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.


Jeannie said...

As you note already, Davis's notion of unnatural vs. natural 'change' is decidedly tempered by the fact that he is from California. He’s also about the closest thing that the discipline has to a gonzo journalist, so much of what he says/writes should be filtered by a bit of good ol’ northeast skepticism. Just as an aside (although I don’t want to you to read it because the point of this exercise is focus… not distraction), I would add to the Glover book, the book by Samantha Power on America and genocide… equally terrifying. But, I digress. The key to power vis-a-vis our constant state of war seems to lie in the control of information. So… my question is, how or why is this architectural?

g+a said...

Good question, thanks for helping me keep my eye on the prize. Architecturally speaking I think that what remains in my brain after reading this is the aspect of dramatic change. Davis is speaking for the most part on a much larger urban scale but I think that as architects we fall into the same trap of accepting a stable and predictable context to then situate our projects. It ties back to this idea of expectations. We expect the ground underneath or projects to remain exactly where it is, we expect a certain level of behavior in the occupants who inhabit it and we expect that for the most part we can bank on a general acceptance of the way things have been done in the past as a roadmap for how they can be done in the present and the future.

You also bring up the topic of information and control. Davis makes reference to the information used to predict our surroundings (climate for the most part). This, I think is where the control happens. Ironically it would seem that the statistics and other data have been somewhat softened to fool ourselves into a false sense of security when in actual fact it might lead to more lax preparation and ultimately more danger and a greater sense of fear.

F said...

I think this is pertinent to all the news about the recent report on climate change by the IPCC. Maybe it is the acceptance of consequences that is so problematic. We assume, as people living in a global community with access to awesome technology, that we will be able to handle any kind of disaster -- if and when it comes.

It is acceptance, but it can also just be denial. And even if you want to be part of a group of architects responding to global climate change (which is very exciting -- is there one?), you would have to convince your clients that this would be in their best interest right now. Even indisputable -- if there are any -- statistics on global warming won’t affect someone with his or her eyes fixed on the bottom line.

George - This is depressing stuff. I’m going to go watch cartoons now.

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