Design for the Apocalypse

by John McMorrough

'Don’t wake me for the end of the world unless it has very good special effects.'
- Roger Zelazny

Utopia, that place of high aspirations and lofty ambition, has been the motivating conceit for a society (and an architecture) of achievable perfection for quite a long time, but across the spectrum of culture there has been a recent turn from the utopian to the apocalyptic, in forms both fictional and factual. Invoking the “apocalypse” brings forth connotations of the end of the world—historically imagined as everything from the judgment of God to nuclear Armageddon. In its contemporary manifestation it has taken the form of various global crises: environmental, economic or unexpected. Of course, the “end of the world” is not a novelty. It has its own history, and is itself a genre of expression as a category of pessimism. A recurrent theme within cultural thought, it is the shadow of the progressive ideal of the avant-garde. What we see in this latest……manifestation is not merely the conservative position describing a fall from grace, or the entropic decline of systems and the diminishment of quality over time, but a description of a new prevalent condition. With the intermingling of the improbable and the prosaic (think Katrina and The Day After Tomorrow, or 9/11 and Children of Men), the consideration of the apocalyptic is no longer a matter of fantasy,1 but of policy (one recently referred to as “disaster capitalism”).2

The question is, of course, why apocalypse now?

The genre of the apocalyptic always contains within it a means of working through the problematic of its era. The term itself indicates as much: literally translated from the Greek as a 'lifting of the veil' and representing, as a concept, the disclosure to certain privileged persons of something hidden from the mass of humankind—its occurrence in narrative is symptomatic of larger issues. However, it reveals the limits and fears of the society that wrote it. For us, it is a combination of factors: it is both global warming and sub-prime loans, both nuclear terrorism and social ills. All are real. And all are, to some extent, constructs.

The real issue with the various evocations of the end of the world has never been about 'the end,' but rather a beginning. Anthony Burgess, author of the dystopian classic A Clockwork Orange, once commented that the warnings of apocalyptic tales were really wish-fulfillment.3 In a world of overwhelming complexity—of zero-sum economics and peak-oil—the apocalypse comes not as problem, but as answer. The 'end of' also implied a 'beginning of'—a chance to re-start and re-think. At the level of fantasy the apocalypse represents the chance to begin anew; the end of the world in film always represents a new start, a chance to have another, unencumbered go at making the world.4 If utopia is an unattainable goal, a literal no place, then the apocalypse is an everyplace.5 In this sense the specter of the apocalypse is another version of the modernist tabula rasa, a leveling of the past to make way for the future.

So the end of the world is but a reorientation of sensibility. We can already see evidence of this in the new emphasis on the basic conditions of our existence. What unifies these manifestations is their survivalist undertone.6 The operation of the subject in an environment is not only a thing, but also an action, a mechanism that calibrates itself to need. This mechanism is never in stasis; its needs are never in perfect equilibrium to the available means. Thus, it is scarcity (of food, water, safety, resources, amenity or potential) that is the engine of transformation and change in a variety of environments (natural and artificial, economic and ecological—namely architecture, landscape and the city).

These impulses, in light of this symbolic (and increasingly real) economy, can be seen as having strange portents for the projects of architecture. How would architecture act in a post-apocalyptic mode? And what is the relation of architecture to capital when there is no capital? One possibility is for architecture’s disciplinary preservation. Here, if we understand architecture as a historically formulated set of rules and guidelines, then the future of architecture looks dim. One could imagine its on-going continuation, but in a material enactment of an increasingly archaic form of thought. Eventually architecture’s status may be that it becomes a fixture of the university—as a testament of the plentitude of an earlier humanism—next to the Classics Department, as just another repository of dead languages.

Or, one could imagine the re-description of architecture’s disciplinary legacy in terms of its performance and effectiveness, with an emphasis on the agency of design as a responsive, problem solving effort. If this sounds like an environmental call to arms, with the earnestness of LEED and green design, of responsibility and stewardship, preservation and prevention, it is not. There are issues of responsibility, of course, but that is not the only manifestation, or even the most useful. The new mode would want to address matters of concern; where environmental matters are no more or less important than the social in terms of either cause or need. The coming apocalypse may or may not be a solvable problem, or it may not be a problem at all, but its existence as even an idea demonstrates a shift that is not only practical, but conceptual.

To shift from the utopian to the apocalyptic is not merely to set the terms in an opposing relation, but to understand their similarity. Both describe a condition of radical change; turning from one to the other as a privileged mode doesn’t speak to a preponderance of nihilism per se……but to a fundamental recalibration of the imagination (specifically, architectural imagination) from issues of plentitude to those of scarcity. The recent architectural debates regarding criticality and post-criticality can be understood as having changed in light of a shift in cultural imagination away from the progressivism/positivism of late global capital as a preparatory effort to a more apocalyptic framework of environmentalism and peak-zero sum economic models. This would be seen through the survival imperative, as acting on a new understanding of how measures are made.

Design for the apocalypse, because ready or not, it’s coming.


1. See Kiel Moe’s 'Observations of the Concept of Place in Post-Risk Societies in Recent Fiction,' Places, Volume 20, Number 2, 2008: 42-43.

2. See Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007).

3. Anthony Burgess, 'The Art of Frivolity,' Times Literary Supplement (12 June 1992): 22.

4. See Alan Weisman’s The World without Us (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007).

5. This usage is a reference to the Utopia of Sir Thomas More, within whose famous work of a perfect imaginary island there is the irony that the perfection is not only imaginary, but in a sense impossible, as 'utopia' means, literally, 'not place'. The positive associations attributed to Utopia are in fact the domain of the homophonic 'Eutopia', to which it is clearly related, yet significantly distinct.

6. One of the more interesting specimens of this genre of recent apocalyptic fiction as both indictment and wish-fulfillment is James Howard Kunstler’s World Made by Hand: A Novel (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2008), which extends the arguments regarding the depletion of the world’s oil supply made in The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century (Grove Press, 2006). In the novelization the result of the extended energy crisis is both worldwide economic and political collapse, as well as an increased supply of fresh churned butter, made possible by the newly agrarian existence. For a further discussion of Kunstler’s Long Emergency see my own 'The Future of Fuelish Building' in Volume 7 (2006).





Bootleg Edition Urban China (C-Lab)