De Graaf is a partner in the Office for Metropolitan Architecture and author of Four Walls and a Roof: The Complex Nature of a Simple Profession.
Ever since humans left their caves, providing shelter has been the focus of their architectural endeavors. Perfecting the art over time, we have come to think of buildings as permanent. When we build, we do it for eternity. Still, whenever disaster strikes, buildings invariably burn, flood or collapse. We have seen a lot of that in the news lately. Grenfell Tower, hurricanes Harvey and Irma and Maria, the Mexican earthquakes, to name a few. Confronted with the fragility of our structures — and the ever-growing power of the elements they face — we start asking questions, search for solutions and, inevitably, turn to architects for answers.
It can give one hope to see the hands-on interventions that architects have provided in the immediate aftermath of disasters. Some have turned shipping containers into shelter for evacuees and refugees. Others have transformed otherwise-disposable paper tubes into partitions in relief shelters and repurposed gymnasiums, into entire concert halls and churches. Several have built structures halfway so their future residents can complete them according to local needs. Still more have provided indoor play spaces for young children after nuclear plants melted down.
Architects have also been engaged in optimistic longer-term solutions. On the hurricane-exposed coast of the Atlantic, a group of architects has developed catastrophe-mitigation strategies that seek to work with the environment, rather than against it. (One team is led by OMA, the firm where I work.) Instead of reinforcing protection against flooding, they accept the reality of sea level rise and incorporate it into the design. Building is confined to safe areas, while vulnerable areas become buffer zones.
Though useful as they might be, the real effect of such ideas remains an open question. Certainly, they raise awareness of global catastrophic risk. But how are they to be applied in existing, densely populated urban areas — the way that now more than half of the world’s population lives? In the end, such projects mainly expose the deficiencies in the way cities have been planned, from a time when responding to climate change was not an issue. It will take more to address these issues than clever solutions devised by architects and other specialists. What is at stake is not so much how to find solutions in our struggle against the elements, but why we are at war with the elements in the first place.
Since the industrial revolution, we have produced a new environment that, perhaps irreversibly, has changed the behavior of the planet. Many of what we call natural disasters are possibly man-made, as many scientists believe that the increasing intensity and occurrence of severe weather phenomena are caused by human activities. The list is long and now even includes earthquakes, as artificial lakes, mining, hydrocarbon extraction and hydraulic fracturing are responsible for induced seismicity. In this context, calling on the “expertise” of architects may bring a certain sense of reassurance that something is being done — or even can be done to solve every potential problem. But when commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is questioned at a national level, as it is in the current U.S. Administration, architects will have little to offer in the way of creating our much-sought-after resilient planet.
Architectural emergency initiatives to remedy the effects are inevitably treatment of symptoms, driven by the urgency of the day, coupled with a combination of emotion and guilt. But until committing to a long-term strategy to counter so-called “natural” disasters is no longer considered too burdensome a notion for governments — because, as is often claimed, it undermines the economy — perhaps we should abandon the notion that our built environment is permanent. That idea is a lot less radical than it sounds; it is little more than the realization that, ultimately, all permanence is temporary. Take the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, built in 2006 in the arctic parts of Norway to ensure the eternal survival of plants necessary for human nutrition in the event of a global catastrophe: It took only 10 years for it to be damaged by a flood caused by an unexpected raise in temperature and rainfall. At the same time, temporariness may be permanent, like the Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria, which have existed continually since 1975, to name just one example.
What difference will it make when we build in the express knowledge that ultimately all buildings disappear, when we make their eventual removal part of their conception? Imagine: We plan the expiration of buildings along with their opening. In the case of disasters, all we need to do is adjust planning. Any notion of regret, or even the often agonizingly futile option of returning to any past state, is eliminated from the equation. The rubble becomes the source material for other buildings, elsewhere, for a different purpose. Work in the wake of major disasters unfolds unburdened by the understandable yet misguided sentimentality currently attributed to the loss of buildings. We can instead focus on the real issues. Even if only a mind shift, perhaps that is the real contribution architects can make: an acknowledgment of the relativity of their own work.