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The Extraordinary vs. the Everyday Catastrophe: Part 1

This article was first published by Archinect on 10 Sept, 2010 and it has been republished by Architects for Peace with due permission from its authors.

Sunday August 29th marked the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall in Louisiana. On April 20th of this year, an explosion on Deepwater Horizon – an oil drilling rig stationed near Louisiana – killed 11 crew-members, and set off the largest offshore oil spill in the history of the United States. These 2 extraordinary catastrophes have each brought into focus the more insidious everyday catastrophes that plague their respective systems.

About a week after the explosion on Deepwater Horizon, I was sitting in on the final review for Derek Hoeferlin’s urban design studio (at the Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Design | Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts | Washington University in St. Louis, where Derek is a faculty member and I am a student). As it came to a close, the review transitioned into a conversation between the students and reviewers, and at one point, Derek made a comment about catastrophes that struck a chord with me.

What follows is a conversation between Derek and his former student Jess Garz (WUSTL alum and current graduate student at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning). Their conversation – which includes contributions by several others – struggles with the issues raised by distinct catastrophic events and ongoing systemic failures, and asks what role design and design education can play in addressing catastrophes of everyday life.

Make sure to click through to Part 2 & Part 3 of this feature, which are illustrated by student work from Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Toronto, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – including several examples of work created as part of the Gutter to Gulf initiative.

Aaron Plewke:  Derek, the idea for this conversation came from a comment you made at your Urban Design studio's final review in early May (about a week after the oil rig explosion that began the ongoing disaster in the Gulf of Mexico).  As a starting point, can you re-state your perspective on the everyday vs. the singular catastrophic event for the Archinect audience?

Derek Hoeferlin
July 14, 2010
Day 86 of BP Oil Spill

A week or so after the Deepwater Horizon oil explosion, most eyes, at least via the media’s gaze, were on the unfortunate lives lost from the explosion, rather than the impeding environmental disaster of what was oozing upward from deep beneath. I made a comment in a review of my Washington University in St. Louis urban design students’ work that stems from my past 5 years worth of leading architecture and urban design studios focusing on the rebuilding of the New Orleans region following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

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image credit: © Stan Strembicki

The comment is this:

The real problems we face, not just as designers but as citizens, are not Extraordinary Catastrophes but rather Everyday Catastrophes.

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Lower Ninth Ward destruction from Industrial Canal levee breach. image credit: photo by Derek Hoeferlin, Spring 2006

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Upper Ninth Ward flooding from everyday heavy rains. image credit: photo by Gutter to Gulf studio, Spring 2010

Part of why I say bring this up is of self-critique. As architects, artists, designers and educators, we collectively, including myself, have fallen into a “repetitive-cause” trap that follows pretty much any crisis in the United States of America.

The real problems we face, not just as designers but as citizens, are not Extraordinary Catastrophes but rather Everyday Catastrophes.
It is a trap of responding to that of the Extra-ordinary catastrophe (i.e. Hurricane Katrina=levee failures; Deepwater Horizon oil-platform explosion=BP oil spill; exotic mortgage lending=2008 Economic collapse; 2001 terrorist attacks=Afghan/Iraq wars, etc.), rather than preventing what is right in front of our noses – that of the Every-day catastrophe (i.e. water management crises tied to poor development policies; our addiction to finite fossil fuel resources tied to the USA’s reliance on private industries for such resources; irresponsible practices of both the public and private sectors tied to Wall Street decision-making; or, national security issues tied to the USA’s complicated relationship on the global stage).

Maybe putting it more dumbly: Compare this reactive method to what has grossly lacking in our nation’s health care system – insuring preventative care.

But for some reason we have gotten into our bottom-line mindsets that prevention is economically unfeasible. There is no clear dividend on this strange form of “speculative” investment. In other words, collectively we have lost sight of design as foresight.

What is economically unfeasible is this: many of the fishermen who fetch bountiful quantities of fish we eat are out of [their original] jobs because of this gross negligence on all of our parts. According to the USDOC, Commercial fishing accounts for over $200 million of Louisiana’s annual economy, over 20% of the lower 48 states. The fish are dying; the fisherman’s wetland communities are disappearing.

