Proposal for the Istanbul Design Biennial

School of Marvels and Catastrophes – Cities, Architecture and the Force of Nature

The foundation myths of the ancient world often begin in large scale calamities: the Aztecs, for example, believed the world was destroyed four times, and that the present world will be devastated by earthquakes. If for in Hellenic myth Atlantis ended submerged under the seas, the destruction of the Roman city of Pompeii was instead eminently factual, captured by history’s first eye-witness accounts. Immanuel Kant, through his early studies of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake rejected supernatural or eschatological visions on nature arguing instead for explanations based on scientific causality. Walter Benjamin understood the vulnerability of the city and the macabre human fascination with urban destruction. 

Catastrophes have led to the forecasting of risk, the invention of earth sciences, and at times the suspension of the rule of law. But we are no more capable of mitigating future disasters or closer to understanding the effects of cataclysms on our lives then when the Vesuvius blanketed Pompeii. In Naomi Klein’s book, Shock Doctrine, written in 2009, she argues that major political and social changes are forced through during times of induced economic crises. A similar argument can be made about how  communities subject to extreme natural disasters lose their access to political self-determination, in the messy aftermath of evacuation, stabilisation and reconstruction. Observing the recent disasters in Puerto Rico, New Orleans, Fukushima, among others, human hardship mixes with often misguided post-disaster policies that makes entire populations susceptible to uncertainty and misunderstanding. Questions on whether communities should be moved to higher ground, abandon contaminated areas, lose or rebuild significant cultural heritage sites, modify  customs and mores to prevent future disasters from recurring require fresh responses, new ways of thinking to engage these effected communities democratically and through informed consensus.

In 1982 Milton Friedman wrote the highly influential passage that best summarizes the shock doctrine. ” Only a crisis-actual or perceived-produces real change. When the crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”

Aiming for social engagements

The Marvels and Catastrophes focus at the Istanbul Design Biennial is not just about how popular society and popular culture historically and currently deal with the life threatening issues such earthquakes, floods, tempests, droughts, or other human related catastrophes, but the program also will concern itself with devising alternative forms of social engagements, meant to transcend political, ethnic and economic divisions. The full scope of the program will seek to understand short and long term future developments, combining historic precedents with advanced technical expertise, visual culture with architecture and design, along with the arts and media to take our findings beyond standard professional boundaries.    

The program will establish a set of international workshops, in significant locations around the Mediterranean, and present and discuss, the collection and production of projects, documents and stories in Istanbul engaging with the public of the Design Biennale.

School of Marvels and Catastrophes (SoMAC) will bring experts in the sciences, architects, designers and multi-media artists together to consider the preponderant forces of nature in the age of the Anthropocene.