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Book Review: "Post-Traumatic Urbanism," guest edited by Adrian Lahoud, Charles Rice, and Anthony Burke

A collection of essays highlights the recognizable and unrecognizable shifts and changes in cities following both mad-made and natural disasters.

By Dr. Anuradha Chatterjee
June 10, 2011


Post-Traumatic Urbanism: Architectural Design, guest edited by Adrian Lahoud, Charles Rice, and Anthony Burke (Special Issue: Architectural Design 80, no. 5 [Wiley, 2010]), reconsiders the familiar historical and contemporary phenomena of the construction and reconstruction of urban environments after calamitous events. These events may be political or ecological, such as terrorist attacks and wars, or landslides and floods. In recent years, such events have become visibly frequent, temporally compressed, and experientially palpable. The calamitous events produce “urban trauma,” which can be described as overwhelming and unprecedented changes in the city infrastructure, networks, and fabric that disrupt the lived and imagined landscape of the city forever. This embeds perceptible blind spots and distresses in the city fabric, which stimulate and inform directions and opportunities for architectural and urban renewal.

 

This is a well-researched and published topic. However, most speculations focus on disaster, which privilege the pragmatic and the factual in terms of the occurrence of the event, its impact, and the strategies for renewal. In contrast, Post-Traumatic Urbanism advances the notion of trauma, which shifts the focus from the event to the experience of the event, and its persisting effects. The change in theoretical direction marks the move from the factual to the experiential; the known to the new or the unknowable; the episodic to the persistent. Lahoud, Rice, and Burke recognize that in the post-traumatic city, return, recovery, continuity of the original is not possible, and that successful renewal efforts will need to take into account the city’s intrinsic tendency towards adaptation and resilience. The collection of essays, by a diverse cohort of academics, practitioners, philosophers, students and educators, as a whole offers the following speculations on the topic.

 

Andrew Benjamin’s “Trauma within the Walls” and Khadija Carroll La’s “Very Mark of Repression” suggest that trauma is the constitutive and interiorized condition of human and cultural imaginaries, which preserves the threat of return. A traumatic event like war can have inconsistent impacts on language. “Forensic Architecture,” by Eyal Weizman, Paulo Tavares, Susan Schuppli, and Situ Studio, shows how architecture becomes absorbed into legal language of describing war crimes. And Tony Chakar’s “The Eighth Day” demonstrates the collapse of everyday language. Traumatic events in the city also have an impact on the urban corporeality. While Ole Bouman’s “Borderline Syndrome” identifies bodies that suffer exile from the self, and a loss or fragmentation of identity due to movement across transnational borders, Brian Massumi’s “The Space-Time of Pre-emption” alerts us to the cultivation of action-reaction type bodies in an encounter-rich environment of war torn cities. Notwithstanding wars, ecological disasters are ideologically determined, and as discussed by Slavoj Žižek and Mark Fisher, they are fabricated in the shadow of/for capitalistic economy. Urban trauma is not always political and urban, but also ecological and natural. The mappings of India’s Gangetic Plains in Anthony Acciavatti’s “Changes of State” and the student projects on Galveston Island, Texas, in Christopher Hight and Michael Robinson’s “Figures in the Sand” demonstrate that this often occurs due to unselfconscious and abrupt encounters between various states of matter – hard and soft; stable and fluid; culture and nature.

 

If viewed constructively, trauma can provide systemic directions. This becomes apparent in Anthony Burke’s “The Urban Complex” and Eduardo Kairuz’s “Fearscapes,” which recommend harnessing the traumatic conditions to improve and enrich existing urban knowledge systems. Catastrophic events can be managed, mitigated, and avoided, and as evidenced in Todd Reisz’s “Making Dubai” and “On Message” by Charles Rice, this is possible through the strategic use of information and images by public relations firms for financial and state related benefits. The occurrence or the mitigation of urban trauma is often not through stable physical means. The opposing nuances of this point are brought forth by Tarsha Finney’s “The Infrastructure of Stability,” and Jayne Merkel and Craig Whitaker’s “Rebuilding from Below the Bottom.” While Finney reveals the stability of the seemingly nonexistent infrastructure, supportive of the invasion and mastery of Afghanistan, Merkel and Whitaker privilege the fine grain and the temporary as the means of managing and making sense of disaster and conflict. These speculations are nicely punctuated by student speculations (Samantha Spurr’s “After the Event,” Adrian Lahoud’s “Project for a Mediterranean Union,” and Anthony Burke’s “Energy Territories”) as they are widely recognized for being a compelling source of the utopian, the critical, and the imaginative.

 

There is an open endedness to the essays, which is fitting, as Post-Traumatic Urbanism is an inaugural publication on this subject. Hence, while the essays explore the subtle and previously undisclosed nuances of the topic, they are not prescriptive or overly conclusive. In fact, the unseasoned reader might find the sequencing of the essays and the connections between the embedded themes elusive. Even if that were the case, most of the essays are crafted in a thoughtful and lyrical manner, so they work quite well as stand-alone pieces that one could become quite easily absorbed in or attached to.

 

Post-Traumatic Urbanism presents multidisciplinary stances on the experience, management, documentation, and mitigation of urban trauma, thereby pointing to emerging epistemological frameworks that could augment post-traumatic urbanism as a field of practice, scholarship, and education. Furthermore, as trauma is identified as simultaneously gradual and sudden, tangible and intangible, palpable and abstract, and individual and collective, it highlights the recognizable and unrecognizable shifts and changes in cities. This prompts a shift in the disciplinary limits and scope of urbanism, away from pragmatic concerns of efficiency and optimization. Despite the weakness in the geopolitical referencing to events in the Pacific Rim, which diminishes the immediacy of these debates, the collection features essays that are brave and current, that celebrate the voices of the individual authors, and that invite and anticipate future, contemporary, and local inclusions and interrogations.

 

 

About the author

Dr. Anuradha Chatterjee, with the Architecture Programme, Faculty of the Built Environment, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia, is an architect, academic, and writer/critic. Besides leading and co-teaching theory and design courses, Anu is pursuing simultaneous research agendas of Ruskin studies, theoretical and cultural history of the architectural surface and its design implications, emergent architecture, and reflections on architectural installations and exhibitions.

 

 



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