• Credit: Iwan Baan, Courtesy New York Magazine

Last week, I wrote about Sandy’s shapelessness. A week later, its ability to change the shape of a large part of this country is evident. I have not been to the Eastern Seaboard to see the destruction, but the effects are obvious from all the photographs and footage, as well as from reports from my friends and family. The destruction is immense.

It is evident, but still shapeless, or rather destructive of shape. The most eloquent testimony to the storm’s force comes from Iwan Baan’s (the photographer I would say is surpassing Julius Shulman for his influence on the discipline of architecture) images of Manhattan the night after. Like all Baan’s photographs, they are luscious and obtain their power from a theatrical use of light. It is darkness that gives them their force. Buildings loom in the shadows, the clarity of the city’s grid disappears into an ebony whose gloss is seductive. Out of that world of shades and murkiness, moments of light shine forth: half of New York as a void seen from the luxury of the upper reaches where people luxuriate in power, a few windows lit up in a dark office building, a lone vendor with his own, miraculous source of light, the dashboard in Baan’s card as he cruises the streets.

The images are dangerously close to disaster porn, but they point out an important aspect of Sandy’s effect: that its greatest effect was on that which we do not see. It did not topple buildings (only a crane on one building under construction), but emptied them. Other than along the most exposed shoreline, it did not wipe out whole communities. Rather, it destroyed infrastructure. Sandy cut off power, flooded tunnels, and worked its horrible way by cutting off that which guarantees the continuous movement of goods, people, and information. 

In so doing, Sandy highlighted the fact that distribution rules. If there is one key characteristic of our modern world, it is continual movement and change. We commute and travel, our goods are assembled from bits and pieces from around the world and come to us from everywhere, information courses around us, and we ship out what is left as far away as possible. The physical world, our meatspace, is no more than a hindrance to the lifeblood of our economy and society. 

Buildings in that world are more than anything devices for storage. They are places to store goods for as short a period as possible, people and their vehicles in the most compact manner, and information in as secure a way as we can manage. Ideally, we would like to etherize everything, but reality remains, so we compact it. We also tend to store our goods in the cheapest place we can find, which often means land of inferior quality, such as flood planes, of basements without windows. 

I have long argued that architecture needs to recognize that it is, on the one hand, about storage and, on the other hand, about producing those images and forms that act as icons and anchors in a world of continuous movement. Architecture is also about shaping our land and the interior world we make within that reality in as safe, efficient, sensible, and sensuous a manner possible. Architecture is about infrastructure and recognizable image, about working with the land rather than building on it, and about providing spaces that enhance our sense of humanity. It is not about making monuments, it not about the integration of all that into coherence, and it is not about planning objects that will work the same way for as long as possible. It is the tactical use of as few resources as possible to work with and within a world of flows.

In a concrete manner, this means of course that we will need to invest much more in our infrastructure, as well as in recreating natural features such as wetlands that once protected us. It also means that we have to recognize the importance of storage and movement devices and use our design expertise to give them form. It means that creating flexible, ephemeral interiors that can move and change is more important that investing in a solidity that will sit dark when disaster cuts it off from movement.

We need to make beautiful and good warehouses, not more skyscrapers. We need to shape land, not build on it. We need to make better infrastructure that connects us in a safe, efficient, flexible, and attractive manner. These are not utopian tasks, but work for architects who want to survive and thrive in a world cosseted by storms and changes both natural and human-made.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.