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Breakdown in the grid

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, destruction clears the way for inventive reconstruction, writes Emmanuel Petit. Photography by Iwan Baan

It is from my aeroplane seat, flying home from a symposium at Princeton University, that I see the devastation that Hurricane Sandy caused along the shore of New Jersey. The symposium honoured Peter Eisenman’s longstanding relationship with the university on the occasion of his 80th birthday. How topical this event turned out to be.

Eisenman had published The Architecture of the Disaster (2009) in reference to Maurice Blanchot’s deeply poetical and paradoxical The Writing of the Disaster (1980) − two books in which the authors argued that aesthetic form can only be fragmentary, incomplete and aphoristic in the face of the disaster ’s impending threat; that the poetics of aesthetic form subverts the notions of clarity, synthesis and presence. Blanchot wrote: ‘The disaster ruins everything, all while leaving everything intact.’

The coincidence of the hurricane and the Princeton occasion (on the topic of ‘Resistance and the Discipline of Architecture’) triggers a whole series of complex questions about the dialectic relationship between the ‘real’ and the ‘intellectual’; it is as if two versions of the sublime had crossed paths: one unwanted and ‘natural’, and one ‘cultural’ (ie, manmade by the architectural intelligentsia).

Fragmentary form appears to be the outcome of both: only in one case we think of it as ‘allegorical’ and ‘textual’, while in the other, it turns into mere rubble and debris. Add the political debates of recent months and the presidential election in the mix, and you have lots of food for thought on the paradoxical condition of modern man (torn between the desert of the real and the sophistications of intellectual and rhetorical finesse).

After Republican candidate Mitt Romney ridiculed President Obama for his talk about saving the planet and caring about rising sea levels instead of the ‘priority’ of the economy, the monster storm made the US aware, once again after Katrina had ravaged New Orleans, of the vulnerability of its cities. Southern Manhattan was without electric power or a subway for a week, and offered a sight of the City that was eerier than after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001.

The effect is properly called the ‘sublime’, which, if we believe Edmund Burke’s definition from his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), creates emotions of terror which are ‘much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure’. New York City looked as sublime as never before, and only an amount of physical and emotional distance could make the sight momentarily transfixing.

New_York_Iwan Baan

Manhattan, desolated and dimmed by Sandy: but the city soon returned to life. Photography: Iwan Baan

The New York Times reported that Columbia University’s seismologist Klaus H Jacob predicted that such hurricane-strength storms could become an annual occurrence by 2100. As a consequence, a (long overdue) debate has been started even in the North-East about how to deal with this problem in high-density agglomerations. Both pragmatic and visionary strategies of ‘managed retreat’, according to which one envisions to prepare for controlled flooding of certain urban areas, are on the table; also ‘soft infrastructure’, which devises natural resources like coastal marshlands, green roofs and natural drainage zones to reduce the impact of flooding; and ‘hard infrastructure’ as well in the form of levees and sea barriers or shields just like they partially exist in the Venice lagoon.

The ‘Plug’, a spherical inflatable that can block subway tunnels to prevent them from flooding, is only the most intriguing of inventions making the news in the past weeks. One realises that nature neither cares about what it destroys in its path nor does it bother what intellectual models humans develop to understand and tame the ‘anthropocene’; it is now important not to let the pendulum swing to the other extreme, which is to conclude from all this that intellectual visions have to take the backseat in view of the overwhelming ‘real’.

This is to say that it will not be helpful to promote a new version of hyper-pragmatics (be it political, social, technological, architectural or theoretical) and blame all visionary and utopian theories that tackle the question of human inhabitation on the planet as merely oneiric and, hence, as a waste of time ‘to get things done’. Many lessons can be learned from the natural disaster. But also this: that some of the more daring and artistic solutions of the human imagination − in the extreme case stemming from science fiction − are also the best riposte to nature’s own terror.

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