A wave of reality should bring a more realistic perspective
Happy New Year! Well not exactly, although I was delighted to survive the seemingly inevitable post-celebratory flu. The horrors of the tsunami put the excesses not just of Christmas but, more importantly, of architecture into some kind of perspective.
The scale of the disaster certainly played on the consciences of the developed nations' governments and populations, as vast sums of money were pledged around the world.
Perhaps the only relief during the traumatic press trawl for personal tragedy was the fact that Tony Blair was away holidaying in Egypt, and so less able to communicate how his crusade to affect life all over the planet would be shaped by the disaster. Still, press releases assured us that Blair was in constant touch with his colleagues. The overwhelmingly obvious fact that none of us can do more than help stem the extent of massive loss of life must be particularly galling for governments which believe they can control the world for the greater good.
What hit home was that this was a 'natural disaster' beyond the control of man. There was no sign of the usual hunt for a guilty party, with the usual demand for action to ensure that this could not happen again. All simply because it suddenly becomes apparent that we are powerless and that no amount of money or design can control this kind of disaster. We can only look at improving early-warning systems and the post-disaster assistance that might limit the loss of life. It is at these moments, if only briefly, that we glimpse the strange parallel worlds we inhabit: the one in which we live; and the one that is brought into our living rooms by television. As a wave devastates the rim of two continents, our projects and their associated problems, which had seemed allconsuming, become suddenly trivial - if only for a few days.
After the initial shock we realise, just as government surely must, that we are powerless to do much more than offer financial aid; and anyway, we have other humdrum responsibilities to take care of.
As I discovered on returning to work last week, emails start flowing, the phone rings and the fallout from the tsunami becomes yesterday's news. The media's attention span is no shorter than that of any individual. I wonder how long it will take for this event to disappear from the headlines?
As far as architecture and construction are concerned, we would do well to reflect on how, in even the most basic ways, we might absorb some lessons for the new year and beyond. A polymath like Buckminster Fuller maintained a fundamental conviction that design was about releasing the potential for civilisation and technology to combine, thereby improving the human condition. He invented geodesic domes because he was interested in the need for economic lightweight transportable enclosures. He could then enjoy the fact that his patented invention (he was of course aware of its commercial commodity) could be used to provide lightweight tents for disaster relief, the occasional do-it-yourself des-res in California, a stunning Expo pavilion and a lot more besides.
The fallout from a natural disaster should not force us to acquire a designer hair shirt (especially when we are fully aware that we will soon despatch it to Oxfam). Indeed, neither helplessness nor despair adds to the pleasure of life. Of course, we should continue to enjoy making rooms that make buildings that make places in cities. It is just that next time we review, read or discuss the latest architectural 'ism', we might also reflect on its usefulness, the pleasure it might bring (and to whom) and the economy with which it was delivered. Think strategy first, for detail comes a poor second. Happy New Year!