Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Beyond Bladerunner

Continuing with Mike Davis’ “Ecology of Fear” I turn my attention to the future. There is something to be said for the realistic approach. In fact this is exactly what Davis’ calls for in his vision of the future. He takes aim at the “cyber punk” image of the Los Angeles of Bladerunner (no one will concede that this was an attempt at an accurate portrayal but there was an underlying basis for its reality) and uses it to illustrate his point of a real future image.

Davis’ image of the future, he argues, should be constructed through projecting “…exisiting trends along their current downward sloping trajectories…”p362. Sounds encouraging. What he points out are a couple of interesting things which might apply to this study. To begin his extrapolation of our swirl down the toilet of life he notes firstly that “With no hope of further public investment in the remediation if underlying social conditions, we are forced instead to make increasing investments in physical security” p364. So it would seem that we are caught chasing our own tail. Our increased built security measures are responses to problems, not proactive moves for safety and therefore we are always a step behind the problem. Therefore it seems that we need to step sideways instead of running in the same circle, and do something different. Architecture of fear only perpetuates more architecture of fear.

This isn’t helped by a new trend of allowing increased involvement of Police and security consultants in town and architectural planning. Davis’ points this out as its been a common occurrence in Los Angeles since the 80’s and 90’s and its even more prevalent nationwide in the post 9/11 epoch. Handing over too much power to the security “experts’ and taking it away from the architects has created an inequality in the balance of security versus all other aspects of design, the challenge for the architect is now how to hide or disguise the newly required fortification demanded by these experts that screams of paranoia, inhospitality and poor design. Just look around at any government building and you’ll notice this attempt, whether it’s the 2 foot thick concrete planters outside the front, or the 4 story high solid concrete base of the new Freedom Tower proposal.

The question one could ask then is whose hands are these kinds of security choices better left to, the designer, the government or the hands of the people themselves? Davis highlights the increasing vigilantism and the occurrence of bulletproof caged liquor and convenience stores, burglar bars on homes and in general what he refers to as the “Brinks” aesthetic. Depending on your perspective, we’ve become very good at either shutting the world out, or shutting ourselves in.

Lastly, I wanted to call attention to a practice coined “Social Control Districts” as illustrated by Davis. He describes these as the cunning act of combining sanctions of the criminal code with land use planning. The result is four “judicial modes”; Abatement, Enhancement, Containment and Exclusion. You might have heard these being touted by politicians and city officials mostly, the most common, “Our neighborhood is a drug free zone” an example of an “enhancement” mode. Unfortunately what this more often than not accomplishes is pushing the problem to an adjacent neighborhood which promptly does the same thing and so on.

In the end I think this points at two main things. First, that we are treating the problems and not their causes (yes I know, a common refrain) and that architecture of fear only perpetuates more architecture of fear. Secondly, that as architects, much of our power to shape a new alternative to the architecture of fear has been taken out of our hands by “specialists” whose primary concern is far from an overall well designed solution. Perhaps in order to do something different and take back some power of control, architecture as profession needs to be taught some new tricks.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Dialectic of Ordinary Disaster

Mike Davis is a born and raised Californian. I have been to California once, for three days in Los Angeles. He knows more about this than I do. But where Mike Davis is dissecting the Ecology of Fear in Los Angeles, I am dissecting his dissection. Much of what he writes refers directly to Los Angeles or to fear caused by California’s appetite for natural disaster (by way of earthquake, mudslide, or wildfire). That isn’t to say that there aren’t themes to be taken away from this. When Davis refers to the disastrous events that besieged the area during the 1990’s he makes one point which I would like to pull form the burning wreckage. In a word it seems there is a lot of importance in our expectations.

It seems according to Davis that we are the ones to blame for many of the problems which we find ourselves faced with. In the Ecology of Fear, Davis says “Paranoia about nature, of course, distracts attention from the obvious fact that Los Angeles has deliberately put itself in harm’s way” p9. Whether this be through building in flood plains, or turning historic wildfire corridors into view-lot suburbs, and in general through failing to conserve its natural ecosystems it has squandered its charm and beauty. It is where he plants the seed of expectation that I feel a comparison can be made to the subject of this Independent Study. Davis states “the social construction of “natural” disaster is largely hidden from view by a way of thinking that simultaneously imposes false expectations on the environment and then explains the inevitable disappointments as proof of a malign and hostile nature.” p9. The question I pose is this; in terms of our own safety, are we not sometimes recipients of similar thinking? What do we base our concepts of safety on? When was the last time we had a reality check? When was the last time we questioned the numbers?

Davis points out the use of statistics and historical precedents used when calculating worst case weather scenarios for preparation against disaster. His argument is that the data we use today is far too new and short to generate reliable patterns to base anything on. This faulty evidence in turn is used to prop up our expectations and when they are proven to be incorrect, our expectations and plans are dashed. When Davis refers to a “natural” disaster he is referring to what we see as slow moving, evolutionary, gradual, something that happens over thousands if not millions of years. What we need to get used to, is dramatic change.

Dramatic change, Davis argues, is indeed natural as well. While we should be accepting of the events themselves as they happen, I think we should also be accepting of their consequences. I’d like to call attention to occasions where after traumatic events there have been positive reactions and more importantly healthier expectations and predictions of similar events occurring. Things like the fire/building code, zoning laws, and increased security measures have all been responses to great fires, earthquakes, floods and terror attacks. (I’m not arguing that all of these have been applied with appropriate levels of restraint). These have all been the result of GOOD expectations. Situations such as mobile homes in tornado alley, houses perched on mudslide prone hills or in the paths of wildfires are demonstrations of BAD expectations.
Its true I think that there are certain things that we just can’t foresee. I do think after reading Davis though that much of what happens to us we could have seen coming. Like he said, its about our expectations. Once we have GOOD expectations, we are prepared and when we’re prepared, we’re generally safer.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Welcome to the Blog

Welcome to the Blog.

Here's a brief idea of what this is all about:

The post 9/11 condition in America has added a frightening realism, even if only subconsciously, to an everyday fear for safety and fear against attack. It is this condition that has been perpetuated by continued foreign policy and other international incidents.

The addition of current technology which has created instantaneous communication, not just to the privileged but to a mass market, also complicates and makes this condition different than previous historical precedents (i.e. the cold war).

What are the current architectural implications of a fearful society combined with instantaneous communication and connectivity? How does the architecture of survival and fear manifest itself in the context we find ourselves in now? How might lessons learned from this study be applied in a positive real world application?

Over the course of the Spring 2007 semester I will be posting responses to readings and I with any luck I will begin to construct my own theories and connections between them. I welcome your insight and criticism.