Space in Crisis

by Mark Wigley

Images of devastated buildings are the most eloquent and disturbing witnesses of disaster. Broken buildings represent broken people. If most buildings in an area have been damaged, the entire social structure seems to have broken. The severity of the emergency is confirmed by the sudden arrival of helicopters that bypass the everyday horizontal logic of the city to descend directly into the heart of the traumatized space to extract survivors or drop supplies and rescue teams. We expect or hope that the sight of the speedy arrival of emergency aid out of the sky is the first step in an extended visual narrative of recovery that steadily transitions from the provisional mobile architecture of sandbags, tents, trailers, portable clinics, trailers, and camps, to the restoration of permanent structures as the area heals and a traditional sense of shelter is restored. Having acted as the clearest sign of an emergency, architecture is the final sign of recovery. But what happens to architecture when the situation goes beyond emergency? What happens when emergency turns into crisis as the familiar linear narrative—immediate danger and rapid response followed by careful repair and eventual recovery—does not unfold? What happens when the recovery narrative itself breaks down? What would be the architecture of crisis? Is crisis architecture a contradiction in terms or a crucial unacknowledged force?

Outside of architecture, we continually hear about crises, whether they are financial, political, medical, ecological, humanitarian, military, cultural, or psychological. Every sphere of activity seems to be in, going into, or coming out of crisis. We are continuously bombarded by stories about the energy crisis, the climate crisis, the mid-life crisis, the identity crisis, and so on. In fact, the word 'crisis' appears repeatedly in almost every issue of each newspaper. Or to put it another way, crisis is always news, the most important news even. Each crisis is usually so dominant that it is soon referred to simply as 'the crisis.' It could be argued that the key role of newspapers, magazines, radio, television and the internet is simply to monitor the lines between everyday, emergency, and crisis.

More precisely, the media monitor the line between emergency and crisis because emergency, paradoxically, is actually a routine part of the everyday. All systems, institutions, and spaces account for emergency, expect it and deploy resources to deal with it: emergency agencies, facilities, personnel, uniforms, symbols, equipment, warning systems, alarms, telephone numbers, signals, protocols, funds, communication systems, etc. Specific bright colors—typically red, orange or yellow—are used to mark those parts of the everyday environment that can be used to respond to any threat. Even the word 'emergency' is part of the everyday environment, appearing on buildings, vehicles, people, and roadways. Every plane, train and building has emergency buttons and procedures written on the walls. Cars have warning lights and carry emergency signs that can be placed on the road wherever there is danger. An extremely dense and sensitive network of devices, personnel and control rooms detect and react to danger signs. A key part of the everyday experience of the contemporary city is the sound of sirens and alarms in the street. Within the home, there is yet another set of alarms, while food packages, cleaning products, medicine, tools, and even plastic bags carry warning labels and instructions of what to do in the case of emergency. All children, workers and passengers are trained in emergency procedures. Spaces are steadily, even unconsciously, monitored for possible emergencies. Everyone has to continuously consider the possibility that almost any person or object in a space could play a role in an endless range of possible emergencies. The everyday environment constantly carries the possibility of emergency. Emergency is an integral part of the space.

This is true of all spaces and, in reverse, true of all emergencies. By definition, emergencies occur within a space. They are always contained in a specific territory. The role of emergency procedures is to maintain the limits of a particular space. In a sense, they define the real geometry of that space. The actual condition of a space is not revealed in its visible shape but in the emergency protocols that are used to maintain the shape. One of the most precise ways to analyze the condition of a city, a building, an organization, a company, or a person is to study its emergency response systems, scrutinizing what are treated as threats within its space and how those threats are detected, communicated and reacted to. Every institution has an emergency plan, a way to sustain itself when destabilized. It could even be argued that an institution only becomes an institution with such a plan that simultaneously preserves and produces a defined space.

A crisis is the moment that the threat is not just inside the space but is actually an extreme challenge to the space itself, from the scale of an individual psyche or body in crisis to that of a family, an institution, a city, a region, a nation, or a planet. If an emergency is a threat within a system, a crisis is a threat to the whole system. If an emergency can be at any scale, from a broken bone to a continent, what turns it into crisis is when its effect exceeds the local scale. In a crisis, things spin out of scale and therefore out of control. The whole environment is threatened rather than any object, resource, person or procedure within it.

