The Elements of Disaster

Design’s role in mitigating the impact of natural disasters takes center stage at the National Building Museum.

The exhibit features a tabletop version of the Wall of Wind at Florida International University, which can simulate a Category 5 hurricane.

Earth, air, fire, and water—the National Building Museum’s Design for Disaster exhibit, which opened on May 12, separates out the forces of destruction. The toll of earthquakes, tornadoes, wildfires, and floods is shown in photos and artifacts such as twisted street signs. But the focus is on mitigation. “Design can save lives,” said Chase W. Rynd, Honorary ASLA, the executive director of the museum, during a press preview on May 8. Rynd and Chrysanthe Broikos, the curator of the exhibit, say it’s one of the most important exhibits the museum has done.

It’s as much the story of seismic engineers, researchers, architects, planners, and landscape architects as it is about the disasters themselves, given that the goal is blunting the destructive impacts of disasters (there’s a companion blog and outreach program called Mitigation Nation). The Earth room has cracked walls that recall the aftermath of earthquakes, but just behind them is a buckling restrained brace, or BRB, as an example of what could be done to protect those walls, and around the doorway is a special moment frame, which holds firm against lateral loads during a quake to protect the rest of a structure.

The Air room has a panel talking about the rebuilding of Greensburg, Kansas (which appeared in LAM in November 2013), but the central feature is a FEMA-specified safe room, with a corner removed so people can see the solid construction. The walls of the safe room are built to withstand the wind of a tornado, but also shield against the extremely dangerous flying debris. An additional space off the Air room re-creates, at a tabletop scale, the Wall of Wind at Florida International University, which is capable of simulating a Category 5 hurricane. People can put model houses with different roof styles in front of the powerful array of fans and see how they stand up to the gale. A small net catches roofs that go flying.

A tribute to Smokey Bear is part of the Fire room display, which also describes innovative steps being taken in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to prevent catastrophic forest fires. Among their other devastating effects, large-scale fires leave behind soil that’s prone to sliding down hillsides into reservoirs, affecting water supplies and requiring millions of dollars in dredging and cleanup. At a fraction of that cost, Santa Fe has instituted a controlled burn program to clear away dead vegetation that could fuel a wildfire. The program is paid for in part by a fee on residents’ water bills.

The Water room has three large screens on one wall, at the base of which are gabions filled with oyster shells and rocks. The screens show various water projects, including some featuring reef balls (see “Reefs Off the Shelf,” by Kevan Williams, in March’s LAM) and oyster castles, which are used to create habitat and protect shorelines from waves and tides. Profiles of water projects and interviews with innovators loop on the screens; among them is Kate Orff, ASLA, a partner of the firm SCAPE, who emphasizes the importance of interdisciplinary work on these projects and her own Oyster-tecture proposal for the shallow waters off Brooklyn’s Red Hook.

All of the rooms have a “What Can You Do” panel, with quizzes so people can test their own personal resilience quotient in the face of the disasters. The exhibit finishes up in a room that looks like a badly stocked convenience store, but is actually a display of items people should include in their emergency preparedness kits. This emphasizes the exhibit’s goal, which is to get people to “accept risk on a personal level,” Broikos says, because “that makes you change.”

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