Balducci / Safe Spaces

Safe Spaces Exploring Design Possibilities in Preparing for Emergencies

Author: Beatrice Balducci, Politecnico di Milano

Supervisor: Alessandro Rocca, Professor Dr., (Polimi), AUID, DAStU, Politecnico di Milano

Research stage: intermediate doctoral stage

Category: Paper

The research investigates the design possibilities and methodologies that underpin the approach of preparedness for disastrous events. It focuses on the design of critical infrastructures, those systems and spaces necessary for the resistance of a human environment, as hybrid and dual spaces designed to respond to both a state of rest and different times of a potential emergency. By shaping a theoretical framework, selecting case studies and designing a set of possibilities, the work aims to reflect on the relation between humans, a changing natural environment, and architecture.

In recent years we have witnessed an intensification of environmental phenomena of unusual intensity with catastrophic effects on the human environment. In the environmental crisis of climate change, the increase in the risk generates, on the one hand, new vulnerable environments to which will correspond a growing need for security.1 On the other hand, global interest in the concept of preparedness.

Instead of mitigating the risk of a disastrous event, the idea of preparedness is to assume that a disaster will happen, enacting a vision of a dystopian future to develop a set of techniques for maintaining safety in a time of emergency.1 It addresses the protection of critical infrastructures, the backbone of settlements, their irreducible structure,2 the system on which human safety depends. Structures such as for water supply, energy provision, climate protection, and food production are, in fact, the first line for surviving and the first to fail in the wake of a disaster.3 Assuming a disaster as a potentially unstable context with which architecture must confront leads to consider multiple scenarios, duration, and configurations for a project, its functional or formal dynamicity, its relation to a state of change. It interrogates the permanence and stability of architecture, stressing principles such as transformability, adaptability, and typological hybridization: a park could be designed to be transformed into an off-grid emergency campsite; a mineral square into a temporary water reservoir; a stable into an emergency housing system; a watermill into an off-grid system able to provide energy in the wake of a disaster.

Therefore, how to design a space able to respond to the state of rest and a potential catastrophe? How can the architectural project embody a potential disaster? How can this inform the design process, and what are the possibilities and methodologies underpinned?

The entire work is structured in three macro-sections: one theoretical, one collecting case studies, and one of research by design. The first one articulates a critical reading of preparedness, systematizing theories, revisiting models, and framing the architectural debate. The second and third sections are discussed here in this paper's context.

The second section is composed of two main corpus of case studies that introduce different possibilities, methodologies, and declination of preparedness, with a geographical focus on the Japanese, American, and North European context, where a high vulnerability to natural disasters and subsequent culture of preparedness have a strong influence on the design. The cases are not selected to be compared, but instead, they are portions of reasoning where each example helps arguing the thesis. As anchors drawn to respond to both a state of rest and possible catastrophic futures, implicitly raising the question “what time is this place?”,4 the cases present a spatial and temporal dualism that can be drawn in different ways. The recognition of design strategies proposed, the spatial implications of the addressed phase of the emergency, the approaches to the physicality of the disaster, and the specific drawing of the duality are, therefore, the analytic lens through which the cases are studied. Here, the act of drawing itself becomes the investigative tool, allowing a work of synthesis of diverse information, and a first step of conceptualization, abstraction, and speculation. Each case is redrawn according to its evolution and behavior in different times of a possible emergency (event, response, recovery, reconstruction) that moves in the order of hours, days, months, and years. The result is a fluid and open matrix of possibilities that explore methods, principles and design solutions, and that can be further tested, deepened and implemented.

Prepper's Architecture

There is nothing ready, but everything can be ready.5

The first corpus investigates the Prepper movement’s architecture, a counterculture born in the 1960s in the US, made of groups and individuals who, through the design and equipment of a safe inhabitable space, actively prepare for a potential emergency: environmental catastrophes, economic collapse, pandemics, nuclear attacks, various apocalypses. More than the transitory present, their architectures, often based on accidental design strategies, address the period of during and after a catastrophe, thus representing a model of an alternative but possible reality. Definable as a form of survival architecture, which combines food production, water provision, and shelter, with the implicit motto “build less, and use better what exists,”6 Prepper’s architectural culture is characterized by, on the one hand, a dualistic reading of human settlement to identify those elements and typologies to transform into infrastructures for survival. A private swimming pool could be converted into a self-sufficient greenhouse, a courtyard into a hybrid space for food production and water depuration, abandoned garages and tunnels could become multidimensional shelters. On the other hand, by redefining the inhabitable space as an entirely off-grid and self-sufficient typology.7

