to the charms of Ed Ruscha or David Hockney. Artist Ramiro Gomez has made perhaps the best Hockney detournement. By inserting images of gardeners and housekeepers into his homage paintings, he brings back a political narrative into the 1960s works. With Lai's Normal Houses, any attempt to address the crisis of the single or multi-family home – density, affordability, accessibility – is drowned by playful invention in the shallow end of the pool.

In 1998, Mike Davis' Ecology of Fear warned us that Los Angeles is an apocalyptic theme park: "toast" by our making. "Paranoia about nature, of course, distracts attention from the obvious fact that Los Angeles has deliberately put itself in harm's way," Davis famously wrote. "For generations, market-driven urbanisation has transgressed environmental common sense." By building along the coast range, in wetlands, and in the arid LA basin, we had set ourselves up for fires, earthquakes, and droughts. Architecture was the cause of crisis, not the solution. No amount of #droughtshaming could fix that.

Hollywood fantasies of the type documented by Davis 17 years ago were on screen this summer in the movie San Andreas, which grossed more than $468 million worldwide, showing a cross-cultural affinity for "natural-disaster porn". Yet it's a different crisis – drought, not an earthquake – that's shaking up the LA design scene.

The bizarre appointment of Frank Gehry as the architect (figurehead) of the LA River Master Plan, which came to light via LA Times reporters, not an official announcement, was retroactively justified as a kind of drought hack. Gehry's public statements on the issue suggested that hydrology, not design, was at stake. Rather than focusing on restoration and revitalisation, his firm's use of modelling software might lead to the rescue of river water from its sad fate of flowing into the Pacific Ocean. Pending crisis averted.

But do we really want to avoid the crisis, at least in architectural terms? Writing about the Paris floods of 1955, Roland Barthes called the disaster "actually more of celebration than a catastrophe". Commenting on the media photographs at the time, he understood the crisis as surreal pleasure – a phenomenon also evidenced in Iwan Baan's aerial photographs of Manhattan in the hours after Hurricane Sandy. "The rising waters overwhelmed the everyday optic without diverting it toward the fantastic; objects were partially obliterated, not deformed: the spectacle was singular but reasonable," noted Barthes in his essay Paris Not Flooded. "Any rather ample rupture of the everyday introduces festivity."

The spate (dare I say epidemic) of architectural initiatives responding to one future disaster after another demonstrates not necessarily a politically correct, do-gooder's agenda, as one might critique. Instead, if we follow Barthes' logic of processing crisis through media imagery, they represent an opportunistic desire to play with extreme conditions. The intent isn't to ensure that normal remains normal – an unsullied morning of coffee and toast – but to exercise an oft-architectural license: make the normal strange.


Mimi Zeiger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and critic. She is the West Coast editor of the Architects Newspaper and has covered art, architecture, urbanism and design for a number of publications including The New York TimesDomusDwell, and Architect.