Designing for Disaster


of an Exhibition

by Phoebe Hillemann

Published on May 31, 2015

  • Description:

    This past Saturday afternoon, I found respite from the Washington, D.C. humidity in the National Building Museum and made a visit to their exhibition called “Designing for Disaster.” The topic immediately struck me with its relevance, given this week’s storms in Texas and Oklahoma and the earthquake that devastated Nepal in April. With seemingly more and more natural disasters happening each year as climate change affects our planet, I was intrigued to learn how architects and engineers are adapting their designs to prepare more effectively for the threat of natural disasters.

    The exhibition’s structure was one of most clearly organized that I’ve seen; it almost felt like walking through a five-paragraph essay on the topic of disaster mitigation. If that sounds incredibly boring, it wasn’t at all. The first gallery was the emotional hook that made the case for why we should care about disaster mitigation. Real artifacts – a door from a house destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, and fragments of stone columns that broke off of the National Cathedral during the 2011 earthquake, for example – are displayed in front of video projection showing footage of the disasters that caused the damage while background music plays. While this could easily veer too far into emotional manipulation, it hit just the right note of seriousness and set the tone for the rest of the exhibition.

    The second gallery introduces the big idea – that the effects of natural disaster can be mitigated through strategic engineering and design – and breaks down the four categories of hazards that the rest of the exhibition will be structured around: earth, air, fire, and water. Large TV screens mounted to the wall display maps of the United States, showing who is most at risk for each of these categories of disasters. This provided helpful geographic context for the rest of the exhibition. The four subsequent galleries dive further into investigating these respective categories: “Designing for Earth,” “Designing for Air,” “Designing for Fire,” and “Designing for Water.”

    Each of these galleries is designed in a way that immediately lets you know which element the room is about. The walls in “Designing for Earth” are cracked as if broken apart by earthquake, for instance, and debris including wooden beams, a stop sign, and a bicycle wheel are suspended from the ceiling in “Designing for Air,” as if you’re entering the room mid-tornado. It’s quite an effective strategy that lets your brain know you’re moving from topic to topic in a physical, sensory way.

    Some of the most memorable elements of the exhibition are those that engage your senses and allow your body to fully participate beyond just reading wall text. “Designing for Earth” lets visitors push a button to activate a full-scale model of the earthquake-adapted stadium steps created for U.C. Berkeley’s California Memorial Stadium. Actually seeing the steps in action, shifting as they would when confronted with seismic activity, helped me understand this feat of engineering in a way that simply reading the surrounding wall text could never have done to the same degree. “Designing for Air” lets you walk into a scale model of a tornado-resistant “safe room,” and in perhaps the most memorable part of the exhibition, lets visitors practice constructing their own model houses and testing their durability against a “wall of wind” that replicates hurricane-level winds. There was a little boy in that room at the same time as me, probably seven or eight years old, who was completely fascinated by this challenge and re-building over and over again to make his house stand up to the wind. A budding architectural engineer in the making, perhaps! This was a fantastic use of a hands-on, tinkering station that children and adults alike could enjoy and learn from.

    Each of these four galleries had a ‘What Can You Do?” station that invited visitors to sit down and play an interactive game quizzing their knowledge of disaster preparedness for each respective element. The opportunity to take a seat was most welcome, and I appreciated the practical tips for those of us who are not architectural engineers or urban planners. The entire final gallery was devoted to exploring what you as an individual can do to be prepared for a natural disaster, displaying the contents of a sample emergency preparedness kit and closing with a plug for the exhibition’s blog and Twitter hashtag: #MitigationNation. It was clearly a goal of the exhibition planners that visitors should come away feeling equipped with the knowledge of how to mitigate natural disasters and inspired to take action.

    Although I felt overloaded with explanatory text in some of the galleries, the interactive components and variety of media used throughout helped me feel like I understood the big ideas of the exhibition without having to read each and every label. Overall, I thought the exhibition was an excellent example of how to design for multiple ages, learning styles, and levels of background knowledge. When I left the museum and began walking through the city streets, I realized I was seeing the buildings around me through new eyes, wondering which ones were engineered to withstand a flood or an earthquake. Any exhibition that changes your perspective on the city you live in and the buildings you pass through every day is a powerful one, and I felt “Designing for Disaster” was well worth the visit.

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