Preppers’ design strategies. Author: Beatrice Balducci

Figure 1: Preppers’ design strategies. Author: Beatrice Balducci

Their design strategies are, in fact, based on the exclusion and seclusion from urban contexts that, according to one of the most popular survival guides,8 could become increasingly unsafe in the event of natural disaster due to the collapse of critical infrastructures and the so-called "ripple effect." Two are the fundamental approaches for sheltering: "bugging-out" and "bugging-in," which correspond to different architectural answers. [ 1 ] From prefabricated bunkers to inhabitable greenhouses, architecture is here conceived as a tool for survival, a machine that operates,9 an infrastructure to live, produce, provide, and shelter. By converting existing spaces into survival ones, Preppers can represent a model of an accelerated present. Instead of mitigating risk, they anticipate a disaster shifting it from a possible punctual shock to a constant disordered context to face. By combining scientific literature, DIY manuals, pop-culture materials, and specific case studies through the tool of drawing, the aim here is to trace some of the characters of this paranoid architecture, that albeit in its eccentric nature, seems to raise exportable and translatable insight for the discipline, ranging from highly introverted solutions to new forms of integration with the natural world.

Dynamic infrastructures

The second corpus of case studies catalogs a series of critical infrastructures at different scales designed according to a logic of transformation of the space. These relate to two main hazards: earthquakes and floods. Differently from Prepper’s architecture, which constantly responds to a disaster condition, these embody a multi-temporality, a state of change, and therefore are designed to transform, dynamically, in the event of a disaster. Each case, thus, addresses a different time of a potential emergency. They are analyzed with a focus, on a macroscopical level, on methodologies and design strategies proposed, and on a microscopical one, on the specific design of the transformation, highlighting the principles and solutions that inform their dynamicity. The mutation can be drawn in different ways: as a functional transformation, where the critical infrastructures are designed as dual-functional elements able to transform in the phase of the emergency according to a programmatic change of the space; as elastic deformation, where infrastructures are conceived to formally transform, temporarily, due do the interaction with the destructive factors; as a plastic deformation, where they are designed to be shaped by the disaster.

The case studies present different relationships with the physicality of the disaster: from defensive approaches based on reinforcing existing structures to symbiotic logics that go beyond the "Man VS Nature" attitude.10 Differently from Prepper's shelters, which attempt to find different ways to inhabit a place that seems more and more uninhabitable by designing off-grid inhabitable infrastructures, the case studies here proposed dialogue with a precise times of potential emergencies. The moment of recovery, as in the case of the Japanese Disaster Parks, spaces entirely designed as recovery-camps "in power," safe evacuation spaces, where a dual-design informs from the general scheme arrangement to a very detailed scale. Here, a system of punctual off-grid infrastructures is designed to be transformed into the backbone of a recovery camp: benches can transform into kitchens; green areas are drawn as a productive landscape for food in case of shortage; manholes can convert into camp toilets or first-aid necessity closets.11 [ 2 ]

Tokyo Disaster Park. Author: Beatrice Balducci

Figure 2: Tokyo Disaster Park. Author: Beatrice Balducci

The moment of the event, as for the Danish Climate Park by Tredje Natur, a water reservoir designed to transform depending on the different amounts of rainwater and typologies of floods, ranging from a mineral square to a series of ponds, to a liquid landscape and vice-versa.

The moment of reconstruction, as in the case of the M.I.T. PREP-Hub, where a specific local infrastructure, the paati, a water tank in the shape of a covered hall located at the corner of the main streets is retrofitted, hybridized, and redesigned as a site-specific civic center for the state of rest, as the anchor around which to settle the emergency camp and within which to shelter in case of earthquakes, as well as the repository of architectural culture from which to start the reconstruction. Each of these cases presents various degrees of controlling the uncertain disorder by design. From the controlled drawing of the space for evacuation of people left homeless by the disaster as in the Japanese case to an open design that embodies the unexpected, a yielding, incomplete space that draws an unfinished narrative universe12 as in the case of Depoldering.