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image credit: © Stan Strembicki

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image credit: © Stan Strembicki

But disappearing wetlands began far before the BP oil spill. According to the USGS: 1,900 square miles lost since 1930 (Louisiana has 30% of the total coastal marsh and accounts for 90% of the coastal marsh loss in the lower 48 states), 24 square miles a year between 1900-2000 (areas the size of one football field every 38 minutes), current projected land loss over next 50 years is 500 square miles; and, 217 square miles of marsh were lost to open water as a result of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita alone.  Climate change, rising seas, sinking land, single-line-defense-levees cutting off natural Mississippi River sediment discharge resulting in salt water intrusion; and, oil and natural gas pipelines cutting through the interconnected wetlands to deliver energy to a majority of the United States, have most to do with this.  According to the Louisiana Dept. of Natural Resources, Louisiana ranks 1st in crude oil and 2nd in natural gas production in the US. All of these are arguably human made, and most only made within the last century. All a Gordian knot.

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Economic importance of Gulf region. image credit: Gutter to Gulf studio – Washington University students Philip Burkhardt, Erin Dorr, Jonathan Dowse, Brendan Wittstruck statistics compiled at: factsheet09‐14‐2009.pdf

It is estimated that 2-4 miles of healthy wetlands can reduce storm surge height by 1 foot.  Most do not know this, but healthy coral reefs reduce storm surge as well (as was the case with the 2004 SE Asia tsunami). Who knows what the status of the fragile Gulf of Mexico coral reefs are in the wake of the BP oil spill. We tend to ignore what we can’t see. Out-of-site, out-of-mind. We can see [what’s left of] the wetlands...we can’t see what’s happening to the coral reefs – reefs that are the basis for marine life.

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Wetlands provide storm surge protection. image credit: Gutter to Gulf studio – Washington University students Philip Burkhardt, Erin Dorr, Jonathan Dowse, Brendan Wittstruck

To respond to our pretty-much-incompetent-measures to proactively prevent and efficiently respond to the now all-too-frequent extraordinary catastrophes, I believe that the education of the next wave of architects and designers must focus on the everyday, MOSTLY UNSEEN, catastrophes that ultimately accumulate to the extraordinary, HIGHLY SEEN, catastrophes.

Maybe this is obvious to many who will read this, but I truly believe it is being taken for granted.

We must expose the everyday catastrophes.

Jess Garz
July 28, 2010
Day 100 of BP Oil Spill

Derek, what happens when the everyday catastrophes become extra-ordinary?

The 100-year storms now seem to come every 20 years, and the amount of time between human-controlled/human-caused “storms” seems to be consistently shrinking.  I admit to be a more active world citizen this decade as compared with the last, but let’s just think for a minute of the past 10 years:

Catastrophic Natural and Human CausedDisasters
-Category 3/4 Hurricanes Katrina and Rita
-2004 Southeast Asian Tsunami
-7.6 magnitude earthquake in Pakistan
-7.9 magnitude earthquake in Sichuan province
-7.0 magnitude earthquake in Haiti
-Coal Mine Collapse in West Virginia
-BP Oil Spill
-9/11 Terrorist Attacks
-Bridge collapse in Minneapolis
-Catastrophic flooding in China and Pakistan

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image credit: © Stan Strembicki

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image credit: © Stan Strembicki

This is obviously just a quick (and negative) look at the past few years, but it is clear that the glory days of overbuilt and under-maintained infrastructure are over, and that as inhabitants of the earth, we will be put into check by natural systems.

...what we really have to fear are not the category 5 storms and the bridge collapses of the future; it is not the extraordinary events happening more frequently, but rather beginning to acknowledge and discuss the daily attacks on our health, sense of reason and ultimately our sanity.
But getting back to my first thought about “what happens when the everyday becomes extraordinary?” and also Derek’s reference to our (American) health-care system and its (complete) lack of insight into covering preventative care – I believe what we really have to fear are not the category 5 storms and the bridge collapses of the future; it is not the extraordinary events happening more frequently, but rather beginning to acknowledge and discuss the daily attacks on our health, sense of reason and ultimately our sanity.  The scariest thing about these attacks is that most of us don’t perceive that they are even happening. We sell each other food with no nutritional value, send our kids to schools with no educational expectations, incarcerate our offenders with no vision of reform, and fight wars, abroad and on our own streets, that claim to be fought in the pursuit of peace.

