10.20.2015

Post-Apocalyptic Architecture

This post has been bobbing about in my brain for a long time now, and I've yet to fully nail down what it is I want to write about, so enjoy this loose association of thoughts turned into a post.

Architects (and others) seem to have a thing for watching their work come undone.  From Shelley's Ozymandias to "ruin porn," and everything in between, we modern humans seem to have a fascination with the decay and ruin of our greatest works, especially architecture.  English architect John Soane famously had his Bank of England shown in a state of ruin, displayed publicly upon his completion of the project.  (To be fair, partly-complete and partly-destroyed buildings can look quite similar.)  Renaissance and Early Modern painters, especially Panini, loved producing "caprices" showing the ruins of ancient Rome.  Today the artistic way to celebrate decay is with a camera, and Tumblrs-full of photos of Detroit can be found across the web.  I even have some of my own!  Observe:

This is of an art project, so it's not a very good example, but we did see plenty of poorly-tended vacant lots during our trip. I'm just not a very good photographer and didn't want to take photos out of the car window.

I suspect that some of my personal obsession with bad disaster movies (à la Day After Tomorrow) has to do with this same fascination.  Today, not only can we see real ruined buildings in the world, we can watch buildings get destroyed before our very eyes on a giant screen, in an accelerated fashion!  It takes centuries to build a city like San Francisco, but mere minutes to demolish it in San Andreas.  I can work for my entire life to raise a single building, while animators can (virtually) raze it to the ground with a few weeks of 3D modeling.

One of my building projects, under construction.

And yet, even knowing that the movie destruction is all in fun, and while suspecting that our contemporary buildings will look much less attractive in their ruined state than Soane's, the fascination with real ruins remains.  A site I have returned to again and again (in imagination, not in person) is Centralia, Pennsylvania, a city abandoned thanks to an unstoppable, decades-old mine fire that continues to release toxic smoke into the area.  The city has been officially abandoned, the highways to it left unrepaired, and its ten or so remaining residents will be the last, their land taken by eminent domain once they are gone.  The fire will continue to burn below ground, but the town above will be extinguished.

What happens when towns or neighborhoods are wiped away not by state action or economic downturn, but by natural disaster?  Parts of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans look a lot like Detroit, except that its residents did not leave willingly and are still struggling to return.  Flooding was the primary cause of ruin, but failed policies are the continuing cause (among other things).  Other parts of New Orleans look a lot like cities I've visited outside the US, in less-developed countries.  It's amazing to me that in such a well-known city, in such a wealthy country, there can be so much decay.  Maybe it's for the best if we do not rebuild places that climate change will make increasingly untenable, but being in New Orleans makes me want to help build it back again.

Piety Wharf, at a recently-opened city park in New Orleans, aestheticizes an old burned-out pier.

And yet.  It's easy to look over the post-apocalyptic landscape and see the beauty instead of the failures.  It's easy to be fascinated with watching our heroic efforts fall apart, in Blade Runner-style urbanism, instead of with the quietly successful urbanism of Her.  I don't have a real conclusion to this post, as I warned at the beginning, but if I did, it would be something like, post-apocalyptic architecture isn't really architecture but its unraveling, a glorying in our own insignificance and the undoing of all things.  Let's keep it as an art form, but not let it get in the way of making better cities for people.

Hunger and The Hunger Games

I know I'm a little late to the Games here, but after watching Catching Fire I finally got around to reading the trilogy.  And what surprised me the most wasn't the first-person present narration of the books (although that was both surprising and annoying) but the persistent focus on hunger.  Having only seen the movies, I had no sense that food, hunger, and poverty played such an important role in the novels; that part of the story isn't easily translated to the screen, so in the films it gets passed over in favor of the flashy action sequences.  But hunger is a thread woven throughout The Hunger Games, from Katniss's hunting expeditions, to the stark poverty of the District, to the lavish fare of the Capitol, to the search for food and water in the arena.  Katniss and Peeta's relationship is defined by his gift of bread when they are children, just as Katniss and Gale's relationship is defined by their shared struggle to provide food for their families.  Author Susan Collins paints elegant portraits of the food that Katniss tastes on the train, at the training quarters, and throughout the events of the novels.  Specific foods are given symbolic value: the burned bread, the katniss tuber known to Katniss's father, the lamb stew with dried plums, and the roast pig at the Gamemaker's buffet.  I think only the Redwall series of young adult books has a more thorough focus on food, and there's a cookbook for that series!

With the final installment of the movie trilogy-turned-tetralogy set to be released just before the Thanksgiving holiday next month, when the cultural focus is so much on food and feasting, I hope a few folks will pick up the books and find out why they're called the "Hunger Games."  I have to admit that I didn't understand the title at all from watching the films, but it was clearly the right title after reading the books.  The novels are all about the relationship between food/hunger, politics, the media, and power.  The Roman allusions are also harder to trace in the films, but Collins got it right: panem et circenses - bread and circuses - is one way to satisfy the masses.  The Hunger Games is about what happens when those in power try to control the masses instead by restricting access to bread and making the games mandatory.  Since many of the nuances of her political and ethical arguments get lost in translation to the blockbuster form, go read the books!  Then go to the theater and enjoy the spectacle.