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Exhibition Review: Designing for Disaster

By Amanda Kolson Hurley
May 13, 2014
Photo © Wall of Wind™, Florida International University

The International Hurricane Research Center in Miami features 12, six-foot tall fans—a virtual Wall of Wind—capable of simulating Category 5 hurricanes to test the performance of structures and materials.

In the weeks before the exhibition Designing for Disaster opened on May 11 at Washington, D.C.’s National Building Museum, a wildfire in Oklahoma forced 1,000 people to evacuate and tornadoes ripped through the South and Midwest, killing 34 people. In the U.S., the threat of natural disaster is always with us.

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As the exhibition (open through August 2, 2015) makes clear, our strategies for preventing disasters and lessening their impacts have evolved a lot over the past quarter-century. The show smartly brings these to the fore and makes them tangible, letting visitors unleash gusts on miniature houses in a replica hurricane testing lab, or activate expansion joints to move as in a quake. Throughout, Designing for Disaster stresses how much an individual can do to prepare, from creating fire breaks or buffers around a home to putting together a “go-bag” in case of emergency.

The show is organized by elements: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. In the Earth room, a mockup of stairs at California Memorial Stadium in Berkeley demonstrates how expansion joints allow the structure to roll with a temblor—a good idea, since the historic stadium sits directly on top of the Hayward Fault. (It got a full seismic upgrade a few years ago.) “The star of this room is the engineer,” said the curator, Chrysanthe Broikos.

In the Air section, visitors can peer into an eight-by-eight-foot safe room built to FEMA specifications out of vertically reinforced concrete masonry units, plywood, and steel. As Broikos points out, FEMA didn’t have these specifications until the late 1990s. Similarly, the International Residential Code didn’t require continuous load paths, which better resist high winds, until 2000. Broikos speculates that the 9/11 terrorist attacks interrupted the momentum for disaster preparedness that had been growing after Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Of the four parts of the show, Water is the least satisfying. SCAPE founder and design director Kate Orff’s widely-discussed Oyster-tecture scheme gets top billing, while the less well-known but interesting story of Valmeyer, Illinois, a town relocated entirely after a flood in 1993, gets lost. Timing doesn’t seem to have worked in the organizers’ favor; the Rebuild by Design competition just produced 10 schemes for a resilient New York/New Jersey coastline, but these no doubt arrived too late to make it into the show.

The final room of the exhibition has a pantry equipped with emergency supplies like plastic sheeting, duct tape, and sunblock. Walking into it is a bit unsettling—it’s our generation’s version of the bomb shelter. We know that disasters are getting more severe and occurring with more regularity. We can see it and feel it, in addition to hearing 98 percent of the world’s climate scientists say so. Therefore it’s odd and disappointing that the show makes no mention of climate change (at least none that I could find). Designing by Disaster is great at educating visitors about how they can be more hazard-proof. But it misses an opportunity to tell them why they have to be.

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