I am prone to say that in the next decade we need to take some time to catch our breathe. We are so concerned with mitigating disaster, but we no longer even know what defines disaster. It is easiest to point at the spectacular as extraordinary, but I ask that we question this tendency.  I think it’s pretty extra-ordinary that 1 in 3 American children is obese, and that our prison population tops 2 million.  An oil rig exploding in the gulf is specular and spectacularly tragic, but is it really extraordinary? We don’t smoke at gas stations because we are aware, even in our ordinary lives, that oil and gas can explode.  We are also aware that when a pipe breaks, the contents flood.  These concepts are ordinary.  
An obese, over-eating, leisurely child that is suffering from malnourishment is not ordinary. Unfortunately it is also not spectacular. But, in my perspective, it is a DISASTER, and a disaster to the highest magnitude.

I do not want this to become a debate about semantics. So Derek, do you think we should, for the sake of clarity, define (or attempt to define) the terms - disaster, extraordinary, catastrophe, spectacular, etc.?

Derek Hoeferlin
August 4, 2010
Day 106 of BP Oil Spill
“Well is Dying, BP Says” -CNN

I think Jess’ point about “taking a breathe over the next decade” is really appropriate. Taking a breathe doesn’t mean laying around on the couch and not doing anything for a while and catching up on back episodes of Law and Order. In fact it’s exactly the opposite. It’s about patient, diligent and well-informed work over a longer time-frame, a.k.a - maybe an actual definition of sustainability? I once read one’s reaction to the word “sustainability” in Dwell magazine. The person was asked how his or her’s marriage was: “my marriage is sustainable.” I don’t think that makes sustainability sound so hot.

But long-term commitment makes sustainability sound a bit more palatable.

I’m not sure we have to define what the terms disaster, extraordinary, catastrophe, spectacular, are, in a rhetorical sense per se. Rather than clearly define words that aren’t clearly definable, I think it’s more appropriate to continue the thread of how Jess and I are questioning disaster response through our own experiences since Hurricane Katrina. Our critical reflection of experiences and delivered work ultimately lead to the definition that will help us, help the future students, and maybe help some of the Archinect readers better prepare through design (resilience=sustainability), rather than react through design (recovery=rebuilding). I just think it will make architects, artists and designers a bit smarter and ahead of the curve. Jess and I have been involved in the reactive method and want to get to the preparatory method. People who will read this will wonder who the hell the two of us are and why are we talking about this stuff? Where’s the proof? We’re not recognizable like Brad Pitt. We need to explain ourselves, through actions.

So maybe a little bit of definition first. defines “disaster” as a “calamitous event, especially one occurring suddenly and causing great loss of life, damage, or hardship, as a flood, airplane crash, or business failure.” “Disaster,” at first glance, is thought of as the hurricane, the earthquake, the oil platform explosion, etc...the “extraordinary” that occurs “suddenly.” Then the “ambulance chasers” swoop in for the triage response. Ambulance chasers, in our case, are architects, artists and designers reacting in a militaristic methodology, not just the typical “ambulance chaser” lawyers. I don’t know many architects or designers with military background, but I find this knee-jerk design response strange and borderline experimentation on post-disaster citizens. Case in point, without me pointing any fingers, after Hurricane Katrina some design schools’ students led by their “good-intentioned” faculty did just this after the hurricanes: quickly caravan in, build something “good” for a community without much community input of what “good” means, leave quickly without being held accountable for the fallout of whatever was “good,” get the “good” object published in a slick design magazine that only architects read; and, ultimately add the “good” work to the tenure packet. In other words, what I call “ambulance chasing.”