The word 'crisis' therefore does not appear in the everyday environment. It has no buildings, people, equipment, colors, sounds, or protocols associated with it. Crises always appear as the failure of a spatial system, a failure of architecture. It is no longer simply a damaged spatial system needing emergency care. Something has so radically lost its shape that it cannot be repaired. There cannot be a crisis plan, a crisis department, a crisis vehicle, a crisis color, or a crisis button. Nobody can plan for crisis since crisis is exactly the name for that which defeats both planning beforehand and response afterwards.

Each government, hospital, company, university, or police department sets up a crisis management team. There is usually a special room set up for the team to occupy when a crisis occurs, and a communication system is established, but by definition the reason for activating the team cannot be predicted and the team will be unable to adequately respond when the time comes. A financial crisis, for example, is exactly the moment that all the elaborate devices, regulations, protocols, and management hierarchies that are meant to keep the flows of money within certain limits fail to control the situation. Not knowing what it will face and knowing that it will be inadequate, the mission of any crisis management team is to translate the sense of crisis into one of emergency. Crisis management is the attempt to maintain the integrity of a system under radical threat by producing the effect of emergency rather than crisis, the effect of an urgent but contained problem, which is to say, the effect of a defined and stable space.

The very existence of such a team can be an important part of producing this reassuring spatial effect. Since the threat is so extreme, widespread, and unforeseen, the team has to include a diverse range of experts. The problem is always a new one and can only be addressed with multi-disciplinary and multi-dimensional techniques that exceed the current capacity of the organization. The situation demands innovation. The spaces being protected have to change to survive. Crises produce new forms. If all spatial systems, all patterns, have an emergency state—emergency being, as it were, part of the pattern—a crisis is the possibility that the pattern itself will not survive, and the result of a crisis is necessarily a new pattern. The crisis is such a radical threat to the environment that it acts as a kind of demand for whole new kinds of policies, procedures, and people.

Crises are ultimately productive. They force invention. Breakdowns incubate breakthroughs. Radical destruction gives way to new forms of production. Since the nineteenth century, theorists have often portrayed crisis as a primary agent of forward progress in all aspects of individual and collective life, most famously in Marx’s concept of a series of inevitable crises in the market culminating in a 'general crisis' that forces radical change in the whole the socio-economic system. The original meaning of the word 'crisis' is medical, derived from the Greek word krisis, for decision, coming from krinen, to draw a line, to separate. Crisis is not a particular condition of the body. It is the moment that a doctor decides that the patient is at the crucial turning point of either recovering or dying. It is usually preceded by a whole chain of events that are only retroactively understood as warning signs. Crisis is something that is announced at a certain moment. In fact, the announcement always comes late. Things are already right on the edge of collapse. The story of a crisis only starts to be told halfway through. In the end, it is all about a narrative. Declaring a crisis is declaring that the limit of a problem is not clear, and that a radical intervention needs to be done in the hope of reestablishing limits. To declare a crisis is to declare that design is needed, and the resulting design usually becomes permanent.

Architectural design is the child of crisis but the field devotes itself to removing the sense of crisis. Even the word 'crisis' that appears so often in other fields is rare in architectural discourse. There can be emergency architects and emergency architecture but there cannot be a crisis architect or crisis architecture. Yet architecture is precisely the effect of crisis. If each crisis acts as an urgent demand for new forms, it could be that every part of the built environment has been shaped by prior crises (medical, economic, military, seismic, social, etc). Our everyday world has been shaped by earlier traumas, and silently carries all their traces. Emergencies modify existing architecture, through the adoption of new regulations and technologies in response to cultural norms about risk, but crises produce whole new architectures. The image of safety and security that architecture offers is forged in moments of maximum instability and insecurity. Perhaps architecture is simply the name for that which turns what once would have produced crisis into the source of a contained emergency. It is retroactive crisis management, yet is ultimately destined to fail since all crises are first and foremost architectural crises that force new designs. When things spin out of control, architecture, the image of control, spins out. In this sense, crisis could not be more architectural, or less. The field of architecture is devoted to suppressing a sense of crisis but is propelled by the very thing it represses. As the art of limits, architecture is always in a dialectic with crisis. The most crucial insights into the evolutions, complications, and responsibilities of the field can be found within the most traumatic scenes. To simply face the spaces of crisis, as in this bootleg of Urban China, is already to rethink our discipline.






Bootleg Edition Urban China (C-Lab)
Mark Wigley