arch-peace editorials

27 April 2011

Of Disaster Tourisms

“Who would know we would see the reality with such a force, vigor of fierce nature and sociopolitical geography, as we are with the current events from Maghreb to Red Sea, then, the earthquake in Japan?
I am considering to go to Egypt, for example.”

A particular desire for 'the tragic' exists in disasters. This desire exchanges all that sadly happened with a poetic narrative, curiosity, silence, contemplation, and now, simultaneously, the free marketability of that thing which did not happen to you.

"Japan Nuclear Disaster Threat Booming Tourism in Chernobyl" says the headline.

Memories of Chernobyl are too distant in the minds of many young people today but they will be more in tune with the future marketing of the Japanese reactor's meltdown tours, selected and saved earthquake memorials from the exquisite destruction of the tsunami and the complete crumbling of what we build as a human race.

[I have been watching videos of Chernobyl for many years, from a safe distance. I have saved youtube video favorites with various music tracts, narrations and news clips. Even though they withdrew my all time favorite flyover video of the desolate Pripyat's modern architecture and city planning from a cold war model helicopter with Beethoven's 7th. in the background, I am still actively trying to find it.]

People go to disaster areas and make documentaries, write anything from essays to masters thesis level papers, and share their interest in the social media. Places like Chernobyl after a nuclear meltdown, New Orleans after hurricane Katrina and the Gulf States after the BP disaster are all popular destinations.

Also, you can do this in your head - 'how about it?'

Speculating on a desolate Dubai? Someday, empty galleries of museums in Abu Dhabi's Saadiyat Island? Some other day, power/architect/power type projects such as CCTV and other projects in China? A dictator's monument to himself, once started but never finished, somewhere in an African desert? An abandoned hotel in North Korea? A dried up Lake Balkhash in Uzbekistan? Beautiful but contaminated Bikini Atoll in the Pacific? Fast receding water levels at Hoover Dam? Previous farmlands and farms of the Central Valley of California, now beaten to sprawl and corporate farming? The rise of ultra nationalism in the Western hemisphere?

No one can deny that the large percentage of broadcast news items are about disasters.

There are the disasters of our doing. Think of Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Chechnya, Darfur, think of other massacres in Africa and elsewhere. They are on the lower fold of the newspapers. These are ongoing conflicts. People die in them. No, not yet Chechnya for a disaster tour. Too alien to our commercial flight routes. There is an immediate danger in the pronunciation of Grozny.

However, on the home front, we are so oblivious to everyday disasters not so far from our neighborhoods. Disasters such as domestic violence with long-lasting impact on children. They are hurtful. There are homeless people camping under the freeway on-ramp we use everyday. There is a nursing home near your child's school filled with elderly people waiting for their death around the clock and only visited by the volunteers who care. Hungry people diving into dumpsters for restaurant leftovers and eating what they can recover from the rest of the garbage. Addicts walking around like zombies in urban alleys, not far from avant-garde (their word) architecture schools where students pay thousands of dollars for learning to design the latest fashionable looking utopias dressed and textured in 'emergent' technologies.

These are everyday disasters. They are not tourism worthy. In fact, we avoid them because they taint our otherwise beautiful day and they make that architectural output of the avant-garde schools irrelevant. Moreover, as contradictory architects, we get all concerned about Ai Weiwei's detention while simultaneously continuing to seek projects in China and proposing large luxury homes in Mongolia. These days, the creative outlook focuses on an exhilarated change based on entrepreneurial euphoria. Our new heroes are events with marketability. Our architecture is not limited to exclusive formal buildings, but the whole integrated web of events, spaces, geopolitics, psycho-perception of information and its market analysis. We seem to know everything to succeed financially. Do we and is that all? We, as architects, have followed the system of serving the 'leaders of the industry' since the 19th century and still train to supply the production of space for the same. We need to travel further and find new clients.

The biggest part of disaster tourism happens mainly in the virtual market. It exists inside our living rooms via television broadcasts and social media. We attend these travels, feel sorry, sideline and sympathize with the victims and feel scared about the less volatile disaster of 'somebody vanished' on the local evening news. Eventually, we enact indifference over and over until it matters no more.

Environmentally, before we tour privatized utopias and planned survival communities where people buy into expensive per person/family bunkers for the future doomsday, I'd like to finish with an image.

An inspiration that humanity is indeed intact, alive, humble. People who demanded major changes in Tahrir Square in Cairo simply stayed in makeshift tents, in sleeping bags and swept the place with brooms. There is a lot of 'know-how' in that. Inclusive, simple and doable.

Go to Tahrir Square to reconsider your Utopia.

Orhan Ayyuce, Los Angeles
Architects for Peace, April 2011


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