But, it is only once one begins to engage the perceived immediate “disaster” for longer sustained periods that the everyday disasters begin to expose themselves; i.e. - that child obesity is one of the everyday disasters embedded within the health care debate that is presented to us as the extra-ordinary disaster. To put it another way, my students and I were asked to build a new chicken coop for a community garden in New Orleans. The original coop was damaged by Katrina. That was our simple design challenge in response to the “extraordinary disaster.” Only after getting to know the mission of the garden more is when we realized what we were actually doing: through a simple catalyzing funky chicken coop we were addressing the “lack of access to healthy food disaster” that has long besieged New Orleans...and what ultimately helps lead to child obesity that leads to higher health care costs, coupled with lack of insurance, and ultimately leads to the extra-ordinary health care disaster.

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NOLA Chicken Coop – design/build by undergraduate architecture students at Washington University in St. Louis, Spring 2008. Students: Alla Agafonov, Nicholas Berube, Elizabeth Bochner, Claudia Bode, Eric Cesal (Teaching Assistant), Zhan Chen, Leigh Heller, Kathleen Johnson, John Kleinschmidt, Andrew Stern, Aaron Williams. image credit: photo by Derek Hoeferlin, Spring 2008

So as architects, artists and designers we have one advantage over the jaded pundit or the crazed blogger. I don’t want this piece to turn into that. We don’t just talk about things – why disasters happen or how they shouldn’t happen, etc. – we make things or we enable things. I guess this has come to be known as “design activism,” or simply what architects, artists and designers are supposed to do.

Jess Garz
Sunday afternoon, August 22, 2010

Yesterday I visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art to view the “Late Renoir” show, though I am not a fan of his paintings – the show was curated to highlight his dedication and reverence for the everyday. To paint his children and friends in his home, combing hair or playing a song rather than staging a formal model in a regal pose.  Seems oddly relevant to this conversation.

Derek, about your last writing – think you're right. Theory and allegory are fun (and self-serving) but not always so useful.  So to start, I am pasting some opening words I wrote for the Transforma website, which was recently redesigned, reconsidered and renewed.  And for reference, for the past 3 years, I have served as the sole staff person for the Transforma initiative, which was founded by artists and arts administrators – Jessica Cusick, Sam Durant, Rick Lowe and Robert Ruello.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we formed Transforma to expand opportunities for artists to use their creativity in the rebuilding of New Orleans. As practitioners within the field, we had seen art and culture become increasingly commercialized, limiting the opportunities for artists to work in public or socially engaged practices. To counter this trend, Transforma strategically supported such practices with direct financial assistance, technical assistance, and networking opportunities. Generally it encouraged a greater emphasis on the role of artists, the arts, and culture in addressing the social and political needs that confront our society.

Although Transforma focused on the post-Katrina landscape, we would like to acknowledge the innumerable cities and communities throughout this country with shared legacies of disaster— whether social, physical, economic, or environmental (like the current oil-related disaster in the Gulf Coast). We hope that this website, the print publication, and the past five years of work in New Orleans, will encourage engagement in, and discourse about, art, creativity, and community.

