Responding to storm sandy: Starting a conversation

The first week back at Penn Design this semester there was a discussion regarding storm Sandy, here’s a snippet about it:
“The damage, controversy and “new normal” associated with post-Storm Sandy areas foreground some deeply seated issues in design education, thinking and practice.  The School of Design is initiating this conversation to shed more light on these issues, with the goals of sharpening our fields’ abilities to collaborate and raise the level of contribution the School could make in post-Sandy response. 
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       There were a lot of ideas being tossed around that night – here’s a few that stuck out to me.
       Dean Taylor began the discussion by urging us to consider how design can serve as opposed to dominate. She suggested that by better balancing long term vision with immediate action, design will be more likely to create a better quality of life as opposed to consume and create more problems.
       Randy Mason from preservation challenged us to consider design that re-inhabits as opposed to simply rebuilds.
      Our new chair Winka Dubbeldam explained how in the Netherlands policy and design work closely together. One of the mistakes often made in the states, she said, is thinking of natural disasters as independent, unpredictable and unexpected events. In the Netherlands, these disasters are not treated as surprises but instead are common knowledge; the melting of the icecaps from nearby mountains for example, pose a potential flood danger that most people are aware of. Keeping this in mind, architects can design their infrastructures proactively, as opposed to reactively. Perhaps part of better approaching disaster related efforts in the states requires a redefinition of ‘resiliency.’
      Our 502 studio coordinator Annette Fierro challenged us to consider design for crises by imagining ‘expanding gradients of time’ – for us to consider interaction in a world landscape wherein event strategies can collapse within each other to consider conditions within and across a stratum of time. Instead of thinking of emergencies as singular events to be simplified into ‘before and after’, she asked us to consider what was 100 years ago? 50 years ago? How can different temporal iterations help change our notion and deployment of design?
       From 600 level, Jessica Morris asked if it would be possible for us to problematize these social issues in our studios on a more regular basis? One suggestion was for us to become activists outside of being architects, away from studio and within our larger communities.
       Dr. David Leatherbarrow discussed resistance, resilience, and coexistence. He suggested that we must be able to coexist among things that haven’t been seen -part of existence, he says, is being part of something you can’t control. Dean Taylor also reiterated this idea by urging us to shift our thinking from the ‘privilege to consume’ mindset to an ‘investment in thinking of the dynamic of things we can’t control…we can’t control the indeterminate, so must use exciting design (graphic or otherwise) to turn information into something people can grasp and engage with. Problems must be re-framed. When working with people from different skill-sets we must better recognize the differences in processes.’
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There were many other ideas mentioned, here’s a few more to consider:
  • How do we choose between the option to build vs. retreat? When is it better to buy people out to disperse after an emergency as opposed to provide them with the resources to ‘rebuild’ and ‘recover.’ Similarly, should the line between ‘response’ and ‘recovery’ be blurred?
  • Perhaps the problem originates in the design prompts rather than the design. Instead of simply accepting what we are being told to design, how can we think more critically to question and when necessary redefine our briefs?
  • ‘invisible infrastructure’ as a tool? How can communication design be better utilized as a tool to convey and share relevant data?
Some thoughts to summarize:
  • narrative & counter-narrative
  • disaster as a slap in the face for design
  • land between sea and land
  • consider design as richer discussion than just before/after conditions
  • what is the necessary knowledge?
  • idea that a community chooses to move
Whew! That’s quite a lot to think about for now. Hopefully we’ll be continuing this conversation as the semester progresses. I’m excited for what’s in store this year! Stay tuned for some competition boards relating to this post! Happy 2013.