Whether in this central section of the work the grid of case studies results extensive, the diversity in the scale and typology of the projects is instrumental for building a discourse and defining general principles which are translatable to different scales. In the first corpus, the range of disasters considered is arbitrarily wide because what emerges interesting is not the specific response to the disaster per se but rather methodological and procedural reasonings. In the second one, focusing on specific cases, the choice is narrowed down to two disasters, the two most widespread in the world, which present a strong physicality with which architecture can dialogue. The dualistic reading of the environment to identify unprecedented potentials of spaces due to formal, dimensional, and performative specificities; a dual-functional approach from the general scheme to the scale of the furniture; the design of dynamic and hybrid spaces; the drawing of unfinished space shaped by the physicality of the disaster, are some of the issues that emerge from these cases. [ 3 ]

Matrix of design possibilities. Author: Beatrice Balducci

Figure 3: Matrix of design possibilities. Author: Beatrice Balducci

Prepping Norcia

The design as a specific form of research, thus the act of design itself as an investigative act, 13defines the third section of the work.

Here, the Italian inner city of Norcia, in Umbria region, is the context for a test-bed project to synthetize, discuss and implement the theoretical, analytical, and design matrix built in previous sections. The choice of the site is manifold: on the one hand, the area is characterized by a very high seismic vulnerability, risk whose prevision remains a dark art,14 generating a context that lives with the constant probability of disasters. On the other hand, epicenter of the disastrous shakes of 2016, it provides the opportunity to systematize the spatial responses to past emergencies and revisit them from an anticipatory and design perspective. But moreover, the area represents, due to the intrinsic character of tangled relation with a changing nature, a magnifying glass for dynamics that, due to the climate crisis, could increasingly interest others and different contexts.

Prepping Norcia: an open design questionnaire. Author: Beatrice Balducci

Figure 4: Prepping Norcia: an open design questionnaire. Author: Beatrice Balducci

Here, as an open questionnaire, a series of interrogations are investigated by design. What kind of dynamicity existing elements have regarding disordered situations? Which one can be redesigned as dual and adaptable for an alternate condition of emergency? What are those critical systems on which human resistance depends? By adopting a Preppers’ perspective of reading the space, and thus overlapping specific characteristics, typological aspects, and behaviors during the past emergency within a synthetic map, different elements that compose the human environment are observed and analyzed through their inherent actual or potential duality, resulting in an abacus of speculative dynamic behaviors. Between them, three types of critical infrastructures (the stables, the infrastructural areas S.A.E., a former watermill system that, in dealing with different aspects of the emergency management, appear as structures that, speculatively, concur in the construction of human resilience, are then studied and redesigned as anchors, dual spaces adaptable for a time of emergency. More than a single architectural outcome per se, each of them is developed in options and hypotheses, even contradictory, to explore the range of approaches emerging from the case studies matrix, from more defensive to symbiotic with the natural world. [ 4 ]

The stables, spontaneously inhabited during the past emergency due to the planimetric arrangement and dimensions that allow adjustments and transformations, can be re-thought as a hybrid, off-grid infrastructures with an architectural scheme that allows different configurations over time, testing a range of possibilities from Preppers' solutions to the Disaster Parks' principles, from a stable to a temporary housing system.

The infrastructural areas for temporary emergency housing, a specific infrastructural platform provided by the Civil Protection, with foundations, water and electricity connections where standardized and prefabricated modules are installed in few months, incubate a duality that can be explored in grafting a relation with the multiple times of the site. Closed to the historical walls of the city, a punctual system of former watermills represents the third test-case of the work. Formerly used to control and divert the flow of an intermittent torrent. This system, critical for the resistance of a fundamental ecosystem of the wetland, could be revisited as an off-grid, adaptive one that, formally interacting with this fast-changing ground, can draw strength from it, becoming batteries, new anchors in emergency conditions.

To conclude, although the design phase seems to arrive as the third section of the work, it does not have a demonstrative purpose. On the contrary, it fluidly moves across the work, exploring, questioning, expanding, and overturning the previous parts as an open-ended process.

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