I bring these sentences to the conversation as a means of introducing Transforma, but also as a means of beginning a conversation about the adaptation of skills from an extra-ordinary context to that of the everyday.  How can the work in which Transforma participated or supported, post-Katrina, be applied to other cities, towns, communities (before a “Katrina”)? The publication that we released in July of this year (2010) intends to continue/initiate such dialogue, and more importantly inspire action elsewhere. Post-Katrina New Orleans was a place filled with a lot of energy both positive and negative. “Ambulance-chasers”, “carpet-baggers” and “self-important do-gooders” were part of that mix, but at this point I would rather stay away from the name-calling and focus on what really happened. There was a disaster in a struggling American city. This struggle was defined by decades of urban disinvestment, a legacy of political insecurity (some might call corruption) and unresolved racial and class tensions. Sound like New Orleans? Yes. But it also sounds like many other American locales. But to continue with the story... we start with a struggling city, and then one day, we have a catastrophic natural disaster, followed immediately by the catastrophic infrastructural failure. Next we have chaos/disorder that exacerbates trauma, followed by “under-effective” response from the government (implying that it is possible that the resources were allocated, but maybe not to the right people or in the right period of time). Then we have wide-spread frustration and maybe distrust in government. And then very quickly following an inspired, yet incoherent rush of independent aid. This includes the individual volunteer, the activist-architect, the activist-artist, the activist-designer, the university professor and student, the national foundation, and many others. The point that I am trying to make is that the disaster was really effective in drawing together a lot of really interesting people, and honestly a whole lot of money. In my work both with Derek (while we worked with H3 Studio) during the Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP) and in my work with Transforma, simply put, I was compensated thanks to the support of national foundations. This was the case for a lot of folks in New Orleans, natives and non-natives alike. The point of this story is this – it is our responsibility as people/organizations/universities to hold off on patting ourselves on the back about the work in New Orleans, until we spend the time and energy considering how the lessons learned in the city Post-Katrina can we applied or shared with other locale. I argue this point because so many of the issues that we tackled Post-Katrina were actually pre-exisitng problems – problems that clearly ail other cities. I will speak very briefly about some of the Transforma-associated projects to make this point in a quick and dirty way.  (Please refer to for more coherent information about all of this work)

1. Home, New Orleans? (HNO?) is a community-based, arts-focused network of artists, neighbors, organizers, schools, and universities that brings together diverse constituencies in long-term collaborations to create positive change in New Orleans. One of the main concerns of this project is that resources and experiences in different New Orleans neighborhoods vary tremendously, based on racial division, economic class – prior to Katrina there was rarely collaboration between neighborhoods and very little institutional collaboration between Xavier, Tulane and Dillard universities.  This project was mildly to very successfully at accomplishing these goals. (again, pre-K issues that are faced in most cities).

2. Fundred / Paydirt: The Operation Paydirt / Fundred Dollar Bill project seeks to facilitate the complete transformation of New Orleans into a city with lead-safe soil through the delivery of a scientific solution to lead contamination while calling for action through a nationwide drawing project designed to engage young people. (This project looks to New Orleans as the savior city, since so many American cities deal with lead poisoning).

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Safehouse preview party for the Fundred project. St. Roch neighborhood, New Orleans, October 2008. image credit: Transforma

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Press conference for the Fundred project held at the Safehouse. St. Roch neighborhood, New Orleans, November 2008. image credit: Transforma

3. Plessy Park:  The project was initiated by community activist Reggie Lawson of the Crescent City Peace Alliance, artist Ron Bechet, and others to acknowledge the site on which Homer Plessy was arrested on June 7, 1892. There was event held on the anniversary of Plessy’s arrest in 2008 to bring together the various stakeholders – of the land and concept. This event highlighted how civil rights concerns of the 19th century relate to contemporary civil rights issues, especially related to the public education system.  (Again, an issue in New Orleans and elsewhere throughout the country).

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Temporary chalk board installation for Plessy Day 2008. Corner of Press and Royal Streets, New Orleans, June 2008. image credit: Transforma

4. Creative Recovery Mini-Program: supported work produced at the intersection of art, social justice, and recovery in New Orleans.  Mini-grants provided direct project support for the work of independent artists, unincorporated groups, gathering spaces, publications, and collectives active during the rebuilding of New Orleans. In each round the applications were reviewed by a different panel made up of individuals with professional backgrounds in art history, community organizing, education, community development, urban planning, urban agriculture, real estate, and housing rights.

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Convening of mini grantees from rounds 1,2 and 3, New Orleans, July 2009. image credit: Transforma

The general idea that I am getting at is the question/statement - how do we harness the energy and fervor that disasters often inspire and apply such to the everyday recovery needs of society?

Also, I’m interested in conversation about water management and how it’s not only a design, economic, and political issue, but also cultural.  [Obviously] everything is cultural, but I think “we” as designers, economists and politicians [ignorantly] undervalue such consideration. As the fifth anniversary approaches, and the specials begin appearing on Dateline NBC and every other popular news program, it is hard not to crave the extraordinary, but in thinking back on the past five years of work and participation in recovery, the actions of the everyday are more inspired and ultimately more addictive.  

Continue to Part 2